Asia
Commentary

Obama’s Foreign Policy Efforts Meet Reality At Home

in Program

On Nov.24, U.S. President Barack Obama announced the resignation of Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. When Hagel’s successor will be named is uncertain. Former Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy, who was rumored to be the top contender for the job, has promptly taken herself out of consideration. With Sen. John McCain — one of the leading critics of the Obama administration’s foreign and national security policies — expected to assume the chairmanship of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Hagel’s successor, even if it is someone like former Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Cartor, is guaranteed to have a difficult job managing the Pentagon’s relationship with the U.S. Congress.

Hagel’s resignation comes only two weeks after President Obama returned to the United States from his high-profile trip to the Asia-Pacific region. His itinerary included multiple stops and participation in numerous events — the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Economic Leaders’ Meeting and the APEC CEO Summit in Beijing, the East Asia Summit and the U.S.-ASEAN Summit in Naypyitaw, and the G-20 Leaders’ Summit in Brisbane. In addition to attending these multilateral meetings, Obama engaged in a series of talks with leaders in the region, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Myanmar President Thein Sein and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

Throughout his trip, he tried his hardest to communicate two main messages to the region: (1) his administration remains deeply committed to its strategic rebalance to Asia, and (2) the United States continues to place emphasis on respect for universal norms such as democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law.

Obama’s Asia trip produced some results. From a U.S. perspective, the most tangible deliverables emerged in U.S.-China relations. Washington and Beijing reached a bilateral agreement on climate change that commits China to reducing carbon dioxide emissions. The two countries also agreed on confidence-building measures between the two militaries — low-profile yet important concrete progress in military-to-military relations to reduce tension and the risk of accidents escalating into something more serious.

In addition, Obama stayed consistent in his message that his administration values universally accepted values and norms such as democracy, respect for human rights and the peaceful resolution of disagreements among states. Obama’s reiteration that, while the U.S. continues to pursue a “constructive relationship with China” and welcomes “the continuing rise of a China that is peaceful and prosperous and stable and that plays a responsible role in world affairs, the U.S. also expects China to adhere to the same rules as other nations” was a message that the countries in the Asia-Pacific region, increasingly threatened by China’s assertive approach to the handling of its territorial claims in the East China Sea and South China Sea, very much needed to hear directly from the U.S. president. During his visit to Myanmar, Obama not only indicated that his administration continues to carefully monitor democratization efforts by the Myanmar government in his official meetings with President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, but he also demonstrated his personal belief in open dialogue by engaging with NGO and youth representatives. Even in the negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade pact, the Obama administration has argued that the leaders made significant progress when they met in Beijing, and that the end of the negotiations may be within reach. In short, Obama’s Asia trip can be claimed as successful in demonstrating to the countries in the region his administration’s willingness to sustain its strategic rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region despite increasing tensions in Europe and the Middle East.

But beyond messaging on specific policy issues, Obama’s Asia trip was considered most significant as a means to jump-start the recovery of his presidential image, which was badly battered by a major defeat in the midterm elections on Nov. 4. It was important for Obama to demonstrate that despite a big election loss at home, he can still lead on the world stage by engaging his foreign counterparts in serious discussion in bilateral as well as multilateral settings. In this context, Obama’s efforts during his Asia trip were constantly overshadowed by the other challenges his administration faces at home and in other parts of the world. At every opportunity during the trip, he was relentlessly asked by the press about the developments in the Middle East, his administration’s response to the Ebola pandemic and his approach to such domestic policy issues as immigration reform. Furthermore, his critics at home have continued to voice concerns about the administration’s management of foreign and security policy challenges. In particular, the criticism has intensified over the Obama administration’s response to the security threat posed by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, including the way it has re-engaged its military in the Middle East.

Hagel’s resignation came at a time when critics have begun to point to the diverging opinions between the White House and Department of Defense on how to combat Islamic State. As David Rothkopf, the editor of Foreign Policy magazine, writes in his Nov. 24 commentary, many in Washington feel that Hagel was “wronged” and has been scapegoated for the administration’s failed foreign and national security policies in the first two years of the Obama administration’s second term, including the gross underestimation of the Islamic State threat. The personnel changes on Obama’s foreign and national security policy team following the election — including the nomination of Deputy National Security Advisor Anthony Blinken for the Deputy Secretary of State post in addition to Hagel’s resignation — will not likely be considered sufficient to quiet the critics who continue to question President Obama’s ability to manage his foreign and national security team to effectively address his administration’s policy challenges. With the Republican Party controlling both chambers of the U.S. Congress, such scrutiny at home will only intensify for the remainder of his term.

Overall, Obama’s Asia trip was as successful as it could have been. He was met by enthusiastic welcome at every stop, and his trip produced concrete results, sending a clear message to illuminate his administration’s view of the Asia-Pacific region. Yet, Hagel’s resignation two weeks later is a stark reminder that a successful foreign tour is far from sufficient for the president and his team to reset their foreign and security policy agenda at home.

This article originally appeared in The Japan News. 

Follow Stimson’s East Asia program and Stimson on Twitter

Photo credit: Barack Obama via flickr

Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on email
Choose Your Subscription Topics
* indicates required
I'm interested in...
38 North: News and Analysis on North Korea
South Asian Voices