Obama Loses Face and Possibly Ground in Asia

Photograph by Romeo Gacad/AFP via Getty Images

So much for the U.S. pivot toward Asia.

While John Kerry joked about once aspiring to be president in his speech Monday at the APEC CEO Summit, he was no substitute for President Obama himself. In fact, by not taking audience questions at the Bali event, the U.S. Secretary of State may have added to the hurt feelings of his hosts. As one Indonesian attendee put it after watching Kerry make a hasty exit from the auditorium: “Is that all we get?”

Let’s hope not. After postponing three trips to Indonesia and skipping the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit for two years in a row, Obama now faces an uphill battle at persuading his Asian partners that he’s serious about doing more in the region. While some leaders were empathetic to Obama’s domestic woes in Washington—Russian President Vladimir Putin insisted that “any leader of a state would have done the same”—others made it clear that political dysfunction carries more than just a domestic cost. As Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said, “We prefer a U.S. president who is able to travel and fulfill his international duties to one who is preoccupied with national domestic affairs.”

Is a government shutdown and the prospect of the U.S. defaulting on its debt a good reason to stay close to home? Of course. But the reality is that Obama could have stayed on top of the congressional standoff and put in a brief but potent appearance at APEC. After making it clear Friday that he wasn’t going to “negotiate with a gun held to the head of the American people,” the president could have immediately boarded Air Force One for a 21-hour flight to Indonesia, stepped off for a few hours to meet key leaders and address the world, then head home to be in Washington by Monday. What better way to prove that the country’s long-term fortunes can’t be subjected to what he considers to be Republican roulette? He need only flash his swollen ankles to quiet critics who cast the trip as some frolic in paradise.

In doing so, Obama would have proved that he’s serious about wanting to be “the Pacific president” and sent a signal that he’s committed to partnerships that will enhance U.S. prosperity. He would have shown the courageous leadership that seems to be lacking on the home front. And he would shown respect to other leaders who have to sell controversial pro-American policies to their people. Among the issues:

Trade: The so-called Trans-Pacific Partnership between the U.S. and 11 other nations is an ambitious U.S.-driven free-trade initiative that includes some controversial provisions that such countries as Malaysia have said might compromise their sovereignty. After 19 rounds of torturous negotiations, the deal was due to be wrapped up by the end of the year; some thought there might be an announcement at APEC. Instead, the absence of TPP’s biggest proponent gave partners more fodder to reflect on the downsides of the deal. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak admitted to having “a few areas of great concern” while noting that coming to APEC “would have been a golden opportunity for America and President Obama himself to show leadership in that context of the new emphasis towards Asia.”

Syria: After forging an uneasy alliance with Russia that gives Syria some breathing room to destroy its chemical weapons, Obama appears to have ceded the floor to others. It was John Kerry, in Bali, who said he was very pleased to see Assad making progress. And it was Syria’s protector Putin who responded to my question about Obama’s absence with a sympathetic gesture in saying he would have done the same thing. (A somewhat cerebral exercise for the Russian president, given the likelihood that he’d ever find himself in a similar position.)

Respect: The intangible but potentially most important cost to Obama’s disregard for the consequences of continually canceling important dates. We saw it in June when Michelle Obama declined to meet with China’s First Lady Peng Liyuan because of her daughters’ school schedules (an excuse that did not endear her to most working women). We’ve seen it when Obama canceled last year’s APEC appearance in Vladivostok and this year’s event in Bali. Indonesians, once proud to claim Obama as one of their own because of his childhood years in the country, are sick of being treated as back-up dates. No wonder the Jakarta Post called the U.S. a “diminished superpower” and reacted to Kerry’s speech with the headline: “U.S. underrates APEC issues as Kerry rants on shutdown woes.”

No wonder Xi Jinping, making his first APEC appearance, with a massive delegation, stole the show. “I think Obama should have come,” said HTC Chairman Cher Wang. “People feel respected and honored to receive him. He has to know how much it means.”

Maybe he doesn’t. But he certainly understands the value of face time. It’s hard to find common ground on tough issues when you don’t show up. It’s hard to build relationships over long distance. While other leaders understand why he’s absent, they’re not about to put off critical discussions and decisions until the U.S. president is free to visit. The more he cancels, the less they’ll trust that he’s really on their side.

If he believes Asia is key in creating jobs and shared prosperity back home, Obama might want to think twice about skipping the next key leader event.

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