Foreign policy commands attention when it is crisis management. A street revolt breaks out in Egypt or Libya or Ukraine and everyone asks how the president of the United States should respond.
This is an important element of America’s role in the world but it is essentially reactive and tactical. The broader challenge is to lay down a longer-term strategy that endures after the crises of the moment. The Obama administration has tried to do this with its Asia policy – and the president’s trip there this week is part of it – but progress has been halting and incomplete.
Still, for all its problems, the real threat to a serious Asia strategy comes not from the administration but from Congress and the American public. In fact, the difficulties in the execution of the pivot raise the larger question: Can America have a grand strategy today?
President Barack Obama’s basic approach is wise and is in many ways a continuation of U.S. foreign policy since Bill Clinton’s presidency. On the diplomatic front, it has two elements – deterrence and engagement. All countries in Asia – as well as the United States – seek stronger and deeper economic ties with China but also want to ensure that the country does not become an expansionist regional bully. Getting the balance between the two elements of this policy is hard to do and easy to criticize. In general, the Obama administration has handled this skillfully, keeping a close relationship with China while still setting out clear markers that should deter territorial expansion.
It’s fair to say that Obama has not given enough attention and energy to his own “pivot” strategy. Two trips to the region have been canceled. He has not been to China since his first year in office. His second-term team is conspicuously lacking in Asia experts. This is a mistake. Success in Asia could be the most substantive accomplishment of his remaining time in office.
There is, however, an important constructive aspect to the Asia policy. At the center of this is the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It not only would be the largest trade deal in decades – involving most of Asia’s major economies and perhaps eventually even including China – but would strongly reinforce American-style rules about free and open trade worldwide. Yet the president has not been able to get the “fast-track authority” that makes it possible to negotiate any trade deal.
The Democratic Party, once the greatest champion of free trade, has long turned its back on it – a sad shift in a once open and optimistic party. In recent years, Republican support for trade has also gotten much weaker. The result is that the TPP, a grand, ambitious idea, is on life support. America’s military strategy in Asia will require significant budgets that are under pressure from both sides of the aisle. Public support for any ambitious, generous kind of foreign policy is extremely low.
The most worrying obstacle to a serious American strategy might seem, at first, to be a highly technical issue. The administration has proposed a reform of the International Monetary Fund, which congressional Republicans are blocking. But reforming this agency is crucial to America’s future global role.
The IMF’s governing board has long been dominated by the United States and Europe. As Asian countries have become a larger part of the global pie, the administration has proposed enlarging their votes on the board. This mostly would take power away from Europe, not the United States. And yet, Republicans have held up this plan for three years and they show no signs of being ready to pass it.
This issue has united Asian countries who all see this as a sign that the West will never let them share real power in global institutions. They have a point.
After World War II, the U.S. confronted communism but it also built a stable world order by creating many institutions that set global rules and norms and shared power – from the U.N. itself to the IMF and the World Bank. The urgent task is to expand those institutions to include the rising powers of Asia. If Washington does not do this, it will strengthen those voices, especially in China, who say that the country should not try to integrate into a Western framework of international rules – because it will always play a second-class role – and instead should bide its time and create its own institutions, play by its own rules, and do its own thing.
At that point we will all deeply regret that we did not let these countries into the club when we had a chance.
Fareed Zakaria is published twice monthly by THE DAILY STAR.