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Obama Declares A “New American Century”

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Obama delivering a campaign speech in 2008. Picture from flickr.com

Earlier today, US president Barack Obama delivered a commencement speech at the Air Force Academy. Or should I say campaign speech.

The remarks are interesting because they offer a window into what his campaign ‘pitch’ is going to be in the run-up to November. From the speech, he seems to have settled around a theme of a “new American century”, which Mitt Romney has mentioned repeatedly and originates from a Life magazine article in 1941 published by Henry Luce.

The theme is convenient for many reasons. First, it can be framed as a contrast to the ‘less glorious’ Bush days. Obama explicitly and colorfully did this in the speech, comparing the “dark cloud of war” to “the light of a new day on the horizon” (which he mentioned again at the end of the speech). He went into specifics too, from his administration’s drawdown from Iraq and Afghanistan to its more active leadership in the Asia-Pacific. Because of this progress, he went on, “there’s a new feeling about America”.

I see it everywhere I go, from London and Prague, to Tokyo and Seoul, to Rio and Jakarta. There’s a new confidence in our leadership. And when people around the world are asked “Which country do you admire most?”…one nation comes out on top-the United States of America…Today, we can say with confidence and pride-the United States is stronger, safer and more respected in the world. Because even as we’ve done the work of ending these wars, we’ve laid the foundation for a new era of American leadership.

Second, it directly refutes suggestions that Obama is pessimistic about America’s role in the world and does not believe in American greatness. This strategy has two parts – first, refuting suggestions of American decline, and second, painting a sunny vision for Americans to rally around.

Busting the myth of America’s decline is something Obama has done before – most notably in his State of the Union address earlier this year. But the speech is much more specific on this point – going through various periods in American history where decline was prophesized (Great Depression, WWII, Vietnam and the energy crisis in the 1970s, and the rise of Japan and the Asian tigers in the 1980s).

After all this, you’d think folks would understand a basic truth-never bet against the United States of America.

But the real interesting development is Obama’s comments on his vision of America. He starts by claiming America is an exceptional country (something that he has gotten a lot of flak for not saying, rightly or not), and continues on to outline why he believes the 21st century will be another great American century.

One of the reasons is that the United States has been, and will always be, the one indispensable nation in world affairs. This is one of the many examples of why America is exceptional. And it’s why I firmly believe that if we rise to this moment in history, if we meet our responsibilities, then-just like the 20th century-the 21st will be another great American Century. That’s the future I see; that’s the future you can build.

I won’t quote his entire vision of what an American Century constitutes, but the most attractive feature of this theme is that it turns the notion of a gloomy world with a wounded America on its head. A protracted economic slowdown gets turned into an opportunity for the United States to demonstrate its famed resilience. Defense cuts are advertised as efforts to keep the military flexible and versatile. An uncertain order with a declining American capacity to lead becomes a clear-eyed strategy of distributing the “costs and responsibilities of leadership” more evenly.  The closing paragraphs are devoted to America’s essence and spirit.

Finally, I see an American Century because of the character of our country-the spirit that has always made us exceptional. It’s that simple yet revolutionary idea-there at our Founding and in our hearts ever since-that we have it in our power to make the world anew; to make the future what we will. It’s that fundamental faith-that American optimism-which says no challenge is too great, no mission is too hard. It’s the spirit that guides your class-”never falter, never fail.”

That’s the essence of America, and there’s nothing else like it anywhere in the world. It’s what’s inspired the oppressed in every corner of the world to demand the same freedoms for themselves. It’s what’s inspired generations to come to our shores, renewing us with their energy and their hopes… That’s who we are. That’s the America we love. Always young. Always looking ahead, to that light of a new day on the horizon.

Four years ago, before Obama took office, I worried in my then weekly column that “the candidate of America’s hopeful future” would “morph into the president of its gloomy decline”. Americans generally like presidents who give them optimism and hope about the future, particularly in times of distress. Obama appears to not only have grasped this, but formulated a clear plan for how to project this image. Let’s see if it works.

Thinking About APEC 2012 in Vladivostok

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Earlier this week, I attended an event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) on the upcoming Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Vladivostok in September this year.

This is the first time Russia will host APEC since it finally entered the World Trade Organization (WTO) last year after more than 18 years of talks. And we were fortunate to have with us both Russia’s senior official for APEC, Ambassador Gennady Ovechko, and former White House Coordinator for APEC (and current CSIS political economy program head) Matthew Goodman.

What struck me most was not the list of priorities Russia has for the upcoming meeting, which Ambassador Ovechko explored in depth. Rather, it was the worry that Mr. Goodman expressed regarding the future of APEC as an organization. While he stressed the grouping has been important as a sign of US commitment to the Asia-Pacific, a workhorse for the pick and shovel work of economic integration, and an incubator of broader regional and global economic issues, he seemed concerned about its ability to sustain its momentum and relevance.

He attributed this worry to several reasons. First, the attention devoted to APEC, already much lower than it deserves, tends to ebb and flow and is generally less in an election year. Structurally, since APEC is a sophisticated organization with moving parts, it is easy to get lost in the maze of acronyms and the sea of groups and sub-groups. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the momentum in an organization like APEC is such that it needs to produce consistent and concrete results.

What does this all mean for Vladivostok in 2012 and beyond? Mr. Goodman had a few suggestions. He stressed the importance of continuity and encouraged Russia to move forward on several initiatives the United States made progress on last year, including on health and women. And he returned several times to a point about focusing on “a few key wins” within different priority areas instead of trying to get a whole spectrum of issues addressed.

It was not clear from Ambassador Ovechko’s remarks to what degree Russia had or would internalize these considerations. He had a lot of praise for APEC as a “consistent, business-minded forum”, and spoke of great enthusiasm in Moscow for the dynamism of the Asia-Pacific compared to the doom associated these days with Europe. But one hopes this commendation is tempered with some of the caution that Mr. Goodman evinced.

You can hear an audio of the proceedings here.

Kurt Campbell Emphasizes India Look East Policy Before Asia Trip

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In his remarks yesterday before departing to Japan, South Korea, India and Singapore, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell mentioned the importance Washington placed in encouraging India’s Look East policy, a strategy launched by former Prime Minister Narasimha Rao in 1991 to boost ties with East Asia which has been gaining steam over the last few years. Campbell said:

Part of the U.S. approach to the Asia-Pacific region is a deeper dialogue with India and encouraging India’s “Look East” strategy and so we will be talking about specific initiatives that we will be taking with Delhi to support that effort as part of our Asia-Pacific consultations with them.

Campbell’s comments are in line with what other US officials have been saying recently. In her visit to India in June last year for instance, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton encouraged India “not just to look East, but to engage East and act East”.

I’ve emphasized the importance of India’s Look East Policy and its increasing momentum in several previous pieces, most recently here, but also here and here. There has been and will continue to be a lot of commentary on it this year because 2012 marks two decades of India-ASEAN relations, and both parties are commemorating it with a series of meetings that will end with one in New Delhi later in the year.

Let me just briefly quote a few paragraphs from a recent article I wrote on where I see India’s Look East Policy going with respect to Southeast Asia.

Launched in 1991 by then-Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, India’s “Look East” policy was long regarded by many as lacking in vision and substance. Yet as India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) prepare to mark two decades of formal relations later this year, there is much to celebrate. Given the recent advances New Delhi has made in its relations with its Southeast Asian neighbors, as well as with ASEAN as an institution, both parties can proudly toast the progress achieved thus far. But they should also use the anniversary as an opportunity to strengthen ties further.

Despite these successes over the past few years, there are still several ways that India and its ASEAN partners can enhance relations even further. While improving commercial relations with Myanmar is an important step, infrastructure development and trade will always be limited unless New Delhi finds a long-term solution to the ethnic insurgencies that plague India’s northeast. Only by addressing that issue will Myanmar emerge as a true gateway for India into Southeast Asia. Much more can also be done to enhance India’s trade with ASEAN nations more generally, which is expected to grow to a modest $70 billion…

WPR articles are often fully available only to subscribers, but you can read parts of it here.

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