SEOUL, South Korea — President Barack Obama returns from his maiden Asian swing with none of the concrete accomplishments that White Houses typically put in place before big trips, setting up a stark test for his idealistic theory that the United States should act more like a wise neighbor than a swaggering superpower.
Obama’s minimalist approach was most consequential in China, where he did not meet with Christians, dissidents or bloggers, or directly challenge his hosts for repressive tactics that are again on the rise.
The Chinese in turn rebuffed longstanding U.S. concerns – whether on human rights, Iran or currency policy – in a heavily stage-managed visit where China, not Obama, clearly sought the upper hand.
It’s an approach that carries great risk for Obama – playing straight into his critics’ accusations that his new, more multilateral style isn’t paying dividends, and worse, is making him look weak and ineffectual abroad.
“They don’t want this narrative that the U.S. is a declining power and China is a rising power, and the trip just reinforced that,” said Adam Segal, a senior fellow on China at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The sense of the trip was, ‘We’re not here to get in their face about these things.’”
Add to that the fact the main image of Obama abroad that really broke through to the American public out of the trip – Obama bowing to the Japanese emperor – didn’t exactly reinforce the image of a muscular leader abroad.
But there were substantive problems as well. An early test drive of Obama’s policy of engaging rivals and adversaries around the globe suffered a setback Wednesday, when Iran defied Washington and rejected a United Nations call for the regime to send enriched uranium abroad for processing, which would inhibit the building of nuclear weapons.
That plan was sort of Obama’s ace-in-the-hole for dealing with Iran – and success would have been vindication for his approach to talk to the Iranian regime “without preconditions,” as he said during the campaign. Now Obama is roughly back where President George W. Bush often found himself, trying to rally world support to crack down on an intransigent Iran.
Ironically, the disappointment did give Obama a chance to show he has a spine. At his final diplomatic event of the trip, a two-question news conference with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, Obama sounded like a stern parent when he said: “We have begun discussions with our international partners about the importance of having consequences.”
Through it all, the White House says it’s not concerned.
After the press conference, U.S. reporters surrounded White House senior adviser David Axelrod, who said the goal of the trip “was to lay a foundation for economic progress, to open up markets for American goods, to lay a foundation for progress on mutual security issues…to lay groundwork on climate change.”
“Though the President is demonstrably popular in all these countries and polling reflects that, we didn't come halfway across the world for ticker-tape parades,” Axelrod said. “So we believe it was a successful trip.”
In “key points” on the trip provided to reporters, a senior administration official contended: “American leadership was absent from this region for the last several years, despite the fact that it is increasingly central to our economic growth and our security. President Obama put our alliances on a firmer footing, reasserted our leadership in the region, and continued to advance a complicated bilateral relationship with China that will play a large role in shaping the 21st century.”
Axelrod said the White House recognized “didn't have expectations that Barack Obama arrives in China or anywhere else and things change overnight.”
“This is not an immediate gratification business,” Axelrod said. “I understand that Washington is in the immediate gratification business. … [T]he ultimate measure is where these issues -- how these issues resolve in the weeks and months and years to come. And we have a greater chance for success because of this trip and others he's made.”
But the formulation puts the White House in the awkward position of promising results down the road. It wasn’t just the lack of hard results, but the tone of Obama’s remarks, even passing up opportunity to speak out more vocally against the repressive Chinese regime.
At a “town meeting” with students in Shanghai, for instance, Obama avoided directly challenging the Chinese for blocking Twitter from the Web. Instead, Obama declared: “I'm a big supporter of non-censorship.”
Segal said that while the trip succeeding on the White House’s terms of sending a message of cooperation, Obama might have given a plain-spoken answer to the Twitter question, along the lines of: “I think the Chinese government is hurting itself.”
Still, several national-security veterans agreed that the White House press corps had unrealistic expectations for the trip. Douglas H. Paal, a vice president at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the reporters traveling with Obama seemed to think he should “punch [Chinese President] Hu Jintao in the nose.”
Paal, who was on the National Security Council staffs of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, said Obama succeeded by reassuring other Asian nations – including during his other three stops in Singapore, South Korea and Japan – that the U.S. will serve as a counterbalance to China.
That was the administration’s “We’re back” message. And many foreign policy experts are giving Obama high marks for patience. Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, has been able to establish a “new rapport with China – a relationship of almost parity.”
Cronin said Obama “asked for something from each country, but also showed the United States will make compromises and recognize our own limitations and mistakes.”
“He’s not pointing a finger,” Cronin said. “Conservative critics will say he gave too much away. But Asia is about relationship-building. This first trip was a good investment. He’s playing a strategic game, not just a tactical one. It creates problems if others misperceive this as weakness.”
Minxin Pei, a well-known specialist on U.S.-China relations who joined Claremont McKenna College last summer, said Obama missed an opportunity by not insisting that the town hall in Shanghai be nationally televised, and calling the Chinese government’s bluff by threatening to cancel the event.
“Unlike previous American presidents, Obama went to Asia with a lot of baggage: Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and domestic difficulties,” Pei said. “As a result, he had much less leverage. The Asians want business, but Uncle Sam is not in the mood for more free trade -- the politics in Washington does not allow that. And with sky-high deficits, Obama cannot promise anything else. So he carries neither a stick nor a carrot. It is not a good position to be.”
Pei sees a possible silver lining for the White House. “Because the press coverage of his trip is quite bad, it may have caused some heartburn in Beijing,” Pei said. “Chinese leaders know that a good relationship with Obama will be in China's interest. And a weakened Obama cannot manage U.S.-China ties effectively. So there is a chance that China will do something after the trip is over to show that Obama's visit is not fruitless after all.”