MANILA — Unlike his predecessor, U.S. President Barack Obama is popular from the Atlantic to the Pacific. He has reached out to the Muslim world and pledged to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without delay. The nations of Asia have a particular affection for him, owing to the years he spent as a child in Indonesia.
If Obama improves America’s global standing with support from political heavyweights such as Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Bob Gates, National Security Adviser James Jones (a former NATO Supreme Commander), and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki (a former U.S. Army chief), he should be able to ask more from America’s allies, particularly for NATO to send more troops to Afghanistan. He will also be able to push Israel to reinvigorate the derailed Middle East peace process.
Although his national security team consists of people who largely supported the war in Iraq, Obama has made it clear that his agenda includes withdrawing troops from that country. International good will probably be the key to his success, if not in re-establishing American hegemony, then at least in making America the “indispensable nation” once more.
Although Obama is likely to give priority in his diplomacy to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he cannot take the Asia-Pacific region’s stability for granted. The sources of uncertainty are many: tension between South and North Korea; anxiety over nuclear proliferation posed by cooperation between North Korea and Iran; managing the rise of China and India; and continued Islamist extremism on the Indian subcontinent, particularly Pakistan, as well as in Southeast Asia, where al-Qaida has established a second front through Indonesia’s Jemaah Islamiyah.
Vast changes in America’s presence across the Asia-Pacific region are under way and are likely to continue. So far, none of these changes have unsettled the region. Substantial redeployments of U.S. military forces and assets, triggered by the need for additional troops in Afghanistan and by problems over the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement, are already taking place.
Media reports indicate, for example, that nearly 25,000 marines, soldiers, family members and civilian employees are to descend on the tiny island of Guam in the next five years to ease the concentration of U.S. forces on the Japanese island of Okinawa without pulling back too far from the flash points of Taiwan and North Korea.
But the future of security in the Pacific should not be left to U.S. decision-makers alone. Regional leaders must now develop their own strategy to transform Asia’s many challenges into opportunities, with Obama playing the role of “good neighbor” who expects other peoples to help themselves and put their own houses in order before turning to the U.S. for assistance.
The Philippines is in an advantageous position to take advantage of the many diplomatic opportunities that will be generated by Obama’s potential activism in the Pacific. To be sure, the country’s “America” card — the result of the two countries’ long-standing strategic relationship (I was educated at West Point and fought alongside U.S. troops in the Korean War) — must be played carefully and not be taken for granted. But it offers the potential for a relationship of the sort that arises only between countries with deep and many-layered ties.
By strategizing “out of the box” and finding ways to link Obama’s Asian agenda with that of their own nations, Philippines President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and other Asian leaders will be able to truly make the Pacific the central focus of the Obama administration’s diplomacy.
Fidel V. Ramos was president of the Philippines from 1992 until 1998. © 2009 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)
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