President Obama flies to Honolulu on Friday to begin the third Asia trip of his presidency. He’ll visit Hawaii, Australia and Indonesia in a nine-day trip that’s meant to reaffirm a fundamental shift in America’s foreign policy.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has described this reorientation as “America’s Pacific Century.”
“As we end the war in Iraq and begin bringing troops back from Afghanistan, we are making an important pivot,” she said in a recent speech to the Economic Club of New York. “The world’s strategic and economic center of gravity is shifting east, and we are focusing more on the Asia-Pacific region.”
Clinton is one of many senior administration officials who have recently argued that it’s time for the U.S. to reposition itself in the world.
“The United States is and always will be a Pacific power,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently said in Tokyo, “and we are here to stay.”
The U.S. has historically been a Eurocentric country, where American students are more likely to learn Spanish or French than Mandarin or Hindi. In the 20th century, Washington’s international agenda almost always put Europe first. Now Europe is struggling, Asia is booming, and America is readjusting.
That shift in attitudes was reflected recently in a poll from the German Marshall Fund. Every year, the institution surveys Americans’ attitudes toward the rest of the world. In every previous survey, Americans said their country’s future lies with Europe. No longer, though.
“We saw a big shift this year,” says Zsolt Nyiri, who runs the Transatlantic Trends report. “The majority of Americans say their country’s national interest is with the countries of Asia.”
That shift was most pronounced among one segment of the population. “We found this to be the case especially for the American youth,” says Nyiri. “Those Americans who are between the ages of 18 to 24, 76 percent of them said that Asia is more important for their national interest than the countries of the European Union.”
“There is a new meaning in the 21st century of ‘Go west young man, go west,’ and in this case it’s, ‘Go across the Pacific and engage with Asia,’ ” says Marshall Bouton of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
Bouton believes historians may look back on this Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Honolulu as a tipping point, or as he puts it, “as an inflection point in world affairs and the U.S. role in the world. Because we are now coming face to face with an Asia, and a China in particular, that are on the path to global, if not dominance, then at least to direct competition with the United States for global dominance.”
To an outside observer, these meetings of world leaders won’t look competitive. But those struggles are there, says Michael Green of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Although the themes are community-building and cooperation, beneath the surface they’re becoming an arena for subtle but, for the region, quite unnerving power plays and influence games between the U.S. and China.”
President Obama will have to persuade this global audience that the U.S. remains a pre-eminent world leader, even though he is presiding over a politically gridlocked government that is so far unable to hoist the U.S. economy out of its own economic slump.
Jacques DeLisle of the Foreign Policy Research Institute says democratic countries living in China’s shadow need this reassurance right now.
“China really has squandered a lot of the soft power that it had accumulated earlier in the decade, and has made its neighbors very wary,” he says.
Yet the U.S. reorientation across the Pacific is not merely a global turf war grounded in a quest for international dominance. The Obama administration also looks west and sees economic opportunity for the American people.
“The vast majority of the export potential in the world is in the Asia Pacific,” says Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes. “So when the president sets a goal of doubling U.S. exports to support hundreds of thousands of American jobs, that’s very much going to be rooted in our ability to open markets in the Asia Pacific.”
Congress recently approved a free-trade agreement with South Korea. On this trip, Obama is working on a larger trade deal called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, involving nine countries spanning both sides of the Pacific Ocean. The message from the White House is that by flying halfway around the world, the president is helping folks back home on the mainland.
Not everyone is convinced that it is worth the journey. “There is pressure here not to do the trip, and it’s always better to be in Indiana than Indonesia,” says Ernest Bower, who directs the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
That pressure seems to arise any time Obama goes abroad for more than a few days. He twice postponed an earlier Asia trip to deal with the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the health care debate. He was criticized for going ahead with a trip to Latin America just as NATO started bombing Libya. Those pressures to stay home are even stronger with a presidential election just one year off. But cutting this trip short would be a mistake, says Bower.
“It would underlie a narrative that the Chinese have promoted in some sense, that the Americans are interested in Asia but they’re not consistently engaged.”
President Obama leaves behind a congressional supercommittee that’s crashing on a deadline to find more than a trillion dollars in deficit reduction. In public, the members have appeared dysfunctional and gridlocked. Some people have urged Obama to get more deeply involved in the negotiations, saying a hands-off approach shows a lack of leadership.
“The executive branch must do more than submit a plan to a committee and then step aside and hope the committee members take action,” argued New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg at a recent speech in Washington.
But the president has recently been washing his hands of Congress. In event after event, his motto has been, “We can’t wait for Congress to act.”
So Obama is leaving the country, returning just days before the congressional supercommittee’s due date. And instead of spending a week wading through the partisan muck, he’ll speak to an international audience where he’s more popular — and perhaps, more influential.