Missing Hillary Clinton’s Hand in the Asia Rebalance

As John Kerry set course for Asia on another overseas trip this week, he stopped over in a place that has taken up much more of his time: Jerusalem, the epicenter of an Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has bedeviled every American secretary of state since George Marshall, including him.

The State Department, no doubt well aware of the persistent chatter that Kerry, unlike his predecessor Hillary Clinton, has spent way too much on the Middle East quagmires of yesteryear and way too little on the Asian opportunities of tomorrow, was quick to note that it was his fourth trip to Asia since becoming secretary of state.

Those whispers picked up again this week when  Politico Magazine  published a  column  by editor Susan Glasser that set tongues wagging in the foreign policy establishment and beyond—not least for its provocative framing: “Was Hillary Clinton a Good Secretary of State?” Glasser quoted me, categorizing me as a Hilllary booster and a charter member of the “Asia Pivot Was a Really Big Deal crowd.”

I plead guilty to both charges. Hillary’s chief great-power legacy was indeed the rebalancing of U.S. interests toward Asia, and it has been vastly underappreciated by the chattering class. And under Kerry, count me as one of those who worries the Asia rebalance hasn’t gotten enough attention from the administration, too.

Leave aside minor quibbles with Glasser’s article, like the fact that any luck Kerry has with an Iran deal will be a direct result of the sanctions regime that Secretary Clinton, President Barack Obama and others helped impose on the Islamic Republic. The durability of the rebalance is a much larger issue. It transcends any particular secretary of state’s bragging rights. Indeed, having correctly determined that the United States had lost some focus and prestige in the world’s most dynamic region—one that for all its promise, also contains a fair share of its own perils and potential pitfalls too—Obama, having approved the rebalance in the first place, is now at risk of losing the very momentum that his administration had established on the subject in his first term.

Many hear “rebalance” and they think of military steps taken by the United States in recent years. But in fact, these military steps were modest. The reason the rebalance worked is that, led by Clinton but surely with very important input from leadership at the Pentagon and the president himself, the military measures were interwoven into a broader set of policies that was well articulated and clearly conveyed.

Consider the legacy of Obama’s first term on the subject:

  • Numerous U.S. officials traveled frequently to the region, where half the world’s population and nearly half its GDP are found, particularly after China’s growing assertiveness necessitated that Washington send a clear message of resoluteness. The president’s own trip in late 2011 stands in notable contrast to his unfortunate decision to cancel a planned trip this year due to the government shutdown.
  • Under the guidance of secretaries of defense Bob Gates and Leon Panetta, the United States shifted more of its Navy to the broader Pacific region, and launched a few other initiatives such as the occasional rotation of up to 2,500 Marines to Australia. Even if modest, these ideas were welcome—and they did not go so far as to provoke China inappropriately. They were firm but not escalatory.
  • Clinton was stalwart in supporting allies that felt threatened by Beijing, saying so publicly and emphatically in numerous key visits, as in Manila and Southeast Asia. She also called for a multilateral approach, rather than China’s preferred set of bilateral dealings with smaller and weaker neighbors, in settling disputes over contested territories in the South China Sea. Regional states appreciated her willingness to support their interests, and to incur anger from Beijing, in doing so.
  • More generally, Clinton had the confidence and stature to stand up to China without going so far as to demonize it. It is not clear that current cabinet officials yet have comparable clarity in their own thinking, or similar resolve and purpose in their dealings there (though national security adviser Susan Rice did give an important speech on the subject recently, and in fairness, the Obama administration has also done well this year to cooperate with Beijing in tightening sanctions on Pyongyang after North Korea’s third nuclear test).
  • Pentagon leadership, Clinton and other parts of the government worked closely in pulling all this together, coordinating it and ensuring that a number of individually modest steps (for the most part) added up to more than the sum of their parts. Kurt Campbell as assistant secretary of state, Jeffrey Bader in the White House, James Steinberg as deputy secretary of state, Timothy Geithner as secretary of the Treasury, key ambassadors and the trade representative and many others contributed importantly. Most of all, as noted, the president himself traveled the region, including on an important trip in the fall of 2011, giving signature speeches to explain the strategic shift.

To be sure, there were problems and limits in what Clinton in particular, and the government overall, could do in Asia in Obama’s first term. The project there was mission incomplete, as it inevitably must be given that we are only perhaps halfway through the historic process of witnessing China’s great-power ascendance, not to mention the rise of new powers like India and Indonesia. And at times, Clinton herself seemed to overreach a bit, notably in preferring the overly provocative word “pivot” to the more neutral term “rebalance” in describing U.S. goals.

But today, as the Middle East again consumes most of the available diplomatic oxygen, having a bit too much oomph behind an Asia-Pacific policy in the first term seems like a small mistake by comparison. The success of the rebalance should affect how we see Clinton’s legacy. It should also spur more officials in the Obama administration today, as they seek to restore the coherence and credibility of what was a very important and timely strategic initiative that is now in danger of being lost.