President Obama’s nine-day trip to Asia is worth a look back to fix two potent problems, past and future. First, the trip’s limited value per day of presidential effort suggests a disturbing amateurishness in managing America’s power. On top of the inexcusably clumsy review of Afghan policy and the fumbling of Mideast negotiations, the message for Mr. Obama should be clear: He should stare hard at the skills of his foreign-policy team and, more so, at his own dominant role in decision-making. Something is awry somewhere, and he’s got to fix it.
Secondly, the Asia trip presented an important opportunity to carve out a new American leadership role in the world’s most dynamic economic region, and Mr. Obama missed it. He only scratched the surface in his calls for multilateralism and mutual understanding. He needs to paint pictures of how Washington will help solve regional security and trade problems. Otherwise, most Asian nations will continue their unwanted drift toward China and away from the United States.
On atmospheric payoffs of the trip:
“Two of the press conferences, in Japan and South Korea, both began with the same elements. In Japan, Prime Minister Hatoyama got up and gushed that “my friend Barack calls me ‘Yukio.'” Then the Korean press conference began with [president] Lee Myung-bak saying, ‘We have become close friends.’ That says something. Those are not just routine polite words. It meant that Obama is profoundly popular in those countries. Hatoyama’s poll numbers are high but dropping, Lee Myung-bak has been embattled, though recovering. But both saw it as enormously important in terms of their own agenda to be identified with Barack Obama. In my mind, the personal popularity and respect for him is a strategic asset. And not one that gets you results in a day. If you have foreign leaders who see their own fate tied up with Obama, that becomes a chip you can draw on. If you need a last minute shift on climate change, they do not want to separate from Barack Obama. Everyone wants to be his best friend.”
What about the view that Obama caved to the Chinese on human rights?
“Here are the things we tried to do. Number one, he made a robust statement in Shanghai. Number two, have that reach as many tens of millions of Chinese as possible. You can argue about the degree of success, but the message got out. They had a chance to see him in a setting no Chinese had seen before. And beyond that was to be explicit and direct in the private meetings about the importance of our values and the effect on our relations. And then we put in references in the press conference statement to Tibet and the Dalai Lama, and the importance of rule of law, freedom of expression, protection of the rights of minorities, which was an obvious reference to the Uighurs and Tibetans. We went straight to Tibet in the statement, saying that we consider it part of China and urge direct negotiations with the Dalai Lama.”
For my part I share Fallows’ view. Gelb is emblematic of those who haven’t integrated the consequences of the multi-polar world which emerged with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. The days when Air Force One could land as if in conquered territory in countries such as China and India, are well gone. With China it is in fact “worse” because they are our banker, we need them more than they need us.
The rules of diplomacy now apply to the US in the same way they apply to any other nation. The first step is a visit of courtesy where the grievances are examined, then the real negotiations can start. The problem we face is that for the last decade we have snobed the whole world with the “only superpower” mantra without realizing it was nonsense.