In 2013, Washington's Asian 'Rebalance' Needs to Start at Home

U.S. President Barack Obama poses for the ASEAN-United States Leaders' Meeting family photo at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, November 19, 2012. (State Department/William Ng/Flickr)

Unless you're Abraham Lincoln, it is hard to make your second inaugural address more memorable and consequential than your first. Franklin Roosevelt's 1937 second inaugural address is celebrated for sustaining the American people through the Great Depression, but he had set the bar at "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself" in his first address. Only "with malice toward none, with charity toward all" could move us more deeply than "the better angels of our nature."

On January 21, after a presidential election won more on get-out-the-vote successes than policy ideas, after the end of one war and the announced end of another, and with the gradual lessening of economic uncertainty for many Americans, President Barack Obama has an opportunity to speak not, as he did in 2009, of a time of crisis, but of a renewed sense of opportunity. In international affairs, many of these opportunities are in Asia.

In Washington, it is clear that policy-makers have committed fully to Asia. In both political parties, they are not deciding "whether" to engage Asia, but rather defining "how."

Still, the policies of America's Pacific century, with all their complexity, demand a clarifying vision. Do we seek to be partners with all, to contain some, or to hedge with tools of cooperation and competition?

The economic opportunities in Asia are well understood — in 2011, according to the Department of Commerce, the United States exported $900 billion in goods to the Asia-Pacific, more than 60 percent of its global total. This is also a 15 percent increase from 2010. Yet, while economic partnership blossoms, persistent political and security challenges threaten the gains.

Over the past weeks alone, Americans have sought to understand the complexities of a transition in China, elections in South Korea and Japan, security concerns in the South China Sea, and U.S. troops in South Asia.

As U.S. officials navigate these difficult challenges, all Americans must understand that the stakes are high in Asia for American peace and prosperity. This, in turn, requires that our leaders educate the public about the assumptions on which they are already working, through successive administrations — that engagement in Asia is both crucial and irreversible.

While setting a broad vision, it's important to take concrete steps forward. First, the Obama administration in its first term built well on the success of the Bush administration in deepening partnership with India, strengthening Asian regional organizations and fostering the U.S. alliance with South Korea with its own higher-level engagement, a new rhetorical elevation of Asia's place in U.S. foreign policy, diplomatic success in Myanmar, and real progress on the defense elements of the "rebalancing" of U.S. policy toward Asia. The second Obama administration must further build on these legacies by elevating the trade elements of its rebalancing. Unless the United States succeeds in building the domestic and international consensus necessary to expand its free-trade agreements in Asia, it will be left behind by a proliferation of free-trade agreements by other Asian nations.

Second, over the next four years, the administration must make Asia a priority even when it's difficult. Crises in the Middle East and the pressure of promised budget cuts can easily undermine the rebalancing effort. If this is indeed to be "America's Pacific century," we must persist in our investment of time and resources in Asia.

Finally, a true rebalancing toward Asia is going to require more domestic political courage in the United States and more public education. It is now easy in a debate on Asia to give half the story — about Asian nations' differences on politics and trade, and the many dangerous security dilemmas and historic antagonisms. It's an important half, but still only half.

U.S. leaders — and NGOs like Asia Society — haven't done our job until we build a broad-based community of Americans who recognize the opportunities for the United States in Asia and are committed to overcoming the challenges, in all their complexity. There is no better way for this work to start than with a historic mention of America's Pacific future on January 21.

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.