Tommy Koh For The Straits Times
In defence of Obama's foreign policy
Published on May 15, 2014 5:15 PM
A FEW years ago, the world's media and commentators adored United States President Barack Obama. They made him appear as if he could walk on water. The pendulum has, however, swung to the other extreme. The narrative today is that he is a weak and ineffective leader. In the past, Mr Obama could do no wrong. Today, it sometimes seems, he can do no right.
I wish to restore some balance and objectivity to the evaluation of President Obama's foreign policy. Instead of joining the pack to attack him, I wish to defend him. I find the following aspects of his foreign policy praiseworthy.
First, as a South-east Asian and a member of the Asean family, I am grateful to President Obama for the importance he has given to South-east Asia and for his support of Asean.
Until President Obama, South- east Asia had always been subordinated to North-east Asia in US foreign policy. When previous US presidents or secretaries of state visited Asia, it was always to Japan, South Korea and China.
President Obama and Mrs Hillary Clinton when she was Secretary of State have changed that paradigm. In her first trip abroad in February 2009, Secretary Clinton visited Asia, which included a visit to Indonesia and to the Asean Secretariat. She is the first US secretary of state to have visited all 10 Asean countries.
President Obama has signed the Asean Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, held an annual summit with the 10 leaders of Asean, joined the East Asian Summit and appointed America's first resident ambassador to Asean in March 2011.
Because he had spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, President Obama is the first US president who has an affinity with and understanding of South-east Asia. His recent trip to Asia included two countries in South-east Asia, namely, Malaysia and the Philippines. Mr Obama is not just America's first Pacific president. He is also America's first South-east Asian president.
Second, many of us in Asia are pleased that President Obama has elevated Asia to the pole position in US foreign policy. The US is a superpower and has global interests and responsibilities. All regions of the world are important to the US. Europe and the Middle East will always be very important to the US.
President Obama is a strategic thinker. He recognises that the tectonic plates of the world have moved and that Asia is in ascendance. He understands that America's future will be increasingly determined by what will happen in the Asia-Pacific. This is the logic behind his pivot or rebalancing to Asia.
The US describes itself as a "resident" power of the Asia-Pacific region. In other words, the US sees itself as an intra-regional power and not an extra-regional power. It has more trade and investment across the Pacific than in any other region of the world.
The US has allies in the region, namely, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia and Thailand. Because World War II began for the US with Japan's attack on Pearl Harbour, in 1941, the US threat perception will always include an attack by an aggressor from across the Pacific. The US therefore has important economic, security, political and other interests in Asia. It is determined to defend those interests and its role as the leader of the region.
President Obama's Asia policy has been mistakenly described as a policy to contain the rise of China. If this is the intent of US policy, it is doomed to failure because China's rise cannot be contained.
In a column in The Straits Times, Australian academic Hugh White wrote: "If America is going to stay in Asia, it will either have to share power with China, or confront it as an adversary."
I disagree with Professor White for the following reasons. We do not live in a G-2 world. Other countries, such as Japan and India and, on the economic front, the European Union, are major players in the region. Russia should perhaps be added to the list.
What we, in Asean, want is a balance of power in the region with the US, China, Japan, India and the EU as the five poles.
I would therefore reject the manner in which Prof White has framed Asean's future: as a choice between accepting a condominium ruled by the US and China; or a new Cold War between the US and China.
What seemed to have emerged from the summit between Mr Obama and China's President Xi Jinping, in Sunnylands, California, is an agreement for the two countries to cooperate where their interests converge, to compete where they do not, and to manage their differences with maturity and wisdom.
President Obama has strengthened America's relations with its allies without creating an anti-China coalition. He has also improved America's relations with non-allies. He has played a positive role in the Asean Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit. He is energetically pushing the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations forward. President Obama has been good for East Asia.
It is fashionable today to criticise Mr Obama and his foreign policy. We should, however, think for ourselves. Has he been good for Asean and South-east Asia? Do we approve of his pivot or rebalancing to Asia? I will ask you, the reader, to decide for yourself.
The author served as Singapore's Ambassador to the United States from 1984 to 1990.