At the beginning of his first term, President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton announced a foreign policy “pivot” to Asia. Unfortunately, events refused to pivot with Obama and Clinton. Like the oceans that declined to recede, the big events stubbornly remained were they were — in the Middle East, as every intelligent analyst expected they would. Civil war in Syria, the rise of ISIS, Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons and regional dominance, regime change in Egypt and Libya, these are the events that have dominated American foreign policy for the past seven and a half years. In all likelihood, these events and Obama’s response to them will constitute his foreign policy legacy.
Nonetheless, Obama insists that his legacy hinges on Asia, and is heading there for his tenth visit as president. Cooperative as ever, the Washington Post declares “Obama heads to Asia with a legacy in balance” (headline in paper edition).
I don’t think so.
Even Post reporters Greg Jaffe and William Wan aren’t so sure. Noting the “political dysfunction at home” and the “chaos in the Middle East,” they wonder whether “it is possible for any president to set a strategic foreign policy course and stick to it.”
Doing so isn’t easy, I agree. But it becomes impossible when a president arrogantly “pivots” away from what obviously are the world’s hottest spots.
This is not to say that Obama will have no Asia legacy. During Obama’s presidency, China has become extremely aggressive. As Jaffe and Wan report:
Increasingly, Chinese leaders have been unwilling to make concessions or show patience when it comes to settling territorial disputes with neighbors. The aggressive stance has provoked alarm.
Why shouldn’t China act this way? Its leaders are shrewd enough to perceive what Putin and the mullahs have seen and taken advantage of — America’s lack of spine in the Age of Obama. If the U.S. won’t stand up to leaders of second rate powers like Russia and Iran, it’s most unlikely to stand up to a first rate power like China, pivot or not.
Jaffe and Wan seem to agree that Obama doesn’t have much of an Asia legacy. However, they assume this will change if Obama gets the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal. “Without the trade deal,” they write, “it is not clear whether Obama’s moves — many of which are incremental and draw little interest in Washington [Note: what a nice way of saying “inconsequential”] — will be enough to engineer the historic shift he has been seeking.”
But Jaffe and Wan fail to explain how even with the trade deal an “historic shift” will be accomplished. To be sure, the TPP is opposed by both Hillary Clinton (whose opposition is intended to placate the left) and Donald Trump, and thus probably can’t be all bad. But why would its passage be a game-changer?
Jafee and Wan note that as part of the TPP negotiations, the White House “has extracted promises from Vietnam to legalize labor unions.” But even if labor unions become a real player in Vietnam, which seems unlikely, that’s not much of a legacy as far as the U.S. is concerned.
The Post reporters also say that Vietnam has begun conducting “lower-level disaster relief with the U.S. military” and that U.S. military officials believe that these “could blossom into larger military exercises and a more permanent American presence in Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay.” This seems like a stretch.
Anyway, if Vietnam gets to the point (and it may already be there) that it needs a U.S. military presence to deter Chinese aggression, no trade deal will be required to induce Vietnam to protect its security interest. The Vietnamese will also be mindful that Obama’s time is almost up, and that they therefore may soon have a more reliable potential military partner.
Events can’t be made to pivot and legacies can’t be manufactured by spin and foreign travel. TPP or no TPP, Obama’s foreign policy legacy is in the Middle East and his Asia legacy, such at it is, will likely fail to impress.