Why was Asia left out of the Obama doctrine?

Why was Asia left out of the Obama doctrine?
Mr Obama entering the stadium at West Point to give the commencement address at the graduation ceremony at the US Military Academy on Wednesday.

US President Barack Obama spent more than an hour outlining his vision for American foreign policy before the graduating class at the Westpoint Military Academy. When he finished, one question puzzled observers: Where did Asia fit in this new vision?

Given that the Pacific rebalance has been a key pillar of his foreign policy for the past six years, it did not go unnoticed that the word was not mentioned a single time in what was supposed to be a speech setting out the Obama doctrine.

Washington observers say the omission was likely the result of a need to tailor his message to the audience, but said that it would likely disappoint those in Asia.

"I was a bit surprised by this myself," Dr Richard Bush, director of the Centre for East Asia Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution said of the President's decision to leave Asia out of the address.

"The main answer, I think, is that this was an army audience and the army, along with the marines, have borne the brunt of ground interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"So it's important for army officers to know, going forward, how the US Government is going to use them - and, more importantly, not use them. And that's what he did. If he had done the graduation speech at the Naval Academy, which is on the front lines of rebalancing, it would have been a very different, Asia-focused speech."

The omission was made all the more glaring by the hype surrounding Wednesday's speech. Numerous media outlets had been reporting since the weekend that the President would use the opportunity to present a reworked vision for his much-criticised foreign policy.

Dr Amitav Acharya, an international relations professor and author of the book The End of American World Order, said: "A lot of Asians will be quite surprised because the White House, through media leaks, had created the expectation that it will be a foreign policy reboot and we will have a sweeping overview of American foreign policy. But then, how do you leave Asia out of that?"

He added: "If you are going to look at this as a reboot, then it will raise a lot of questions. This was not a reboot. It was a refinement." To observers, this was also a missed opportunity for the President to finally make a case to Americans about the need for the US to be engaged in Asia.

"The public is not going to understand it if the President does not explain it," said Dr Acharya.

Mr Obama made only a brief mention of China and its need to follow international law in solving maritime disputes.

He focused the rest of his speech almost entirely on explaining how he intended to take the US off a war footing and be more selective in the conflicts that he would send troops to.

While the speech was disappointing to Asia watchers, most stress that it should not be read as a sign that the White House is giving up on its Pacific rebalance.

A move to scale back its military commitments actually has positive implications for Asia, said Dr Bush.

"One can argue, as I do, that having a selective approach to intervention is designed precisely because it makes rebalancing more feasible and sustainable," he said.

For now, though, the best the administration can do to make up for the omission is by being even clearer at future opportunities to explain his foreign policy.

"I hope his people will explain the absence in this instance," said Professor Robert Sutter, the professor of Practice of International Affairs at the Elliott School of International Affairs.

"We've had lots of speeches, what we need is a clear plan and actions on implementing the rebalance in ways that reassure the region.

"Obama's visit last month was good in that regard - there are more opportunities at the Shangri-La dialogue, the ASEAN Regional Forum and others."


This article was first published on May 30, 2014.
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