Free trade can defuse Asia’s powder keg – but Obama risks blowing it all
28 April 2014 4:26am
TRUST the “Big Dog” to have Barack Obama’s number. Bill Clinton, one of the shrewdest political operators ever, is reported to have complained about the current occupant of the White House. Obama, Clinton tellingly opined, has done almost all the hard things right: intellectually he has a coherent rationale for almost every major project he has undertaken, from health care to winding down George W Bush’s disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But despite this, Clinton laments that Obama has failed at the more pedestrian political and diplomatic follow-through that actually makes up the lion’s share of public policy. Obama yearns to linger above the fray, a Jovian figure only intervening in messy human affairs when absolutely necessary.
The one big foreign policy idea of the Obama era, America’s military and diplomatic pivot to Asia, is just the latest example of the Big Dog’s spot-on lament. For not only is it a big idea, it’s the right idea. Strategically, Asia already accounts for half the world’s population and, before the middle of this century, should account for half the world’s economic output. It is the only region in the world where a truly hopeful economic future seems on the immediate cards – the last, best candidate to be the new motor of global growth.
If Asia is the goose that just might lay the golden egg, it is also the most dangerous place in the world. Structurally, Asia resembles nothing so much as the powder keg that was late nineteenth century Europe: with American doing a pretty good impersonation of a declining but still dominant Britain, Beijing in the role of the rising and reckless Germany, and Japan a thoroughly besieged, implacable France.
Instead of wasting time in the thankless snake pit of the Middle East, it does seem more profitable for the US to increase its longstanding central role in the region of the world with both the most striking possibilities, and the greatest strategic peril, both of which, of course, centre on China’s startling rise.
In my old incarnation as a university professor I would give this foreign policy final in international relations theory an easy “A.” But that is precisely the problem. Obama remains wonderful in thinking about human beings intellectually, and so drearily awful at comprehending the workings of human beings – warts and all – in particular.
For one thing, the White House doesn’t “do” perception. The current presidential trip to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines comes only after two previous planned visits have been cancelled. Somehow, the White House does not see that such cavalier treatment is unlikely to convince the region that Obama means it when he says it is important to America.
In terms of substance, over the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade deal – the crucial centrepiece of the pivot – will someone teach this man how to negotiate? TPP encompasses 12 nations ringing the great ocean, accounting for fully 40 per cent of global GDP. Such a multilateral agreement would at last provide geopolitical structure for a region sorely lacking it, economically knitting together most of America’s Asian allies, and pointedly excluding China. This is so obviously a good idea on every level that a failure to quickly realise it is almost inexplicable.
But knowing he was heading to traditionally protectionist Japan, and for reasons that pass understanding, the President has made almost no effort to convince his own increasingly protectionist Democratic Party in Congress to give him Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) powers.
TPA allows the President to negotiate a deal that Congress must then simply vote for or against, without having the power to table endless amendments that must then be re-negotiated, a state of affairs no serious country would allow for. Rather than following in the spirit of such great arm twisters as LBJ, Reagan, or Clinton himself, Obama has again remained above the fray, not bothering to do the hard work of fighting for his strategy.
Wholly unsurprisingly, on 14 April, it was announced that Prime Minister Abe of Japan has not caved over beef, rice, sugar, and pork quotas: why should he give in to a President who has yet to secure the congressional backing to make a deal stick? As such, there will be no deal until Obama deigns to fight for TPA. And without the trade deal, there is no real Asia pivot. This comedy of errors is merely the latest illustration of the colossal disappointment that is Obama.
Dr John C Hulsman is senior columnist at City A.M., and president and co-founder of John C Hulsman Enterprises (www.john-hulsman.com), a global political risk consultancy. He is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of Ethical Realism, The Godfather Doctrine, and most recently Lawrence of Arabia, To Begin the World Over Again.
In other news
BT SPORT is close to announcing a payment structure for subscriptions to its upcoming exclusive live coverage [Read more]
UK SHOPPERS were slightly less confident this month, but confidence levels remain relatively high, according to [Read more]
Graduates should be awarded point scores alongside the existing degree grades, a new report has said, something [Read more]
Banks are finally starting to lend to Britain's small and medium sized businesses new data has shown, suggesting [Read more]
Just eight years ago, there was no iPhone, while a mere decade ago, half of all Britain's internet connections [Read more]
The nationwide rail strike, called off at the 11th hour last week, has been rescheduled for next week. [Read more]
Women's teams will feature on the forthcoming Fifa '16 video games - marking the first time women's football has [Read more]
Just a day after the Queen's Speech confirmed what we knew the Tories would have to do, a bill has dropped into [Read more]
Avago Technologies has sealed a $37bn acquisition of fellow semiconductor company Broadcom to create an industry [Read more]
Russian President Vladimir Putin has accused the United States of meddling in affairs beyond its jurisdiction [Read more]
The UK's GDP increased by 0.3 per cent in the first quarter of 2015, according to the latest figures from the [Read more]
Five people were arrested after the anti-austerity protest in Whitehall and Trafalgar Square turned voilent yesterday. [Read more]
Claire Perry has said “at times, the delays and disruption that are occurring are simply inexcusable.” [Read more]
Like electing a boss of Fifa whose surname isn’t Blatter or extracting an apology from Thomas Cook, reforming [Read more]
Britain's FinTech sector is a particularly bright spot in the UK’s recovering economy. Investment in London [Read more]