A Post-American Leader

President Obama bows as he shakes hands with Japanese Emperor Akihito and as Empress Michicko looks on at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, on November 14, 2009. The bow has sparked controversy in the US where some argue that no sitting president should bow to another head of state. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

By Simon Tay

Originally posted on TODAYonline.com, November 28, 2009

American President Barack Obama returned from his eight-day journey to Asia not only to pressing issues like health care reform and Afghanistan. Even worse than jetlag, there has been a growing chorus of criticism in the American media about what he did and did not do in Asia.

He did not bring home deliverable agreements. He was soft on China and let the leaders of Beijing dismiss him as the Soviets once dissed the young JFK. Obama even kowtowed to the Japanese emperor. These are some choice criticisms.

A lot of this comes from Republicans. But the criticisms echo wider questions as US jobless numbers continue to go up. In late November, the President’s approval ratings fell below 50 per cent for the first time.

Yet if Americans were really to look at what Asians thought of Obama’s visit, the judgment would be quite different.

Diplomacy in Asia begins with showing up and building relationships. If Obama had pushed for “deliverables” on this first trip, many would have been surprised.
They want freer trade but understand constituencies in America for global trade are weak.

So when the Obama administration committed to engaging with the Trans Pacific Partnership, this made headlines in Singapore. When Obama said in Seoul that he would push for the free trade agreement with South Korea to pass Congress, this was positive. Things have been put into motion for economic interdependence, given an extra push along.  That’s not too bad at all, given circumstances.

Dealing with the Chinese was never going to be easy. Now their economy continues to grow while the USA is mired in problems, the relationship is even more complex. Some Americans want China to cooperate on climate change and other global issues, and even suggest a G-2 for the two to direct the world. Others see China not just rising but arisen and challenging the USA head to head.

Amidst that minefield of opinion, Obama did enough on each side. Positive steps on climate change were made and can be developed further when both sides shortly meet with others at the international Copenhagen meeting. Freedom, always on the agenda for Americans, was pushed for the internet. This is a subtle but telling cause given the strength of Chinese netizens. 

At the US-ASEAN Summit, Obama also pushed for free and fair elections in Myanmar next year. Having opened dialog with the generals, he avoided the trap of being photographed too close or seem chummy with them.

What about that bow in Tokyo? “Kowtowing” in American parlance is a loaded term that suggests subservience. But from a multicultural perspective, it is simply good manners to acknowledge local customs. Some Americans get this, but others still don’t take off shoes when visiting an Asian home and think sushi tastes better cooked.

Was there adulation for Obama in Asia? Maybe not to the degree that Europeans showed when he first visited that continent. But when Obama cancelled his speech at the APEC CEO Summit in Singapore, even business leaders I met half-in-jest asked for a refund.  In China, T-shirts with ‘Oba-Mao’ have been among the hottest items in Beijing until banned during his visit.

Beijing officials say they were anxious not to offend. The image would be fodder for right wing Americans who regard the President as ‘socialist’ for his health care initiative. But it could also be that Chinese leaders did not want Obama fever to attach to the charisma of their founder. Whatever the reason, even after the ban, people kept asking for the T shirts.

Obama came to Asia as the first non-White leader of the USA. He promised to be multilateral, to listen as well as speak, and be engaged in dialog and has delivered on those promises. This is what many Asians want from America, a subtle but still strong leader.

Some Americans recognize the need to change the style and pursue substance in measured ways. Others however reminisce about being a cowboy and self-appointed sheriff to thump the table and boss others around.

With regional economies leading the recovery, Asians are getting ready for an American president to provide a multilateral and multicultural leadership in a post-American world. But are Americans?

Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and, for 2009, Bernard Schwartz Fellow at the Asia Society in New York.