Saturday, November 06, 2010

International Relations: U.S. Road Show Hits Foreign Policy Trail

By Ernest Corea
Courtesy IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

WASHINGTON DC (IDN) - With the chill winds of Congressional defeat still swirling around him, President Barack Obama prepares to leave on a four-nation tour of Asia.

Obama will visit India, Indonesia, the Republic of (South) Korea, and Japan, in that order. These four countries, together with China and Vietnam, are among potentially the most powerful engines of growth in the region if not in the world.

America's national requirements and interests are enmeshed with developments in the region, although the character and strength of relations differ from country to country for historical and other reasons. Maintaining a continuing discourse at high levels of government, and moving on from solely official contacts to a web of mutually advantageous activities is in the interests of all parties.

On the India-U.S. front, for instance, after many years of past estrangement, today more than seven-in-ten Indians have confidence in Obama and about two-thirds express a favourable opinion of the United States, according to the Pew Research Centre. As a curtain raiser to Obama’s forthcoming visit, India's Tata Group of companies made a $50 million gift to Harvard’s Business School in the U.S. Time marches on.


Obama's programs in each of the countries to be visited will be varied, and will include major policy speeches; participation in meetings of APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Conference), and the G-20 (the Group of 20); bilateral meetings with heads of state or government of the host countries, and bilateral meetings with President Hu Jintao (their seventh session), and Prime Minister Gillard (Australia).

In addition to its current engagement with APEC, the U.S. has also decided to join the annual East Asia Summit, a 16-country group with ASEAN members at its core. Obama is likely to attend the summit next year.

On this visit, he will also participate in commemorative events of national or international significance such as Diwali (the Festival of Light) in India, Heroes Day in Indonesia, Veterans Day in Korea, and the 50th anniversary of the U.S.-Japan alliance in Japan.

For a head of state to take off on a tour of foreign countries is not something like going to the terminal and hopping on a long distance bus. Presidential tours take complex and complicated planning and negotiation over months between groups of staff. Obama's Asian tour is no exception.

That has not prevented speculation here that on the rebound from the Democrats' defeat in elections to the House of Representatives and their near-death experience in Senate elections, Obama is rushing to the enticing arms of foreign policy engagement as some of his predecessors did, such as President Woodrow Wilson in 1918 and President Bill Clinton in 1994.

Perhaps to counter such speculation and, as well, to be forthcoming and explanatory about Obama's Asian tour, the White House held a series of briefings that explained in some detail what was being attempted and why.


Here is part of one such briefing:

"……on Southeast Asia, we see this as a very important region. And I think what we found when we came into office is that the United States had kind of disengaged from Southeast Asia, that you had ASEAN meetings, the preeminent regional forum, that weren’t even attended at a high level by the United States at the end of the previous administration, which sent a signal of U.S. kind of disengagement from the region; and that our reason for engaging is that we believe it's fundamentally in our interest to be a key player in Southeast Asia.

"These are very dynamic, growing markets from Indonesia to Vietnam to Thailand, and therefore, we want to have deeper economic cooperation with them. These are growing from just emerging economies to the kinds of economies where we’ll be able to export our goods; we’ll be able to support American jobs through our trade relationships with them. So they're directly relevant to the United States in that economic respect.

"On the security front, this is also a region that has a terrorism issue. There are al Qaeda-affiliated groups in the region such as Jemaah Islamiyah, for instance, in Indonesia. And we have very close counterterrorism cooperation with the Philippines and Indonesia and others to ensure that al Qaeda doesn’t get a foothold in this part of the world….

"And so, we see this as an important region to our interests and to our values…..On democracy and human rights, it's a mixed picture in the sense that you have some countries like Indonesia that are embracing democracy and expanding human rights to their citizens, and others like Burma where you've seen a retrenchment.

"So across these issues, we see core U.S. national interests that will be advanced by us playing a key role in helping to shape the future of the region and making clear that we’re a nation and a Pacific power. And I think that that U.S. engagement has been welcomed by the ASEAN countries…..So, sure, it's part of the broader Asia context that includes our relationship with China and India."


This is a rational explanation, as was the rest of what spokespersons said at the rest of the briefings. The question that now arises is: How will these lines of argument sit with the lords and ladies of the soon-to-be newly configured Houses of Congress? Will they assess issues and policies with a sense of the doable, or will they attempt to foster a partisan foreign policy?

A former distinguished and much-liked Speaker of the House of Representatives, Tip O’Neill, famously said that "all politics is local." In a very real sense, "all foreign policy is local," too.

What does not find acceptance at home is not going to be effective abroad. Besides, in the U.S. the two legislative bodies control the purse strings. How foreign policy develops under the new, post-election arrangement will be substantially influenced, therefore, by who takes control of key committees in the House and Senate. Two in particular matter: those that deal directly with foreign policy.

At the time of writing, it is widely believed that Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida will be the next Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. She is a Cuban-American from a constituency that has a strong Jewish component. Off the bat, it is being assumed that she will oppose any attempt by the Obama Administration to improve relations with Cuba -- not that it will -- and that she will take a "hard" line on Middle East issues.

Congressional staff who have followed her work give her high marks for meticulous preparation of her positions, and for her commitment to financial prudence. Foreign aid and foreign operations, they believe, will come under closer scrutiny than her supervision.

In the Senate, Richard Lugar will probably take the Chair that will be vacated by his colleague Senator John Kerry, who will drop down to being "ranking member" from among Democrats.

Should Lugar assume chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and not opt for a position on a committee where he can do more for his state, he will be an important partner to Obama in one of the president's signature issues -- disarmament. Lugar worked closely at different times with two Democrats, former Senator Sam Nunn and former Senator Obama on disarmament and non-proliferation issues.

Both committees are expected to remain committed to a two-state solution for Palestine and Israel, although with different nuances in their approaches.

All this is in the realm of speculation. Who can tell how policies will really develop? Men and women of goodwill will surely hope, however, that changes on the U.S. political scene will strengthen, not weaken, prospects for world peace and the reduction of inequities within and among nations.