Shadow Government

When Asian Leaders Look at Obama, They See Ukraine and Syria

President Barack Obama embarks for his Asia trip during an inauspicious season for American diplomacy. Across the board America's bilateral relations with the great powers are at their lowest points since Obama took office in 2009. Our European allies find us unpersuasive, our Asian allies find us unreliable, and Russia and China find us irresolute and inconsistent.

Russia's ongoing aggression in Ukraine has also thrown into sharp relief America's diminished standing in the eyes of our European allies. Not only has Germany resisted our pleas for more effective sanctions, it turns out German firms may have played an instrumental role in training and equipping the Russian special forces now infiltrating Ukraine. France, suffering from a depressed economy and weak leader in President François Hollande, brazenly moves forward with plans to sell two helicopter carriers to Russia. The U.S.-British relationship is moribund, as the United Kingdom focuses on internal complications such as Scottish secessionism while finding the Obama administration an uncertain partner in addressing European challenges.

More than five years into the Obama presidency, the White House now seems to be shedding its illusions and realizing that Russian President Vladimir Putin is not a reliable partner to the United States. Senior administration officials proudly advertised their new thinking in Peter Baker's typically well-sourced analysis in Sunday's New York Times. Some of this is to be welcomed. Just as it took the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 to disabuse President Jimmy Carter of his illusory optimism about the Soviet Union, it seems to have taken Putin's aggression against Ukraine to disabuse Obama of mistaken hopes about today's Russia.

One hopes that the Obama administration's newfound realism about Putin will extend to the humility to reassess its other flawed strategic assumptions. It is not as if Putin's imperial revanchism is new, or could not have been anticipated. Five years ago I wrote this Shadow post on "The Sources of Russian Conduct," which revisited George Kennan's original essay and pointed out some continuing parallels in Russian behavior that the White House, unfortunately, chose to disregard.

Timothy Snyder of Yale, one of the foremost scholars on the tragic history of Ukraine, offers some rich historical context here on the centuries-old Ukrainian identity and the long suffering of the Ukrainian people. Snyder also provides a bracing, indeed chilling, perspective on Putin in the context of Soviet imperialism. While Snyder astutely resists making glib policy recommendations, the clear implication of this history is that the West should not be suckered into giving any credence to Putin's revisionist claims. This is not to say that a new "containment" policy towards Russia is warranted. Russia today is much weaker, less ambitious, and less dangerous than the Soviet Union. Rather a new strategy is needed that neither replicates the Cold War nor revisits the illusions of the "re-set."

This week as the White House looks toward Asia, many leaders in Asia are looking nervously west toward Ukraine and the Middle East. American expressions of resolve and "rebalance" to Asia appear hollow to Asian leaders in light of two uncomfortable facts: the anemic resources the United States is devoting to the "rebalance," and America's uncertain policies in western Eurasia. To take just one example, on a recent trip to Japan I heard concerns from multiple Japanese leaders and scholars that American passivity on Syria and Ukraine had damaged American credibility in Asia. It bears remembering that North Korea possesses possibly the world's largest stock of chemical weapons, so not only did our failure to enforce the "red line" on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons needlessly enhance Russia's prestige -- it also did serious damage to the confidence that Tokyo and Seoul have in American security guarantees. And as Dan Twining describes below, Asia is a region with multiple territorial disputes (most with China as a common denominator). The predations suffered by Ukraine have diminished Asian confidence in a rules-based international order and in the credibility of the United States to act as a great power in enforcing that order. Meanwhile, as India prepares to elect a new government, the burgeoning U.S.-India strategic partnership has lost considerable momentum. Some of this is due to India's own internal dysfunction and economic stagnation, but on America's part clumsy diplomacy and uncertainty in Afghanistan have not helped.

Behind these bilateral diplomatic failings is a general strategic problem: The premise of the Asia pivot assumes that one region of the world can be hermetically sealed off from other regions. Yes, the United States should be devoting more diplomatic, economic, and military resources and attention to Asia, but not while simultaneously neglecting other strategic regions. Asian leaders welcome an increased American posture in their region -- but they also observe carefully what the United States does or does not do in the Middle East and western Eurasia, and calculate accordingly.

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Shadow Government

Why Obama Needs To Lean In On This Asia Trip

Reassuring anxious allies that there will be no "Asian Crimea" will be the purpose of President Barack Obama's trip across the Pacific starting April 23. No Asian nation wants to forfeit its independence to a new Middle Kingdom, just as no European nation wants to be part of a new Russian empire. Russia's invasion of Ukraine is a wake-up call that we live in a dangerous world of great power revanchism and territorial conflict -- trends that are even more acute in Asia. Rather than "pivot" to any region, the president must make clear that the United States will not make strategic choices that leave its allies at the mercy of regional predators.

Worried Asians are not alone in their anxiety over Washington's commitment to deter great power adventurism. In the Middle East, U.S. allies are pursuing independent strategies to guard against Iranian hegemony and Islamic extremism following a perceived U.S. retreat from the region. Russia's military occupation of Ukrainian territory challenges the American commitment to a Europe whole and free. Meanwhile, in Asia -- where there is no overarching alliance like NATO to restrain revisionist powers -- anxious allies wonder how far U.S. security guarantees will stretch before they break.

Where America's friends fear a vacuum of power, competitors see room to push out. China is aggressively modernizing the world's largest military and deploying weapons expressly designed to strike U.S. forces. Beijing is using gunboat diplomacy to carve out a sphere of influence over Japanese islands in the East China Sea and some of the world's most strategic waterways in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, the U.S. defense budget is on course to be cut by a cool trillion dollars -- just as a quarter century of great-power peace is eroding.

Some fine speeches have been given by President Obama and his officials on U.S.-Asia strategy since announcing a strategic "pivot" to the region in 2011. But as retired Japanese diplomat Yukio Okamoto told Reuters, "We do not see any actual sign" of the policy's implementation. A new report on the rebalance by the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee makes the point: "Sweeping speeches and policy pronouncements unsupported by hard deliverables create a large gap between expectations and reality."

President Obama will hear some good news in Asia. Leading economies want a Trans-Pacific Partnership that will catalyze American trade and investment. Japan wants to play a greater role upholding peace and security and is finally developing the strategy and resources to do so. Indians are electing a new government whose overwhelming mandate will be to restore economic growth to Chinese levels, strengthening the southern anchor of the Asian balance of power. Southeast Asian nations, including unlikely suspects Vietnam and Myanmar, are edging closer to the United States. Europe is pursuing trade agreements with Asian democracies and engaging with Asian institutions following a dawning understanding that simply selling things to China is not a regional strategy.

Beyond these promising developments lies the resurgence of American power. The energy revolution is transforming the strategic map of the world, as leading economies line up to contract for U.S. oil and gas. The emergence of an American energy superpower means the country's competitiveness is surging even as countries like China, the world's biggest energy consumer and oil importer, look on with envy. Russian President Vladimir Putin has called China and Russia "natural allies," united in their authoritarian politics and resentment of U.S. leadership. But Russian absolutism may not survive a fall in energy prices that hollows out a government budget dependent on them to stay afloat.

For all the talk of the rise of the rest, the U.S. lead in advanced technologies, from robotics to 3-D printing, has actually grown over the past decade. America's demographic drivers will propel economic growth as societies in China, Russia, and elsewhere age dramatically. The U.S. economy remains the prime mover of global markets and will continue to do so even if surpassed in size (though not sophistication) by China. The dollar's status as the world's reserve currency has been reinforced, not undermined, by global financial turmoil. And the U.S. lead in advanced military capabilities, including drone warfare, and offensive cyber operations, will surprise American adversaries in any conflict.

Perhaps the truest test of power is whether it is welcomed or feared by others. In Asia as in Europe, many countries welcome the forward projection of American forces. How many feel the same way about Chinese or Russian military might? Consent for U.S. leadership remains the "secret sauce" of American primacy across the Atlantic and Pacific -- regions which together produce some 80 percent of global GDP. America may not always be loved. But most Asians, like most Europeans, would agree that a future order led by some other nation -- or a future disorder led by no nation -- would be worse.

On his trip through China's neighborhood, President Obama therefore has no need to kowtow. In Asia as in Europe, the President must instead "lean in." Efforts by Russia and China to revise land and sea borders by force are a timely reminder of how useful other countries will continue to find the friendship of a distant, democratic superpower.

A version of this article appeared in the Nikkei Asian Review.

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