Hallmark of Obama's foreign policy: Engaging Asia - and the Muslims

Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak (left) and US President Barack Obama.

Engaging the Muslim world and forging stronger ties with Asia are the hallmarks of US President Barack Obama's foreign policy. These priorities reflect the American leader's multicultural heritage, which has given him a wider view of the world.

United States president Barack Obama broke the mould on how the leader of a superpower sees the rest of the world.

Inaugurated as the 44th president of the United States on Jan 20, 2009, and winning a second term on Nov 6, 2012, Obama took over, promising "a new chapter in American engagement in the world".

He became president at a time when the United States was mired in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The country's Mideast policy and self-styled "war on terror" soured relations with most of the Muslim world.

The 53-year-old Obama has offered a fresh approach on how his country wields its global influence and has tried to rebuild bridges with the Muslim world and other nations.

In his first few days in office, he issued orders to the country's military to draw up plans to pull out from Iraq, a process that was eventually completed in December 2011.

His first overseas visit as president was to Turkey in April 2009, reflecting his emphasis on improving relations.

Addressing university students in Istanbul, Obama said the United States, despite its flaws and past mistakes, was poised for a fresh start with Muslims and the rest of the world to ease the tensions that have grown after the attacks on Sept 11 and the war in Iraq.

In Egypt two months later, Obama gave a speech in Cairo Univer­sity where he spelt out what he hoped would be "a new beginning" in relations with the Muslim world.

"I know there are many - Muslim and non-Muslim - who question whether we can forge this new begin­ning," Obama told the gathering.

"Some suggest that it isn't worth the effort - that we are fated to disagree, and civilisations are doomed to clash. Many more are simply sceptical that real change can occur.

"There's so much fear, so much mistrust ... but if we choose to be bound by the past, we will never move forward."

The following year, during a visit to Indonesia - the world's most populous Muslim country where Obama spent part of his childhood years - he toured Jakarta's Istiqlal mosque, the largest in the country.

Following his tour of the Jakarta landmark, the president told reporters how the mosque imam had informed him of a Catholic church situated next door, and how the mosques allows parishioners to use its parking lot during Christmas. This, said Obama, was a tribute to Islam and showed cooperation between religions.

Obama's efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples won him the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize.

Another hallmark of Obama's foreign policy is known as the "Pivot to Asia", which aims to re-balance American interests from Europe and the Middle East towards East Asian countries, including Malaysia.

The policy has both economic and security dimensions.

In terms of security, the "Pivot to Asia" policy reflects America's emphasis on helping to maintain peace and security across the Asia-Pacific region and deepening its relationship with rising powers, including China.

This would include defending freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, which is crucial to global trade, and countering North Korea's proliferation efforts.

The United States has so far shifted 2,500 marines to a base in northern Australia.

In terms of economy, the policy arose from the growing realisation that Asia's open markets provided the United States with unprecedented opportunities for investment and trade at a time when the United States was in a recession triggered by a credit crisis resulting from the bursting of the housing bubble.

The policy was borne in part from the growing realisation that US economic recovery would need to depend on exports and the ability of American firms to tap into Asia's fast growing consumer base.

One trade proposal under the pivot policy is the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, which is currently being negotiated.

A mega free-trade deal that involves Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam, the TPPA will represent about 40 per cent of world trade and a population of more than 750 million people.

These initiatives are far from complete and are not without their critics, but part of the reason that Obama is generally viewed as being in a better position to engage with nations and communities outside the United States is his rich multi-cultural background.

The first African-American to become president, Barack Hussein Obama II was born in Hawaii in 1961 to a Kenyan father and an American mother.

His father, Barack Obama Senior, was a Harvard-educated senior Kenyan government economist while his mother Stanley Ann Durham was an anthropologist.

They separated when Obama was a newborn and his mother later remarried an Indonesian, Lolo Soetoro, after which the family moved to Jakarta where he lived from 1967 to 1970.

Obama moved to Hawaii and later, recollecting his experience living there, he wrote: "The opportunity that Hawaii offered - to experience a variety of cultures in a climate of mutual respect - became an integral part of my world view, and a basis for the values that I hold most dear."