When Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visits Asia next week, she will fundamentally and profoundly change the trajectory of U.S. foreign policy. The "Iraqification" of foreign policy under President Bush permeated strategic thinking during the last eight years and undermined the United States' standing around the world. As the tides of power shift from the West to the East, the United States has been stuck in the sand. Clinton's decision to go to Asia for her first overseas trip underscores the growing geopolitical significance of the region and a strong desire to rebalance American engagement.
All but one of the last 10 secretaries of State have taken their maiden voyage to Europe or the Middle East. Until now, only George P. Shultz, who served in the Reagan administration, broke this trend when he chose to focus on the Americas. His decision was not popular.
Clinton's decision to go to Asia also has been subjected to tremendous scrutiny -- especially because the U.S. remains embroiled in two wars, in the Middle East and Central Asia. Despite her critics' skepticism, her decision demonstrates an acute strategic understanding of the changing dynamics of global power. Her trip will come at a time of tremendous uncertainty in Asia, and serves three strategic objectives:
First, the trip is a strong indication that President Obama will be active in Asia. In many ways, the United States' deteriorating position in the region was catalyzed by Iraq, the "great strategic distraction" of the 21st century. Washington's disregard and strategic neglect of Asia -- epitomized by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's repeated absence from high-level ministerial meetings -- gave China an opportunity to launch a diplomatic "charm offensive" and gain political capital among regional allies. Clinton's trip signifies an appreciation of Asia's diplomatic culture, which values face-time and presence, and will be crucial to fostering a more balanced U.S. foreign policy.
Clinton's visit also will help allay regional anxiety amid major economic and political uncertainty. Before the global economic recession, Asia accounted for almost 40% of the world's gross domestic product and was a crucial engine of global prosperity. At a key point in the current credit crisis, Asian equity was key to slowing the impending financial meltdown. Japanese banks and Chinese financiers injected billions of dollars of capital into toxic U.S. financial institutions, and gave Washington much-needed time to help engineer a massive bailout of the nation's beleaguered economic system.
However, the depth of the financial crisis has now triggered massive fallout in Asia as its export-dependent economies face an oversupplied, low-demand market.
Compounding Asia's growing financial uncertainties are looming security challenges that could catalyze conflict and even war. Territorial disputes over post-colonial occupations in the Pacific waters continue to animate interstate relations between Japan, South Korea and China. And North Korea's nuclear weapons program and China's continued military buildup pose traditional security concerns that, if not properly managed, could ignite war. All the while, a caldron of emerging nontraditional security challenges -- such as radicalism in Southeast Asia, climate change and pandemic diseases -- could induce conflict.
Last, the United States seeks to engage in a civil dialogue with Muslims in Southeast Asia and around the world. One of the many lessons learned from the Bush administration is that military force alone is insufficient to counter terrorists and their radical ideology. Clinton's decision to go to Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, underscores how serious Obama is about enhancing U.S. public diplomacy and outreach efforts in the Muslim world. This may prove to be the most significant leg of Clinton's journey, as she attempts to orchestrate a major shift in the United States' overall approach to the war on terrorism.
It is no secret that Clinton has great admiration for Shultz. And just as her decision to first travel to Asia has been debated, Shultz's tour through the Americas also was initially subject to demarches by Washingtonians who felt his trip reflected poor strategic judgment about the contours of Cold War geopolitics. In the end, many naysayers of Shultz became his biggest advocates as he helped engineer the peaceful collapse of the Soviet empire and the expansion of American values. Clinton's trip to Asia represents a similar diplomatic spirit that sees a region ripe with opportunities for bold departures and strategic gains.
Nirav Patel is a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, specializing in Asia-Pacific affairs.