By Invitation

America's role in Asia can no longer be taken for granted

Election primaries show public is not buying elites' view that US must do whatever it takes in defence of US credibility


Is America's view of its place in the world changing? Can the rest of us any longer assume that America is prepared to do whatever it takes to lead the global order, stand by its allies and remain the primary power in the world's key regions - including Asia?

The primary elections to select candidates to be the next US president are offering some fascinating insights on these questions, but before looking at them, we should also pay attention to what the current president has been saying.

Earlier this month the US magazine The Atlantic published a long essay on "The Obama Doctrine", which drew on a series of interviews with Mr Barack Obama to explore his views on foreign policy and America's role in the world as his time in office draws to a close. It shows him defiantly rejecting many orthodox ideas about America's global leadership that are taken as axiomatic by America's foreign policy elites on both sides of America's party divide, including by many of his own most senior advisers.

One of the core principles in this shared orthodoxy has been the importance of preserving US "credibility". This is the idea that America must respond decisively to any challenge to its authority anywhere, even if the immediate US interests are low and the costs are high, because any failure to do so would send dangerous signals to allies and rivals alike everywhere else around the globe. Allies would lose confidence in America, and rivals would be emboldened.

This is the argument presented to Mr Obama when, in 2013, he was faced with the decision whether to bomb Syria in response to its use of chemical weapons, which he had earlier said would constitute a "red line". But Mr Obama didn't buy it.

"Dropping bombs on someone to prove that you are willing to drop bombs on someone is just about the worst reason to use force," he is quoted as saying by Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic essay. He decided not to bomb Syria unless Congress specifically empowered him to do so - which it refused to do.


He spoke of this decision quite specifically as a repudiation of the "playbook that comes out of the foreign policy establishment", which he described as "a trap that can lead to bad decisions". It's a remarkable set of statements: after almost eight years in office, Mr Obama is still proudly an outsider in Washington's foreign policy establishment.

And although the president also affirmed his view that the US relationship with China was America's most important, he did not seem too worried about the challenge that a rising China poses to the US-led regional order. He said "we have more to fear from a weakened, threatened China than a successful, rising China".

Moreover, his stark rejection of the concept of "credibility" as a driver of US actions and military engagements must have implications for the kinds of decisions he would make in a crisis in Asia over, for example, the South China Sea. He seems to be signalling that, on his watch at least, America won't be risking dangerous confrontations over issues of primarily symbolic value, nor using military force where a quick clean victory is not assured.

But he won't be president for much longer, so what about his successor? This is where the current primary elections are so important. It is still too early to be sure that Mr Donald Trump will be the Republican candidate in November's elections, and even if he is, his chances of defeating his most likely Democrat opponent, Mrs Hillary Clinton, are very slim.

But the whole primary contest for the major parties' nominations as it has unfolded over the past six months has thrown a whole new light on the views of the American people about their country and where it is going. The message is that they will no longer buy what the political and policy establishment in Washington has been selling them for decades.

And this message is not just coming from Mr Trump's supporters. On the other side of politics, the astonishing strength of Senator Bernie Sanders' showing, as a self-declared "socialist", is just as stark a rejection of the Democrat establishment as Mr Trump's is on the Republican side. What's important here is not that Mr Sanders is heading for defeat by Mrs Clinton, but that he has remained so competitive for so long against such a powerful establishment opponent.

Much of what motivates Americans to vote for Mr Trump and Mr Sanders stems from domestic issues - especially the economy. But we should not miss the message that these candidates' successes are sending about the views of a vast number of Americans about their place in the world.

At first glance, the bombastic tycoon and the rumpled social activist seem to have little in common, but on foreign policy, they are both pointing in the same direction.

For a start, both have defiantly refused to court Washington's foreign policy elites. Neither has done what every other candidate does, appointing a flock of big names from the think-tanks as advisers, and giving carefully crafted speeches on major foreign policy issues to establish their credibility. Mr Sanders and Mr Trump haven't bothered with any of that.

But more deeply, both clearly offer an image of America as a much less engaged global player. Both reject the Washington foreign policy playbook, just as Mr Obama has done. Don't be misled by Mr Trump's baseball cap with its "Make America Great Again" slogan, or his fighting words about using America's military power.

The key to his view of foreign policy is his rejection of America's alliance commitments to its allies. He has no patience with the orthodox idea that defending America's allies is a core US interest. Instead he talks of making them pay for US protection - or doing without. The vision of America's greatness that attracts Mr Trump's supporters is nothing like that of the Washington elites. It begins and ends at home. Mr Trump's message to the world is: Leave America alone, and we will leave you alone.

Of course, Mrs Clinton has a far better chance than either of these men of ending up in the White House, and she is a classic insider of the Washington elite. Her instincts may well be to follow the playbook closely. But she will now know, after this year's primaries, that the America she might lead will be much less willing to follow her into foreign adventures in defence of US credibility than almost everyone in Washington has long assumed. And that would shape her every decision.

Even under Mrs Clinton, we could no longer take America's role in the world, or in Asia, for granted.

  • The writer is professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University in Canberra.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 22, 2016, with the headline America's role in Asia can no longer be taken for granted. Subscribe