Asia Pacific

The World This Week: Vietnam, Japan, the Asia Pivot and the Obama Doctrine

Barack Obama

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May 29, 2016 23:45 EDT

Obama visits Asia to heal past wounds, push for trade, deepen security ties, promote American interests and contain China in a masterly display of diplomacy.

The late Harold Macmillan, heir to a publishing business, a British prime minister and chancellor of the University of Oxford, was once asked what he feared most. His apocryphal response, “Events, dear boy, events” has in the words of Robert Harris become “infuriatingly ubiquitous.” Yet events do matter and some of this week’s events have historic significance.

Many things happened over the last seven days. The Saudi-Iran row over Hajj pilgrims continues to fester; about 700 migrants as per BBC or refugees as per Al Jazeera have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Libya; the chief negotiator of Syria’s main opposition bloc quit over the failure of the Geneva peace talks backed by United Nations (UN); Donald Trump declared that illegal immigrants are treated better than American war veterans; and Australian scientists reported that over 35% of corals in the northern and central parts of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef have been destroyed by bleaching because of warmer ocean waters thanks to climate change.

Each of these events is significant in its own right, but history hangs heavy this week. Exactly 100 years ago, the Battle of Verdun raged for 300 days and left 800,000 soldiers dead, wounded or missing. This week, French President François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel got together to honor the war dead as per a tradition begun in 1984 by François Mitterand and Helmut Kohl. Hollande and Merkel did not hold hands like their predecessors and their time together seemed to be marked by some froideur.

Even so, Verdun lives on in the collective memory of la grande nation and der Deutschland. Hollande warned against “forces of division” and Merkel declared that nationalism “would throw us backwards.” Both of them called for unity in the European Union (EU) at a time when the far-right is on the rise and the United Kingdom threatens to walk out of the fractious European family. Both Hollande and Merkel were awkward and neither spoke with inspiration or vision. Together, they personified why the European project is running out of steam. People are tired of mind-numbing banal bureaucrats with a penchant for spouting clichés. The EU is in crisis and needs more than the dreaded specter of the two world wars to muddle through.

Even as France and Germany confronted their ghosts of the past, the United States confronted its own. President Barack Obama visited Vietnam and Japan, two foes that have recently and not so recently turned friends. Obama is a post-Vietnam War president. Besides, he lived in Indonesia as a child. Southeast Asia is familiar to the president who has been attempting to pivot the US to Asia for a while. As he makes his last bows on the international stage, Obama is seeking more than rapprochement with Cuba and a nuclear deal with Iran. This week, he decided to slay the ghosts of both Vietnam and Hiroshima.

Obama is an unlikely chief of the land of the Puritans that likes Judeo-Christian certitude and a clear ideology. In the aftermath of World War II, the descendants of Puritans reposed their faith in free markets. After all, the Soviet Union was a godless society ruled by tyrants who purportedly drank blood in lieu of wine. Communism was evil incarnate and the end justified the means in an existential battle where the winner would take all. Noble Americans had to vanquish evil Soviets to create heaven and save the world from hell. Collateral casualties were just part of the game.

Unsurprisingly, such a Manichean worldview led to paranoiac McCarthyism. Some of the finest American intellectuals were persecuted, though, to be fair, they did not end up in the Gulag. Abroad, the US acted with a little less restraint. In 1953, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) overthrew the first democratically elected government of Iran to protect the interests of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Mohammad Mosaddegh, the then prime minister of Iran, was ludicrously vilified as a potential communist and expected to persist with a colonial-era British deal.

Clearly, the US and the CIA were not cognizant of the idea of duress. Iran had agreed to that deal under a barrel of the gun, and the British gave it a measly share of its oil revenues. By siding with the colonial master, the US stabbed the newly independent and not yet independent colonies in the back. Now, the country of the Atlantic Charter turned into a supporter of the South African apartheid regime. In fact, the CIA played a key role in the arrest of Nelson Mandela, who remained on the list of terrorists in the US till 2008. In the rigid ideological world of the US, anyone who was not a cheerleader in short skirts for Uncle Sam was an ugly enemy to be “got rid of expeditiously.”

The US failed to understand that many countries did not quite have a pleasant brush with capitalism. In 1602, the Dutch East India Company was set up as a joint stock company. It is now regarded as the world’s first multinational. The company soon took over the Dutch East Indies—modern-day Indonesia—a part of the world Obama is familiar with. What followed was not pretty. In the name of trade, the company proceeded to rob and then conquer the natives. Capitalism was born red in the tooth and claw, with its evil twin, colonization.

Somewhere along the way, it became convenient for the Dutch to believe that they were benevolent. After all, they were civilizing the natives. So pervasive was this belief that the Dutch squandered precious money from the Marshall Plan to recolonize Indonesia after World War II. The Dutch themselves had not enjoyed German rule during the war, but did not see the irony of Indonesians sharing the same aspirations for freedom.

The World This WeekFurthermore, the Americans failed to realize that the free market model the US set out to promote after World War II had many doubters. Far too many in the impoverished colonies did not want the unfettered preservation of the property rights of corporations, elites and individuals who had acquired their property through murder, threats and imposition of an unjust law during the colonial era. Hence, far too many liberation struggles tended to be left leaning.

Tragically, the US saw these struggles as left-leaning and not as liberating. “No taxation without representation” was abandoned and support for imperial or right-wing regimes became absolute. Perhaps this was inevitable in the land of the free and the home of the brave. After all, white settlers had cheated, robbed and slaughtered natives to take over their land. Fortunes had been built on the backs of slaves to fund ante bellum estates in the American South. Moreover, Uncle Sam still practiced segregation. American claims that it stood for freedom were translated as freedom for the white man alone.

In some ways, Americans were only emulating John Stuart Mill of the British East India Company. He believed in liberty for those in “the maturity of their faculties.” White men were evidently qualified. Even white women were. Brownie fuzzy wuzzies were another matter. They did not quite deserve the benefit of Mill’s doctrine. That tens of millions died of famine under Mill’s company’s rule, including a third of the population of much of modern-day eastern India in the 1770s, is mere piffle.

In Vietnam, the Americans operated from the same playbook as in Iran. They supported French imperial rule and turned new oppressors. Sadly for them, the Vietnamese were made of tougher stuff and did not quite roll over quite as easily as the Iranians. Agent Orange and American disgrace in Vietnam are now folklore. For years afterward, relations remained cool. Obama has changed that dramatically.

On May 24, the US president gave a stirring speech in Hanoi. In his words, “like bamboo, the unbroken spirit of the Vietnamese people” gave it the ability to cast off colonial rule. He blamed “Cold War rivalries and fears of communism” for pulling Vietnam and the US into conflict. Obama talked about reconciliation and removing Agent Orange. He announced that “the Peace Corps will come to Vietnam for the first time, to teach English.”

Obama extolled the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as a means to boost trade. At a time when drought is reducing water and increasing soil salt levels, Vietnamese farmers are in deep distress. Along the 4,350-kilometer-long Mekong, rice, coffee, vegetables, freshwater fish and even seafood production is suffering. Farmers are fleeing to find jobs in factories, many of whom export to the US. It is little surprise that Vietnamese leaders are eager beavers for the TPP.

Apart from trade, Obama talked about security. This is code for China. Vietnam, Japan and many smaller nation states in Southeast Asia are petrified of an increasingly assertive China. It is little wonder that the crowd broke into applause when Obama declared: “Big nations should not bully smaller ones. Disputes should be resolved peacefully.” To promote peace and perhaps American business, Obama ended the arms embargo against Vietnam. Now, Vietnam can buy American military equipment, train with US forces and together challenge Chinese claims in the South China Sea. Little brother can now stand up to big brother for its share of fish, oil and gas, as well as the domination of a trade route already worth $5 trillion a year.

After Vietnam, Japan was the next stop for Obama where he became the first president to rock up to Hiroshima. He did not apologize on behalf of the US for dropping the atom bomb in 1945. Donald Trump’s constant attacks on Obama for making the US look weak do not allow him to. Also, as the dominant superpower, the US does not need to. History is written by winners and apologies are offered by losers.

In any case, Obama met survivors, listened carefully and mourned the dead. He wrote in the visitors’ book, “We have known the agony of war. Let us now find the courage, together, to spread peace, and pursue a world without nuclear weapons.” Japan, an aging society with an aching economy and horrific memories of the 1945 nuclear attacks, was impressed.

In his last year in office, Obama is settling past feuds and crafting new alliances. In a brilliant and extensive article in The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg dissected what he called the Obama Doctrine, which involves the pivoting to Asia and managing the rise of China. In this Asia visit, Obama applied this doctrine masterfully by practicing crafty diplomacy, boosting trade, deepening security ties and increasing “soft power” in Asia.

To provide contrast, Trump was bellowing to bikers that Japan pay 100% of its security costs because Americans need to take care of their own. He also declared that Bernie Sanders “is right on one thing.” That thing is trade. In this strange election campaign, both Trump and Sanders are trumpeting their opposition to trade, putting them on a collision path with the Obama Doctrine.

This bodes ill for the US. More than the raging feuds in the Middle East or the rise of the Middle Kingdom, it is discontent at home that threatens Pax Americana. As a modern-day Marcus Aurelius, Obama can only hope that he is not succeeded by a contemporary counterpart of Commodus.

*[You can receive “The World This Week” directly in your inbox by subscribing to our mailing list. Simply visit Fair Observer and enter your email address in the space provided. Meanwhile, please find below five of our finest articles for the week.]

Superdelegates Should Support Bernie

Hillary Clinton

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It would be a mistake to assume while a battle is being waged for the Republican Party, that there is not a fierce fight for the soul of the Democrats.

Just like in 2008, it’s coming down to the superdelegates. Barack Obama’s win was secured when two-thirds of the superdelegates decided that he would be the better Democratic candidate for president. In order to serve in their envisioned role as an electoral corrective, the superdelegates should give Bernie Sanders the Democratic nomination.

Obama represented “hope and change” on immigration, climate change and health care. Sanders represents the future of the party through bold foreign and domestic policy positions that have put him ahead in national polls. His hark back to FDR-style politics—including investment in infrastructure and people—and his flat rejection of the neoliberal and neocon politics practiced by Hillary Clinton have galvanized the electorate. The Vermont senator polls… Read more

Dilma Rousseff’s Impeachment Was Not a Coup

Dilma Rousseff

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Rousseff’s impeachment aside, the truth is that her government was a tragedy for Brazil.

“There are three sides to every story: mine, yours and the truth,” as my high school teacher used to say. But in the information age, the most important asset to public opinion is not the truth, but the “narrative.” It doesn’t matter what the facts are, but what one publicizes as “truth”—in politics that means spreading an easier-to-believe version than your opponent.

The problem starts when that version of a fact is not only false, but is a rhetorical device created only in order to escape from justice. As an old propaganda master once said, “Tell a lie often enough and it will become the truth.” This strategy is prevalent in Brazil today, and that is exactly what Dilma Rousseff has been doing since her presidential impeachment on May 12. According to the law, she… Read more

The Coming Drone Blowback for America

Barack Obama

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The US conducts drone strikes worldwide with relative impunity. But when the first strike hits America, the real blowback will begin.

The targeted assassination of Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour last weekend wasn’t just another drone strike.

First of all, it was conducted by the US military, not the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which has orchestrated nearly all drone strikes in Pakistan.

Second, it didn’t take place in Afghanistan or in the so-called lawless tribal region of Pakistan known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA. The guided missile turned a white Toyota and its two passengers into a fireball on a well-traveled highway in Balochistan, in southwest Pakistan.

Prior to this particular drone strike, Pakistan allowed the United States to patrol the skies over the northwest region of FATA, a Taliban stronghold. But President Barack Obama decided to cross this “red line” to take out Mansour… Read more

New Frontiers of Cancer Research

Cancer Research

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In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to oncologist Vijay Reddy about developments in cancer research.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), non-communicable diseases were responsible for nearly 70% of the 56 million deaths worldwide in 2012, with cancer claiming at least 8.2 million. Among the leading causes of cancer, including environmental and lifestyle factors, tobacco use is estimated to be responsible for over 20% of all cancer deaths. Incidence rates are almost 25% higher in men, with developing countries in Africa, Asia, and Central and Latin America accounting for 70% of global cancer deaths.

Finding a cure for cancer has been the Golden Fleece quest of modern science, with US President Barack Obama announcing a further $2 billion increase in funding for the “moon shoot” to cure cancer in his last State of the Union address. Yet drug research and development (R&D) brings enormous costs, often… Read more

How Will Saudi Arabia Revamp its Education System?

Saudi Arabia

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Without an educated and skilled workforce, it will be a tremendous challenge for Vision 2030 to meet its target goals.

As Saudi Arabia pursues economic diversification and sustainable development, the kingdom’s progress on these two fronts requires a reformed education system. In April, Prince Mohammed bin Salman—Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, defense minister and head of the Council of Economic and Developmental Affairs—announced a new and progressive plan known as Vision 2030, which focuses on a variety of economic reforms, business and investment endeavors, as well as cultural and entertainment projects.

Without taking into account the importance, value and overall social implications of a quality education, it is not feasible to implement meaningful economic, cultural and business reforms. Without an educated and skilled workforce, it will be a tremendous challenge for Vision 2030 to meet its target goals. Because of outdated school curricula, ineffective teaching methods and low… Read more

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: David Peterlin /

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