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Precarious progress: Mark Landler discusses the pivot to Asia and its future under Trump

Photograph of Mark LandlerMark Landler has covered American foreign policy for The New York Times since the inauguration of Barack Obama in 2008, first as diplomatic correspondent, and since 2011, as White House correspondent. In 24 years at the The Times, Landler has been the newspaper's bureau chief in Hong Kong and Frankfurt, European economic correspondent, and a business reporter in New York. Mr. Landler was interviewed on November 29, 2016 by Aleena Ali CMC '17.

Photograph and bio courtesy of Mr. Landler

To what degree did the pivot to Asia indicate the competing visions of President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton? 
The pivot to Asia was an issue where there was more congruence and less conflict, partly because it was less about the question of military intervention and whether the U.S. needed to intervene in a foreign conflict. It was more about where the long-term national priorities of the U.S. should be. Both Clinton and Obama agreed on this and were united on the idea that Asia was where the long-term future of the United States’ national priorities lay. However, there were differences of nuance between them. Clinton’s view of China was the product of her own and her husband’s experience with it, resulting in her viewing China in a classic great-power framework. Obama had a more personal view of China that was rooted in his experience of having spent part of his childhood in Indonesia. Consequently, he viewed China through the lens of Southeast Asia, where China is viewed with some suspicion because of its would-be-hegemonic role in the region. Although both of them recognized the centrality of China and were suspicious of it, they were suspicious on different grounds. Obama was more culturally suspicious and Clinton was more suspicious in a classic geopolitical way, and she viewed China as a rising power whose interests are bound at some point to collide with the interests of the U.S. However, to the extent that they both wanted to undertake the pivot, there was more agreement than disagreement between them.

In Alter Egos, you reference a number of factors that contributed to the conceptualization and undertaking of the pivot to Asia. Could you elaborate these? In what manner did Clinton and Obama’s political calculations motivate and shape their respective efforts in Asia?

Hillary Clinton came into an administration that was determined to maintain control of many of the large foreign policy portfolios within the White House, such as the relationships with Russia and Iran, and the Middle East peace process. These portfolios were held at the White House. Therefore, in the first year or two of her tenure, Clinton was seeking regions where she could make her mark. Asia was one of those regions, partly because President Obama, despite his interest in Asia, was so preoccupied for the first year and a half by the financial crisis and recession, that he was unable to engage with Asia policy. Although he undertook a trip to Asia in 2009, he canceled three different trips to Indonesia for a variety of reasons, such as the government shutdown, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and issues revolving around Obamacare. He was unable to really engage in Asia, as there were always competing domestic interests. 

Hillary saw an opportunity to make her mark in Asia, and led the way accordingly. She had a fairly entrepreneurial assistant secretary, Kurt Campbell, who recognized that Asia was a region where the State Department could take the lead. It was his innovation to focus on rebuilding America’s presence in southeast Asia as a counterweight to China, and Hillary enthusiastically embraced this idea. 

As the policy began to coalesce, take shape and start looking promising, President Obama had become less preoccupied domestically and started looking outward to a greater extent. He viewed this initiative as having real promise and, in a sense, co-opted it. During the fall of 2010, he went on an important trip to Asia and announced the Trans-Pacific Partnership. 

He visited Asia again, and announced his pursuit of a diplomatic opening with Burma, an initiative that Hillary Clinton took the lead on. Both of them wanted to be attached to the Asia policy. But Clinton, by virtue of having recognized this opportunity earlier in the administration, made the first move and was later joined by Obama. 

How indispensable were Clinton’s efforts to the fruition of the pivot to Asia? How critical was the groundwork she laid early on in her tenure for Obama’s consequent efforts? Do you think her unique strengths enabled her to do so? 

I agree that Clinton’s efforts were indispensable, and that her strengths enabled her to undertake them. In particular, her emphasis on Southeast Asia, which goes back to the signing of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in 2009, was vital to re-injecting the U.S. into a region, where it had been absent since the Vietnam war. Clinton played a vital role in recognizing this opportunity and seizing it, and engaged in a considerable amount of traveling through the region and really pushed hard for initiatives such the opening to Burma. 

In many ways, Clinton laid the building blocks. However, in order to make the initiative successful, the president needed to get involved and it needed to be a presidential initiative. Therefore, by the time President Obama became personally engaged with the initiative, he needed to take it to the next step. However, had Clinton decided, as Condoleezza Rice had, to not focus on Asia, the groundwork would not have been there for the President to do what he was able to later in his term and during his second term. 

In Alter Egos, you described the Asian strategy under Obama-Clinton as a fruitful collaboration between the White House and State Department. However, to what extent did dynamics between the two adversely impact policies towards South Asia, particularly towards Afghanistan and Pakistan? 

It is possible that the dynamics between the White House and State Department adversely impacted policies towards South Asia. However, a significant portion of the South Asia strategy and relationship was being handled by Richard Holbrooke, who was the Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan. As there were considerable differences between the White House and the State Department regarding U.S. policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan, South Asia did not receive the kind of coordinated attention that it might have otherwise. However, a civil nuclear deal was signed with India and the India-U.S. relationship greatly improved regarding understanding around issues such climate change, especially during Obama’s second term. The India-U.S. relationship was not considerably mishandled, but it is fair to say that due to the conflicts between the White House and State Department, it was not as coordinated a strategy as it could have been. 

What were the principal factors that contributed to the gradual de-escalation of American engagement in Asia after Clinton’s term as secretary of state. What role did the dynamics prevalent between and respective motivations of Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry play? 

A number of factors contributed to the gradual de-escalation. First, John Kerry was not as viscerally attracted to the pivot to Asia as Clinton was. Kerry viewed himself in a traditional Secretary of State mode, and was very interested in the Middle East. After becoming secretary of state, he invested a large amount of time in the peace process, and thus which couldn’t spend as much time on other issues. Although there were certain issues that he was interested in that involved Asia, such as climate change, for which he continued to engage with China and India, he was not as engaged as Clinton was on regional security issues in Asia. 

Second, the elements of the pivot started becoming more problematic during Obama’s second term. They became problematic in a manner that both Kerry and the White House did not have a great deal of control over. For example, budget cuts in the U.S. meant that it was unable to undertake significant military engagement in the region, such as shifting forces to the Pacific theatre, as they had maybe thought of doing in the first term. 

The Trans Pacific Partnership also began running into political problems in the U.S. Therefore, two of the three legs of the pivot became quite problematic. In addition to the pivot itself showing weakness, Obama and Kerry didn’t have quite as good a story to tell about it to domestic audiences, resulting in them placing less focus on it. Both due to Kerry’s own interests and preoccupations, and the realities of the pivot, there was a gradual de-escalation. 

Six years after the pronounced of the pivot to Asia strategy, how would you assess its achievements? According to your observations of the reactions of Asian leaders and members of the public, did President Obama’s most recent trip to Asia signal a loss of interest regarding America’s engagement with and role in the region?

The President ran into a number of problems, many of which revolved around trade. The leaders of many of these countries, A lot of these countries, such as Vietnam, Japan and Malaysia, took fairly large political risks to sign onto TPP. As the deal has run into a dead-end in the United States, they have been put in a tough situation with their publics. During his most recent trip to Asia, President Obama was attempting to reassure them that domestic obstacles in the U.S. will be overcome and the virtues of TPP will become clear, even if that occurs in the next presidency. 

However, President Obama’s last trip was prior to the election in September, a time when such an argument could be made. Even though Hillary Clinton had come out against the TPP during the elections, many dismissed her objections to the TPP as political calculations that she would reverse once she was elected. President Obama attempted to bring this message during his trip. 

However, the problem now is that the deal is dead; Donald Trump will not revisit the TPP and there is no future for it under his presidency. To the extent that the TPP was the main driver of the pivot, the pivot looks a lot less powerful than it did. President-elect Trump didn’t refer to the pivot during his campaign, and it is unlikely to be a priority both for him and his secretary of state. 

We’ve arrived at a tough situation, in which a lot of very valuable work was done with regards to U.S. engagement in Asia and the U.S. was making an impact in the region. One of the initiatives that President Obama pioneered during his tenures, and I went to several of these meetings while on foreign trips with him, was organizing town hall meetings with young southeast Asians, where he would bring together young people from all over the region and conduct wide-ranging conversations about numerous issues, such as democracy, freedom of the press and economic growth. These were some of the most enthusiastic conversations I’ve watched Obama have, and the students greatly enjoyed talking to him. 

However, Donald Trump is unlikely to prioritize undertaking such initiatives. I fear that a lot of the advances that the U.S. made in Asia will be lost in the next four years, and it will have to start over afterward. However, these advances can be made again; the United States was more or less absent from southeast Asia for 10 or 15 years, and in the space of six or seven years, it made substantial progress in re-establishing its ties with the region. Therefore, U.S. engagement can wax and wane, however the unfortunate scenario regarding the pivot currently is that a substantial amount of work was done, but it has a very, very uncertain future. 

Moving on from campaign rhetoric and examining the dynamics that are taking shape in Washington right now, what outcomes is a Trump presidency likely to yield for American engagement in Asia? 

The pivot has not been a priority for Trump during the campaign, and is unlikely to be a priority during his presidency. I haven’t heard that it will be a priority during the next four years from either Trump or his team. I have been in touch with individuals such as Kurt Campbell, who wrote a book called The Pivot and was one of its architects, and they are in a state of mild despair regarding the futility of the work they did. Therefore, the outlook is not promising. 

Do you think developments in Asia during the next four years might compel the Trump presidency to take on a greater role? 

The obvious issue is China. China will take advantage of any absence of the U.S. to make even greater inroads into the South China Sea and in its trade ties with its neighbors. The Chinese have already started their own equivalent of the World Bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Therefore, the threat in Asia is that any vacuum left by the United States will be filled by China. We can already witness this in places such as the Philippines, where the new president has been fairly public about allying with China over the United States, even though the United States has concluded a number deals with him regarding military bases, and is a treaty ally of the Philippines. At least in this one case, we are beginning to see a shift in emphasis toward China. 

Therefore, the question is the following; if Donald Trump and his administration observe China making substantial inroads into the South China Sea and pull the Philippines into its orbit, will geopolitical considerations compel them to prevent that from happening? Or will their attitude be to let the Chinese control the entire area? Hillary Clinton would have competed and would have made that her focus. My slight concern about Trump is that he is more inclined to say that these are great powers and entitled to their spheres of influence, which may lead to the Russians having a sphere of influence in central and eastern Europe and the Chinese having a sphere of influence in the South China Sea and in Southeast Asia. If that happens, it is highly likely that the Chinese take advantage of the vacuum left by the U.S. 

Aleena Ali