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Will Obama’s absence from key Asia summit impact U.S. global interests?

October 10, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
While leaders of Asian and Pacific nations held talks and signed trade deals, President Obama stayed home to resolve the shutdown. Judy Woodruff talks to Douglass Paal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former State Department official Kurt Campbell about how missing the forum may impact U.S. global interests.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now back to the government shutdown, its effect on the country’s global interests, and the cost of not being at the table.

Under sunny skies in Bali, Indonesia, this week, leaders of Asian and Pacific nations held high-level talks and signed trade deals, while, in Washington, the weather matched the dismal political atmosphere, and President Obama stayed home.

PRESIDENT PRESIDENT OBAMA: I would characterize it as missed opportunities.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In a news conference Tuesday, he voiced frustration at canceling his trip to deal with the government shutdown and a looming national default.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I had to miss critical meetings in Asia to promote American jobs and businesses. And although, as long as we get this fixed, that’s not long-term damage, whenever we do these things, it hurts our credibility around the world.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Other leaders in Bali were supportive, including Russian President Vladimir Putin.

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PRESDIENT VLADIMIR PUTIN, Russia (through interpreter): We see what is happening in U.S. domestic politics, and this is not an easy situation. I think the fact that the U.S. president didn’t come here is quite justified. I think that, if I was in his situation, I wouldn’t come either.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mr. Obama had hoped to use Bali to advance his pivot to Asia, placing new emphasis on the region. Instead, his absence left Chinese President Xi Jinping with a clear field to try to shore up alliances and strike agreements with neighbors.

PRESIDENT XI JINPING, China (through interpreter):A family of harmony prospers. As a member of the Asia Pacific family, China is ready to live in amity with other family members and help each other out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: At Tuesday’s news conference, the president acknowledged it’s advantage China, at least in the short-term.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I’m sure the Chinese don’t mind that I’m not there right now, in the sense that, you know, there are areas where we have differences, and they can present their point of view and not get as much of pushback as if I were there, although Secretary of State Kerry is there, and I’m sure he’s doing a great job.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kerry also stood in for the president at a separate conference in Brunei, but he canceled a visit to the Philippines, as a tropical storm approached.

For more on all of this, we turn to two men with extensive foreign policy experience. Kurt Campbell was assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs during the first Obama term. He now has his own consulting firm. And Douglas Paal served in the Reagan and Bush administrations at the State Department and on the National Security Council staff. He’s now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Gentlemen, welcome to the NewsHour. It’s good to have you.

Kurt Campbell, to you first.

How big a setback is it that the president couldn’t make these Asian meetings?

KURT CAMPBELL, former State Department official: It’s a bit of a setback, actually. And I think there’s some damage.

I think the good news is that the administration has acknowledged it, hasn’t pretended like it doesn’t exist. And the key is not so much now, because I think, as you heard from some of the Asian leaders, they understand why the president couldn’t make it. But the question is, what will we do subsequently? Will we reschedule the trips? Will we put in place an ambitious agenda, things that we want to accomplish subsequently?

And, more importantly, will this continue to happen? Remember, these kinds of cancellations and domestic problems have plagued us now for several years. And it does raise some questions about whether countries can fundamentally count on us when the going gets tough.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Douglas Paal, how do you see it? How much of a setback?

DOUGLAS PAAL, former National Security Council official: Well, symbolically, the Chinese have really prospered.

The president said it pretty well himself in the take you had from his press conference. The symbolic importance of the United States president not being seen by the populations who support the leaderships who cooperate with us and who are looking for the U.S. to be there as a counterweight to China, there’s some erosion of support there.

And the president can make up for it when he gets back out there in time and works on the kinds of ideas that Kurt was suggesting.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What are the signs of damage? What do you see that’s — what’s already happened or what hasn’t happened that could have?

KURT CAMPBELL: Look, Judy, it’s a very subtle game in Asia. It’s a long-term game, as Doug suggests.

Look, all the countries in Asia want the United States there. We have never been more popular. We have never been more welcome at every table. I think we are in a subtle competition with China. We’re both working with them in some circumstances, and other areas, we’re competing for influence.

Countries want to see that they can rely on us, because they’re being reminded on a regular basis that, look, China says we’re going to be your neighbor for 1,000 years. Can you really count on the United States in certain circumstances?

And so when it comes to that critical trade deal, when it comes to hard determinations about whether you want to work with the United States in the security realm, countries have to think twice. Now, I agree with Doug we can recover from this, but we have to recognize that these have an enduring quality that tend to eat at some of our credibility.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Doug Paal, how does the administration recovery? What are some steps they can take right now?

DOUGLAS PAAL: Well, first, reschedule some of these meetings so that we get out there.

We also have to put a program of cooperative activity, most importantly, push the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is a very substantial trade agreement for this. Waiting for president to the arrive before each of the leaders would put the sensitive issues they’re prepared to compromise on, on the table together with us and our sensitive issues, that’s a big thing that still waits to be done. 

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, in other words, some steps had been taken in the so-called Asia pivot that the president was talking about, but you’re saying the time is now to make these next moves? Is that it?

KURT CAMPBELL: Yes, I agree with that.

But it’s going to take not just one administration, but several to be able to underscore that we recognize as a nation that the history of the 21st century primarily is going to be written in Asian Pacific region. And we have two almost gravitational pulls that make this difficult.

One is really tough enduring problems in the Middle East and South Asia that require American leadership. And we just can’t walk away from those. We have to gradually shift some of our focus. But, at the same time that that’s taking place, we have got a gravitational pull at home with more and more people saying let’s focus more of our attention and domestic pursuits. And our own political domestic dysfunction takes us away from these really pressing challenges in Asia.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Doug Paal, how do our international — other international, whether it’s partners or potential adversaries, how do they see what’s going on in the U.S.? Do they understand our domestic…

(CROSSTALK)

DOUGLAS PAAL: I would say they understand very well at the elite level — at the popular level, not quite so much.

The people kind of wonder why we’re seeing so much of the Chinese, and the Americans not there. And I think that erodes the confidence of leaders to stick with what they know, which is, well, the United States has got good economic fundamentals, demographics, science. We’re going to be around for a long time if they have the will to be there. Two, they have had a little bit of the setback with the second term of the Obama administration.

There’s a perception widely held in East Asia that the team is not as committed to the rebalance to Asia as was the case before, and these things in Syria and Israel and everywhere else have compounded it. And the president’s own policy on how to deal with the Syrian chemical weapons, when he was talking tough, preparing to attack, and then threw it to Congress to decide, really sent a worry through the region.

And now they see Congress again dragging this — dragging the president off his schedule. And they wonder, how enduring are we?

KURT CAMPBELL: Can I take…

(CROSSTALK)

JUDY WOODRUFF: Yes, sure.

KURT CAMPBELL: I agree with Doug.

The other thing is that, among Asian elites, it’s no secret that, traditionally, they favor Republicans. They do, because that they believe that they’re stable on national security and they’re pro-trade. And so they have looked historically to what you might call Eisenhower Republicans as sort of the model of what they see.

When they look at the domestic American political context right now, they do not recognize our politics, and they’re worried about it. In addition, these trips raise a lot of hopes. Just to give you an example, the last visit of a president to Malaysia, Malaysia, one of our top 10 trading partners, was in 1967, dirt streets, Water buffaloes wandering the streets when Lyndon Johnson was there with his 10-gallon hat.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But when you have this kind of disagreement, even dysfunction, going on in Washington, can an administration, can this administration change the perception? Can it get other countries, other leaders to be able to count on U.S. leadership?

DOUGLAS PAAL: I think they can.

We have done it before. Remember, in 1997, we had an inability of the president to travel to one of these meetings. We had two under the Clinton — in the Clinton administration. And, partly, elections reset the tone for relations with these countries. Partly, it’s how we’re doing.

As I say, our fundamentals are pretty good. Our problem is really the governmental sectors, the Congress and the administration unable to get themselves on the same message, whereas the private sector’s doing well, the population is growing, the energy problems are being resolved.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, there’s a lot to think about here, the problems, as we have been discussing, about the government shutdown, not just domestic. They affect the whole world.

KURT CAMPBELL: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kurt Campbell, Douglas Paal, thank you both.

DOUGLAS PAAL: Thank you.

KURT CAMPBELL: Great to be with you. Thank you very much.