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The domestic politics of ignoring high politics

March 22, 2010

Over at Foreign Policy‘s “Shadow Government” blog, there have been a few posts advising Obama on how to handle the planned trip to Asia. Although some might call it “concern trolling,” it really is worth remembering that George W. Bush left office on fairly good terms with the East Asian countries and India. Despite his abysmal reputation across the Atlantic, the 43rd President did not alienate Asia nearly as much, and even improved relations significantly with rising powers such as India.

In Asia today, Obama has not enjoyed nearly as much hospitality as he did in Europe. China’s leadership is clearly not enchanted, India has been uncomfortable with Obama and Holbrooke’s mutterings on Kashmir and Indo-Pakistani relations, and Japan now has a new DPJ government that, while not anti-American, has not made Obama’s job of crafting an East Asian policy any easier.

Canceling your Asia trip does not help deal with this problem. It is not going to impress any Asian leaders, and it is a bad way to conduct one’s foreign policy in general. But here’s the problem – Obama is not Chancellor Bismarck, he’s an elected official accountable to the people. So passing a major reform is going to do a lot more than meeting with diplomats the average American will never hear about. When we are not at war or threat of war, voters do not care much about our diplomacy. They care a lot more about their livelihoods. The Democratic majority, if not Obama himself, is going to have some trouble holding on to power if, while American unemployment is at 10% and there is a mountain of domestic reform to undertake, the president is off courting Asian leaders so he can conduct politics irrelevant to most voters, or worse, “send American jobs overseas.”  So while I would rather live in a world where Obama could spend more time on foreign policy and feel confident Congress would stabilize the US economy, I would not blame him for being cautious.

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