U.S. Influence at Risk in Asia Without More Active Role in Regional Organizations, Warns CFR Report

November 4, 2009

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With President Obama in Asia this month to participate in summits with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), as well as bilateral meetings in Tokyo, Beijing, and Seoul, a new Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) Special Report urges the administration to play a more strategic role in the changing landscape of Asian multilateral organizations.

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The report’s authors, CFR Senior Fellow for East, Central, and South Asia Evan A. Feigenbaum and Senior Adviser to the Atlantic Council Robert A. Manning, write that as Asia’s economic and political power have grown, its leaders have sought to build a multilateral framework to channel its expanding influence. While Feigenbaum and Manning criticize the results of these efforts as "centered on process, not function or measurable results," they maintain that, for more than a decade, "the United States has mostly watched from the sidelines as ... the region organizes itself into an alphabet soup of new multilateral groups." The report warns this inaction may marginalize the United States in Asia over time, as some of these institutions "have become the locus of economic and financial trends that will increasingly disadvantage U.S. firms and work against U.S. objectives."

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The report, The United States in the New Asia, contends that "the greatest challenge to multilateral cooperation will lie in Northeast Asia," but hails the Six Party Talks on North Korea’s nuclear program as a "pathbreaking exercise" that demonstrates that the United States, China, Japan, South Korea, and Russia "can work well together in a variety of ways, even if the sixth party ultimately prevented their earlier efforts from succeeding." Feigenbaum and Manning advocate the creation of a five-party mechanism "that would bring additional capacity and resources to the table on a host of vital economic and transnational issues that have little to do with North Korea," such as oil and gas pipeline strategies, regional economic cooperation, environmental challenges, and civil nuclear safety.

On Southeast Asia, the authors argue that "ASEAN will remain at the core of Asia’s large, formal multilateral institutions" but caution that the United States should not rely solely on ASEAN, and should increase bilateral engagement, especially with Indonesia and Vietnam.

The report, published by CFR’s International Institutions and Global Governance program, calls on Washington to demonstrate that "a redefined U.S. role will be important if a coherent and purposeful architecture for twenty-first century Asia is to emerge" and outlines six principles the United States should follow to secure its interests in the region:

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1.       "Show up." The United States must maintain a strong presence at Asian meetings.

2.       "Avoid core security issues and focus instead on what is practical." The report recommends concentrating on topics ripe for cooperation, rather than intractable security questions.

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3.       "Do not limit U.S. thinking to the formal groups." Since the end of the Cold War, the most successful multilateral groups have been ad hoc, "mobilizing specific coalitions to address specific issues, imminent problems, and immediate crises," such as the Tsunami Core Group and the response to avian influenza.

4.       "Acknowledge that even as Asian powers assume global responsibilities, they will remain attracted to many aspects of regionalism." To combat arrangements that disadvantage U.S. firms, the United States needs to "take intra-Asian trade liberalization efforts more seriously ... [and] to conclude the Doha round so that multilateral liberalization can erase such intraregional trade preferences."

5.       "Do not balk at every pan-Asian institution that excludes the United States. ... As a Pacific, but not ‘Asian’ power, the United States needs to base its efforts on a hardheaded assessment of what tables it needs to sit at and where it can afford to step aside." Inevitably, some regional institutions will exclude the United States. In response to arrangements involving U.S. allies, such as Canberra, Seoul, and Tokyo, Washington should consult its partners to encourage coordination.

6.       "Start leading." The United States will need to offer a credible alternative vision to streamline regional institutions, such as supporting the proposal to merge APEC, which includes the United States, with the East Asia Summit, which does not.

For the full text of the report, visit: www.cfr.org/new_asia/

Evan A. Feigenbaum is senior fellow for East, Central, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. An academic with a PhD in Chinese politics, his work in both government and the private sector has spanned all three major regions of Asia.  From 2001-2009, he served at the U.S. Department of State in various capacities, including deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia, deputy assistant secretary of state for Central Asia, member of the policy planning staff with principal responsibility for East Asia and the Pacific, and as an adviser on China to Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick.

Robert A. Manning is a senior adviser to the Atlantic Council. Manning served at the U.S. Department of State from 2001 to 2008, on the policy planning staff and as senior counselor for energy, technology, and science policy, advising on such issues as North Korea and Iran nuclear issues. From 1997 to 2001, Manning was director of Asia studies and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he directed Independent Task Forces on Korea and Southeast Asia. His publications include The Asian Energy Factor; the CFR report China, Nuclear Weapons, and Arms Control; essays on nuclear weapons; numerous journal articles on international energy and Asian security issues; and book chapters in edited volumes on China, Korea, Japan, energy, and energy security.

Council Special Reports (CSRs) are concise policy briefs that provide timely responses to developing crises or contribute to debates on current policy dilemmas. CSRs are written by individual authors in consultation with an advisory committee. The content of the reports is the sole responsibility of the authors.

The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) is an independent, nonpartisan membership organization, think tank, and publisher dedicated to being a resource for its members, government officials, business executives, journalists, educators and students, civic and religious leaders, and other interested citizens in order to help them better understand the world and the foreign policy choices facing the United States and other countries.

The International Institutions and Global Governance (IIGG) program at CFR is supported by a generous grant from the Robina Foundation. It aims to identify the institutional requirements for effective multilateral cooperation in the twenty-first century.



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