The Obama administration is trying to turn a historical page.
The president’s current Pacific tour is promoted as “a return to Asia,” an acknowledgment of the region’s rapidly growing economies and, of course, a recognition of China as a world power. History has a way of dictating its own terms, however. (When asked the greatest challenge to a statesman, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan reminded a young inquirer, “Events, my dear boy, events.”)
As much as the administration wants to focus on a too-long-neglected theater, the trip is also an attempt on the eve of a presidential campaign to deflect attention from the dismal Middle East scenarios — where Mr. Obama plunged with such enthusiasm only a little over two years ago.
Massive PR only partly obscures Washington’s inability to extricate itself from the Mideast — even with a much-publicized exit from Iraq (with an intermediate stop in Kuwait) and a devil-take-the-hindmost withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Arab Spring is turning out to be as feckless as its 1968 Prague Spring namesake, offering little resolution of fundamentals — e.g., jobs for the world’s largest rising demographic of young workers. Syria, where wish has betrayed realism in American policy, ticks ominously. Mr. Obama’s repeated, profitless overtures to Tehran’s mullahs are concluding with an imminent prospect that Iran will obtain a nuclear weapon. NATO’s vaunted southeastern tent peg, Turkey, lurches from one contradictory foreign initiative to another, while dealing with a domestic economic bubble about to burst.
Furthermore, Mr. Obama’s company of players, including speechwriters cavalierly promoted to geopoliticians, will encounter a host of equally difficult and no less pressing issues. Meetings with an alphabet soup of Asia-Pacific organizations and brief encounters with national leaders won’t resolve outstanding strategic issues that Washington long has had on the back burner.
Taking precedence is Japan, cornerstone of all U.S. Asian strategies, but one that this administration too often has given short shrift. But Washington will have to continue dealing with a Japanese administration holding on to power by its sandal straps. Unresolved is the question of the redeployment of U.S. forces on Okinawa, with the current Tokyo government more beholden than previous conservative administrations to rapacious locals. And now Washington has handed Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda another piece of hot tofu: the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a nine-nation free-trade pact from Chile through the U.S. and Japan to Singapore. Tokyo’s highly subsidized and politically powerful agricultural lobby sees a threat to its protected food markets at a time when commercial and political relations with China — not included in this party round — are Japan’s overriding concerns. The North Korean ghost haunts from offstage — a juvenile delinquent holding weapons of mass destruction to neighbors’ heads, a trading partner to every other world pariah whose only alternative to its current policy path is anarchic implosion.
Realists should ask more seminal questions: Will Mr. Obama’s one-on-one in Hawaii with outgoing Chinese President Hu Jintao smooth the unequal bilateral playing field in trade, a not insignificant contributor to world currency and fiscal imbalances? It’s not likely that Chinese currency manipulation and intellectual property theft will be remedied. Beijing’s ultramercantilism also is emerging as a wild card in coming American presidential debates. In Beijing itself, a Communist Party leadership generational switch — perhaps not going as smoothly as some thought a few months ago — is under way as regime dogmatists try to finesse the problem of rising inflation while maintaining rapid growth. The leadership’s management of the economy has long been seen as the only card the regime holds as civil dissidence rises.
Thus the combination of Mr. Obama’s continued denigration of America’s historic role, Washington’s domestic economic policy woes and the increasingly aggressive Chinese menace challenge the Obama administration’s call for a new American “return to Asia.”
In fact, it’s a call as historically inaccurate as Mr. Obama’s earlier Istanbul and Cairo speeches summoning myth rather than history for an accommodation with Islam. America’s Asian role has loomed large since the late 19th century. But alas, Mr. Obama did not take a leaf from Ronald Reagan’s economic playbook: The Gipper used his “stimulus” in part to rebuild American defenses to face down the Soviets. A call now to American Pacific destiny rings hollow as the U.S. Navy’s decades-old dominance in East Asia erodes in the face of a rapid Chinese buildup, with an American fleet that will soon be smaller than any other since pre-World War II — however revolutionary its new technologies.
Careful! That trumpet call could sound tinny.
• Sol Sanders, a veteran international correspondent, writes weekly on the intersection of politics, business and economics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and blogs at www.yeoldecrabb.wordpress.com.