The president’s real pivot is not to Asia but to America, inspired by domestic sentiment
When Barack Obama took office, he pledged a new overture to the world’s emerging powers. Today each of the Brics – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – is at loggerheads with America, or worse. Last month four of the five abstained in a UN vote condemning the fifth’s annexation of Crimea. Next month India is likely to elect as its new leader Narendra Modi, who says he has “no interest in visiting America other than to attend the UN in New York”. As the world’s largest democracy, and America’s most natural ally among the emerging powers, India’s is a troubling weathervane. How on earth did Mr Obama lose the Brics?
Some of it was unavoidable. Early in his first term Mr Obama called for a “reset” of US relations with Russia. His overture was warmly received by Dmitry Medvedev, then Russia’s president, who was considerably less anti-western than his predecessor, Vladimir Putin. Unfortunately for Mr Obama, Ukraine, bleep Riot and many others, Mr Putin repossessed the presidency. The US president can hardly be blamed for that. Things have gone downhill since then.
The trajectory of US relations with China has also been in the wrong direction. Within his first year in office, Mr Obama made his much-feted “G2” visit to China, in which he offered Beijing a global partnership to solve the world’s big problems, from climate change to financial imbalances. Alas, the Chinese did not feel ready to tackle problems on a global level that they were still struggling with at home. Mr Obama was rudely spurned by his hosts.
The following year he replaced his G2 charm offensive with a rhetorical “pivot to Asia”. Washington presented it as a long overdue rebalancing to a rising Asia Pacific region but it was seen by Beijing – with some justification – as a thinly veiled US attempt to shore up its military alliances with China’s neighbours.
This week Mr Obama will visit Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Malaysia – the first three of which are treaty allies of the US. It is his first visit to Asia in two years. China is not on the itinerary. Meanwhile, the anti-US rhetoric coming from Beijing is the toughest in years.
The fallout with Brazil is more specific. Mr Obama made a big play in 2009 to woo the main Latin American countries – even attending the summit of the Organisation of American States in Trinidad. But relations with Brazil took a nosedive after Edward Snowden’s leaks about the National Security Agency last year. Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s president, cancelled a state visit to Washington last October in protest at US spying. It did not help that Mr Obama promised only Americans – but not foreigners – that the NSA was not tapping them. US-Brazil relations are now in a deep freeze.
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