CHIANG MAI, Thailand — The issue is not new, but it has recently resurfaced: How is U.S. foreign policy coordinated and articulated, particularly when it affects Asia?
A few weeks ago, the International Herald Tribune ran an article headlined “A persistent admiral helped set America’s course on Indonesia.” Lacking inside knowledge of the full dimensions of the incident, I can only reflect the concern of a confused observer.
According to the Herald, Admiral Dennis Cutler Blair, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, recently had a run-in with the U.S. ambassador in Jakarta, Robert Gelbard, and other officials at the State Department as well as Congress, over the admiral’s plan to engage the Indonesian military. The ambassador and the State Department opposed such a move. The admiral’s mission to Indonesia was perceived in the article to be a “diplomatic triumph,” a reiteration of the foreign-policy “clout” of regional commanders in chief, who appear to be gaining influence in shaping Washington’s foreign-policy strategies.
The overall picture emerging from the article is one of conflicting agendas at a high level of the U.S. government. Naturally there may have been overlooked nuances, misunderstandings or exaggerations on the part of the media, but even allowance for these cannot alter the impression of U.S. foreign policy as being less than unified and not conducted in a coordinated manner.
As far as substance is concerned — whether the United States should engage the Indonesian military to press for reforms, human rights and other policy considerations — it is natural that a variety of views would exist. If the elements of the dilemma are indeed what the press reported, I would lean toward supporting the admiral’s position that the Indonesian military is too important a factor to be completely alienated by Washington.
Nonetheless, it is of paramount importance that Washington always send clear and unequivocal signals to the world — and to Asia in particular — and preferably through internationally accepted channels. It would be rather unfortunate if America’s foreign policy was set in public by admirals, generals, individual congressmen or other officials, each pursuing his or her own agenda.
Everyone knows there are several centers of power in Washington. Their differing evaluations contribute to an exhaustive examination of issues, arguments and counterarguments. Debate and controversy — especially when the world’s only superpower is involved — are not necessarily negative, as long as they are confined to preliminary policy discussions. Once a policy is defined and proclaimed, however, it must be executed in a coordinated manner. Polyphony, when degenerating into cacophony, is unwelcome in the worlds of both music and diplomacy.
Moreover, leaks concerning controversies between military commanders and ambassadors and characterizations of “diplomatic triumphs” scored by one party against the other are not only damaging to all concerned, they also undermine the role of diplomatic representatives who symbolize the unity of their countries. “Diplomatic triumphs” of an internal character are always destructive and self-defeating.
Asia expects Washington, particularly given its international position, to send messages that are clear and unambiguous.
When reviewing U.S. foreign policy, the next administration in Washington should pay particular attention to this problem, drawing on experience gained from past mistakes. No matter what conflicting perceptions emerge among different agencies during policy formulation, the final policy must reflect consensus if it is to be persuasive.
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