How Washington Gridlock Undercuts America's Pacific Century

U.S. Capitol Building, Washington, D.C. (Flickr/Katie Harbath)

In a May 14 speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and a subsequent article in The Diplomat, U.S. Senator John McCain described a rare idea that, in an era of division and gridlock, elicits strong bipartisan consensus — that American peace and prosperity in the 21st century depends on cooperation with Asia. And, he argued, the greatest single risk to better relations with Asia is the political climate in Washington, D.C.

As McCain pointed out, to many Asian capitals Washington stasis breeds uncertainty. Can America be counted on in Asia if it can't make necessary decisions about its own economy in a reasoned manner? Can America be counted on in Asia if its government doesn't show a willingness to make hard choices? Some are beginning to doubt.

This trend constitutes a real danger to the position of the United States in Asia. But, as the American economy grows again, the moment of unease on America's economic and fiscal choices may seem less immediate, as a similar moment did through the 1990s.

There is, though, a more fundamental challenge in Washington that won't pass until it is fixed — the United States' tendency to articulate its Asia policy in the negative, to seek to ensure the continuation of the last era rather than to create a new one. McCain framed the top objective of the United States as "above all, the maintenance of a balance of power that fosters the peaceful expansion of human rights, democracy, rule of law and the many other values that we share with increasing numbers of Asian citizens" (emphasis mine). When talking about America's military posture in Asia, the core of the "pivot" or "rebalancing," President Obama in his November speech to the Australian Parliament similarly described his guidance to the Pentagon to be that the United States "maintain" its military presence, "preserve" power projection capabilities, and "keep" its commitments.

To be sure, these are both reasonable plans. But, they will not deepen America's relationship with the world's most dynamic region. In an era of gridlock, Washingtonians too often accept the status quo as progress, even in the rare areas that defy partisan politics.

On this issue of genuine bipartisan consensus, the United States should be setting its vision higher and Washington should be acting to support this vision. Washington should not shore up against some feared erosion of influence, but guarantee its influence by setting and articulating an ambitious, positive 25-year vision for the Asia-Pacific it seeks. In partnership with Asian governments, there is much the United States can achieve, because there are common aspirations around trade, political and economic development, innovation, and even for a strong U.S. role in Asia.

The United States' vision over the next 25 years should be for an Asia that is universally open to American people and trade — and an America that is also open to Asia. It should be for an Asian regionalism that expands over time to incorporate first South Asia and then perhaps others. It should lean further forward in deepening its partnership with China as China evolves. It should make a "big bet" on Burma, using all the tools of American diplomatic and economic power over the years or even decades it will take to ensure the success of that country’s transition, and demonstrating to the entire world the clear benefits of both reform and partnership with the United States. It, with its Asian partners, should invest even more in trade, development and diplomatic solutions rather than to rely disproportionately on military solutions.

In the 21st century, there will be a new balance of power in Asia. In fact, with the growing global influence of China, India, Korea, Indonesia and others, it's already here. Crafting a new, stable balance of power that accepts shifts in relative economic, political and military power, but also weaves into its fabric the values and aspirations described by both Senator McCain and President Obama is something the United States is uniquely equipped to accomplish.

In the administration and congress, in the business community, among human rights advocates, and beyond, there are many committed Americans working each day to build cooperation between the United States and Asia. But truly embracing the opportunities for the United States in today's Asia requires that Washington change as Asia changes. A new vision and vocabulary is a start. But action is also required to open the United States further to visitors and business from Asia, to move more quickly to expand trade, and to support change quickly when change comes.

About the Author

Profile picture for user Matt Stumpf
Matt Stumpf is Asia Society D.C. Office Director and former Special Asst to the USAID Administrator, State Dept nonproliferation expert and MacArthur Foundation Program Officer for Asian Security.