Three years into his first term, President Barack Obama stood before the Australian Parliament and sketched out his vision for the United States’ tilting toward Asia. His tone was optimistic: Conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq were winding down; the “tide of war is receding,” he told lawmakers in Canberra. These developments would allow Washington to shift its focus. “After a decade in which we fought two wars that cost us dearly, in blood and treasure,” Obama said, “the United States is turning our attention to the vast potential of the Asia Pacific region.”
The U.S., he pledged, would concentrate on efforts to “advance security, prosperity, and human dignity across the Asia Pacific.” This shift was buttressed by a charming personal narrative that the president would often invoke on trips to the region: He had lived for four years as a boy in Jakarta, where, he would later write, he spent his days racing through the streets with an eclectic band of friends, hunting crickets and flying kites, before moving to Hawaii.
“The pivot,” as it was known, was largely welcomed by regional leaders, but Obama’s confidence in his ability to shift America’s unwieldy foreign-policy apparatus proved to be overstated. There were notable accomplishments, such as reengagement with Myanmar, upgraded relations with several other Southeast Asian countries, and a clarification of the U.S. position supporting Japan over a territorial row with China. But a complete commitment to the region never materialized, hamstrung by a litany of obstacles and distractions, foreign and domestic. The U.S. was not able to fully extract itself from Iraq and Afghanistan, ISIS rose violently, and the Obama administration was caught flat-footed by Chinese President Xi Jinping’s aggressive, expansionist rule. American participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free-trade deal, was effectively ruled out when even Obama’s fellow party members turned against it, and Donald Trump formally withdrew from it during his first days in office. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, an enormous Asian free-trade agreement between China and 14 other nations, was signed on Sunday without Washington. “The pivot to Asia was a good idea, but it was never properly implemented,” Bilahari Kausikan, an outspoken former permanent secretary of Singapore’s ministry of foreign affairs, told me.