As President Obama enters the final legs of a remarkable month of unprecedented summitry, the White House worries that Americans suffering through hard times may be put off by pictures of the president enjoying the warm sea breezes and beaches of Hawaii, Australia, and Bali. To counter that, Obama’s aides over and over again have cast the nine-day trip that started on Friday as a quest for more American jobs, more overseas customers, more exports.
But there is also a political upside, though more subtle than the pictures of the president decked out in leis and Aloha shirts. Four years after then-Sen. Barack Obama was sharply criticized for his foreign-policy pronouncements in candidate debates in which he displayed less of a grasp for diplomatic nuance than his more-experienced opponents, Democrats are pretty confident that photos of the president presiding over consequential summits will be a nice contrast with the Republicans who want his job and will be holding their own foreign policy-focused debate on Saturday night.
The South Carolina debate, sponsored by CBS News and National Journal, is the first time most of the candidates will be forced to talk at length about foreign policy. One of their challenges is the same one confronting all candidates when they are taking on an incumbent commander in chief – how to close the stature gap. That worked against Obama in 2008 when he was running against the vastly more experienced Sen. John McCain. But this time, on the same day the candidates will be struggling to explain their views in the tight time constraints of a debate, the president will be seen presiding over diplomatic talks, the representative of the world’s strongest economy and most powerful military.
On Saturday alone, Obama will hold one-on-one talks in Honolulu with Chinese President Hu Jintao, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihko Noda before he sits down with all the other 19 leaders of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. Many of them just met with Obama a week ago in France at the G-20 summit, the start of this historic run of summits.
Between Nov. 3, when G-20 convened, and next Saturday, Nov. 19, when he completes his talks in Bali, the president will have met with the leaders of 34 countries from six continents. The leaders include the most important U.S. allies, strategic competitors, and all of the country’s major trading partners. In addition, he will have met with the heads of NATO, the European Union, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.
The summits will include G-20 in Cannes, APEC in Hawaii, North American Leaders – usually dubbed the annual “Three Amigos Summit” – in Hawaii, the Association of Southeast Asia Nations, and the East Asia Summit (EAS) in Bali. He also will have made his long-delayed visit to Australia, a key regional ally, where he will sign a new basing agreement to have U.S. troops deployed and will meet with regional representatives, including from the aboriginal community.
Strategically, U.S. policymakers hope the trip allows them to make the "pivot to Asia” they have been promising since Obama took office in 2009 but which was sidetracked by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the economic crisis in Europe. This trip “takes place when we’re making a large pivot in our foreign policy,” said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for communications. The pivot, he said, is made possible by the winding-down of the two wars, allowing more focus on what he called “the fastest-growing economic region in the world” and a region he said is “essential to the president’s goal of doubling U.S. exports.”
Obama, of course, is far from the first president to try to shift his gaze from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Ronald Reagan, in 1983, boasted “America is a Pacific nation” – much to the consternation of many NATO allies across the Atlantic. Ten years later, Bill Clinton spoke of a “Pacific century” and marveled at East Asian countries he said had “gone from being dominoes to dynamos.” And in 2002, George W. Bush also said the “Pacific century” had begun and pledged “to be a part of Asia’s future.” But each president was thwarted by tradition, competition, and the draw of what Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in 2003 disparaged as “old Europe.”
Now, Obama wants to make the pivot that eluded his predecessors.
To hammer home that intent, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote an article in the current issue of Foreign Policy magazine, headlined “America’s Pacific Century.” In it, she contends that “the United States stands at a pivot point.” Calling the Asia-Pacific region “a key driver of global politics” today, she wrote, “One of the most important tasks of American statecraft over the next decade will therefore be to lock in a substantially increased investment – diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise – in the Asia-Pacific region.”
Noting the success of the transatlantic institutions created after World War II, she said, “The time has come for the United States to make similar investments as a Pacific power, a strategic course set by President Barack Obama from the outset of his administration.”
This trip is the most visible attempt to strengthen and showcase the new architecture of a Pacific-looking foreign policy. It will be the first time an American president has attended the East Asia summit. There, the president will have to find a diplomatic way to show the East Asian leaders that the United States can be trusted as a bulwark against a rapidly growing China, which has been flexing its muscles in the region and particularly in the South China Sea.
Ernie Bower, director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the meetings in Bali also provide Obama the opportunity to take the summits “to the dinner table” for average Americans. “He’s got to make the case that if we are going to move out of our economic slowdown ... that Asia is part of the answer,” he said, calling Asian trade critical to any recovery. “He’s got a very good case to make. Two-thirds of all world trade is in Asia. Two-thirds of all shipping goes through the South China Sea.”
He said the president can also make a security case for being in Bali. “He’s going to talk about the fulcrum of American global security concerns also shifting to Asia,” Bower said. “Asia is where the game is for the 21st century, and the president’s going to say that from Bali. He’s going to say that this is the place where we’re going to grow; this is the place where we are going to continue and sustain our role as a guarantor of security, and we’re going to have to do that through strength and relationships with allies and through new architecture. And that’s why I’m here in Bali, because if I’m not here, we can’t be at the table as this new architecture gets set.”
The schedule has the president completing the APEC and North American summits by Sunday night. On Monday, he will attend a political fundraiser before flying to Australia. In Canberra, he will give the major address of the trip to Australia's Parliament, outlining his vision for the region. Then he will fly to Darwin where he will address Australian troops and announce the basing plans. On Thursday night he will fly to Bali for the ASEAN and EAS summits before returning to Washington on Saturday.