President Obama is now in Seoul, midway through his 2010 Asia trip. Like any presidential visit, this one is a mixture of symbolism and substance. So how does it rate on each of these scores?
I give him a “C” on symbolism; on substance, a “D,” with the final exam pending.
First, symbolism. The U.S. is a Pacific power. It has been since the Spanish-American War more than 100 years ago. And since the end of World War II, it has been the backbone of East Asia’s security and prosperity – two things with direct impact on America. We learned the connection to our own security in the bloodiest way, 1941-1945, and about prosperity in the jobs and everyday low prices our relationship with Asia has produced since.
If for no other reason than to demonstrate America’s continuing commitment to this role, this was an essential visit for the president to make. In times of peace and certainty, the U.S. is, naturally enough, taken for granted; today, when our predominance in the Pacific and the order we have maintained is under challenge from China, the region looks to us for leadership. The administration seems to well understand that we can’t be leaders if we don’t show up.
There are a few other symbolic things they seem to understand. One is that India’s democracy and economic globalization make it a natural strategic partner, not just in the Indian Ocean, but in the Pacific, too.
President Obama has picked up where President Bush left off – after a couple years of uncertainty in New Delhi about how much he values India. And after a handful of false starts, President Obama officially opened a bright new chapter in relations with Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s indispensable power, with a speech billed as a follow-on to the 2009 Cairo speech to the “Muslim world.”
It is unfortunate that he began and ended a speech otherwise well-tailored to an Indonesian context with a greeting directed only at its Muslim majority. Omitting the ill-advised religious language of the Cairo speech improved his message; his assalamualaikum gaffe detracted from it.
The president also loses points for supporting a permanent Indian seat at the U.N. Security Council. The issue is not India’s fit for global leadership. In fact, it is not even India’s bid that is the problem; it is all that comes with it, including a general expansion that can only freeze an already difficult decision-making process.
Knowing full well that agreement in the U.N. is not in the cards anytime soon, with or without American support, it’s also difficult not to see U.S. support as a bit cynical. It is a completely symbolic gesture, and for treating a substantive issue as symbolic, the administration gets a poor mark.
On substance, President Obama had it covered in India and Indonesia. In India, he facilitated high-value business deals, removed restrictions on the export of high-technology, and supported the country’s admission to a number of non-proliferation bodies that their unofficial nuclear status had barred them from. In Indonesia, he signed the Comprehensive Partnership that will serve as the blueprint for the U.S.-Indonesia relationship going forward -- several elements of which have already been delivered.
It’s the administration’s ambivalence on trade that gives it such a low grade.
The U.S. is party to only two of dozens of free-trade agreements in the region, and both of those, Singapore and Australia, were negotiated and sealed by the Bush administration. This administration has demonstrated no urgency at all on trade. Even the Transpacific Partnership (TPP), which it has made its own, seems to be stuck in perpetual consultation with “stake holders,” many of which, like Big Labor, will never support it.
The most important of the three Bush-era trade agreements – the US-Korea FTA (KORUS) – shelved by Speaker Pelosi in 2007, has been further complicated by the president’s own post-signature demands. And now, having failed to meet his own G-20 deadline for resolving the differences over the agreement, he is returning home without it.
So on symbolism, overall, the trip was fine. The only things saving President Obama’s trip from failing on substance is the handful of things he did accomplish in Indian and Indonesia, his promise that negotiations on the KORUS will continue, and the truth that “hope springs eternal.”
Walter Lohman is Director of the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation .