President Barack Obama’s delayed visit to East Asia—finally carried out this month after domestic politics forced him to skip key summits last fall—was supposed to highlight America’s seriousness about rebalancing its foreign policy attention to the Asia-Pacific region. Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, spoiled the narrative, as the ongoing crisis in Ukraine continues to suck up most of the oxygen of the U.S. foreign policy process. Unlike earlier Obama peregrinations overseas, this trip did not generate blockbuster headlines or do much to burnish U.S. global leadership.
Some pundits are already writing off the entire “pivot” to Asia as a failed strategy that the administration cannot execute. With two and half years left in office, the Obama administration still has time to lay the strategy’s foundations, but it will require some hard decisions—and strict internal discipline—to pull off.
First and foremost, it must now be recognized that any rebalance to Asia will not be achieved in the political lifetime of this administration, to be bequeathed fully formed to a successor. To what extent would a Democratic successor to Obama maintain his efforts? If Hillary Clinton is the next U.S. president, one would expect a high degree of continuity, given her involvement in rolling out the whole concept of the pivot. But there are no guarantees. After all, at this point in 2006, she was considered to be a shoo-in for the nomination—until a one-term senator from Illinois disrupted those plans. And, at any rate, would a new Democratic president continue to negotiate trade pacts that still have determined opposition from major constituencies within the Democratic Party?