The President’s address to West Point graduates was billed as a summary statement of the administration’s foreign policy. From the parochial perspective of this blog’s Northeast Asian interests, the speech was disappointing. On the one hand, it laid out a set of guiding principles for US foreign policy that have our sympathy: restraint with respect to military involvement; greater reliance on diplomacy, including multilateral diplomacy; exploitation of the international institutions that the US had a key role in creating; and standing up for American values, both on ethical and pragmatic grounds. Outside of the last point, however, these are arguments about means rather than ends.
The president subsequently followed up with an interview on NPR with Steve Inskeep. The speech and interview actually have to be read in tandem, because some of the details that were missing—on Russia, on Syria and on China—are filled in.
The speech begins with a distinction that parallels Beijing’s implicit red line between “core” and other interests. The president defined core interests in surprisingly narrow terms and altogether without reference to either geography or material stakes: “when our people are threatened, when our livelihoods are at stake, when the security of our allies is in danger.” Does this even need stating?
The main message of the speech is a bundled rejoinder to critics seeking new or continued military intervention and a more robust force posture, including through increased spending. A cacophony on left and right has raised these issues with respect to Afghanistan, Syria, the Ukraine, the Iranian nuclear program, Libya and on humanitarian grounds from Nigeria to the South Sudan. Just to list these risky projects underscores why the message of restraint is needed; simply imagine if we were to take up all of these challenges at once.
For Asianists, however, the president’s claim that terrorism is the main threat to US interests appears like a throwback. Where in Asia is terrorism the dominant US policy concern? We interpreted the pivot or rebalance to Asia precisely as an effort to get beyond the shock of 9/11. Are we now back to a slimmed down “global war on terror” as our central foreign policy preoccupation? Beyond Asia, what about our enduring interests in Europe, the Middle East and the Western Hemisphere? What about our interest in forging trade and economic relations with Asia, Europe and developing markets? Neither the TPP nor the TTIP received mention in the speech, a missed opportunity to explain to the American public how economics and security are joined at the hip.
The failure to address the relationship with China and the changing security architecture in Asia was the speech’s most glaring omission. At West Point, the president made an important point in passing about the need to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea: that our standing in debates about the South China Sea would be strengthened if we were signatories. This is exactly right, but the recommendation was offered as a case-in-point about the importance of multilateralism rather than as a piece in the larger puzzle of how to create a new order in Asia.
Prior to the NPR interview, more detailed background on the relationship of the speech to the pivot was left to the response to a single question from a reporter at an NSC background brief that we reproduce below (thanks to Chris Nelson). The message again seems focused on process: that the US wants “rules of the road” in Asia, but without a vision of how power in the region will be shared looking forward.
The NPR interview does a much better job of linking the broad principles in the West Point speech to Asian specifics. Inskeep poses exactly the right question: “Does the United States have an interest beyond its specific alliances in preventing China from dominating East Asia and the waters around East Asia, where China’s been making some aggressive moves?”
The President’s response is also on point. He begins and ends by acknowledging that China is going to be “a” dominant power in Asia. But he rightly emphasizes that China’s peaceful rise has benefited from a particular security and economic order in the region. The US and China are going to have conflicting interests on a range of issues, but Beijing should think hard before taking actions that undermine the order from which it has benefited, either by disregarding existing commitments or inadvertently hardening alliance relations through self-defeating military actions. The president sounds closer to Hugh White’s position in China Choice: Why the United States Should Share Power—that power must be shared–but with a somewhat greater emphasis on China’s obligations:
“We believe, I believe, that America benefits when those norms are not only being upheld by us individually but where all countries buy in, where there is a sense that all of us benefit from some basic rules of the road. And China now as a rising power needs to be part of that responsibility of maintaining rules that maintain peace and security for a lot of countries.”
We would be remiss if we failed to note that North Korea did make one small appearance in the speech in a reference to Burma (“…we have seen political reforms opening a once closed society; a movement by Burmese leadership away from partnership with North Korea in favor of engagement with America and our allies.”). That North Korea will go the way of Burma seems highly unlikely. But the case is important to highlight because the shift in stance came from within the regime and the US responded as its principles suggested it should.
I am highly sympathetic with the president’s message of restraint and leadership through diplomacy, multilateralism and cautious use of military force. But I find it implausible that the central focus of American foreign policy should be—or will be–on the terrorist threats in the zone from “South Asia to the Sahel.” Whatever its shortcomings, the rebalance had a larger strategic vision and at least in the NPR interview, the president revisited it.
NSC “background brief”: “senior Administration official” response to question from Jessica Stone of Chinese Central Television
I wanted to just turn to China and ask you, what is the message to China here? I mean, we heard the President talk about the use of military action to defend the security of U.S. allies, which of course includes Japan and the Philippines. But he also called out the U.S. Senate for not ratifying UNCLOS. So what’s the message to China?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL. The message is that the United States is going to support basic international rules of the road that should apply to everyone. And we’ve said many times our Asia rebalance strategy is not aimed at China. It’s focused on strengthening U.S. engagement in the region, but also strengthening the rules of the road across the region — whether it’s on trade through the Trans-Pacific Partnership, whether it’s on maritime security where we would like to see disputes resolved consistent with international law.
So the bottom line is that the United States would like to see China act consistent with those rules of the road. And we believe that they have an opportunity to do so, for instance, through negotiation of a code of conduct with the ASEAN countries or through taking the different claims that are at stake in the South China Sea to international law and dispute resolution. At the same time, though, we are going to be very clear that we object to bigger nations bullying smaller ones; that the United States is going to support those nations that abide by rules of the road and work to isolate those nations that don’t.
So for China we would like to see them as a part of an Asia Pacific community that is adhering to high standards of trade, that is resolving disputes peacefully, consistent with international law, that is respecting basic rules and norms. But if China acts outside of those norms, as they’ve done, for instance, on cyber issues, we’re going to call them out.
From the NPR Interview with Steve Inskeep:
Inskeep. I want to ask about China, Mr. President; East Asia more broadly. You recently visited there. You worked to reassure U.S. allies in the region. It’s understood, of course, the U.S. has specific commitments; for example, to defend Japan —
President Obama: Right.
Inskeep. When Japan attacked. I’d like to know if you have a larger objective in East Asia. Does the United States have an interest beyond its specific alliances in preventing China from dominating East Asia and the waters around East Asia, where China’s been making some aggressive moves?
President Obama. Well, we do not have an interest in stopping China from becoming successful. China is the most populous country on Earth, at some —
Inskeep. But I’m asking their power, not their success.
President Obama. No, I — well, I understand. But at some level, they’re going to be a big dog in that neighborhood, and we welcome China’s peaceful rise. In many ways, it would be a bigger national security problem for us if China started falling apart at the seams. So we — we want the Chinese people to steadily have a higher standard of living; we want China to have increased capacity to participate in international efforts around issues like climate change.
We have a very specific concern when China is not following basic international norms, basic rules of the road, where it does not feel bound by the kind of international practices that have helped to underwrite China’s rise. I mean, part of the reason China’s been successful is there’s been relative peace in Asia, there has been freedom of commerce in Asia, freedom of navigation in Asia. All that facilitates the trade that is creating great wealth inside of China. Well, if in fact that international order has benefited China, then we expect China to help uphold the very rules that have made them successful, not take advantage of them.
And so there are basic principles that big countries don’t just push little countries around by virtue of size. There are mechanisms whereby, through international law, maritime disputes can be resolved. And what we have done then is worked with the countries of the region to say let’s create a code of conduct that — in which, without taking any position on whether this particular rock in the middle of the water belongs to this party or that party, let’s find a systematic, legal way for us to resolve these disputes without resolving to conflict.
And so to — just the bottom line here is China is going to be a dominant power in Asia, not the only one, but by virtue of its size and its wealth, it is going to be a great power in Asia. We respect that. And we’re not interested in containing it because we are in any way intimidated by China; we’re concerned about it because we don’t want to see constant conflicts developing in a vital region of the world that also, you know, we depend on in terms of our economy being successful. You know, those are a lot of markets out there, we sell a lot of goods out there, and, you know, we don’t want to see these conflagrations that can end up impeding, you know, our own interests.
Inskeep. Sounds like you want to avoid tripwire over any particular rock in the ocean, as you said.
President Obama. Well, you know, I think, more than that, what we also want is to be able to strengthen and constantly reinforce international norms because we believe, I believe, that America benefits when those norms are not only being upheld by us individually but where all countries buy in, where there is a sense that all of us benefit from some basic rules of the road. And China now as a rising power needs to be part of that responsibility of maintaining rules that maintain peace and security for a lot of countries.