What Does Postponement of Asia Trip Mean?
March 18, 2010
The White House has postponed the President's trip to Indonesia for the third time. The original plan was for a visit in March of 2009, when the President was planning on delivering a major speech to the Islamic world from Jakarta (he gave it in Cairo instead). The trip was rescheduled for the Obama children's spring break in the second week of March this year, but then postponed a second time because of the health care debate until the week of March 21. Now the White House is saying that the trip will take place in June of this year. Diplomacy is not baseball, and this third strike does not mean that the President is out. Australia and Indonesia will no doubt welcome him again in June, though senior officials in both governments will be nervously biting their nails as they approach the fourth attempt at a trip. That said, does this repeated cancellation have any lessons for the administration or the rest of the world? One thing is clear: the White House should be more humble about framing its engagement of Asia policy in partisan terms.
The NSC spokesman Ben Rhodes told the press that this trip was going to be about restoring America's standing in the world because America has been "absent from the region the last several years." Secretary of State Clinton declared in her December speech on Asia policy that "America is back" --as if the United States had somehow left between 2001 and 2008. In fact, a 2008 Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey showed that across Asia the preponderant view was that American influence had increased in the region over the previous decade. Moreover, the Bush administration left relations with Japan, China and India stronger after eight years while the Obama administration has been struggling in its relationships with Japan and China and has left India disappointed with a lack of strategic engagement from Washington.
Perhaps it is in the best interests of the nation for President Obama to stay home next week to focus on health care. Arguably, the current difficulties with Japan and China are not entirely of his making (India is another matter). But at the very least, the spin masters at the White House and State Department should drop this theme that the current administration is uniquely engaged with the region.
This is all the more so because Asia policy has heretofore been one of the more bipartisan areas of foreign policy. From Clinton to Bush and Bush to Obama there has been far more continuity than change and that has been what Asia has wanted.
The second lesson is that domestic politics can easily trump foreign policy. This should not be surprising to anyone who understands American foreign policymaking, but it will be a splash of cold water for those around the world who thought that Obama would somehow be more internationalist than his predecessors. The administration's weak trade strategy was already an indication of the hold that key constituencies like organized labor have over foreign policy-making in this administration. The entire foreign policy, defense and economics team in the Obama administration is in favor of a more proactive trade liberalization approach to Asia, but the orders from the White House are to go slow. Officials are being admonished for using the word "trade" instead of "exports."
The President is very popular with publics abroad, but governments --particularly in Asia -- will worry about what all this means for the administration's ability to follow through on the tough domestic politics of trade. The Obama administration has built on a strong American position in Asia by signing the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The Obama visit to Indonesia will (eventually) represent an even deeper commitment to that critical subregion of Asia. The administration could turn this delay into an opportunity in two ways: (1) by re-emphasizing the bipartisanship that is possible and necessary on Asia policy and; (2) by doing the domestic political homework necessary to build a credible trade strategy for Asia.