Obama’s anxious message puzzles contented Asians

BANGKOK—Barack Obama, who spent his formative years in Indonesia, is the kid from the block who grew up to be commander-in-chief of the world’s greatest power. As such, he was expected to return wrapped in glory, but instead this local hero came as a prophet of doom. On his four-nation tour, Obama delivered harsh messages distinctly out of tune with the mood of contentment across Asia. 

The continent’s 4 billion-plus people have in the past dozen years clawed their way out of the Asian financial crisis to enjoy some hard-earned prosperity. Nobody here was so vindictive as to blame Obama’s economic adviser Larry Summers for his role in the Clinton administration’s refusal to halt Wall Street’s financial attack on Asian currencies back in the winter of 1997-98. Across Southeast Asia, businesses went bankrupt, farmers lost their land and families were forced to send their daughters into brothels instead of to universities. What was done is past, and Asians can be all-too forgiving. 

Nobody demands payback when these are the best of times, arguably since the era of peaceful commerce between the Ming Dynasty and the Javan kingdom of Majapahit 500 years ago.

Arrows Without Olive Branches

In his adopted third homeland, after the United States and Kenya, Obama delivered a speech to students at the University of Indonesia, titled “Unity in Diversity.” The term from the Presidential Seal is from the Latin “E Pluribus Unum” emblazoned on a banner waving from the beak of a bald eagle. The national bird is shown clutching in one claw a bouquet of olive branches and in the other a set of arrows.

On his 10 days in Asia, Obama held out the arrows, but kept the olive branches out of sight. To India, he offered high-tech weapons components without specifying their targets, presumably Pakistan and China. On a US military base in South Korea, he taunted Pyongyang for its poverty and implied American military superiority with its spy satellites and space-war capability. From high above at night, he said, “the brilliant lights of Seoul” contrast with “the utter darkness of the North.”

In Seoul, at the G-20 summit, Obama expanded another arena of combat–financial warfare—by demanding that export economies like China and Japan impose mechanisms to reverse trade imbalances. By boosting their currencies, he argued, East Asians should make the price of goods too expensive for American consumers to buy—not to mention destroying their own industries.

Clearly, in the Asian perspective, this grim figure is not the same as the populist candidate who called for change and justice. Here was an uncomfortably stiff figure setting a precedent in India’s Parliament by reading from a teleprompter. The once fiery orator was reciting from a script, like a younger version of the actor Ronald Reagan. 

Behind the Shadow

Indonesians more than other Asians could appreciate his stilted performance, which so resembles their shadow puppet theater, known as wayang. These paper-thin figures made of parchment and wood are projected with spotlights against a linen screen. 

The drama of “dancing shadows” is controlled by the chant of a hidden narrator called a “dalang.” If the president on the television screens that Asians saw was just a shadow, who then is the narrator calling the shots?

The American dalang is known as the Director of National Intelligence, a post recently filled by James Clapper Jr., a former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency. His team of scriptwriters in the National Intelligence Council is a mix of academics, retired military officers and bureaucrats focused on geopolitical strategy. This region’s policy work is run by the CIA’s Paul Heer for East Asia and former National Security Council staffer Neil Joeck for South Asia.

A blend of fact and imaginings from American intelligence professionals, “Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World,” reads like an ancient epic—long and rambling with many diversions and speculation about human destiny. It shares with Hindu-Buddhist belief in karma the assumption that the past defines the future. Humans have limited options within predetermined constraints. Untrammeled freedom does not exist even in fiction. 

Obama disclosed a few verses from this larger script, especially the imperative for the United States to work with Asian countries to tame a rising China and the need for global cooperation to contain trade deficits and financial volatility. Other aspects went unmentioned, for example, the NIC projection of a much weaker dollar, soon to end its reign as a reserve currency to be replaced by a basket of different currencies. Over the next 15 years, NIC asserts, whoever runs the White House must preside over the downsizing of the American imperium without giving away too much to the ever-stronger BRIC group of Brazil, Russia, India and China.

The world’s destiny in 2025, rather the details of Asia policy, is the gripping conclusion of this epic drama.

Scenario one is a world without the West, under which the United States withdraws, causing “a breakdown of the global order” and allowing the Chinese and Russian-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to become the paramount guardian of Central Asia’s oil and gas supplies. In short, the American nightmare.

Scenario two is BRIC’s bust-up if India and China go to war. “Given the BRIC’s disarray, the United State’s power is greatly enhanced, but the international community is in for a bumpy ride.” Wishful thinking, unless South Asians and their Yank allies are ready for World War III. 

The third scenario, inserted between the two conflicting visions of the future, is even more ominous: “October surprise.” A refusal by China to partner effectively with the United States to manage global challenges could result in “devastating crises” – a weather event such as massive coastal flooding, drought-driven famine or epidemic. Joker’s wild with nobody in control. 

How the world ends

Such a cataclysm resonates with the wayang tales of the rise and fall of Majapahit, a Javanese kingdom that once ruled much of Southeast Asia and counted among the three great empires of the 16th century, alongside Ming China and the Spanish Habsburg domains in Europe and the Americas. Majapahit was the forerunner of the present-day ASEAN group. 

The glorious Hindu and Buddhist realm met its demise with the eruption of Mount Kelud, the abode of the gods. 1527 has ever since been called “the year that the wealth of the Earth disappeared.” In the popular belief, volcanic catastrophes signal the end of empires, the fall of dynasties and the birth of a new world. It may be just an unlikely coincidence or perhaps the legend is right – that the American president took flight before the ash falls from sacred Mount Merapi. 

Mr. Yokchi Shimatsu, former Editor at Japan Times, is Senior Advisor for the 4th Media.

New America Media, Commentary, Yoichi Shimatsu, Posted: Nov 12, 2010

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