HONOLULU (April 16, 2010)—President Barack Obama has begun to “change America’s direction abroad,” according to The New York Times’ Chief Washington Correspondent, David Sanger, although at present it’s more visible in the Middle East and Europe than in Asia. But that, Sanger said, is sure to change.


David E. Sanger, Chief Washington Correspondent, The New York Times

Delivering the George Chaplin Fellowship in Distinguished Journalism Address at the East-West Center in early April, Sanger described a "rebalancing" of foreign policy concerns in Washington, with a gradual move away from preoccupation with Iraq and Afghanistan and a return to other neglected issues, including those directly affecting Asia.

Click hereto watch video of Sanger’s speech.

Key decisions will need to be made in Asia policy over the next year, Sanger said, with increased concern over China’s rise, new plans for a presidential trip to the region that was postponed by the recent health care debate, and Obama’s hosting of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Honolulu next year.

“[The president’s] strategy of engagement has resulted in few diplomatic victories so far, but it has certainly changed the way America is perceived around the world,” said Sanger, author of the bestselling book “The Inheritance,” about the foreign policy dilemmas Obama faced when he took office.

Sanger noted polls showing that admiration for America has risen pretty uniformly around the world since the president came into office 15 months ago, with some notable exceptions, such as Pakistan. “I think the days are gone when leaders around the world complain that the message from Washington is ‘It’s our way or the highway,’” Sanger said.

In fact, he said, a paradoxical concern is that America will retreat from global involvement as it focuses more on domestic issues such as health care, the national debt and joblessness. Sanger said domestic economic concerns and the rising U.S. deficit have deep foreign policy significance, especially for Asia.

“There comes a moment in time where a country that is borrowing that heavily can’t afford to take the kinds of leadership positions that the U.S. took, particularly after World War II,” he said. “And those were the leadership positions that made the U.S. a great Pacific power.”

How well America comes out of the recession could determine how much influence it will wield around the world going forward, particularly in Asia, Sanger said. The growing perception that America is in rapid economic decline is one factor contributing to changes in U.S.-China relations, he said, along with spreading concern in Congress and at the Pentagon over China’s modernization of its military.

“The Chinese are proving that they have capabilities that in the 1990s the Pentagon thought were still decades away,” Sanger said, including Chinese efforts in space, development, the growth of its navy and its emerging cyber war strategy. Sanger said China has a “puncture strategy” where it does not want direct military engagement with the U.S., but instead is developing various technologies that will punch holes in America’s dominance of the region.

He noted a decreased U.S. interest in the kinds of military-to-military exchanges that have involved China and the Honolulu-based U.S. Pacific Command. Some U.S. officials “don’t like the idea of being particularly transparent about our capabilities or, in the case of cyber, about our vulnerabilities,” Sanger said.

Reflecting on the Bush administration’s idea of using India as a counterweight to China, Sanger said it didn’t work out very well. “Yes, the Indians don’t particularly like the Chinese, but they don’t especially want to partner with the U.S. either,” he said, adding that the U.S. relationship with India is one that Obama needs to tend to.

Even dealing with Japan has become “something of a headache” for America, Sanger said, with recent political changes in Tokyo and a strong play by China to improve its relations with Japan.

On the other hand, he said, relations with South Korean leaders have been much better than in the Bush administration. However, he added, the nuclear issue in North Korea has taken a back seat to the one in Iran, as the president had to figure out which country posed a greater nuclear proliferation threat, and he clearly chose Iran.

Sanger described U.S. relations with Indonesia, where Obama spent some of his childhood, as “the great quiet American diplomatic success story.” He said the president has an opportunity to develop deeper relations with Indonesia than at any other moment in the past 30 years. Success, he said, would enhance America’s stature in Asia as well as demonstrate U.S. ability to work with a country that has the world’s largest Muslim population.

The president, he said, now needs to make hard decisions about how directly to take on Iran, how long to stick with military engagement in Afghanistan and Pakistan, how hard to press Israel on the Palestinian issue, and how to engage China “on many different levels – in some cases quite cooperatively, and in some cases not at all.”

Sanger noted that all these foreign relations challenges come at a time when there are fewer and fewer journalists being employed to cover them. “At a moment when American journalism is suffering a fair bit, as we’ve all seen around the country and here in Honolulu as well, at a time that the number of American foreign correspondents around Asia and the world is shrinking, I think the [journalism fellowship] work that the East-West Center does is more important than ever before,” he said.


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