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Foreign Policy

Obama’s Asian Trip Reprises an American “Manifest Destiny” in Asia

May 02 , 2014

On April 28 in Manila, at the end of his Asian trip, speaking without a script, President Obama uttered for the first time five enormously portentous words:  

“We’re an Asia Pacific nation….” 

Stephen Harner

These five words convey what has been the unspoken (and, perhaps, unspeakable) essence of Obama’s various “rebalance to Asia” policies and initiatives over the past five years, and his administration’s plans for the next five years. 

For Obama and the gigantic, sprawling Leviathan-like complex of military, intelligence, bureaucratic, industrial, commercial, technical, policy research, and academic institutions and interest groups that constitute and work through the United States government, ensuring continued U.S. dominance–the euphemism is “leadership”–of Asia, and constructing a political-economic order that provides maximum benefits and expansion potential to U.S. interests, is now America’s highest strategic priority. 

So overarching and vital is this priority, that it is necessary to redefine, not just American interests, but America itself–to being not just a “Pacific” but an “Asian Pacific” nation.  

With America so redefined, no further justification is required for reprising the 19th century American ethos, if not also the specific actions, of a “Manifest Destiny” in Asia.  

By the end of President Obama’s four-nation trip, the conclusion was inescapable that the U.S. has once again embraced the ethos of “Manifest Destiny” and is applying it to Asia through his administration’s Asian policies and strategies. 

For most readers of China US Focus, whose hope is for a constructive and cooperative U.S.-China relationship, and, ideally, a win-win  “new type of great power relationship” based on equality, mutual respect, mutual regard for “core national interests,” the trip must be judged to have been deeply–possibly irreparably–damaging and alarmingly portentous.  

 Critical within the ethos of Manifest Destiny is the ever-lengthening projection of U.S. military power through the stratagem of alliances.  “As I’ve made clear throughout this trip, the United States is renewing our leadership in the Asia Pacific, and our engagement is rooted in our alliances,” said Obama in Manila. 

The preeminently military and security focus of the trip was emphasized many times, and foretold in briefings provided by National Security Advisor Susan B. Rice. Rice’s National Security Council (NSC) was the main organizer of the trip, setting the agenda and writing most meeting talking points. In addition to Rice, NSC officials Ben Rhodes and Evan Medeiros,

Senior Director for Asian Affairs, provided many of the press briefings.  

In an April 18 pre-trip press briefing, Rice explained American thinking:  “There’s a significant demand for U.S. leadership in that region….No other nation other than the United States has a network of alliances and partnerships in Asia that match ours. And our alliances remain the foundation of our strategy.” 

Briefing reporters in Manila on April 27, the NSC’s Medeiros said of the new U.S.-Philippines Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement ( EDCA): “This is the most significant defense agreement that we have concluded with the Philippines in decades….a framework that facilitates enhanced security cooperation between the U.S. and the Philippines that will allow us enhanced rotational presence at facilities in the Philippines.”

 Two other ways U.S. strategy aims to “rebalance” and remold Asia demanding obeisance to a status quo defending set of (largely U.S.-style) international norms and standards, and rewriting technological, trading, and intellectual property policies and practices to favor U.S. interests.

“Our goal is to make sure that international rules and norms are respected, and that includes in the area of maritimes disputes,” said President Obama in Manila.

America’s vision of remolding Asia culture and values to be more like America’s was elaborated by Rice her speech “America’s Future in Asia” at Georgetown University last November (see my  comment on the speech’s “Soft Imperialism” in ChinaUS Focus here).   

Rewriting Asia’s commercial, trading, technology, and intellectual property rules to favor U.S. interests has been is the Obama administration’s goal for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement.

Where has the Obama administration’s Asian Manifest Destiny ethos come from?  I believe we find the answer in a 3761 word essay (clearly timed to coincide with and bolster Obama’s trip) entitled “Far Eastern Promises” in the May/June issue of America’s most influential foreign policy journal, Foreign Affairs, by Kurt M. Campbell.

Reading Campbell’s essay and the talking points of officials traveling with President Obama, and the president himself, one finds almost verbatim duplication. Certainly the ethos–if not also the texts–is identical, and one suspects that the origin is Campbell rather than now serving officials.

“The United States is in the early stages of a substantial national project: reorienting its foreign policy to commit greater attention and resources to the Asia-Pacific region…. It is premised on the idea that the history of the twenty-first century will be written largely in the Asia-Pacific, a region that welcomes U.S. leadership and rewards U.S. engagement with a positive return on political, economic, and military investments.”

Campbell, a Pentagon careerist, played Rasputin to Hillary Clinton’s Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs in Clinton’s State Department.  He garnered the sobriquet “the father of the Asian ‘pivot,’ before the two resigned to build their personal wealth (Campbell as head of the D.C.-based consultancy, the Asia Group) prior to their next lunge at higher office and greater power. 

In Campbell’s manifesto and Obama’s Asian “rebalance,” what is clear is that the Washington Beltway policy and special interest establishment has determined that the United States, as “an Asian Pacific nation,” must aim not simply to influence and interact with, but to continue to dominate and to remold Asia to serve U.S. interests.

For countries like China, wishing for an equal and mutually respectful relationship, this foretells inevitable frustration and perverse, wasteful, and possibly dangerous competition.  And I believe that China is not alone. Few if any of Asia’s proud, independent, and prosperous nations desire or need to accept an American Manifest Destiny to rule them. 

Stephen M. Harner is a former U.S. Foreign Service Officer, banker, and consultant in China and Japan. He is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

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