Saturday, November 10, 2012

USA - Obama May Look to Pacific Foreign Policy For His Legacy

Now that the election has reached its denouement, attention is now turned to President Obama's coming second term and what his likely strategy will be for creating a lasting legacy. The full implementation of Obama-Care seems assured, and the White House and congressional Republicans are both showing the first inklings of a willingness to compromise on a budget deal to stave off the impending fiscal cliff.

The President's goals for healthcare, the economy and the budget are relatively easy to identify, but the foreign policy plans of the administration are somewhat murkier. Yet there are early indications that the administration may use its second term to build a robust U.S. presence in Asia and the Pacific.

The lame duck congress provides the President with an opportunity to begin expanding U.S. economic involvement in South East Asia and the around the Pacific Rim and to put the full power and force of the office behind fledgeling democracies like that of Burma (also known as Myanmar). While the negotiations over the fiscal cliff are a major commitment, domestic demands overall will be somewhat lighter until the inauguration, and President Obama has plans for a whirlwind tour of Southeast Asia.

The White House announced Thursday that Obama will become the first ever president to visit Burma. The President plans to visit Burma, along with Cambodia and Thailand, Nov. 17 to 20, according to Politico.

The decision to increase U.S. involvement with Burma was made as a result of democratic reforms in that nation, including the addition of opposition parties to parliament, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, relaxation of press restrictions, expansion of worker rights, and new ceasefires and movement away from the use of child soldiers.

“We have eased sanctions, appointed our first ambassador in 22 years, and opened a USAID mission. At the same time, we have also updated sanctions authorities that allow us to target those who interfere with the peace process or the transition to democracy, and we created a ground-breaking framework for responsible investment from the United States that encourages transparency and oversight,” Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights Samantha Power wrote Friday.

The visit to Burma is a continuation of a philosophy that the Obama Administration first launched during the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East. “America’s interests are served when ordinary people are empowered to chart their own political and economic futures,” Power wrote, adding that nations that “take the risks that reform entails … will have the full support of the United States.”

In recent months, though, Obama has come under pressure to provide more direct support to the ongoing rebellion in Syria, but thus far the U.S. has remained essentially hands-off with that conflict. That difference in approach seems to stem largely from a greater level of trust in Burma's reforms, particularly given the prominent role of Aung San Suu Kyi, than in the movement of the Free Syrian Army. However, the focus on Burma, especially when compared to Syria, also demonstrates certain aspects of the Administration's overall foreign policy plan.

Earlier in the year, the U.S. began deploying the first of a total of 2,500 troops to Australia and a new free trade agreement with South Korea was entered into in March. The President's upcoming visit to Burma, Cambodia and Thailand comes just a few weeks before the next round of negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a broad trade agreement between nine Pacific Rim nations, which notably does not include China.

Obama has increasingly been focusing U.S. foreign policy on the Pacific and Southeast Asia, in part to further his ostensible legacy of helping nations forge democracy, but also in part to strengthen Free Trade agreements and U.S. economic interests in the region in an attempt to thwart growing Chinese economic strength. While Burma is a small player in the world economy and is not a major strategic interest in Southeast Asia, the President's visit is symbolically important in the way it represents the projection of American economic and foreign policy interests around the Pacific.

Benjamin Reeves

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