Commentary / World

Obama's lesson in losing face

Ironically as American business people continue to take steps to understand China’s shifting landscape and the implications of recent leadership changes in what is now the world’s second-largest economy, U.S. President Barack Obama has provided them and others an unfortunate “teaching moment” about what is arguably, along with money and power, one of the three great motivators in modern China. That is the concept of “face” or “mianzi.

I spoke recently with Scott D. Seligman, a historian, former Fortune 500 business executive and author of “Chinese Business Etiquette,” among other insightful China-focused books. He explains that in Chinese, as in English, the definition of face includes that space between a person’s forehead and chin — one’s eyes, nose and mouth. But Seligman adds, for Chinese and many others in Asia, face also describes a somewhat intangible concept that is tied to notions of personal dignity and respect.

Losing face in Asia can have a lot more consequence than momentary embarrassment. People think of you differently. Credibility erodes. Power, prestige, influence and even expectations of your abilities can decline. So, understandably the White House is likely hoping that Obama’s cancellation of a planned trip to Southeast Asia due to a Washington budget impasse is met with some understanding. It was in no way intended as a slap in the face of counterparts at this month’s Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Indonesia and East Asia Summit in Brunei.

Yet, with “about-face” after “about-face” on Syria by the U.S. president these past weeks and his inability to prevent the partial shutdown of the U.S. federal government, the view from Asia of recent American leadership — whether presidential or congressional — is not necessarily a positive one. That does not bode well for the so-called pivot, or rebalance in U.S. policy, toward Asia,

This is after all a region of the world where there remains tremendous respect for not just thoughtful but also strong and decisive leaders.

The Singapore senior statesman Lee Kuan Yew, who as prime minister took his nation from Third World to First World in a few decades and who just celebrated his 90th birthday, is a leading example.

And despite concerns over the impact of scheduled tax increases, even Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is, so far, still respected for his decisive efforts to try to turn around Japan’s economy.

With Obama’s ongoing struggles and face-off with a divided U.S. Congress, one can well understand some Asian leaders’ quiet concerns about America’s attention span and focus, particularly in the context of China’s rise and continuing territorial disputes. The contrast is striking between Obama’s canceled trip to Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines, and the beginning of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first Southeast Asia trip since he took office in March. In Indonesia, Xi became the first foreign leader to address that nation’s parliament. In Malaysia, the Chinese leader announced a range of joint Chinese-Malaysian strategic and economic efforts.

Just more than a year ago, Obama drew his line in the sand. If Syrian President Bashar Assad were to cross that line by using chemical weapons against his own people, a strong, significant U.S. response would follow.

“We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,” Obama said. “That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”

So what happened? Chemical weapons were used. A nonresponse would have been a huge loss of face to the U.S. president. But as the American public and numerous members of the U.S. Congress made clear, the president had failed to make a strong enough case for the United States to enter into another military action so soon after Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan.

So, the president did an about face on whether or not he needed to have Congress authorize what seemed to be a potential strike of ever shrinking size. That was before he welcomed a decision to delay a possible vote. All of this may well have been seen by Obama and his defenders as a face-saving way out of a dilemma of his own making, but the view from Asia was of a leader who was far from decisive.

Although votes — meaningful or otherwise — may well still come about Syria in Congress and once again at the United Nations Security Council as Syria’s civil war continues with or without chemical weapons, Russia has already, shrewdly, stepped into the breach by taking advantage of a seemingly offhand comment by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry as the basis for a proposed agreement that would avert a U.S. military strike.

Make no mistake, though — Russian President Vladimir Putin was not practicing the Chinese concept of “giving face” (described by Seligman as the practice of “enhancing someone else’s esteem through compliments, flattery or a show of respect”). Putin has helped keep Assad in power in the near term and reasserted Russian influence in the Middle East.

If the U.S. can be outmaneuvered by Russia when it comes to Syria, what about by an increasingly assertive China in Southeast and East Asia?

As much of the region comes to terms with China’s economic and military growth, a U.S. that moves beyond budget stalemates and issues of face and complements defense and diplomacy with greater commercial, educational and cultural engagement would be welcome in Asia. A “soft power” pivot if you will.

Why will a Chinese manager stick stubbornly to an announced policy even when subsequent events prove it to have been irretrievably misguided, when a Western boss would have long since reversed himself? The answer, Seligman says, is the concept of face.

In the case of Obama and Syria, we may well have the worst of East and West — stubborn insistence by Obama that he does have a consistent, thought-through policy when the world sees otherwise.

Seligman writes “no one can say how much money has been wasted, how many people toppled from power or how many friendships have been destroyed” over the abstract concept of face. But as those of us who work in Asia know, and the people of Syria may well ultimately find out, face can also be deadly serious business.

Curtis S. Chin served as U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank under Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, and is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC.

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