What happened to Obama’s pivot?

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What happened to Obama’s pivot?

The most important accomplishment of the Obama administration’s foreign policy in its first term was the so-called “pivot to Asia.” Announced in a speech on Nov. 17, 2011 to the Australian Parliament, the president said, “Our new focus in this region reflects a fundamental truth - that the United States has been, and always will be, a Pacific nation.” Later he said, “As President, I have, therefore made a deliberate and strategic decision - as a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future, by upholding core principles and in close partnership with our allies and friends.” Another line is, “The United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay.”

But many in Washington and in capitals around Asia are concerned that the pivot has disappeared with Obama’s second term in office. There are several reasons for the anxiety. The first was the departure of Hillary Clinton from her position as the nation’s chief diplomat. Secretary Clinton was about the furthest thing from an Asia hand when she took office. But to her credit, and thanks to her close relationship with assistant secretary Kurt Campbell, Clinton truly internalized the notion that the area with the greatest potential for growth, and with the most significance for future international relations, was Asia. Indeed, her first trip overseas as secretary of state was to Japan (a first in U.S. history), where she handled the Asia brief like a long-time veteran.

As a former White House staffer who traveled with these leaders to Asia, I have a keen ear for whether the principal person is catching all of the nuances. Clinton’s remarks were always pitch-perfect and she made everyone in Asia believe that she believed in the pivot. Clinton’s departure was soon followed by the departure of her point person for Asia, Campbell, who has returned to the private sector, running a new start-up company, The Asia Group, in Washington, D.C.

Campbell departed on Feb. 8, 2013, and his position has remained vacant for five months. He was ably spelled by senior diplomat Joseph Yun, but the region is conditioned to look for the political appointee who will be charged with running the policy for Obama’s second term. Daniel Russel, from the White House national security staff, is slated to take the position. But Senator Ted Cruz has blocked his confirmation by putting on a blanket hold. Danny is a consummate professional and is very effective within the U.S. government, but the delay in his appointment has been discouraging for those seeking continued momentum.

Also departing in late June of 2013 was Tom Donilon, Obama’s national security advisor. Donilon became the primary driver after Clinton’s departure. Indeed, most of the policy statements about Asia emanated from the White House and from Donilon at the beginning of the second term. Another Obama official with little prior experience on Asia, Donilon also internalized the view that Asia was the region of most importance to America’s future, and he played a key role in setting up the Sunnylands summit between Obama and Xi Jinping.

The longing for some of Obama 1.0 Asia-hands would not be so strong if not for the expressed lack of Asia interest in Obama 2.0. Leading the pack is Secretary of State John Kerry. Since taking office in February, Kerry had made only one trip to Asia in April up until the Asean Regional Forum meetings in Brunei earlier this month. The April trip featured his first visit ever to South Korea (an astounding fact, given his long record as a leader on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.) Every other trip has been to the Middle East and to Europe, with four stops in Israel and three in Jordan.

Undeniably, crises in Syria, Egypt, Iran and Turkey among other places require his attention, but his predecessor managed to keep her eye focused on Asia while dealing with similar problems.

At the Asean Regional Forum meetings, moreover, Kerry’s first meeting was with the European Union’s representative (presumably to discuss Syria) and he cancelled scheduled visits to Vietnam and Indonesia. According to a recent Foreign Policy blog by Ely Ratner, who worked in the State Department during Obama’s first administration, Kerry upset both the Chinese and Japanese during his sole trips there by pushing to hold meetings briefly over the weekend so that he could get back to the Middle East (four days after his return to Washington.) Granted it is still early in Obama 2.0, but Kerry’s inattention to Asia is a troubling sign of things to come.

The Defense Department’s (DoD) contribution to the pivot (or “rebalance” which is the preferred term at the Pentagon) has been evident in the reapportioning of resources to the Pacific, but this is not a “plus-up” in Asia. It is the movement, for example, to a 60-40 split of naval assets in Asia versus the rest of the world. If anything, the DoD is going to be asking Asian allies to “pivot” more of their budget to burden-sharing, given budget constraints in the U.S., which will make for difficult Special Measures Agreement (SMA) negotiations between the U.S. and ROK this year.

So what is left of the pivot, and what of its future? Well, the one person in Obama 2.0 who believes in the pivot is Obama himself, and that of course matters greatly. But the other key player who may unintentionally become an important factor is Mike Froman, the next U.S. trade representative.

A trade expert in the White House in Obama 1.0 and a key member of the inner circle, Froman’s move to trade representative signals the seriousness with which the administration will be pursuing completion of a framework agreement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Should the administration be successful in this endeavor, it would easily be the most important new institution created by the United States in Asia since Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and would be the most significant legacy of Obama’s pivot to Asia.

*The author is professor at Georgetown University and Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

by Victor Cha
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