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.