By Ian Bremmer
Ever since the government shutdown began, various federal departments have been forced to furlough nonessential personnel. The specter of the United States’ first default in history has become a bargaining chip for American politicians. That has rankled the international community, and it only compounds the backlash we’ve seen recently in response to Obama’s flip-flopping on a Syria strike and the NSA surveillance revelations. It’s clear that international consternation is not enough of an incentive for the United States to change its behavior. As I wrote recently in this column, foreign policy simply isn’t a priority for the Obama administration.
Buffeted by the shutdown crisis and leery of the coming debt ceiling fight, Barack Obama canceled his trip to Asia last week, where he would have attended the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference. Obama sent John Kerry in his stead to shake hands, dress in funny outfits, and engage in all the other usual hallmarks of a foreign convention of leaders. Obama was right to think that had he attended himself, the optics wouldn’t have worked in his favor. He would have looked distant and overly-casual to the crises at home if he were in Bali glad-handing with foreign leaders. But the point is not whether Obama made the right decision to cancel – he did – but whether he made the best decision possible. He could have done more, which we’ll get to in a bit. But instead of thinking creatively, the administration checked down to the obvious decision and simply sent Kerry.
What’s at stake at the APEC conference? The validity of America’s “pivot to Asia,” a hallmark of the administration’s first term, and a strategy that was beginning to succeed in the region. As the New York Times wrote earlier this week, without the U.S. at the APEC conference, it’s China’s stage. And that’s a problem when the United States is in the middle of trying to negotiate and complete the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The TPP is the most important trade agreement on the world agenda right now; should all the countries in discussions join, its members would constitute almost 40 percent of world GDP – a coalition of more than a dozen of the most important Pacific powers. The deal would liberalize trade, foster more market access for U.S. firms in the region, and serve a deeper geopolitical purpose: it would give the U.S. a larger stake in regional stability. In other words, the agreement would put American skin in the game and confirm the Asia pivot, as likeminded countries try to hedge against the rise of a Chinese-led system that is not in accordance with their norms and standards.
The TPP is an agreement that pointedly excludes China (at least at first; it incentivizes China to make economic changes over the longer-term that align it with free market thinking in order to gain entry). But it’s tough to negotiate a U.S.-led trade deal when America’s president RSVP’s “No” and China’s leader Xi Jinping is running the show. I’ve spoken to senior officials in Indonesia who expressed personal disappointment with Obama’s no-show as well as their concerns about TPP closure. Other regional players are echoing these sentiments.
That’s certainly not to say Obama’s absence will doom the negotiations. But there is a real risk that the agreement could become watered down as key participants question American commitment. Allies can’t be calm, either, when they imagine how TPP legislation would be digested by a dysfunctional American Congress.
With so much at stake, what could Obama have done differently? What could he have done aside from sending John Kerry, who has vastly more street cred in the Middle East than in Asia?
He could have thought outside the box and called up Bill Clinton to take his place instead. Clinton is an ex-president with gravitas and without a portfolio, unless you count whatever groundwork he’s laying for a potential Hillary 2016 run. With Obama tied down in the States, putting Bill in charge of negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership would ensure the trade partners felt respected. And Bill is no stranger to marquis trade architecture in Asia, as he spearheaded China’s accession into the WTO back in the twilight of his presidency.
It’s too late for Obama to change his APEC strategy, but it’s not too late for Obama to learn the deeper lesson: that abroad, allies – and holders of American debt – are deeply concerned with what’s happening in the States. American citizens can barely make sense of the mechanics behind the government shutdown and debt ceiling fracases; it’s even more foreign to audiences that aren’t familiar with the arcane ins and outs of American democracy and political gamesmanship. Bill Clinton could act as a surrogate for Obama, and just as importantly, as a translator for America’s absurdist democratic system, help guide the TPP to its final stages, and be a bulwark against China’s charm offensive as it plays nice and ramps up its military spending and economic investment in the region. Understandable distractions stemming from Congress and the Middle East are no excuse for putting the Asia pivot into cold storage.
Perhaps most importantly, Clinton’s appointment would have kept foreign policy on the administration’s and the American people’s radar. If that’s what it takes to make foreign policy essential again, so be it. As any furloughed federal worker might tell you, just because something is considered nonessential doesn’t mean it actually is.
(Ian Bremmer is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Editor’s note: This column is based on a transcribed phone interview with Bremmer.