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Terms of Engagement

A New ‘New Beginning’

What Barack Obama should tell the world in his Asia speech.


President Barack Obama has begun his 10-day trip to India, South Korea, Indonesia, and Japan, leaving Tuesday’s electoral wreckage behind him. In Indonesia, where he spent four years of his boyhood, Obama is scheduled to deliver a major speech on Islam and modernity; aides have been describing the address as a sequel to the speech he gave in Cairo in June 2009, in which he famously pledged a “new beginning” to the United States’ relationship with the Muslim world. But the Muslim world already knows what he thinks. It’s the people of Asia, Muslim and otherwise, to whom Obama needs to present himself, or re-present himself. With that in mind, I have written a speech for him, which I offer here. I will not be offended if he borrows portions of it without attribution.

Hello, Jakarta! It’s good to be in a town where they’d vote for me if they had the chance… Yes, I love you, too. Foreign countries are great.

What I really mean is that it’s wonderful to be in the future. Almost a decade ago, my country was invaded by the past. Terrorists obsessed with the injustice of the Crusades launched an attack on the West — on modernity, as they understood it — from the sanctuary of a medieval state. We responded, both in ways we had to and in ways we didn’t. The effect was to drag us into ancient quarrels and violent hatreds. These were battles we couldn’t win. One of the first things I did after taking office was to declare a “new beginning” between America and the Middle East. I admit we haven’t made much headway on that. I thought the problem had to do with the way America comported itself. In fact, the problem was the Middle East: Whether it’s the theocrats in Iran or the settlers in Israel or the Wahhabi rulers in Saudi Arabia, everyone’s looking backwards. And we can’t make them face the future if they don’t want to.

Americans are afraid of the Middle East, and we’re hoping that if we can nurture democracy and development there, people won’t come and kill us. We’re not afraid of Asia. The United Nations just reported that the countries of East Asia and the Pacific have doubled their scores on the Human Development Index over the last 40 years — by far the world’s most rapid rate of growth. Today, five countries from the region are ranked in the “very high” category of human development: Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Brunei. The only Arab countries to make it into that category are oil states. The Middle East is struggling to escape the past; Asia is already living in the future.

The rest of the world has a lot to learn from Asia. You’ve been at peace for 35 years, and you’ve used that long era of stability to develop your markets, to make prudent national investments, to make great strides in human capital. My own country is so convulsed with fear, and with fights over alleged “first principles” — limited government versus “socialism,” authenticity versus elitism — that we can’t even think collectively about the future. Some people — Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew, to be exact — say that Asian countries have avoided many of these futile struggles thanks to “Asian values.” But if that means subordinating individual to collective rights, then I don’t believe it. The model of authoritarian capitalism — the model of China and Singapore — has not proved contagious. Indonesia has become the world’s third biggest democracy and a force for stability and prosperity in Southeast Asia. And India has proved that even the most freewheeling democracy in the world can harness national energies to produce rapid economic growth.

Still, hundreds of millions of Asians live in dire poverty. Asia needs the United States as much as the United States needs Asia. You need us to provide security and stability, as we have for the last 65 years; to serve as a market to buy your goods; and to preserve the rules of a liberal economic and political order. We need Asia to continue demonstrating that democracy and equitable development are compatible; to propel worldwide economic growth; and, increasingly, to help us and other Western states shape that liberal global order. Let me take these issues one at a time.

In recent years, the United States has talked too much about security, and above all about terrorism. We will continue working on counterterrorism issues, especially with Indonesia and the Philippines. But we know that many of you feel threatened by a force much closer to home: China’s aggressive territorial claims. Chinese leaders are in a bellicose mood, as if they’ve outgrown the “peaceful rise.” They seem to regard the South China Sea as an inland lake. And we’re only too happy to benefit from your fears. We are, after all, the benevolent hegemon — or maybe ex-hegemon.

At the same time, no one wants a confrontation with China. Your economies grow more dependent on China every day, as does ours. So you need to know that we will deepen our ties with Asia, through both bilateral and multinational arrangements; that we will remind China of the need to peacefully resolve disputes, but will do so in a calm way which will not trigger Chinese nationalism and paranoia; and that we will not allow China to decide where the United States will conduct naval exercises with our Asian allies.

But I know that what you need from the United States above all is a sound American economy. I wish I could trade the U.S. Congress for some Asian technocrats: The Democrats oppose free trade, and the Republicans oppose fiscal logic. But I’m going to do what I can with what I’ve got. I’m going to conclude the planned free-trade agreement with South Korea, and then I’m going to challenge the Republicans to prove that they really believe in free trade — even at a time when Americans are worrying about competition from abroad. I’m going to move on to the next round of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which will lead to free-trade agreements among Pacific Rim nations. This will require that both we, and you, lower tariffs — and risk the political costs of doing so.

And yes, America will get its own economic house in order. We will have to rein in entitlement and defense spending, and put an end to the suicidal pandering of endless tax cuts. But as any of you watching our election results know, we’re not going to do it any time soon. Sorry.

Leading Asian states aspire to play a larger role in global affairs — as do emerging powers elsewhere in the globe. The United States welcomes this ambition, as our deepening engagement with the G-20 demonstrates. We have stated our support for Japan’s candidacy for the U.N. Security Council. Today, I declare our support for India’s candidacy as well. India will soon begin a two-year term on the council; this will give the country the opportunity to show that it sees itself as a responsible stakeholder of the global system. In case I’m being too oblique, blocking council action against malefactors and human rights abusers on the grounds of state sovereignty is a poor way of making your case. It’s hard enough dealing with China as a permanent member. Don’t make things worse.

Finally, you will surely have been struck by the fact that I haven’t said a word about myself — not my childhood years here in Indonesia, or even that my middle name is “Hussein.” The middle name thing, you may have heard, no longer goes over so well at home. But I’ve also learned something important over the last two years: Biography is not policy. Empathy, respect, even deference — they’re all to the good. But the Palestinians tell me that that if you use a new tone of voice to articulate a familiar policy, it winds up sounding like hypocrisy. And they’re not the only ones. Anyway, all that emblematic stuff is for the Middle East. You guys care about substance. Maybe that’s what Asian values are all about.

The author would like to thank Evan Feigenbaum of the Eurasia Group, Charles Freeman and Ernest Bower of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Ashley Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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