A Defining November: Litmus Test for President Obama
October 26, 2011
President Obama and his national security and economic teams have done a good job in the past several months focusing on U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific region and taking the case for engagement in this dynamic region to Americans. Investing political capital by explaining that promoting U.S. interests in Asia is fundamentally linked to economic recovery and maintaining peace and stability in the twenty-first century lays down a foundation for policy development and committing resources.
Despite this outstanding effort, getting November right is mandatory for the United States and President Obama in order to harvest the good work and intentions of his team. This will be a test.
November presents a grueling overseas schedule for the president: the G20 meeting in Cannes in the first week, the APEC Leaders Summit in Honolulu in the second week, and a trip to visit stalwart U.S. ally Australia and attend the East Asia Summit (EAS) and U.S.-ASEAN Leaders Meeting in Indonesia in the third week.
Politically, this is a lot of travel during the coming (and seemingly never-ending) showdown with Congress over funding the government. In the worst-case scenario, a decision on a continuing resolution could take place while the president is in Bali.
Domestic political staff and schedulers will hate this juxtaposition in the month that marks one year until national elections. There will be real pressure to consider cutting back the trip. However, failure to participate in these important meetings would badly undercut U.S. national security and economic interests, effectively trading the blood, sweat, and tears of the broadly defined national security team to defend a political news cycle.
What’s at stake? In the balance lies the health of the American economy and the country’s security interests.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton carefully defined the linkage between U.S. economic engagement in Asia and our well-being as a nation at the New York Economic Club earlier this month. “We have to position ourselves to lead in a world where security is shaped in boardrooms and on trading floors, as well as on battlefields,” she said.
President Obama has supported this theme and taken the importance of trade with Asia to the manufacturing heart of the country, Detroit, with Korean president Lee Myung-bak. The president explained that the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (FTA) was a vehicle to create as many as 280,000 high-paying export-related jobs in the United States. His case is solid: Asia’s middle class, defined as those making more than $25,000 a year, is now more than 800 million strong. The United States had tapped only a fraction of that market to date, through free trade agreements with Australia and Singapore.
The strategic and defense side of the ledger is also compelling. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta picked up on his predecessor Robert Gates’ forward deployed diplomacy and took up Indonesian defense minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro’s invitation to meet the ASEAN defense ministers on October 23 on the sideline of their annual meeting in Bali. The ASEAN defense ministers had urged Panetta to come, as China’s defense minister was also seeking an invitation and they seek balance in the Asia Pacific. Panetta delivered and told reporters covering the meeting that “the purpose of my visit is to make very clear to this region . . . that the Pacific will remain a key priority for the United States. We will maintain our force projection in this area . . . [and] we will remain a Pacific power.”
Panetta made clear why he felt his presence was required, saying “we also affirmed our shared belief that greater multilateral cooperation and strong regional institutions are absolutely essential, given the complexity of the Asia-Pacific security environment.”
In mid-October, Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Thomas M. Countryman visited Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand to underpin support for regional nonproliferation cooperation. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell is in the region during the week of October 23 working on the full range of issues from political and security relations to trade and economic opportunities to people-to-people ties, preparing key deliverables for President Obama at APEC and the EAS.
The president’s November trip must be substantive. It is more than just showing up. President Obama needs to be present to prove to China that the United States has made the ultimate political commitment to working with partners to maintain peace and security in the South China Sea and other disputed territories. The timing is right to push hard on a Burma that is apparently considering real political change for the first time in five decades and to seek solidarity to support a new round of talks with North Korea. In addition, the hard work done by Ron Kirk and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative in getting the United States back in a leadership position on trade in Asia must be backed up with political support for moving forward from the U.S.-Korea FTA to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and with willingness to discuss economic and trade issues within the EAS to balance a political and security agenda.
The United States should emerge from November with an Asia that is reassured of America’s commitment and intent to sustain engagement. The timing for this message, supporting remarkable efforts by the Obama administration to institutionalize engagement and strengthen alliances and partnerships in the region, is also vital as China moves into the final deliberations ahead of its Communist Party Congress next year. A China that understands the strength and commitment of its neighbors around the Asia Pacific to work together for common good and to shape a set of rules that will allow all nations to grow and prosper without threat or fear will be a great nation. A China that questions the intentions of other great powers could misjudge intentions and make mistakes. That is an unlikely scenario, but one that would threaten stability in the Asia Pacific.
November therefore is a defining month for the United States and the Asia Pacific. Bipartisan warfare in Washington, D.C., is now a given in the malicious domestic political landscape. The president will be harshly criticized for every minute he spends outside of the capital. Yet as Winston Churchill said, “the price of greatness is responsibility.”