As President Obama moves to his last stop in Asia – South Korea - we can reflect - just a little - on the global governance venues visited by the President. In the span of 7 short days, the President has taken American multilateralism to APEC, the ASEAN 10 and the G2 plus a series of alliance relations including US-Japan and US-South Korea. If nothing else this first Asian trip provides a fair view of US reengagement with Asia and with multilateralism.
It would appear that this reengagement jolts the US media and the 'Washington beltway' types. Particularly with the President’s trip to China and his G2 engagement, the US Washington beltway seems "back on its heels" for the ‘even toned’ mode of this President. Less hectoring and blustery than recent predecessors, the US President avoided publicly lecturing the Chinese leadership on currency, human rights and climate change.
Now the explanation for this more measured attitude is consequential. One view is that the US, weakened by the global financial crisis, can hardly be demanding of the new number two. Far more a supplicant than a demandeur, the President must endure the exercise of power by China. Intoning long-expressed Chinese views of the relationship, the President in the restricted and structured news Conference at the end of talks in Beijing – no questions allowed – found Obama listening to President Hu declare the nature of the G2 relationship: “We will continue to act in a spirit of equality, mutual respect and non-interference in each other's internal affairs.”
A compatible if no less troubling explanation of the President’s measured public statements and venues are the views that the President’s approach is weak. Outmaneuvered by the Chinese and unenthusiastic over democracy promotion, the President was “bullied” into silence by an energized more assertive Chinese leadership. This view –strongly expressed by Republican-leaning commentators and partisans - portrays the President as a weak negotiator apt to accept the supplicant’s role. My own sense is this view is exaggerated and inaccurate. It underestimates the President’s resolve and negotiating skills.
But the ‘talking heads’ may be adjusting to an Administration that means what it says. That is, this Administration has reengaged and multilateralism requires the President and the Administration to be respectful and listen to the other views but also to then build collaboration with deliberate quiet discussion.
This is not your old hegemonic leadership model of multilateralism – “we lead; you follow” kind of multilateralism of the last few decades. Nor is it the “coalitions of the willing” style of leadership so favored by the previous Bush Administration. This is far more, “keep your eye on the ball” effort to speak and listen and build agreement, “piece-by-piece.”
Now this more deliberate approach relies in part on serious private conversation by leaders and hard work to build collaboration and agreement. Mr. Obama has suggested that he raised human rights issues, including Tibet, during two hours of talks between himself and President Hu. If this approach is the preferred approach by this President, it will be difficult to see the fruits of this effort until agreements are worked out. As the President suggested the relationship is a wide global governance agenda:
"The major challenges of the 21st Century from climate change to nuclear proliferation to economic recovery are challenges that touch both our nations, and challenges that neither of our nations can solve by acting alone,
But the proof of the pudding is in the agreement and the decision. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the question of effective global governance is a two-parter: first, collective commitment; but then decision and implementation. Without the second, the first is global rhetoric.So, we need to see if these discussions move the ball on global governance and whether ‘leadership’ is a concept acted on by the China as well as the US.