Tuesday, November 9, 2010


You can hardly blame President Obama for wanting to get out of town after last week's political tsunami. Encircled by criticism from his own Left, the Independent middle and the Republican Right, he has been greeted by more friendly crowds so far in India and Indonesia. Of course, he has a good excuse for his travels since he will be attending the Group of Twenty (G-20) economic forum in S. Korea and then the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting (APEC) in Japan. These meetings and his first stop in India were billed as efforts to enhance economic cooperation. The agenda in India was informal and more of a public relations effort since trade agreements are hammered out separately from presidential visits by the U.S. Trade Representative. Still, public relations doesn't hurt when you are talking about a capitalist economy with 1.3 billion consumers. Unfortunately, U.S. relations with India can not escape the dark shadow of the decades old Indian-Pakistan conflict over the disputed territory of Kashmir. The U.S. has tried to walk a dangerous line between a strong relationship with India which includes military sales and "peaceful" nuclear technology, and a political and military relationship with Pakistan that is vital to the prosecution of the war in neighboring Afghanistan and anti-terrorism efforts. The hostility between these two U.S. "allies" is further complicated by the fact that both are nuclear armed powers and Pakistan, as a Muslim country is trying to fend off it's own radical Muslim movement.

The Indian government seemed enthusiastic about a ramp up of the U.S./Indian relationship: “This is the time to be ambitious about this relationship”. It is telling however that this comment was not made by an Indian economic or trade official but by India's National Security Adviser. This further illustrates the conundrum of trying to be an economic partner and strategic ally with two nations who are long time enemies. Obama avoided discussion of the India/Pakistan conflict during his visit but the issue and the Afghan war loomed over the visit like the proverbial "elephant in the room" and local media suggested that a new and more robust bi-lateral relationship is still in the nascent stages, implying that a strategic tilt towards India is required. Thus, Obama's visit was more of an exercise in what seems to be his foreign policy specialty, a "feel good moment". Along this line, he made a totally symbolic assertion that the U.S. stood behind a move to grant India a permanent seat on the UN's Security Council. While it makes sense in terms of the relative importance of India in today's world, such a promise is nothing more than a pat on the head since such a change to the Security Council would require a Charter amendment subject to a two thirds vote in the General Assembly plus the unanimous consent of the current veto wielding Permanent Security Council members, a group that includes rival China and Russia who is ever wary about any dilution of it's international influence. This would also open the door to similar claims by other industrialized and regional powers (Japan, Brazil, South Africa). Making the Security Council bigger than it's current fifteen members would also make it even more unwieldy and add to the growing irrelevance of both it and the United Nations as a whole in terms of international security.

Obama's second stop was his visit to Indonesia, a nation that we are constantly reminded is the largest Muslim nation in the world. And indeed, aside from affording Obama an opportunity to retrace some of his boyhood years, the visit was described by White House officials as being part of his "continuing outreach to the Muslim world." This effort began with much fanfare with Obama's 2009 speech in Cairo, Egypt. While it received a positive, though muted, response in some of the Muslim world, much of the enthusiasm generated has dissipated. In the volatile Middle East, favorable views of the U.S. hover around 17% (Egypt, Pakistan, Turkey), a decline in Egypt during the two years of the Obama Administration where the “outreach” began of 10% . The political wisdom of labeling visits to Muslim nations as an “outreach” is itself questionable given both its statistical failure and the current belief of 20% of U.S. citizens that Obama is himself a Muslim.

Nonetheless, in Indonesia where he is considered something akin to an expatriate, Obama is more popular than in the United States and is still able to generate warm and fuzzy feelings by doing native dances with costume clad five year olds. The next two stops at economic forums in Korea and Japan should be more serious challenges, as the world’s economic powers try and agree on strategies to deal with the continuing world recession. Obama is likely to seek support for pressuring China to allow its currency to rise, thus making American exports less expensive. So far the Chinese have been unresponsive and Obama will probably have to deal with similar arguments in the face of exporting countries concerns about the recently announced U.S. Federal Reserve anti-recession move to purchase $600 billion worth of U.S. Treasury bonds. This staged purchase is intended to drive down long term interest rates but some nations fear that it will also devalue the U.S. dollar making their export goods to U.S. markets more expensive.

In any case, the only sure outcome of Obama’s latest “world tour” is that he will have to eventually return home and face a far tougher negotiating partner where native dancing won’t help, the Republicans in Congress.

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