Stephen M. Walt

Brief notes from Southeast Asia

Before I catch up on other developments — like the new “plan” for Afghanistan/Pakistan, the Netanyahu government in Israel, the G20 summit, etc. — I thought I’d pass along a few things I learned during my visit to Singapore last week. Here are a few quick impressions, based on my conversations with a number of ...

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Before I catch up on other developments — like the new “plan” for Afghanistan/Pakistan, the Netanyahu government in Israel, the G20 summit, etc. — I thought I’d pass along a few things I learned during my visit to Singapore last week. Here are a few quick impressions, based on my conversations with a number of academics and senior policymakers there, and by a roundtable discussion with Ashley Tellis, Yuen Foon Khong, Vinod Aggarwal, C. Raja Mohan, and myself (sponsored by the S Rajaratnam School and moderated by its Dean, Barry Desker).

First, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton got full marks for her Asia trip last month. The decision to make Asia her first foreign destination was much appreciated (especially given the short shrift the region had received under Bush), and the people I spoke with were also impressed by how she handled herself along the way. Singaporeans are looking forward to welcoming Obama there for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in November. If the Obama administration is looking to refurbish ties with various Asian allies (and they should), the groundwork has been laid and the effort will be welcome.

Second, nobody in Singapore seemed enthusiastic about America doubling down in Central Asia. There was some grudging acceptance that the United States still had a role to play there, but even the strongest advocates of U.S. involvement in that conflict saw it as a grim necessity rather than an opportunity. Several officials emphasized that it was important that the United States not get bogged down there. Agreed.

Third, one senior official offered a cautionary note about the recent U.S. opening to Iran. While fully supportive of the initiative, he emphasized that Tehran was bound to drive a hard bargain and that negotiations would be prolonged and difficult. Another person with whom I spoke surprised me by suggesting that if Iran’s clerical leadership is interested in dealing with Washington, they will work to ensure the reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, thereby keeping a “bad cop” in the Presidency to enhance their bargaining position. I would have thought the opposite — that it would be easier to engineer a detente between Washington and Tehran if Ahmadinejad were no longer in office — and it will be interesting to see who’s right.

Fourth, virtually everyone I spoke with hoped Obama & Co. would get the U.S. economy moving ASAP, and argued that this was the only way to jump-start the rest of the world. This sentiment is easy to fathom (Singapore’s economy is heavily dependent on world trade and is projected to shrink by 5-10 percent this year), but I found myself wondering if it is either realistic or healthy of other countries to expect so much from Uncle Sam. The days where the United States could singlehandedly serve as the engine of the world economy are probably behind us, and prospects for a coordinated global response seem increasingly bleak. Although everyone supposedly understands that “beggar thy neighbor” policies made the Great Depression worse, the global response to the crisis has been “every state for itself” and signs of protectionism are beginning to re-emerge. The draft G20 communique reportedly takes a firm stand against this trend, but it is going to take principled and courageous leadership to resist these pressures. All in all, a good test to see if we’ve learned anything from the 1930s. 

ROSLAN RAHMAN/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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