Obama Pivots Foreign Policy Focus From Europe, Wars to East Asia

The Obama administration has turned the rudder of its foreign policy eastward across the Pacific as it wraps up a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan and a century’s focus on Europe.

The shift will come into focus as President Obama hosts the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Honolulu this weekend and then continues on a swing through the Asia-Pacific region that will end in Bali, Indonesia, where he will be the first American head of state to attend the East Asia Summit.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has set the table for a new American foreign policy in a number of speeches and articles over the past few months. In them, she has stressed that the economic and strategic future of the United States lies in building relationships in Asia. She has also made tacit references to countering China’s growing influence in the region.

In an article in the November issue of Foreign Policy magazine entitled “America’s Pacific Century,” Clinton laid out the case for why the United States must focus on Asia, with its populous economic powerhouses anchored by an ascendant China and India.

“As the war in Iraq winds down and America begins to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan, the United States stands at a pivot point,” she wrote. “Over the last 10 years, we have allocated immense resources to those two theaters. In the next 10 years, we need to be smart and systematic about where we invest time and energy, so that we put ourselves in the best position to sustain our leadership, secure our interests, and advance our values. One of the most important tasks of American statecraft over the next decade will therefore be to lock in a substantially increased investment — diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise — in the Asia-Pacific region.”

On Thursday, ahead of President Obama’s arrival at APEC, Clinton again made the case for American engagement in Asia in a speech at the East-West Center.

“So many global trends point to Asia,” she said. “It’s home to nearly half the world’s population, it boasts several of the largest and fastest-growing economies and some of the world’s busiest ports and shipping lanes, and it also presents consequential challenges, such as military buildups, concerns about the proliferation of nuclear weapons, natural disasters and the world’s worst levels of greenhouse gas emissions. It is becoming increasingly clear that in the 21st century, the world’s strategic and economic center of gravity will be the Asia-Pacific [region], from the Indian subcontinent to the western shores of the Americas.”

Clinton has stressed that the new focus across the Pacific Ocean will not sideline the trans-Atlantic relationships that anchored American foreign policy in the 20th century. She has, however, continued an initiative begun by her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice, of shifting diplomatic posts from Europe to hotspots in the Middle East and Asia. Indeed, as Europe struggles with its economic troubles, the Obama administration’s shift is even more dramatic.

In an effort to reassure European allies, Clinton cited the recent NATO success in Libya and the joint efforts in Afghanistan as examples of how a mature trans-Atlantic partnership was still critical for both sides.

Indeed, Clinton cited the long-standing American alliance with Europe as an example for its future ties with Asia.

“We have a model for what we and our partners in the region are working to achieve,” she said in her speech on Thursday. “It is what the United States and our partners in Europe achieved together in the past 50 years. The 20th century saw the creation of a comprehensive transatlantic network of institutions and relationships. Its goals were to strengthen democracy, increase prosperity and defend our collective security. And it has paid remarkable dividends.

Building on the U.S.-South Korea Free Trade Agreement, which was signed last year, ratified by Congress in October and hit snags in Seoul, South Korea, the Obama administration has supported the creation of a trans-Pacific partnership to link the economies of the region. 

To convince any skeptics of American commitment to the region, Clinton borrowed a line from President Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.

“To those in Asia who wonder whether the United States is really here to stay, if we can make and keep credible strategic and economic commitments and back them up with action, the answer is: Yes, we can and, yes, we will,” she said.

“First, because we must,” she added. “Our own long-term security and prosperity depend on it. Second, because making significant investments in strengthening partnerships and institutions help us establish a system and habits of cooperation that, over time, will require less effort to sustain.”

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