Business Times - 01 Dec 2011
Can you see Brussels and Teheran from Honolulu?
By LEON HADAR
IN THE same week in November that US President Barack Obama was hosting a summit of East Asian leaders in Honolulu, Hawaii, a new film starring George Clooney as a Honolulu attorney and trustee of his family's ancestral land in Hawaii opened in American movie theatres.
In The Descendants, that is expected to win an Oscar or two, Clooney's character is a descendant of the great-great-grandmother of a Hawaiian princess who married a white banker and passed on a rich chunk of real estate.
Matt King is under pressure from his family to sell it to developers while native Hawaiians urge him to keep the land unspoiled.
President Obama, who (like King) was born and raised in Hawaii and is a product of a mixed marriage, has described himself as 'the first Pacific president' and is facing a similar but more difficult dilemma.
Washington wants to reorient US geostrategy and economic policy from the Atlantic and the Middle East to Pacific and East Asia, but must balance it against its existing military and diplomatic commitments in Europe and West Asia.
During the Apec Leaders Summit in Honolulu, which was followed by visits to Australia and Indonesia, President Obama and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to assure Washington's military and trade partners in the Asia-Pacific region that, despite its overstretched military, fiscal problems and a growing isolationist public mood at home, the US will continue to maintain its presence in the region and serve as a strategic counterbalance to a rising China.
Hence Mr Obama's announcement during the visit to Australia that the US was planning to deploy 2,500 marines to that country, as well as Mrs Clinton's visit to Myanmar; the move to strengthen defence ties with the Philippines; the renewed US commitment to help Southeast Asian countries to resist Chinese military pressure in the South China Sea; coupled with new American trade initiatives - all these are aimed at demonstrating US engagement in the region.
Yet as Mr Obama returned to Washington in the aftermath of these events that were supposed to mark the start of America's new Pacific Century, there were clear signs that the US would not be able to decouple its core economic and strategic interests from the Atlantic region and the Middle East area anytime soon.
Whether the American economy continues to recover or heads back to another recession depends very much on the decisions that will be made (or not) by leaders in Europe and the Middle East in the coming weeks.
When President Obama met with European leaders in Washington on Monday, he and his advisers made it clear that a failure on the part of Germany, France and other governments in the eurozone to resolve the region's financial crisis could have catastrophic effects on the US economy.
Against the backdrop of continuing uncertainty in the euro region, including the prospect of its break-up, Mr Obama said the US economy was likely to continue to struggle until Europe got its financial house in order.
'If Europe is contracting, or if Europe is having difficulties, then it's much more difficult for us to create good jobs here at home,' the president said after a summit with European Council president Herman Van Rompuy and European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso.
President Obama and his Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner have been trying to convince the Europeans to provide the European Central Bank (ECB) with the kind of powers that the US Federal Reserve has to serve as a lender of last resort and extend more credit to the struggling eurozone economies.
But Germany's leaders, who are inflation hawks, have resisted the US pressure. Washington lacks the economic and diplomatic leverage to change their position.
So President Obama and his aides are hoping for the best and planning for the worst, including the threat to American companies exposed to European debt and the possibility that a collapse of the eurozone could lead to a renewed recession.
And then there is the Middle East. The continuing political upheaval in the Arab countries, aka the Arab Spring, has already led to the collapse of two pro-American leaders and could ignite a civil war in strategically placed Syria.
Moreover, Israeli leaders have warned that unless the US and its allies force Iran to put its alleged nuclear military programme on hold, Israel would have no choice but to strike at Iran's nuclear sites - a drastic move that could trigger an all-out Middle East war that is bound to draw in the US and put upward pressure on energy prices.
And, like in the case of the eurozone, the Obama administration seems to have only a limited effect on what is happening in the Middle East, even as it pledges to try to shape the political and economic future of the Asia-Pacific region.
Clooney's character in The Descendants decides eventually not to sell the land in Hawaii and maintain his identity as a son of the Pacific.
But a break-up of the eurozone or a new Middle East war may leave President Obama no choice but to continue playing a leading role in the old Atlantic movie instead of a new Pacific one.
And it is doubtful that he will win a diplomatic Oscar for playing that role.
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