Global Dialogues

President Obama Goes to Asia: The View of a Pole in Oxford

He was meant not to come and he didn’t. Barack Obama decided to make Burma, Cambodia and Thailand his first foreign destinations after his re-election, revealing U.S. foreign policy priorities in the next four years. The American president plainly doesn’t have time for Europe now. It’s not a surprise, but it does require serious European deliberation and critical self reflections.

Historic Visit

Of special significance is above all Obama’s trip to Myanmar – a country under military rule since 1960’s, which until recently invariably occupied the very far end of every possible civil liberties ranking. Myanmar’s position began to change rapidly in 2010 when the new president, Thein Sein, for reasons not entirely clear, initiated democratic reforms and freed thousands of political prisoners, including the most famous regime victim, Aung San Suu Kyi, put under house arrest in 1989 and kept in custody virtually ever since. Suu Kyi was not only allowed to go on a triumphant international tour – in Oslo she finally received the Nobel Peace Prize awarded in… 1991 – but also to run in parliamentary by-elections. In April 2012 her National Democratic League won 43 of 45 seats under contention, thus becoming the largest opposition party. Only a few months after the reforms started, non-governmental organizations and independent media began to operate in a country not so long ago deemed as an “outpost of tyranny”.

And though democratic transformation in Myanmar proceeds quickly, there are still significant problems. Millions of its citizens live in extreme poverty. Hundreds of political prisoners remain in jail. The northern part of the country is being devastated by a civil war against one of many separatist groups. A military coup is an ever-present possibility, and the authenticity of president’s commitment to democracy is still difficult to assess. For these and many other reasons democratic changes in this former British colony may collapse at any time.

That despite all these uncertainties Barack Obama decided to visit Myanmar – becoming the first U.S. president in office to do so – is clear evidence of a fundamental change in American foreign policy, all the more so, because straight from Myanmar Obama flew to Thailand and then Cambodia, taking part in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit. And all this at a time when American ally, Israel, was engaged in a major military operation in Gaza, when Syria has been engulfed in a civil war for almost two years, and when Afghanistan still claims American lives on a daily basis.

Heading East… that is West

Reorientation in American foreign policy – the “Asian pivot,” as it is referred to by the White House officials – aims to strengthen U.S. presence in the Southeast Asia, turning attention away from its current involvement in the Middle East and Afghanistan, where Americans bogged down more than a decade ago. President’s visit is also a clear signal to China. Increasingly expansive foreign policy and Beijing’s massive economic influence in the region has aggravated its relations with neighboring countries, leading to serious territorial disputes with Japan on the one hand, and the Philippines and Vietnam on the other. In response to growing pressure from China, the United States already in June conducted trilateral naval exercises with Japan and South Korea in the ocean waters south of the Korean peninsula. Now, a few months later, in a speech delivered in Myanmar, President Obama left no doubts as to where Washington will concentrate its diplomatic efforts in the nearest future:

“The United States of America is a Pacific nation. We see our future as bound to those nations and peoples to our West,” he said in Rangoon.  “As our economy recovers, this is where we believe we will find tremendous growth. As we end the wars that have dominated our foreign policy for a decade, this region will be a focus of our efforts to build a prosperous peace.”

Obviously Obama’s hands are not entirely free in this matter. He cannot bring peace to Afghanistan and Iraq by decree; he will not solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nor abandon American commitment to Israel; it’s beyond his powers to singlehandedly democratize Iran or foster an overnight regime change in Syria – in short, he cannot entirely give up on American involvement in the Middle East. Even the leader of the most powerful country in the world has limited room for maneuver, as he must take into account a complex interplay of geopolitical interests and honor previously taken commitments. Still, the same leader may put different emphasis on different aspects of foreign policy and make decisions that will gradually change, if not the global balance of power, then at least the focal point of global diplomacy. For many years after the Second World War the center of the world lied in Europe, later on attention moved to the Middle East. Today it is shifting again to the South-East Asia.

Does Anybody Need London?

And what role in this new order will the Old Continent play? If domestic and foreign policies of the European Union do not change dramatically, probably a marginal one. Incurable Euro-optimists may keep on hailing the Union as the largest and one of the most competitive economies in the world, but even they admit its actual importance on the global stage is disproportionately small. Obama’s visit to Asia and the latest Israeli-Palestinian conflict have once again confirmed what everybody knows but does not dare to say aloud. Alarmed by the events in the Gaza Strip, President Obama and Secretary Clinton called the leaders of several countries with the greatest influence in the region: Egypt, Turkey, France and Qatar. The idea to dial the number “to Europe,” in this case to Catherine Ashton, was not even mentioned.

European countries are rapidly losing their status of valuable partners to the United States, though some governments, especially that in London, do all in their powers to ignore this fact. On the day of Obama’s reelection, British Prime Minister David Cameron in a short interview aired by BBC congratulated the winner and expressed his hope for a close cooperation primarily in two areas: pulling the global economy out of the crisis, and helping to end the conflict in Syria. No profound geopolitical insight is needed to notice that in neither of these projects can the United Kingdom on its own may be of much assistance to the American president. Nevertheless, the bulk of British political class still seems to believe that UK’s foreign policy should be based on an Anglo-American “special relationship,” with London acting as a mediator in the dealings between America and Europe. The problem is that today Washington not only doesn’t need a middleman in its relations with the Continent – yet another side would make them even more difficult. And in fact, it’s need for the Continent itself is diminishing.

A true Euro-American partnership is possible only if the European Union acts as a whole. Many European politicians – including, I’m glad to admit, Poland’s foreign minister – are aware of this fact. Britain, probably because of its imperial past and relatively recent loss of a global superpower status, still has difficulty coming to terms with the new reality. London’s cognitive difficulties, however, seem to render Brussels increasingly impatient. They also further marginalize Europe on the international scene. Obama’s Asian trip and the way Israeli-Palestinian conflict was dealt are proofs. Hope lies with an embolden European Community to take a firmer stance towards Britain and demand a clear statement as to its future in the European club. Should this not happen, it will be another reason for presidential trips to the Old Continent to become even less frequent.