Obama’s re-election and Asia

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Obama’s re-election and Asia

Barack Obama definitively won re-election over the challenger Mitt Romney on November 6 with 332 electoral college votes to Romney’s 206. The discussion here in the United States since the election has moved immediately to whether the president can claim enough of a mandate from his victory to prevail over opponents to avoid the United States hurdling down a fiscal “cliff.”

The absence of an agreement on a budget for the United States could lead to mandated across-the-board draconian spending cuts and tax increases that could send the U.S. into another recession.

But what about foreign policy? Will it be different in a second Obama term? And what about policy to Korea? I have a couple of observations about these questions. They are not based on any inside information about the machinations inside the White House, since these are very closely-held discussions. But they are hunches based on past experiences and history.

First, a second term will see personnel shifts that could certainly lead to a change in the style of policy if not the substance. The foreign policy of an administration is greatly influenced by personalities and individuals at the top. Dean Acheson, for example, Harry Truman’s secretary of state from 1949-53 had famously little interest in Asia, while George Shultz (Reagan’s secretary of state from 1982-89) was the opposite.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is certain to leave her post. She was considered one of the most competent senior officials of Obama’s first administration and her record at State was very positive. Her return to the private sector will give an opportunity to decompress, perhaps write a book and very possibly prepare for a presidential run in 2016.

Her departure from State will almost certainly mean that many political appointees who were “Hillary’s people” are likely to leave as well.

Remember that President Obama’s offer in 2009 to bring his former Democratic Party opponent onto his team meant that those in Hillary’s camp (and not Obama’s) occupied key positions in the State Department. Her departure will mean that a lot of those people will leave, including most likely assistant secretary Kurt Campbell.

The Washington Post last week reported that the likely successor to Clinton will be Susan Rice, who is the extremely competent and hard-charging UN ambassador in Obama’s first term, and his confidante.

As good as she may be, however, her area of interest historically has not been Asia, it was with Africa. Clinton had a genuine personal and intellectual interest in Asia. Indeed, she was doing the “pivot” to Asia even before it was announced by Obama two years later. Her first overseas trip as America’s top diplomat in February 2009 was to Asia, making her the first U.S. secretary of state in nearly 50 years to do so.

Second, the personnel shifts may not matter much if the President himself is committed to Asia. At least the first signs are that Obama will continue with the Asia pivot in his second term. His national security advisor, Tom Donilon, said as much in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington last week, suggesting that the administration sees its pivot to Asia as one of Obama’s foreign policy legacies.

The visit to Myanmar was historic and tied Obama personally to the reform that started in the country one year earlier. The fact that President Obama did not cancel a pre-scheduled trip to Southeast Asia to attend the East Asia Summit (despite the looming fiscal problems at home) is an encouraging sign of his personal commitment to Asia.

Third, second-term presidents tend to be more “presidential” in the making of policy. What I mean by this is that they tend to be more willing to take the lead in forging compromises, pressing a policy agenda and building coalitions between Democrats and Republicans. Obama in his first term tended to subcontract a lot of big policy issues to the old guard of the Democratic party, rather than take the lead. Perhaps we will see less of this now that he does not have to worry about re-election again.

One area where there is the opportunity to lead is on trade issues. Obama pushed through the U.S.-Korea free trade agreement in his first term, and his second term is likely to see significant efforts to forge agreement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). In this regard, there could be more focus on Korea to join TPP. Korea would be a critical member in its own right. But strategically, gaining Korean membership to TPP will put much greater pressure on Japan, and then possibly even China, to consider TPP seriously.

Finally, second-term presidents learn from their past experiences. Here, Obama will remember painfully his two efforts to reach out to North Korea - in early 2009 and in 2012. In both cases, Pyongyang responded with missile tests and a nuclear test. There is little enthusiasm for any drastic change in the cautious policies being followed now.

But the wildcard will be the South Korean elections in December. A new ROK president is likely to reach out to North Korea, and each of the candidates have suggested as much in their campaigns.

This could create some gaps with the United States especially if there are no discernible steps on denuclearization by the DPRK. While the alliance has dealt with such difficulties before, it could create a dynamic and narrative in the relationship that is very different from what we have grown accustomed to over the past four years.

* The author is D.S. Song-KF professor of government and director of Asian studies of Georgetown University.

by Victor Cha
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