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Obama’s empathy — a strategy for America?

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In Brief

President Barack Obama’s political philosophy has been the subject of intense debate in the United States. The protean nature of the President’s pragmatism leaves hardened ideologues frustrated, unable to plot his views on a simple x-y axis. But if you want to know where Obama stands, you need only examine the moral philosophy that undergirds his politics. In this, the most explicit common thread has been the need for empathy in policymaking—placing the ‘empathy deficit’ alongside the budget and trade deficits as structural problems that American strategy must address.

This is no less true of Obama’s instincts on foreign policy than it has been of his instincts on healthcare or judicial nominees; in the preface to the second printing of Dreams from My Father, Obama speaks at length about the need for empathy in foreign policy.


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We saw elements of this interest in empathy in his administration’s early approach to bilateral relationships in Asia. There was a concerted effort to not just listen, but to understand better the concerns of American allies, partners, and other countries in the region, and then address those concerns by making them shared concerns.

The US-Indonesia Comprehensive Partnership Agreement, to be signed when the President finally makes a long-delayed trip to Indonesia next year, is a good example of this effort. The United States made clear early on that it was eager to address Indonesian concerns, as well as American concerns, both because American interests are indeed more ‘comprehensive’ than security and public health—two issues that had previously received much bilateral attention at American insistence—and because such a solicitous approach is likely to build a more durable partnership. The focus on specific deliverables shows that the rhetoric about empathy is backed up by substance, despite the unfortunate postponement of the President’s visit to Indonesia earlier this year.

On the broader issue of regional institutional architecture, however, the administration’s efforts at empathy have been less successful. This past week, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton attempted to address concerns, from Hobart to Hokkaido, that the United States does not particularly care about the results of the ongoing dialogue on architecture, announcing that the United States would join the East Asia Summit next year. But across the region, many observers remain wary of the promise of long-term American commitment.

Asian partners have good reason for concern, not only because of the logistical difficulty in annually conveying the President across the Pacific (which, though illustrated in a particularly unsubtle manner by the continual postponements of this year’s planned visits, has long been a concern of officials on both sides of the Pacific when discussing American inclusion in any organisation). More problematic still, some of the President’s advisors look at the ramen noodle bowl of Asia Pacific institutions—overflowing with complicated, thin, and weak organisations—and wonder what the fuss is all about. Like their predecessors in the Bush administration, they dismiss proposals for greater engagement with institutions that are not ‘results-focused.’

They fail to grasp that concerns about regional institution-building are based as much upon a preoccupation with the construction of regional identity as they are on economic arrangements or the balance of power. The existence of these regional institutions, though their meetings allow officials to brag of very few deliverables, legitimise their members’ claims to inclusion in a regional community. That legitimacy will allow members to make arguments for greater economic and strategic prerogatives within the community as the institutions mature. The question of Asian identity, particularly for the liminal countries like Australia and Japan, is thus foundational.

The failure here is one of empathy—empathy which can and should extend not only to the everyday concerns of those living in the region, but to these strategic preoccupations of their leaders. President Obama’s philosophy and background position him well to turn this failure into a success. As the White House has noted several times in the last year, his personal identity is anchored to the region, as the first ‘Pacific President’— born and raised on Oahu and Java—and he has written eloquently of his formative struggle to shape his own identity.

His interest in empathy, moreover, ought to lead him to the realisation that getting Asia right means showing up when invited, and not just for sentimental reasons—rather, because our partners view American participation in regional organisations and their leaders meetings as constructive of a regional identity that includes the United States, thereby ensuring the long-term legitimacy of the American role in the region.

Aaron Connelly is a fulbright Scholar and visiting fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Jakarta. He is currently a Master of Arts candidate in Security Studies at Georgetown University. He also writes at Jakartica.

This is an article from the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly: ‘Next generation on Asia’.


2 responses to “Obama’s empathy — a strategy for America?”

  1. If one objectively analyse the US president’s involvement in international meetings, is there a cost benefit result or outcome from the US point of view that should determine whether he should attend or not?
    There are definitely serious opportunity costs for the time of the US president, the world’s most powerful country and sole superpower.
    It certainly is not free.

  2. Hasn’t Indonesia been “left at the altar” three times now by Obama?

    I hardly see how this demonstrates a US “eagerness” to address Indonesian concerns, as posited by Mr. Connelly.

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