April 23, 2013
By. Claude Smadja
On his trip to Asia, Barack Obama will have to counter the impression that the US is an increasingly reluctant superpower
United States President Barack Obama is travelling to Japan, the Philippines, South Korea and Malaysia between April 23 and 28 in an attempt to revive the perception that he means business with his "pivot to Asia" strategy, and that US allies in the Asia-Pacific region can count on the US' staying power and rely on its support given an increasingly assertive China.
The problem is that the "pivot to Asia", heralded since 2011 as a major strategic initiative of the Obama administration, has been widely perceived as an on-and-off priority in Washington. It has repeatedly been eclipsed by domestic developments, such as the US government shutdown last October, which led the president to cancel his participation in the APEC summit in Bali; or by the Syria problem; or by the frenetic search for a breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by Secretary of State John Kerry; or by the attempt to negotiate an agreement with Tehran to stop or limit the Iranian nuclear programme. This has made many observers consider that, pivot to Asia or not, West Asia remains the focus of US diplomatic attention. And now the crisis with Russia over Ukraine is generating a full geopolitical reassessment in Washington, leading to talks about a return to the cold war and to the strategy of containment of Moscow.
Of course, no US president has ever had the ultimate luxury - the need to focus on only one issue or challenge at a time. By definition, a superpower has to be active on multiple fronts; and the need to respond to developments and emergencies as they happen leads to some elements of the agenda taking precedence over others at any given moment. It might also seem strange that doubts could exist about the consistency of Washington in moving on its pivot to Asia - all the more so since prolonged neglect of the Asia-Pacific region would be tantamount to geopolitical suicide for the US. In fact, some weaponry, such as bombers previously deployed in West Asia, has now been reassigned to the Asia-Pacific theatre.
The real issue has been, rather, the way the Obama administration has conducted its international policy so far. It was clear from the onset of this presidency in 2009 that dealing with the very severe economic recession, disengaging from the Iraq and Afghanistan military adventures, and nation-rebuilding at home would be the key priorities. There was, however, no way that the world's sole superpower could insulate itself on the international scene and so - out of the acute realisation of the limits of US power, and of the desire to mark a change from the Bush era - Mr Obama decided to go for multilateralism, or multi-partnerships, as then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called it.
However, the perception that the US was now in decline - or, at least, that it was no longer able or willing to pay the price of being a superpower - and the negative impact of a number of errors of judgement have hampered US foreign policy in the last few years.
It is, for instance, quite paradoxical to have many observers conclude that West Asia and North Africa remain the primary focus of Washington diplomacy, while, at the same time, the Arab regimes in the Gulf keep expressing their concern about a US disengagement from the region. The reality is that the US is not disengaging from West Asia and North Africa - even if it is achieving energy self-sufficiency - but that the US diplomacy in the region is in a state of disarray. Some of its basic assumptions since 2011 have proved to be completely wrong. It has achieved the following feats: in Egypt, neither the military nor the Muslim Brotherhood nor even the liberal reformists trust Washington any longer; and Mr Obama is the first American president that both the Saudis and the Israelis neither trust nor fear.
When it comes to Russia - and now the Ukraine issue - the Obama administration in its "reset" attempt misinterpreted not only who the real boss in the Kremlin was (Vladimir Putin, not Dmitri Medvedev) but also the realities of the world seen through Moscow's lenses. In that, it just imitated the Bush administration in underestimating the extent to which Mr Putin had felt humiliated by the collapse of the Soviet Union, and had resented the incorporation of many former Warsaw Pact countries into the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation as well as what he sees as the ongoing encroachment by the West on the former sphere of influence of the Russian/Soviet empire. By openly encouraging the Ukrainian government to tilt towards the European Union, the West woefully ignored what Moscow has always seen as a vital strategic national interest. Today we see the consequences of this conceptual and strategic failure. The US and its disunited European allies are left with no credible option to block Mr Putin other than the hope that the Russian president will end up with a Pyrrhic victory.
It is the same pattern that we see with respect to the "pivot". While China's growing assertiveness in the region is making Asian countries ever more anxious to ensure that they can count on the US, there is no underestimating their worries about the US' staying power and the sustainability of the American influence. When Xi Jinping advocated a new model of "major power relations" in his summit with Mr Obama in February 2012, he was making the point that Beijing would from now on interact with Washington on an equal footing. But given that US-China tensions are growing on many issues and US policy continues to oscillate between engagement and containment, the leadership in Beijing has concluded that the Obama administration is too unreliable to make the risk of any new initiative in the China-US relationship worthwhile right now. The perception of the decline of US power, or at least of the decline of US resolve to use its power, allows Beijing to play for time.
In that context, the most important element of Mr Obama's Asia tour will certainly be his talks in Tokyo. He will have to get Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to tone down his nationalistic rhetoric while confirming in no ambiguous way the solidity of the engagement of the US in the Asia-Pacific region, and the steadiness of its commitment to the security arrangements Washington has with Tokyo, Seoul or Manila. This could be the right moment to show that US diplomacy has some sort of reliable compass - a message that would be useful to have been heard not only by Mr Obama's hosts, but also by decision makers in Moscow, Beijing, New Delhi and some other capitals.