In pushing his domestic agenda, President Obama wasted valuable time chasing the mirage of a rational bipartisan consensus, and the price he paid in the midterm elections was disastrous for the Democrats. Yet only a few days later, he seemed to be on the same path on his long journey across Asia: seeking cooperation and consensus again, this time from leaders of the world’s top economic powers on projects of importance to the United States. It didn’t work, and the media declared it another failure, this time with China, Korea and Germany playing the Tea Party’s spoiler role.
The hasty write-off of the president’s trip, while understandable, was an oversimplification. There was more to the journey than the G20 summit in Seoul, which was furthermore not arranged as an opportunity for Obama to seal a trade agreement with South Korea or change China’s currency policy, as the myopic and parochial Washington mind seemed to frame it. In the new world of diffused power, the other eighteen nations and the representative of the European Union had minds of their own.
Issues like those rarely get resolved in the shadow of huge summit settings, especially in Asia. What the summit and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference that followed in Japan did provide was a chance for the United States to reconnect with important players in the region, especially India and Indonesia, and to bring Americans back to the other side of the world for a look around—a brief break from the quagmires of the Middle East and Afghanistan.
The president was particularly deft in his handling of India, which has been clamoring for more American attention and for a tougher Washington line on Pakistan. Obama gave India what it craved most: the promise that Washington would welcome Delhi’s bid for a permanent UN Security Council seat, though there is no near-term probability of council enlargement.
In the next breath, however, the president went on to lecture India—with its dodgy human rights record, aggressive nuclear program and tendency to vote with undemocratic nations or against US interests in international forums—that "with increased power comes increased responsibility." He was explicit:
"The United Nations exists to fulfill its founding ideals of preserving peace and security, promoting global cooperation and advancing human rights. These are the responsibilities of all nations, but especially those that seek to lead in the twenty-first century. And so we look forward to working with India—and other nations that aspire to Security Council membership—to ensure that the Security Council is effective; that resolutions are implemented; that sanctions are enforced; that we strengthen international norms which recognize the rights and responsibilities of all nations and individuals."
He went on: "This includes our responsibility to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons." India started a nuclear arms race in South Asia with a test in 1974, which prompted Pakistan to develop a nuclear weapons program of its own. Neither nation has signed the treaty against the spread of nuclear arms. Obama told his audience in the Indian parliament, "We have put preventing nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism at the top of our nuclear agenda, and we have strengthened the cornerstone of the global nonproliferation regime, which is the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty." American officials have said publicly they want India on board.
The president then turned to neighboring Burma, where India (like China) has failed to support democracy, giving higher priority to regional competition for Burmese resources and access to its strategic geographical location. India, like the United States, should be speaking out against undemocratic rulers who "hold the aspirations of an entire people hostage to the greed and paranoia of bankrupt regimes," the president said.
"And if I can be frank," he told the silent audience in parliament, which had earlier been cheering, "in international fora India has often shied away from some of these issues. But speaking up for those who cannot do so for themselves is not interfering in the affairs of other countries. It is not violating the rights of sovereign nations."
An editorial comment in the Hindu, a leading Indian newspaper, on the day after Obama’s speech noted these remarks, saying that the American president had otherwise been "more than generous" when talking about "the great Indian experiment in democracy." Ironically, within a week, the Burmese military government had freed the democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest. The long campaign for her release, which UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had been working on behind the scenes, had many backers. But not India.
After India, Indonesia was a less intense visit that brought the president back to a city and country where he had spent four years of his childhood, and he delighted audiences with his memories of life in his Menteng neighborhood of Jakarta. But he also took the opportunity to speak to young people in the nation with the world’s largest Muslim population, reiterating his familiar pitch that the United States is not at war with Islam. He visited the huge, rather souless but majestic, Istiqlal mosque, apparently not concerned that for some conspiratorial and ignorant Americans this would only confirm that he is a Muslim.
Indonesia, another rising Asian power, and one that has transitioned from military dictatorship to democracy—not without some hurdles still to overcome—had been neglected in recent years by American leaders. Wimar Witoelar, an Indonesian communications consultant and newspaper columnist, wrote in the Jakarta Post that Obama’s University of Indonesia speech may not have been new, but it had an impact that seemed personal.
"You have heard the speech before but never to such a passionate audience, 6,500 strong," Witoelar wrote. "It is both relevant to the promise of international cooperation as well as renewed faith in political leadership. More than the content of the speech, the delivery managed to release the underlying good feelings between the United States and Indonesia…. This was because Obama was successful to present himself as the ‘kid from Menteng’ who made good."