Thursday 02 Jul 2020 | 23:52 | SYDNEY
Thursday 02 Jul 2020 | 23:52 | SYDNEY

Barack Obama: Pacific man, not Pacific warrior


Graeme Dobell

16 January 2009 15:04

Amid all the imaginings about Obama's leadership, my favourite future symbolic moment will be his first visit to Jakarta. In this scenario, the US President begins his speech with a couple of well-rehearsed sentences in Bahasa, constructed on the rusty foundations of his childhood schooling in Jakarta.

Obama resolves the question posed in the 1980s and early 90s about the impact of the passing of the World War II generation from American leadership. Bush snr and many others (Kennedy, LBJ, Caspar Weinberger, George Schultz) served in the Pacific War. How would their successors view America’s role without that wartime memory?

Obama's answer is that America has moved from the era of Pacific warriors to the leadership of someone who grew up in the Pacific, in Hawaii and Indonesia. The Asia Pacific needs to hang on to that comforting thought about the advent of a Pacific man, because apart from the personal link, the Obama narrative on the region looks a little thin.

The US Navy may have changed priorities so that more than half its ships are now in the Pacific fleet, but more traditional parts of the US polity still look first across the Atlantic or to the Middle East. Obama’s foreign policy comments reflect that traditional hierarchy. 

What a leader says matters, although it isn’t always the best guide to what the leader will do. After all, George W Bush entered office talking about a more modest foreign policy, abjuring US adventurism or any role in nation-building.

We can all hope that Obama will turn out to be a better foreign policy President than Bush. And already there is one small advance: reading Obama interview transcripts is going to be less excruciating than hacking through George W’s unscripted thoughts.

Deconstructing interview transcripts is one of those strange sports shared by politicians, bureaucrats and journalists. The aim is to look beyond what is said to discover patterns of thinking, orders of importance and significant silences and asides.

One element of the transcript challenge is to pick habits of speech and emphasis. Obama often uses ‘I think’ to link his sentences or as a pause phrase. It’s much more elegant than ‘you know’. (Caroline Kennedy got monstered for constantly using ‘you know’, a habit she shares with Malcolm Fraser.)

Try the transcript challenge by checking out the Obama Man of the Year interview with TIME magazine. One tool to use in this interpretation exercise is to deploy the ghost of George W to highlight the change in tone and emphasis offered by the incoming president. Consider Obama's list of things ‘that keep me up at night’:

  1. The US economy may have further to fall and faces at least two years of purgatory.
  2. Afghanistan: ‘We’ve going to have to make a series of not just military but also diplomatic moves that fully enlist Pakistan as an ally in that region, that lessen tensions between India and Pakistan.’
  3. Nuclear proliferation.
  4. Climate change: ‘The final thing, just to round out my Happy List, is climate change. All the indicators are that this is happening faster than even the most pessimistic scientists were anticipating a couple of years ago.’

The Bush list would be different (would proliferation and climate change even make it?).

The TIME description of the list is that it combines difficulty with danger plus a jolt of existential risk: ‘Score that as follows: one imploding economy, one deteriorating war in an impossible region and two versions of Armageddon – the bang of loose nukes and the whimper of environmental collapse.’

The section of the transcript that will galvanise the diplomats has Obama picking the key issues for his new Secretary of State. Top priority is managing the transition in Iraq and a more effective strategy in Afghanistan. (‘Recognising that it is not simply an Afghanistan problem but it’s an Afghanistan-Pakistan-India-Kashmir-Iran problem.’)

Then the talking point checklist: Iran, a more constructive trans-Atlantic alliance, a new relationship with an ‘aggressive Russia’, Israel-Pakistan, the multilateral biggies (nukes, climate and poverty). And after world poverty comes – wait for it – ‘paying more attention to Latin America’. 

How did that get on the list? Being nice to the neighbours is always desirable (the Bush version in his first year was bulking up the relationship with Mexico). The broader answer is that the influence of Hispanic voters on US politics is growing and will translate into foreign policy priorities.

Just when the vision of Pacific man seems all but gone, Obama comes to the end of his list: ‘And finally, managing our relationship with China and the entire Pacific Rim, I think, is something that will keep not just me busy but my successor busy.’

Imagine what Tokyo is thinking about being lumped in with ‘China and the entire Pacific Rim’. The two Bush presidents tried to maintain the balance between China and Japan. George W made a precedence point of going to Tokyo as the first leg before visiting China. Perhaps that instinct will be less marked with Obama.

The Asia Pacific can take some comfort from the fact that success does not demand immediate attention. The issues at the top of the list are there because they are headaches. And on the big problems – economic, nuclear, climate – the Asia Pacific is going to have a big say. Maybe the new Pacific man regards that Asia Pacific role as so obvious it can be taken as a given.

Photo by Flickr user StrudelMonkey, used under a Creative Commons license.