The Magazine

Obama Blunders Through Asia

Undoing Bush's years of deft diplomacy.

Nov 30, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 11 • By ROSS TERRILL
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Much dire rhetoric has been unleashed in liberal quarters about the damage done by George W. Bush's foreign policy. The alleged damage, however, is not evident in Asia. When Ken Lieberthal, a respected China specialist and Democratic loyalist, spoke at Harvard early this year, I asked him to name a single year in memory when Washington had as good relations with India, Japan, and China as under Bush. He changed the subject.

The White House stated as Obama left Asia for home last week: "Overall, American leadership was absent from this region for the last several years.'' Nonsense. Bush left office with U.S. relations with Asia's big four--China, India, Japan, and Indonesia--taken together, better than ever in history.

Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh many times remarked that President Bush was popular in India, and so was the United States. U.S.-Japan relations were excellent under Bush, in partnership with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and two successors. Nor were U.S. relations with Australia ever as good as in the years when Bush presided in Washington and John Howard in Canberra. In Southeast Asia after 9/11 the U.S. position improved sharply with Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand. And Bush drew Vietnam and, after 2007, South Korea, under its new president Lee Myung Bak, closer to the United States.

As for China, in his second Inaugural Address and his oration at Kyoto en route to Beijing in 2005, Bush treated the Chinese with respect but also as laggards in world-historical terms. "Free nations are peaceful nations," he said in Japan. "Free nations do not threaten their neighbors, and free nations offer their citizens a hopeful vision for the future."

Speaking hours before he was to reach Beijing, Bush was more explicit, yet still positive: "We encourage China to continue down the road of reform and openness, because the freer China is at home, the greater the welcome it will receive abroad.     As China reforms its economy, its leaders are finding that once the door to freedom is opened even a crack, it cannot be closed."

The irony is large. "Cowboy" Bush pulled off the feat of speaking boldly to Beijing about American values while also achieving a productive relationship with China. He secured solid support from Japan over Iraq, Afghanistan, and other issues without bowing down before the emperor.

Visiting China twice a year during the Bush administration, I watched the business sections of big-city bookshops grow. Typically, they offered Chinese translations of U.S. business titles, memoirs of successful American businessmen, and Chinese works applying U.S. entrepreneurial ways to local conditions. Never did I see any work by Al Franken, Michael Moore, or Garrison Keillor on offer in Chinese. Grassroots China was palpably pro-America and pro-Bush.

One hopes that continues, but it won't occur through apologies, embarrassment over U.S. power, and chatter about moral equivalence. In Shanghai on November 16 in front of hundreds of Chinese students, Obama touched on freedom only to say it is a challenge facing both the United States and China!

Obama's one-man "change" seems to have little bearing on our actual Asian relationships. The other day, the president encouraged North Korea to "rejoin the international community." When did it join? His claim to be "America's first Pacific president" overlooked Kennedy's and Bush père's service in the Pacific during World War II and Hoover's years as an engineer in Australia and China.

Viewed historically, the position of the United States in East Asia is favorable because of the sustained deployment of American power, the triumph of the American values of democracy and free markets, and the attractiveness of American popular culture. For most of the twentieth century, the United States had some difficulty in maintaining decent relations with Japan and China simultaneously. Since the 1970s, however, with the Vietnam war behind us, a stable balance between Japan and China has been secured by the superior strength of the United States and an equilibrium created by American leadership.

The U.S. military is still the linchpin of deterrence, keeping the peace in Korea, the Taiwan Strait, and elsewhere, as it has for half a century. But Obama is backing away from American leadership and proposing to reduce U.S. military strength in the hope that nasty regimes may do the same.