AMERICA’S OBAMA

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Image source: Nadav Kander for TIME

On January 20, the Obama Era of American history will come to a close. Like many of his predecessors, he leaves behind a contentious legacy that is sure to occupy the attentions of historians and biographers for decades to come. His supporters make him seem like a paragon of virtue and liberal ideals, while his opponents portray him as a socialist demagogue determined to destroy America. Now that his administration is passing into history, it seems fair and obvious that neither description really fits. So what kind of leader was he?

While some of Obama’s most contentious and consequential policies, like his signature initiative, the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), are beyond the scope of this blog, his foreign policy was important, and it’s worth taking a look back at what he managed to accomplish — and whether his policy will have an enduring impact.

Obama’s foreign policy was shaped above all by the legacy of his immediate predecessor, George W. Bush. Bush started 2 wars — in Afghanistan and Iraq — and created an enduring image of America as an oppressive bully, especially in the Muslim world. Obama — capitalizing on a growing war-weariness among the American public, even among Republicans — sought to put an end to this and project an image of a nicer, gentler, more reasonable America. Always a critic of the Iraq War, which had been a personal project of Bush and his oil industry buddies anyway, he wasted little time in pulling American troops out, which was finished in 2011. He made a concerted effort to reassure ordinary Muslims that America wasn’t Islamophobic and thuggish, for instance by giving a speech with these themes at Egypt’s prestigious Cairo University in 2009. He made some efforts to distance America from Israel’s right-wing policies like building settlements in the West Bank and launching repeated wars against the Gaza Strip.

While Obama successfully differentiated himself from Bush (he is beloved in Europe and even received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009), it’s hard to discern how pacifist America has really become. He never really ended the war in Afghanistan; after an ineffectual “surge” (sudden increase in troops) in 2009, he pulled troop numbers down to 10,000, which remain in Afghanistan in an advisory role to support the fragile government there. It remains unstable, violent and messy.

America was caught off-guard by the turbulence of the Arab Spring of 2011, and Obama had to play a delicate balancing act, pressuring Arab dictators to step down or at least heed the protesters’ demands without really withdrawing support or taking the protesters’ side. As a result, he alienated both sides. When Egypt lapsed back into dictatorship in 2013, he reaffirmed America’s old support for the Egyptian military. He supported Saudi Arabia’s war against a Shi’ite uprising in Yemen. He went to war in the air over Libya to ensure a rebel victory there.

Looming over all of this in Obama’s foreign policy legacy is the disastrous war in Syria, born out of Bashar al-Assad’s repression of the protests there. Amidst international clamor for the US to get involved there, he dithered. The one time he did threaten to attack Syria was in retaliation for a poison gas attack in Damascus in 2013, and that ended peacefully with the removal and destruction of Syria’s sarin gas stockpile. Instead, America’s attention has been fixated on the Islamic State, a jihadist rebel group in east Syria and northern Iraq. Ever since its dramatic expansion and declaration of a caliphate (transnational Islamic empire) in 2014, America has been bombing it relentlessly in concert with other concerned Western and regional countries. Given repeated Islamic State terrorist attacks in Europe and America, it’s hard to say that the policy is succeeding so far.

In other words, Obama has had to reconcile his desire for a more dovish foreign policy with the demands of national security. Mindful of domestic concerns about terrorism, he’s fought jihadists as hard as Bush did, but with an emphasis on drone strikes and commando operations to take them out. The former is how he killed Anwar al-Awlaqi, an American propagandist for suicide terrorism living in Yemen; the latter is how Usama bin Ladin, the head of al-Qaeda and mastermind behind the devastating terrorist attack of 2001, met his fate. He is as hard-nosed and ruthless as Bush when it comes to killing terrorists, but with a marked preference for methods other than full-on war and the messy and difficult state-building that comes with it. Whether his strategy actually makes America safer remains to be seen; it seems hard to imagine a real reduction in terrorism without a serious change in Muslim attitudes, since many of them have marked America and the West in general as the enemy and will persist in fighting it until something changes their minds.

The other aspect of Obama’s nicer foreign policy was a willingness to accommodate rogue and unfriendly regimes. Here he has had more obvious success. First came Myanmar, an isolated and repressive dictatorship long subject to international sanctions and criticism. In response to increasing Chinese encroachment, it offered to open up its political system in the hopes that America would then lift its sanctions and let it open up its economic system. It did, and Obama even visited Myanmar to celebrate its new international posture in 2012 and 2014. Several ongoing conflicts notwithstanding, Myanmar now seems headed on a more successful and promising path. Then came Iran, a vital player in West Asian politics isolated by its strident anti-Americanism, threats against Israel and nuclear program. Although Obama’s initial overtures toward the Iranian regime were rebuffed, a punishing round of international sanctions brought it to the negotiating table after a more accommodating president was elected in 2013. The resulting deal on its nuclear program forced Iran to make real concessions at relatively little cost to the US. Finally, there was Cuba, a Communist country embargoed by America for decades. America’s rigid isolation of it seemed outdated and ineffective long before Obama came to power, and he seized upon opening diplomatic relations with it as an easy way to score a political victory and appease annoyed Latinos. Tourism has picked up and momentum is building for increasing commercial and personal ties with the island.

But in all of these cases, it’s unclear if the progress America has made will be sustained after Obama leaves office. His replacement, Donald Trump, has a much more sour view of the world, and Republicans in general tend to view good relations with sketchy regimes as a sign of weakness and/or appeasement. Myanmar might be playing the outside world for quick and easy money, and the much-loathed military still has effective veto power. Iran still supports Shi’ite militias in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen and remains deeply skeptical of American intentions. Cuba remains under an embargo with an anti-American Communist dictator. There are a few anti-American countries Obama wasn’t able to woo, like Venezuela and North Korea; Trump will have to deal with them.

Another one is Russia. Although Russia wasn’t quite an enemy state or rogue regime, relations with America had suffered in the later years of the Bush presidency. Obama hoped to “reset” relations and be more cooperative. It didn’t work: Russia got freaked out by the unrest of the Arab Spring and American support for anti-government protests in Russia in 2011-12, seeing America’s relations with dictatorships as a way for it to undermine them. In 2014 Russia stopped the pretense that it is a “normal” country and annexed Crimea in retaliation for a popular uprising in Ukraine. Since then it has upped the ante with an insurgency in east Ukraine, anti-Western propaganda, ominous military exercises, bellicose rhetoric and electoral shenanigans in the West (including America). Obama has responded with international sanctions and increased (financial) support for Ukraine. While Republicans at first thundered that these strategies were way too soft, they’ve since flipped (thanks to Trump) and complain that Obama is unfairly and ineffectually isolating Russia. Trump seems to want to be friends with Russia, or at least reach some sort of accord, so Obama’s relations with Russia may go down in history as his most ineffective and inconsequential foreign initiative.

Another 1 of Obama’s goals was to “pivot to Asia.” With fond memories of a childhood spent in Indonesia, he saw East Asia as a golden opportunity for spreading American influence, business and cultural norms in a region intimidated by the rise of China and with rapidly fading memories of the brutish America that ruined Vietnam. Despite the unending stream of crises coming out of West Asia, he saw East Asia as the true fulcrum of global power in the 2000s. He deployed American troops to the Philippines and Australia, cozied up to Vietnam and India, hosted leaders from ASEAN (the Association of South-East Asian Nations), sent naval patrols through the South China Sea, and quietly encouraged better relations between the crucial allies of Japan and South Korea.

The linchpin of this pivot was the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation grouping of Asian, Oceanian, North and Latin American countries eager for free trade, transparent business practices, and standardization of goods and services. After years of expecting the agreement to be just around the corner, especially after the normally globalist Republicans took both houses of Congress in 2014, the initiative faced a stunning defeat when Trump got elected, since he hates globalization. Despite continued interest in the deal from Japan (the other dominant partner), the future of the partnership without America looks uncertain. This defeat, combined with China’s renewed diplomatic, economic, and military overtures in East Asia, makes the importance of the pivot dubious. Asians always doubted how committed America was to their region, and betting too much on American influence seemed risky given that it’s not an Asian country. With Trump’s election, the Philippines’ new president caustically spurning America, and a chill in Thai-American relations after a coup there in 2014, it’s more common now to read dismissive evaluations of the pivot.

With ongoing war in Afghanistan and Iraq, a bloody mess in Syria, aggressive counter-terrorism operations, a newly hostile Russia, and a China apparently determined to gradually shove America out of East Asia, it might seem that Obama’s foreign policy record is bleak. There is certainly plenty of ammo for his critics to harp on and the rosy evaluations of his fans seem far-fetched or out of touch with reality. But Obama’s greatest success was in projecting a certain image of America, of reminding the world that the Texan “cowboy” caricature embodied by Bush is only 1 side of America’s identity. For all the cynical politicians who saw him as a naive weakling ripe for manipulation, there were an equal or greater number who appreciated his diplomatic, reasonable, nuanced approach and easygoing style. His interest in issues like regulating carbon emissions to limit the effects of climate change or promoting a bigger electricity grid in Africa won him many admirers, as did his willingness to engage with “ordinary” people in townhall events in India, China and Vietnam. His warm relations with other world leaders made it much easier to throw together international efforts like the sanctions against Iran and Russia, the nuclear deal with Iran, and the coalitions against Libya and the Islamic State.

Obama is often described as a “cool” president, both because he’s a pretty chill guy who relates well to ordinary people and because he takes a levelheaded, pragmatic approach to policy. He embraced Bill Clinton’s worldview — an America ready to use military force when (it feels that it’s) needed but more inclined toward soft power, like diplomacy, commercial pressure and foreign aid. He also took cues from Republican presidents like Dwight Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush (“First Bush”), who used America’s formidable military power but opted for restraint and deft diplomacy in more delicate situations. And if I may indulge in a personal opinion here, I believe that his background — a mixed-race man with a father of a different nationality and a childhood spent partially overseas — has shaped his worldview somewhat. Traditional American foreign policy credos like “America must be the world’s policeman, intervening in trouble spots to uphold international law & order” or “America is a liberal bastion of the best political, economic, and ideological systems ever invented and we should spread them wherever we can” are favored by the white, Protestant “Eastern Establishment” that has long dominated American politics and especially foreign policy. Obama is probably better able to see the world and its issues from a different perspective — that of the browner parts of the globe, who regard America with at least a little apprehension given its overwhelming power and influence.

Obama’s foreign policy was only a partial success. Too often people went easy on him for just Not Being Bush instead of what he actually did. In cases like Russia and Syria (which combined to horrifying effect near the end of his 2nd term), he didn’t always seem to know what to do. The world may now face yet another side of the American identity as Trump revises American foreign policy along his own lines. But Obama’s foreign policy may yet prove to be as inspirational to those who care about this stuff as his domestic policy was to young, liberal Americans. It suggests an America that’s not overbearing, loud, or obnoxious, that knows how to rub elbows and build careful strategic relationships and project a positive image to the world, yet also willing to strike hard and fast when world order or its own security is at threat. Most likely, more people will regret Obama’s departure than cheer it.

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FOREIGN POLICY IN THE US PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION

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Image sources: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images and Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP/Scanpix

The American presidential election has dominated global news headlines for the past year. Although it mostly falls outside the scope of this blog, on the eve of the election it is helpful to learn more about the role foreign policy has played in it. After all, the US remains the most important country in the world, yet its foreign policy is often ignored in presidential campaigns.

The Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, has wide-ranging policy expertise, including as Secretary of State (foreign minister) from 2009 to 2013. She is a fixture of high-level politics, having played an active role in it as First Lady during the 1990s and cultivating close relationships with world leaders through the Clinton Foundation, a nonprofit focusing on international development issues. As such, she has earned the respect and sometimes admiration of politicians (and more) around the world. She is certainly well-versed in international politics; she visited 112 countries during her tenure as Secretary of State.

As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton advanced the foreign policy views of her husband, former president Bill Clinton. This means a commitment to America’s relationships and a positive image of America as global benefactor and role model (“soft power”), while occasionally resorting to intimidation, threats and force (“hard power”) to cow uncooperative countries into line. They spouted lots of rhetoric about human rights, free markets and political participation while resorting to outright intervention mostly in cases where America’s strategic interests were at stake. This has become more or less the norm in American diplomacy, and while foreigners sometimes grumble about hypocrisy or imperialism, by and large the world admires America’s safeguarding of a durable international order and its role model of a thriving, capitalistic, pluralistic society. She has been particularly interested in development, arguing in her 1996 book It Takes a Village that broad community-level support is important for successful child-raising. She is also involved in women’s issues, meeting with women’s groups in especially sexist countries and calling for more participation of women in public life, reasoning that many global problems are exacerbated (or caused) by too much testosterone and the systematic exclusion of half the population.

During the 2008 presidential election, when Hillary Clinton unsuccessfully ran for the Democratic nomination against Barack Obama, differences over foreign policy came into stark focus. Although both criticized George Bush’s adventurism in Iraq and aloof attitudes toward traditional European allies, Clinton turned out to be the more hawkish of the 2. (After all, she had initially supported the invasion of Iraq, as had many Americans.) She scorned Obama’s willingness to meet with leaders of rogue states like Iran or North Korea — the remaining members of Bush’s “Axis of Evil” — as naive and indicative of Obama’s inexperience. Then as his secretary of state she ended up carrying out many of the same policies she had critiqued. Taking advantage of a new Russian president, the relatively sympathetic Dmitriy Medvedyev, she tried to “reset” Russo-American relations and cooperate with a country that America had had testy relations with. She also held back in Syria as that country dissolved into sectarian civil war. She still proved to have a somewhat harsh view of foreign policy compared to Obama, though: she imposed sanctions on Iran after initial efforts to come to terms were snubbed, she bombed Libya in support of a rebellion against its dictator, Moamar Gadafi, and she was involved in the covert mission that killed America’s archnemesis, Osama bin Ladan.

Thus Clinton is seen as the “continuity” candidate, adopting a moderate, traditionally American course of action between the usual twin poles of American foreign policy, militant interventionism and so-called “isolationism” (which is really only isolationist in comparison). She accepts the nationalist American ideology of the US as a beacon of hope and opportunity for the world and sees spreading its gospel to new territories like the Arab world and Myanmar as her mission. While she’s not as bold in this regard as Republican predecessors like Bush or Ronald Reagan, her views are hawkish enough to give some people pause. For instance, she is critical of Obama’s policy on Syria and has long argued for a “no-fly zone,” meaning designating an area in Syria as a safe zone and shooting down any planes that enter it, and more aid for Syrian rebels. She has also taken a hard line on Russia (she reportedly was skeptical of the reset), arguing that its dictator, Vladimir Putin, shouldn’t be trusted and pushing for tighter sanctions and more aid for Ukraine, its victim. On the other hand, there’s no sign that she would be interested in outright invading a country without international or local support.

The Republican candidate, Donald Trump, on the other hand, has a radically different foreign policy. His campaign is built on a strongly protectionist agenda. He launched it last year with a vow to cut off immigration from Mexico with a wall along the border. Not only that, but he’s said that Mexico will pay for it. How this will happen is unclear, although he’s said that he will pressure Mexico to do it by cutting off remittances from Mexican-Americans. His animosity against Mexican immigrants stems from the belief that they are taking American jobs, a longstanding Republican gripe. He is also critical of free trade, repeatedly slamming Clinton for her husband’s support of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Canada and Mexico and her previous support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an ambitious 12-country trade deal covering the Americas, Oceania and East Asia (she has since turned against it as well). He is especially enraged by China, which is sometimes seen as America’s chief economic rival, and vows to slap a punitive 45% tariff on Chinese-made goods. Given how many things in American markets are made in China, this will doubtless hurt consumers a lot.

Trump’s other major campaign promise in 2015, made in response to a mass murder committed by Muslims that year, was to cut off Muslim immigration entirely. It’s unclear how this will be enforced, and he has since walked back his sweeping declaration (“a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on”) a little to “extreme vetting” of immigrants from places with a history of terror. In this he represents a hard-line version of Republican orthodoxy, which is to take stern measures against terrorism and Muslims with radical beliefs, although the explicit connection of the Muslim religion with his ban makes many uncomfortable and may not be constitutional. This logic is carried over to apply to America’s campaign against the Islamic State, which he has vowed to “bomb the shit out of,” including their families. He is ready to bring back waterboarding and other methods of torture. He has a secret plan to defeat the Islamic State which he won’t divulge until after the election. After destroying Iraq’s oil infrastructure to strangle the Islamic State, oil companies would then rebuild it and the US will somehow take it for itself. He also pumped up a crowd once during the campaign by telling a (false) story from the Philippine War about an American general mass-executing Muslim guerrillas with bullets dipped in pigs’ blood.

In these ways Trump seems to fit in with the usual Republican foreign policy stance, which is to be hard on national security and fiercely protective, to the point of belligerence, of Americans and American interests abroad. But in many ways he is not. Most of his foreign policy views are throwbacks to the pre-World War II isolationist era, when Americans viewed the rest of the world with suspicion and disdain and ignored it as much as possible. He claims to have been against the Iraq War from the beginning, and in any case opposes it now, using it as a tool to bludgeon Clinton with. Probably recognizing that most Americans — including his base of support, the rural lower class — don’t really care about foreign politics, he calls for a sweeping withdrawal of American commitments overseas. He wants to pull America out of NATO unless other members pay more for it. He has threatened to do the same with Japan and South Korea, claiming that he doesn’t see the benefits of America’s alliances with them, unless they assume a more equal position. He is willing to let both countries develop their own nuclear weapons rather than promise to protect them from China’s and North Korea’s.

So Trump represents a sharp break from the Republican party on this as well as on domestic policy. Many Republicans have a bombastically nationalist, almost evangelist view of America and are eager to spread American money, influence, and troops around the world. Trump has a nationalist agenda (his motto is to “Make America Great Again,” after all), but he reaches different conclusions: America should mind its own business and focus on restoring the American economy and American jobs. The rest of the world is mostly seen as a threat, either from nasty terrorists, job-stealing immigrants or scheming businessmen. He is a businessman with no political experience, and unsurprisingly he tends to take a transactional view of things, constantly emphasizing “deals,” vowing to be the greatest dealmaker ever and approaching relationships with a cold, mercantile eye, rather than as a friend or enemy. (His best-selling book is called The Art of the Deal.) This has informed his stance on Russia, where he makes the strongest break from general Republican foreign policy opinion. He has openly admired Putin (even claiming him as a friend a few years ago), sought to do business with Russia, and expressed a willingness to work with it over thorny issues like Syria or Ukraine. His strongman style has provoked fears that he may be sympathetic to dictators as guys who get things done. His former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, had business ties in Russia and Ukraine, and he once advised ousted Ukraine president Viktor Yanukovich.

There are other candidates, but despite the record-high displeasure with both Clinton and Trump, they have had little impact on the race. Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, has taken the most isolationist stance, constantly chiding America for its imperialism and its wasted efforts to control other countries. He’s also struggled with an image of being dopey and uninformed. Evan McMullin, an independent candidate with a strong following in the western state of Utah, embodies the traditional conservative line: high military spending, a strong commitment to foreign alliances, and an emphasis on armed intervention and opposition to dictatorship. The hard left side of the political spectrum is represented by Jill Stein of the Green party, who relentlessly criticizes American imperialism, belligerence, meddling in foreign conflict, and who also wants to cut military spending and pull back from overseas alliances.

Given Trump’s drastic departure from America’s foreign policy trajectory (not to mention his embodiment of pretty much every negative American stereotype), most foreigners loudly and overwhelmingly support Clinton. The exceptions have been Russia and China, who calculate that Trump’s pledges to withdraw from the world stage work in their favor. Although we’ll find out soon enough, polls suggest that most Americans are With Her.

GO EAST, YOUNG MAN

AN OPINION PIECE

The US is a Pacific power. This was suggested in the mid-1800s, when it expanded onto the Pacific coast, and confirmed at the end of the century when it annexed Hawai’i in the middle of the ocean and conquered the Philippines on the other side of it. America began to play an active role in East Asian affairs, calling for an “open door” in China (equal-opportunity exploitation) and brokering peace between Japan and Russia after their war of 1904-5.

East Asia mattered a lot to America in the 1900s — it intervened in Japan’s imperialist escapade to make sure 1 country didn’t dominate the whole region. Asians settled in Hawai’i and on America’s West Coast, and Asian culture became more familiar to Americans. But American interest in the region gradually weakened. Partly it was the disappointing result of intervening in the Korean War and (much more so) the Vietnam War. Partly it was discouragement after China went Communist, which was a major setback for American foreign policy. Partly it was the result of disengagement from the Philippines after 1946 and Japan after 1952.

But I think it was mostly because stuff in other parts of the world mattered a lot more. Europe has traditionally been America’s main area of fixation — it’s where most Americans come from, after all. The world wars and Cold War ensured that Europe would be its top region of priority for the 1900s. And then there’s West Asia, which was of only marginal interest to America until the 1970s, when first American involvement in Egyptian-Israeli peace negotiations and then the Iranian Revolution captivated America’s attention. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, no American president could afford to ignore West Asia, and both George Bush and Barack Obama have been fixated on it, whether by invading and occupying countries or by infiltrating terrorist networks based in the Arab world.

I think it’s time for America’s fixation to shift eastward. East Asia is a far more consequential part of the world on many levels, and it presents America (and the rest of the West) with bountiful opportunities in the years to come — as well as several tricky challenges.

First of all, it’s important to realize that East Asia is big. Taken together, it makes up 52% of the world’s population. Even ignoring the Indian subcontinent — which is sort of midway between West and East — it makes up 32% of the world. North Africa and West Asia, in contrast, include more like 10% of the world. East Asia is simply the arena where the world’s future will be decided. Population trends show that the area will only grow more populous in the future. It’s where most people live and will live.

Big numbers are one thing, but they wouldn’t mean as much if the area didn’t have a robust economy. But East Asia is probably the most dynamic part of the world, too. Most of the countries there are growing at a rate of 6% or more a year. The “Asian Tigers” — South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore — roared their way into the First World in the ’80s. Malaysia has recently joined them. Other countries — China, Indonesia, Thailand — are still pretty poor, at least by Western standards, but have growing middle classes and thriving consumer economies. For all its economic stagnation since the ’80s, Japan is still the world’s 3rd-biggest economy.

As a result of its tortured involvement in West Asia, America has a low reputation among Muslims. Despite concerted efforts by Obama to fix this, America’s preference for military intervention, its alliance with Israel, its Islamophobia, and its awkward reaction to the Arab Spring mean it still has a lot of work to do. But almost half of Muslims live in East Asia. It’s not usually thought of as a “Muslim” region, and Islam has played a marginal role in the area, but some of East Asia’s biggest countries (Bangladesh, India and Indonesia) have huge Muslim populations. They are by and large moderate and well-disposed towards America. The US would do well to get over its fixation with testy Arabs and prove to Muslims in East Asia that it’s not biased against their religion.

And it’s not just Muslims in East Asia that have favorable opinions of the US — compared to other parts of the world, where opinions of America range from lukewarm to outright hateful, many East Asians have positive opinions about America. It is widely admired as a model for development and political liberty and its culture is familiar to many thanks to its globally influential media. Its occupations of Japan and the Philippines for the most part were benign and fondly remembered; knee-jerk contempt is lacking. I have traveled all over the region and seldom encountered overt anti-Americanism, even in war-ravaged Vietnam.

This being said, East Asia also presents a few challenges to America and shouldn’t just be dismissed as an easy region.

East Asia is a wildly diverse and sprawling region. Unlike places like West Asia, Europe or Latin America, its countries and cultures have minimal common histories. Even within its more culturally coherent subregions, there are frictions and squabbles. Northeast Asia is a classic example: China hates Japan for its imperialist past and the challenge it poses to its own domination. The Koreas hate Japan too for similar reasons. Taiwan mistrusts China and fears an eventual takeover attempt. North Korea menaces both Japan and its southern neighbor with nuclear weapons and bombastic threats. Elsewhere, India has an ongoing rivalry with Pakistan and a nervous attitude towards China. Luckily, these conflicts aren’t urgent crises demanding immediate international attention or anything, but they still need careful and sustained diplomatic attention, preferably from an outside power less weighed down by historical rivalries and nationalism.

The central challenge to East Asia is posed by China. China is the rising power and by far the most important country there. Although I think fears of China aspiring to superpower status are overhyped, it does seem to aspire to regional hegemon in East Asia. Although this is basically inevitable (for starters, China outnumbers Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Southeast Asia combined), it still makes the other countries nervous. China is big, scary and sometimes overbearing. The South China Sea dispute is a good example of the kind of Chinese behavior that keeps Asian leaders up at night. Yet China’s generous and helpful infrastructure investments and economic centrality make it a vital partner for pretty much everyone.

India is the other rising power and an important factor in regional politics, but it’s more concerned with its internal affairs and is hesitant to get involved in foreign relations, especially further east. Japan is a committed enemy of China and an economic and technological powerhouse, which makes it well-positioned to organize countries against China. But neither of these countries can realistically play the role of regional power-broker.

I think it’s obvious that America has a big role to play and should step into it. It has guaranteed the security of the region since World War II, and other than China, East Asia welcomes this. Obama and his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, realized this and proclaimed a “pivot to Asia” in America’s foreign policy in 2011. As part of it, they have championed a far-reaching trade pact, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, that brings together North America, a few forward-looking countries on Latin America’s Pacific coast, Oceania, the developed economy of Japan, Southeast Asia’s star performers (Malaysia and Singapore), and the developing economy of Vietnam. Given how central economics is to East Asia’s agenda, a big part of this is boosting trade links in the region and across the Pacific, but it’s also primarily a way to project American power and enforce American standards. (It’s called a “partnership,” not a “trade agreement,” after all.)

Obama has done other things to pivot to Asia — redeploying the American military to the Philippines, for example, and taking more trips to East Asia — but for the most part I find the rhetoric hard to take seriously. America is still fixated firmly on West Asia. American media coverage of foreign affairs skews heavily westward. A White House insider estimated that 80% of Obama’s National Security Council meetings focused on West Asia. The foreign policy debate in the 2012 presidential election mostly revolved around West Asia. Most discussions of things like East Asian power politics or the TPP are confined to media sources focused on international relations or academia, not the kind of news most people read/watch.

Foreign affairs is not a zero-sum game. I am not suggesting that America somehow drop North Africa and West Asia from its agenda altogether. (I mean, c’mon, it can’t.) America can play a similar firefighting role in West Asia as it does in East Asia. Because West Asians and Africans are more likely to be terrorists, it is understandable that security experts would focus there. The wars in Syria, Yemen, Libya and Iraq are more urgent than anything in East Asia. This region is also fiendishly complex and incendiary and demands careful diplomatic attention.

But as I argued in an earlier article (which this is sort of a counterpoint to), America spends too much time worrying about terrorism, Arab insurgents, and Islamic fanaticism. In a certain sense, I think because a lot of these flare-ups originated from anger at American intervention, American disengagement makes sense as a corrective. But America tends to blow events in West Asia out of proportion. Why do Americans fixate so much on Iran, which has no nuclear weapons and swears it doesn’t want them, when North Korea has them and threatens to use them? Why does Israel and its interminable, hopeless conflict get so much attention, when India and Pakistan have been fighting for as long, have nuclear weapons, and are plausibly trying to get over it?

As the only superpower, America basically has to pay attention to the whole world. Maybe that’s the UN’s job, but it’s not fulfilling it. Managing West Asian conflicts is important and will divert America’s attention, but it’s time the US finally acted on its words and pivoted to East Asia. It is a demographically, economically, and politically crucial part of the world. It also demands a subtle touch and nuanced diplomacy: slow alliance-building and influence-spreading, so as not to alienate or frighten China more. It’s not the kind of thing that lights up the nightly news, but it’s just as important as firefighting Arab wars — and in the long run, probably more so.

Also, if you’re an ordinary person just wondering which part of the world to study in, travel to, or do business in, consider East Asia. Not only is it a banquet of opportunities, but it’s also the coolest, funniest, weirdest, and most exciting area of the world. Can’t really beat that!

[NOTE: While I wrote this post fixating on America throughout, most of what I wrote can also apply to the rest of the West. Europe has much to gain from strengthening its ties with East Asia too. But Europe, given its geographical position, is much better-placed to deal with crises in Russia and West Asia, and indeed is dealing with them right now. That means it’s hard for me to advocate a reorientation for Europe quite as strongly. Also, Europe is not a Pacific region.]