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What Obama means for Asia

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In Brief

There has been no American Presidential election in my lifetime that has been watched with such intense and partisan interest internationally as the election that has just swept Barack Obama into the White House.

Through the prism of the new technologies we’ve watched the detail of Obama’s rise and rise and his eventual triumph over John McCain in a way that wasn’t possible just four years ago when George W Bush defeated John Kerry. But more remarkable than our access to the contest and his access to power through cyber technologies has been our partisanship in the process.

The overwhelming majority in almost every constituency around the globe pumped for Obama’s success. President Obama has passed historic muster before the American electorate and, if the polls are to be believed, would have been elected even more resoundingly by a global constituency, from China to France and assuredly here in Australia where that latest Nielsen poll suggests that 73 per cent of the electorate would have voted for Obama had they had a chance.

We are all proud Americans now.


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Obama’s victory is a triumph of hope in America’s future and hope for America’s positive role in world affairs. Obama brings hope with expectation of change.

McCain and Obama both would have brought hope for America in Asia. Though in very different ways, Asia was part of both men’s formative experience and is an important element in their worldview and international strategic priorities. There are many in Asia, like Prime Minister Taro Aso in Japan who, despite his current and intense East Asian diplomatic initiatives, might have preferred a McCain victory. McCain’s idea of a ‘league of democracies’ might have provided an instrument to keep China more comfortably at bay and his more hawkish foreign policy positions might have provided a surer guarantee of Northeast Asian security. But the main current in policy thinking, in Japan and throughout the rest of Asia, rejects this exclusivist thinking on China, embraces President-elect Obama’s assessment of the limits to America’s hard power in the Middle East and, like him, puts trust in the re-building of soft American power through regional and multilateral engagement.

The rejection of McCain, and the election of Obama, is a rejection of the Bush Administration’s legacy at home and abroad – a damaged economy, diminished standing in world affairs, and the continuing quagmire in the Middle East.

For Asia, Obama’s victory represents a chance to wipe the slate clean on all of that and for America to bolster its standing and influence in the region and the world. In Asia, that is what the overwhelming majority wants, as palpably in China as (exquisitely) in Indonesia or in Australia. A stronger America that commands respect for its openness, its democracy, its generosity, its election of the first African American President is why Asia, too, voted in its heart for Obama. Asia and the world need such an America more than ever it did.

So it’s back to business as usual?

Not at all.

The change in the structure of economic and political power in Asia, the Pacific, the management of the global economic system, the nuclear non-proliferation regime, the problem of climate change: all require nothing less than an historic shift in the paradigm of dealings between America and the rest of the world. Only a paradigm shift will allow the international public goods to be put in place that might address these problems. Across this range of issues, there are no ideas and strategies that yet dominate thinking or show the path towards international consensus. There is an undercurrent of hope that President-elect Obama understands the need for a paradigm shift. But what kind of new paradigm is a question to which both America and the rest of the world have yet to parse an answer.

There are bound to be disappointments, frustrations and impatience as soon as the new Administration gets down to work. Even on the G20 meetings which President Bush has convened in America next week to frame solutions to the urgent problem of instability in the global economic system, President-elect Obama has stood back: there can only be one President at a time he cautioned. Not everybody’s expectations will be met in all respects and dimensions.

But in the enterprise that he has inherited, the new American President has an incredible bank of international and Asian goodwill on which he may draw in forging in cooperative partnership the new institutions in Asia and the Pacific and globally that are needed for dealing with the problems of our time.

One response to “What Obama means for Asia”

  1. There is no doubting that Obama will bring to American foreign policy a far more sophisticated, consultative and nuanced approach that is long overdue. We have all been swept up in this fervour and deservedly so.
    It is however hard to ignore the fact that Obama also espoused a populist rhetoric during the election invoking higher taxes for the wealthy as well as protectionist ideas – suggesting a re-working of NAFTA and acting against companies that outsource jobs by removing their “tax breaks”. Rather than specifically punishing companies that outsource, it is more likely that Obama will use tax credits or incentives to tilt the playing field towards those American companies that avoid shipping jobs overseas.
    It remains to be seen however whether the political realities of high office will catch up with the campaign rhetoric. However the Obama Presidency’s policy approach to WTO and free trade will be interesting, to say the least.

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