The Ides of November: How November Defines U.S. Engagement in Southeast Asia
April 17, 2010
Put yourself in Kurt Campbell’s shoes – Jeff Bader’s moccasins would work too – and think about this November. It’s not quite a horror movie – more like Gallipoli.
The scene is Bader’s office in the Old Executive Office Building, the camera slowly pans 360 – security safe a crack open with papers hanging out, cabinet spilling over with books on various moments in Asian history, half-empty take-out container with braised tofu teasing mold, rumpled couch looking slept on, 14-foot ceilings feeling unappreciated. Campbell standing next to Bader, seated, both grimacing, brows knit in unison. The camera pans down Kurt’s arm past the signature orange watch wristband to his hand growing roots into Jeff’s desk; next to it is a calendar – the POTUS’s calendar for November 2010. A pink Post-it with Rahm Emanuel’s extension stuck to the upper left corner ... key Tubular Bells music. …
November is ugly. It defines the challenge for U.S. policy in Asia. The president, one of the most capable, articulate, and marketable leaders in recent history – a guy who actually grew up in Indonesia for several years – has defined himself as the “Pacific president.” Commitments have been made – “We get it,” “Being there is 90 percent of the game in Asia,” we look forward to the second ASEAN-U.S. Summit.
The low-hanging fruit left by the Bush administration has been plucked. Officials at the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs rock back on their davenport smiling as they see the potential for the earlier-than-expected fruition of their prophecies that the United States can say it is committed to Asia, but that it can’t sustain that commitment. Are they right?
Now it’s time to deliver, to show up – or to be marvelously innovative.
A drop of sweat pops onto the calendar below with a pop! that shakes both men. They stare:
Nov 2 – U.S. mid-term elections;
Nov 11–12, G-20 Summit in Seoul;
Nov 13–14, APEC Leaders meeting in Yokohama. …
The heat is on the Democrats in the House and Senate; the Republicans have decided to go completely “no” and rely on historical patterns of anti-incumbency in mid-term elections, particularly acute when your party holds the White House and both chambers on the Hill. That makes a trade agenda, the fundamental platform of credible and sustainable Asia policy, untouchable. The G-20 is the new global architecture and hosted by the president’s good friend, Korean president Lee Myung-bak – he’ll be there. The APEC Leaders meeting is a must because you can’t no-show, no matter how badly Hatoyama is jangling the Alliance, when you are hosting the party in Hawaii next year.
What about the U.S.-ASEAN Summit? It is core to U.S. engagement in regional trade and security architecture. Secretary Clinton said the centrality of ASEAN was a core principle for Asian regionalism in her Honolulu speech just three months ago. The president has committed to attend after verily initiating the forum in Singapore last November. ASEAN has invited the president to Hanoi – but in October, which is the date for the ASEAN Summit, ASEAN + 3, and the East Asia Summit (EAS).
Truth be told, Hanoi would make so much sense – a diplomatic hat trick in the waiting. It is the fifteenth anniversary of U.S.-Vietnam relations, Hanoi’s one-thousandth birthday, and a chance to promote, without even saying a word, just by being there, economic reformers and pro-engagement Vietnamese leaders who are being challenged by the withered but powerful septa- and octogenarians in the Communist Party of Vietnam in the run-up to the 11th National Party Congress in early 2011.
But October is a non-starter. The Chicago Mafia, the president’s political cerebral cortex in the White House, won’t let him out in the world weeks ahead of mid-terms. They’ve demonstrated their muscle twice before, smothering planned Indonesia visits in favor of trips to Ohio to stump for health care reform – and not without results. Yet, ASEAN has clearly indicated it is not possible to hold a U.S.-ASEAN Summit on Japanese (or another other non-ASEAN-American) soil.
Campbell and Bader are experienced, capable officials. But their options are limited. The domestic political forces in the White House are empowered and don’t even consider such conflicts to be a competition. The president will need to step in and make his views known. If he does so, there is a way to lead in Asia. Make no mistake; getting ASEAN right is fundamental to American strength in dealing with China, Japan, India, and the rest of Asia.
The options are:
- Add two days in Hanoi after APEC and convince the ASEAN leaders to fly from Japan to Hanoi to hold the 2nd Annual U.S.-ASEAN Summit;
- Add Hanoi to the planned June trip to Indonesia and Australia;
- Invite the ASEAN leaders to Hawaii or Washington on their way to or from the UN General Assembly meeting in September.
The pressure is on. The stakes are high. But this movie could and should end with a happy ending.
Ernest Z. Bower is a senior adviser and director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Commentaries are produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2010 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.