On Asia Trip, Obama Will Ask for Many Favors

Barack Obama will be all smiles as he heads to Singapore—a mere 560-mile hop from his childhood stomping grounds in Jakarta—for his first presidential summit meeting in Asia this week. But Obama has little choice but to offer up a smile—the smile of the importunate. That will be especially true when the president stops off in China and seeks to encourage America's new policy of "strategic reassurance," as Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg called it last month. "Strategic reassurance" is the term U.S. officials are now using to describe America's posture vis a vis China "as well as other emerging powers like India and Brazil, while protecting our own national interests," Steinberg said. It's all very mutual, a "tacit bargain," as Steinberg called it. It goes like this: America will welcome the rise of China and the rest, and in return we will ask to be reassured by these emergent powers that they won't be mean to us in the future. We've come a long way from the days when American officials demanded that China become a "responsible stakeholder" or face the opprobrium of the U.S.-dominated global system. (Click here to follow Michael Hirsh). (Story continued below...)

In keeping with this new, humbler U.S. profile, Obama is going to Asia with very little to offer and everything to ask. His every movement and talking point in China will be shadowed by the knowledge that the United States desperately needs Beijing to keep buying U.S. debt (of course the Chinese also need U.S. growth to resume quickly so they can keep exporting). He will do little to press President Hu Jintao on human rights or climate change, even with the Copenhagen summit looming. With no legislation on carbon emissions likely from Congress—Obama tends to defer to the Hill on everything from health care to financial reform to climate change—in Copenhagen the administration's goals have been reduced to "not letting it fail," as one Western official put it. In Japan and South Korea, Obama will have nothing new to offer on what those two countries consider the preeminent security threat, North Korea.

And in Singapore, the site of the APEC economic summit, Obama's bilateral meeting with Russian President Dimitry Medvedev will be dominated by U.S. pleas for help in containing Iran's nuclear program, according to U.S. and European officials. After a somewhat promising start on Oct. 1 in Geneva, the nuclear talks with Tehran are going nowhere, with the Iranians balking at a deal to ship their uranium abroad for enrichment and refusing to agree to an agenda for further talks.

Obama believes the new hard line out of Iran has to do with political paralysis in the wake of the election turmoil there. With the various power factions maneuvering for political advantage, Iran's radical president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is actually taking a softer position on the nuclear fuel issue right now than some reformers like Mir Hossein Mousavi, the losing presidential candidate. Ahmadinejad wants the deal with the West; Mousavi has criticized it, playing on Iranian fears that Tehran will never get the uranium back if it gets shipped abroad. "It is a battle of who can look tougher and less pro-American," said a senior diplomatic official who is deeply involved in the talks. Under the deal, Iran was to send most of its low-enriched uranium to Russia for further enrichment and then to France to be processed into civilian fuel rods, which were to be returned to Iran for use in the Tehran Research Reactor. Obama and other officials hope to get Medvedev and other senior Russians to persuade Tehran that it is in its interest to come to an understanding, at least on the fuel-shipment deal, before a scheduled meeting of the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency at the end of the month.

Also hovering in the backdrop of Obama's Asia visit will be a sense of "I told you so" from many Asian governments. For nearly two decades Washington dismissed the alternative route to development that many of the Asian economies had discovered—the so-called Asian "model" of maintaining partially closed economies and heavily regulated financial systems. The Asians were pressed hard to open their financial markets, and when China and Japan resisted they were branded as retrograde. Similarly, when the Asian financial contagion hit in the late '90s the Asians were told their own policies were to blame. Now America is still half underwater from the untrammeled and unregulated flow of capital it once unleashed upon others. Obama will not be dispensing much economic advice on this trip.

Yes, the president's trip to Asia will be something of a homecoming for him. In the late 1960s he was a happy-go-lucky kid growing up in Jakarta, enjoying his exotic new surroundings but also savoring visits to the place he came to see as a symbol of hope and opportunity, the U.S. Embassy's American Club. It was in Jakarta that Obama came to appreciate both the powerlessness of his native companions and the status that came from having a white American mother, Ann, who worked for the U.S. Embassy. "He was at an age when you first begin to see what's going on," Ben Rhodes, one of Obama's speechwriters, told me before the election. "And what he saw was that America had something other people wanted."

Today, however, it is mainly America that wants things from other people.