When Asian Leaders Look at Obama, They See Ukraine and Syria

When Asian Leaders Look at Obama, They See Ukraine and Syria

President Barack Obama embarks for his Asia trip during an inauspicious season for American diplomacy. Across the board America’s bilateral relations with the great powers are at their lowest points since Obama took office in 2009. Our European allies find us unpersuasive, our Asian allies find us unreliable, and Russia and China find us irresolute and inconsistent.

Russia’s ongoing aggression in Ukraine has also thrown into sharp relief America’s diminished standing in the eyes of our European allies. Not only has Germany resisted our pleas for more effective sanctions, it turns out German firms may have played an instrumental role in training and equipping the Russian special forces now infiltrating Ukraine. France, suffering from a depressed economy and weak leader in President François Hollande, brazenly moves forward with plans to sell two helicopter carriers to Russia. The U.S.-British relationship is moribund, as the United Kingdom focuses on internal complications such as Scottish secessionism while finding the Obama administration an uncertain partner in addressing European challenges.

More than five years into the Obama presidency, the White House now seems to be shedding its illusions and realizing that Russian President Vladimir Putin is not a reliable partner to the United States. Senior administration officials proudly advertised their new thinking in Peter Baker’s typically well-sourced analysis in Sunday’s New York Times. Some of this is to be welcomed. Just as it took the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 to disabuse President Jimmy Carter of his illusory optimism about the Soviet Union, it seems to have taken Putin’s aggression against Ukraine to disabuse Obama of mistaken hopes about today’s Russia.

One hopes that the Obama administration’s newfound realism about Putin will extend to the humility to reassess its other flawed strategic assumptions. It is not as if Putin’s imperial revanchism is new, or could not have been anticipated. Five years ago I wrote this Shadow post on "The Sources of Russian Conduct," which revisited George Kennan’s original essay and pointed out some continuing parallels in Russian behavior that the White House, unfortunately, chose to disregard.

Timothy Snyder of Yale, one of the foremost scholars on the tragic history of Ukraine, offers some rich historical context here on the centuries-old Ukrainian identity and the long suffering of the Ukrainian people. Snyder also provides a bracing, indeed chilling, perspective on Putin in the context of Soviet imperialism. While Snyder astutely resists making glib policy recommendations, the clear implication of this history is that the West should not be suckered into giving any credence to Putin’s revisionist claims. This is not to say that a new "containment" policy towards Russia is warranted. Russia today is much weaker, less ambitious, and less dangerous than the Soviet Union. Rather a new strategy is needed that neither replicates the Cold War nor revisits the illusions of the "re-set."

This week as the White House looks toward Asia, many leaders in Asia are looking nervously west toward Ukraine and the Middle East. American expressions of resolve and "rebalance" to Asia appear hollow to Asian leaders in light of two uncomfortable facts: the anemic resources the United States is devoting to the "rebalance," and America’s uncertain policies in western Eurasia. To take just one example, on a recent trip to Japan I heard concerns from multiple Japanese leaders and scholars that American passivity on Syria and Ukraine had damaged American credibility in Asia. It bears remembering that North Korea possesses possibly the world’s largest stock of chemical weapons, so not only did our failure to enforce the "red line" on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons needlessly enhance Russia’s prestige — it also did serious damage to the confidence that Tokyo and Seoul have in American security guarantees. And as Dan Twining describes below, Asia is a region with multiple territorial disputes (most with China as a common denominator). The predations suffered by Ukraine have diminished Asian confidence in a rules-based international order and in the credibility of the United States to act as a great power in enforcing that order. Meanwhile, as India prepares to elect a new government, the burgeoning U.S.-India strategic partnership has lost considerable momentum. Some of this is due to India’s own internal dysfunction and economic stagnation, but on America’s part clumsy diplomacy and uncertainty in Afghanistan have not helped.

Behind these bilateral diplomatic failings is a general strategic problem: The premise of the Asia pivot assumes that one region of the world can be hermetically sealed off from other regions. Yes, the United States should be devoting more diplomatic, economic, and military resources and attention to Asia, but not while simultaneously neglecting other strategic regions. Asian leaders welcome an increased American posture in their region — but they also observe carefully what the United States does or does not do in the Middle East and western Eurasia, and calculate accordingly.