Daniel W. Drezner

Two (additional) thoughts about Obama’s Asia trip

Two (additional) thoughts about Obama’s Asia trip

I’m late to this party, but two quick thoughts on Obama’s Tokyo speech

1.  Last week a sharp foreign policy observer — and a former campaign advisor for Obama — made an interesing lexicographical observation to me about the Obama administration’s foreign policy rhetoric to date.  They use the word "partnership" a hell of a lot more often than they use the word "alliance."  That’s not terribly surprising, given their emphasis on talking with adversaries, forming great power concerts, etc.  Still, there are times when it’s important to reach out more to one’s allies than one’s rivals. 

The Tokyo speech was one of those occasions, and I’m happy to report that Obama used "alliance" 12 times and "partnership" only 9 times.  Perhaps this says more about the lay of the land in the Pacific Rim than anything else, but it does suggest that the adminstration is sensitive to regional nuances.

2.  That said, I was underwhelmed with the trade outreach of the speech.  Some reports suggest that Obama announced that the U.S. would join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an APEC trade forum comprising, at the moment, of Brunei, Singapore, Chile and New Zealand (with Vietnam and Australia thinking about joining). 

What Obama actually said, however, was:  

The United States will also be engaging with the Trans-Pacific Partnership countries with the goal of shaping a regional agreement that will have broad-based membership and the high standards worthy of a 21st century trade agreement.

So what exactly does that mean?  Helene Cooper points out the ambiguities of that language in the New York Times

Although Mr. Obama did open the door during his speech in Tokyo on Asia policy, he did not explicitly say that the United States would join the pact. A formal announcement that the United States is beginning negotiations would undoubtedly kick off criticism from free-trade opponents in the United States and pushback from Congress.

Mr. Obama spoke, instead, of “engaging the Trans-Pacific Partnership countries with the goal of shaping a regional agreement that will have broad-based membership and the high standards worthy of a 21st century trade agreement.”

That line left many trade envoys already in Singapore scratching their heads: did Mr. Obama mean that the United States would begin formal talks to join the regional trade pact, which presently includes Singapore, Brunei and New Zealand, and could later include Vietnam — an addition that could lead to more Congressional pressure at home?

Many regional officials have been waiting for the United States to join the initiative as a demonstration that Washington will play a more active role in the region. But the Obama administration has yet to establish a firm trade policy, as it is still reviewing its options.

White House officials were not much clearer on what Mr. Obama meant when they were pressed on this after the speech. Michael Froman, an economics expert on the National Security Council, said that what Mr. Obama meant was that he would engage with the initiative “to see if this is something that could prove to be an important platform going further.”

Wow, that’s some real enthusiasm coming from the G-20 sherpa…. not. 

For an administration that likes to pride itself as savvy in the ways of foreign policy subtleties, I still don’t think they grasp the fact that trade policy is now embedded into foreign policy in the Asia/Pacific Region