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Eastern Promises

Author: Fred Kaplan
April 23, 2014


As the great philosopher John Lennon once wrote (in his case, all too presciently), "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." Barack Obama has long been making plans to "pivot" American foreign policy away from the stagnant or dormant battles of the Middle East and Europe, toward the vibrant opportunities in Asia-Pacific—but the cluster of Old World struggles (or, as Lennon put it, "life") keeps pulling him back in.

Obama's desire for a pivot (or "rebalance," as the White House renamed it after panicked complaints from Middle Eastern and European allies) is no mere slogan. He is, after all, a product of the Pacific, only the second president (after Richard Nixon) to be born in California or points west; in his case, of course, Hawaii, with much of his childhood spent in Indonesia—that is, in Asia. Whatever the cause of his interest, former aides say that, as far back as the transition between the 2008 election and his inauguration as president, Obama talked up the importance of Asia. It is significant, they add, that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's first overseas trip was a four-country jaunt to Asia (Japan, South Korea, China, and Indonesia) and that Obama's first state dinner at the White House hosted the prime minister of India. He meant the trip and the dinner to signal a shift in America's priorities.

And so, this week, Obama finally embarked on his own four-country trip to Asia, focused on the main U.S. allies in the region—Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines. He last planned a trip in October 2013, but he had to cancel it in order to deal with the Republican-led government shutdown. That had promised to be an important trip. The occasion was the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. Obama sent Secretary of State John Kerry to take his place, but the Japanese in particular—who tend to view international politics in unusually personal terms—took Obama's absence as a snub, and China's president, Xi Jinping, dominated the event.

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