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Is America Looking Across the Pacific?

Updated On: Mar 28, 2009

Domestic problems turn Obama’s attention inward, but he’s keeping an eye this way

Simon Tay

THERE are days when America seems only to care about America.

The headlines report how the Obama administration is struggling to restart the economy. Then attention turns to anger when big bonuses are paid out to top guns at AIG, the failed and bailed out insurance company, leading to further interventions by the government.

Crisis focuses the mind. But that focus can be somewhat inward for America. An enduring adage of American politics, by the late Mr Tip O Neil, a long-standing Speaker of the House, is that “all politics is local”.

So when the stimulus package was passed with a provision to “buy American”, concerns were that the United States might be turning protectionist. Such fear ties to longstanding concerns about American isolationism. The US is, after all, a continent with its own large market and considerable resources, buffered by oceans on either side.

Yet while the crisis must make President Obama focus domestically, he has not ignored the rest of the world. Indeed, his first foreign policy moves have impressed.

His Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Asia was widely seen as successful in making strong and positive first connections. The President himself closed the controversial Guantanamo detention facility, was interviewed on an Arab network and even celebrated Nowruz, the Persian new year, as a signal of a new openness to Iran.

The G20 meeting in London next week will take President Obama’s global engagement to the next level. The grouping brings together the world’s largest economies with the hope that they might better coordinate responses to the on-going turmoil.

The first meeting of the group held last November was a let-down. It was relatively early on in the crisis, when the scale and speed of the problems were less clear. That first meeting was also hosted by then President George W Bush, in the last lame duck days of his administration.

Expectations run higher for this second meeting. In the run-up to the London Summit, President Obama has urged each country to consider larger stimulus packages. His emphasis differs from most of the European leaders who have downplayed pump-priming and instead urged greater regulation.

It is not clear if President Obama’s view will prevail over European views. Even so, events so far shed some perspectives on attitudes under Mr Obama.

First, the new President seems to realise that the challenges go beyond what America can achieve if it acts alone. The US seeks co-operation.

Second, and even more importantly, the new administration seems to understand that other countries must be persuaded, rather than coerced, to co-operate.

Such attitudes seem quite fundamentally different from those of the Bush presidency. And these attitudes suggest that the Obama team will continue to engage with the rest of the world, even as they struggle domestically.

This is because they recognise that global and domestic problems are intertwined quite irretrievably. Engagement rather than isolation must therefore be the key strategy.

In that context, it would be timely for the US to engage the Asian economies and not just the Europeans. China has sufficient reserves to do even more in terms of fiscal stimulus. So can some of the smaller and richer economies like Hong Kong and Singapore, even if they will not be at the G20.

Given the size of their economies, Japan and South Korea can surely do more. Indonesia too will be at the summit and assure others about its economy and the weakening rupiah.

Engaging with Asians on the global economy would reconfirm the rising importance of trans-Pacific links, to be on par with the old trans-Atlantic ties.

Perhaps, except for some aberrations, Americans was never really isolationist. And perhaps it has always been linked to Asia and not just to Europe.

For while many see the US as growing from European root stock, there have also been ties to Asia.


The trace of Asian roots

Immigrants, like the Chinese, arrived in the US from early in the 19th century. Asian links to America are highlighted in a current exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum. This is, however, not the immigration of people, but of ideas and art.

While the European contribution to US art movement is well recognised, the Guggenheim’s Third Mind exhibition provocatively suggests that Asian art, literature, and philosophy too, figured in American cultural and intellectual currents.

From the 1860s through the 1980s, Zen, Buddhist, Taoist, Hindu and other influences are traced. Some 250 pieces from over 100 artists are included, ranging from American-born Asians to icons from the South-west like Ms Georgia O Keefe and the Beat artists and writers from the West coast.

This may seem a bit stretched at times. Whenever an abstract painting is in black and white, it may be all too tempting to see influences of zen and Chinese calligraphy. But the broader point is worth noting.

America is not so much isolated by its two oceans. The oceans instead connect the country. This is not just across the Atlantic to Europe but also, and increasingly, across the Pacific to Asia.

Crisis can focus the American mind anew. This new focus can be to grow those connections and increase cooperation across the Pacific.

Simon Tay
About the author: 

Simon Tay is Schwartz Fellow at the Asia Society in New York and
concurrently chairman of the Singapore Institute of International

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