Free trade can defuse Asia’s powder keg – but Obama risks blowing it all

Dr John C Hulsman is senior columnist at City AM, a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and president of John C. Hulsman Enterprises. He can be reached for corporate speaking and private briefings at chartwellpartners.co.uk

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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.

City A.M.'s Opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking opinions and views. These are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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