When President Obama came to office in January 2009, some hailed him as the first Asia-Pacific president, given his upbringing in Hawaii. Indeed, during his first term, President Obama emphasized a U.S. “rebalance toward Asia” in word and action, traveling extensively within the region in 2011. However, with a full set of domestic policy demands and with major developments in other regions of the world – most notably the Arab Spring, the Syrian conflict, and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process – the sustainability of the administration’s policy shift toward Asia has been called into question.
On March 6, as President Obama prepares for his next scheduled trip to Asia, the Brookings Institution webcasted remarks from former U.S. National Security Adviser Thomas E. Donilon, focusing on the state of U.S.-Asia relations and the genesis and execution of the U.S. rebalance toward Asia. Donilon, who served as U.S. national security adviser from 2010 to 2013 and was a key architect of the rebalance policy, outlined the Obama administration’s shift toward Asia and how that policy might play out in the remaining years of the Obama presidency.
Brookings Board of Trustees Chairman John L. Thornton provided introductory remarks and moderated the discussion. Mr. Donilon took audience questions.
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I think probably that the lesson that [Kim Jong Un is] learning is that he doesn’t have to give up anything and yet people will be scrambling for summits with him. ... The longer we have these drawn-out talks, these summits, bilaterals, trilaterals, quadrilaterals, the more it buys time for them to reinforce their claimed status [as a nuclear power] but also to continue with their R&D. But I do think that there is an element of trying to mitigate the sanctions, and also Kim took all those discussions about military strikes seriously enough to try and take the wind out of the sails. ... I find it difficult to envision how or why he would give up his nuclear weapons, which have pretty much given him what he’s wanted: which is the strategic relevance, the international prestige, and deterrence.
[Regarding President Trump's shift from enthusiasm to uncertainty over the U.S.-North Korea summit] In effect, President Trump is getting a mini-lesson in talking to the North Koreans even before he talks to the North Koreans.
[Kim Jong Un] did not engage diplomatically at all in those first seven years [as the leader of North Korea], probably because he didn’t want to hear the Chinese nagging him about advancing these weapons. And also he wasn’t going to start bargaining or negotiating them away. ... Kim has done a pivot where he’s doing a maximum engagement.