Whither the Asian pivot?

Whither the Asian pivot?

Mike Green’s interesting post on the visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe illustrates an important but oft-ignored principle of foreign policy: It takes two to tango. Too often, analysts focus on just one of the players, usually the president, and score the resulting foreign policy for good or ill based solely on that perspective. But as U.S.-Japan relations dramatize, the same president can have greater or lesser success pursuing much the same lines of policy with the same country depending on who is the counterpart. The Bush administration had fraught relations with France and Germany under Chirac and Schroeder respectively and most of the mainstream U.S. media laid the blame at President George W. Bush’s feet. Yet the same Bush had excellent and cooperative relations with France and Germany under Sarkozy and Merkel. Likewise, Bush had excellent relations with Japan under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and for a while looked set to reprise that with Abe. Relations with Japan have suffered during Obama’s tenure, but this is as much due to the problems inside Japan as to specific failings of the Obama administration. 

Now, with Abe back in power, Green makes a compelling case that there is an opportunity for the Obama Administration to regain lost ground. Abe’s "Japan is Back" speech was an ironic double-joke that was not lost on insiders. First, it was an obvious homage to Green’s own "Japan is Back" article in Foreign Affairs, which analyzed Abe’s foreign policy the last time Abe was in power.  Second, it was a gesture to the oft-repeated boast by Obama administration officials that the United States was "back in Asia." Of course, Abe and his team knew what team Obama has been reluctant to admit: The United States never left Asia, and Obama inherited a strong Asia strategy with bipartisan support and significant momentum behind it and and upon which, after some stumbles, they have managed to build with new initiatives.

But perhaps Abe and his team are worried by what they might consider drift in Obama’s Asia strategy. The much-ballyhooed Asia pivot has been looking more and more like an Asian pirouette of late. Secretary of State John Kerry has bent over backwards to underscore the differences between him and his predecessor, and the easiest contrast to draw thus far has been his prioritization of Europe and the Middle East over Asia. The top Asia hands have left government, and the departure of Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell in particular deprives the administration of someone whose stature in the region could compensate for the unintended side-effects of a perception that Kerry is preoccupied with other regions. Campbell spoke to my program at Duke last week and argued persuasively that the Obama administration should redouble its efforts in Asia in the second term and somewhat less persuasively that they will

In Abe, the Obama Administration has a promising Asian partner. Will they hear the music and dance?