As published for The Roosevelt Room:
“[T]he absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant.” — Milan Kundera
As someone who in the Bush Administration traveled to Hanoi, Tokyo, Beijing, Hong Kong, Singapore and Seoul more often than Chicago, Los Angeles or Seattle, was I surprised to hear President Obama proclaim that an era of disengagement with Asia was over?
No, not really.
This is a president absolutely unburdened by what came before. “Being Obama” means to fly high and lightly above the evidence of the past.
“Being Obama”, for the purposes of this White House, is more than sufficient — it is all.
On his inaugural visit to Asia, President Obama announced a “new” orientation toward Asia, leaving an impression that prior White House maps merely employed pictures of sea monsters to depict the strange lands beyond the Hawaiian Islands.
If you were looking for a new initiative, a new program, some new evidence breaking with the past to mark the end of the old era, you would be disappointed. Understand that “Being Obama” is the difference.
“Being Obama” is the self-proclamation of “America’s first Pacific president”.
Never mind the previous presidents who hailed from the Pacific rim state of California. Never mind that a prior president served as an ambassador to China. Never mind that prior presidents served in battle in Asia, negotiated peace in the region, opened China, initiated historic diplomatic, security and economic initiatives with Asian nations and guaranteed the region’s safety.
“Being Obama” is to lightly, and without shame, disregard the irony that the nation he visits today, Singapore, was the first Asian nation to sign (during the era of disengagement!) a free trade agreement with the U.S. It is to ignore the irony that the country he will soon visit, South Korea, awaits his leadership in passing its own free trade agreement with the U.S.
It would be unbearable to acknowledge that the key initiative cited to highlight a “new” engagement with Asia in the Obama era — the Trans-Pacific Partnership — was actually agreed to and announced by President Obama’s predecessor after years of careful work and engagement.
The President spoke of a “new” engagement with China, one that recognized that nation as important to the U.S. economy, welcoming its economic rise — not a competitor, but as an engine of growth and opportunity in the global economy. An enterprising reporter with access to Google might find these very same words, almost verbatim, used by President Bush and a succession of Bush Administration Treasury and Commerce secretaries.
Never mind that.
Never mind that the hallmark forum for engagement with China in the “new” era of engagement — the Strategic and Economic Dialogue — is a continuation of the Bush Administration’s Strategic Economic Dialogue. (A new era accomplished by the mere addition of a conjunction.)
Never mind that the hallmark multilateral forum for engagement with China on the priority strategic regional security concern — the Six-Party Talks to deal with a nuclear North Korea — is a continuation of a Bush Administration initiative.
Never mind that the hallmark multilateral forum for engagement with China on climate change — the Major Economies Forum — is, once again, a continuation of President Bush’s initiative.
Never mind all that. Shed the heavy burden of the work and sacrifice of history that preceded and fly lightly above it.
“Being Obama” is enough, and it is all.