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Obama's Asian trip shows limits on global stage

U.S. President Barack Obama told Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Sunday that his “top priority” on foreign policy is ratification of the two countries’ new arms-control treaty.

Associated Press

U.S. President Barack Obama told Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Sunday that his “top priority” on foreign policy is ratification of the two countries’ new arms-control treaty.

YOKOHAMA, Japan — President Barack Obama left Asia with a greater foothold in the emerging nations that could help shape the American economy for years. But his failure to deliver on his own high expectations on key economic issues served notice that the global stage is not nearly his for the taking.

The president headed back to Washington on Sunday with mixed results to show from his longest foreign trip abroad as president, an exhausting 10-day tour through India, Indonesia, South Korea and Japan.

His first two stops yielded dramatic diplomatic successes and memorable images in two booming Asian democracies that will only become more important strategically to the United States.

But the narrative soured once Obama arrived in Seoul, South Korea, for a meeting of the Group of 20 developed and emerging economies. Obama failed to achieve a free-trade deal with Korea that was to have been the biggest trophy of his trip, and instead of banding with America against China's currency manipulation, several countries aligned themselves against the United States.

In Yokohama, Japan, Obama had an uneventful gathering with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.

Issuing what they called the "Yokohama Vision," Obama and leaders of 20 other nations and territories in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum agreed to take steps toward creating a free-trade zone in the Asia-Pacific region, but set no timetable. In their joint declaration, the leaders cited as a possible starting point the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free-trade agreement that currently includes four small nations — Brunei, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore — but that five other nations, including the United States, are in talks to join.

The leaders, whose nations account for more than half of global economic activity, also agreed to remove protectionist measures put in place during the current global economic crisis and to avoid sudden, sharp moves in foreign exchange markets.

Obama spent part of his last day meeting with President Dmitry A. Medvedev of Russia before heading for Washington to confront the lame-duck Congress today to grapple with combative Republican congressional leaders at a White House meeting, then head back overseas for a summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Obama told Medvedev on Sunday that his "top priority" on foreign policy for the congressional session is ratification of the two countries' new arms control treaty, which is stalled in the Senate.

The president also told the Russian leader that he was committed to lifting Cold War-era trade restrictions, a move that would allow Russia to join the World Trade Organization. Senior American officials said afterward that the private meeting touched on a range of issues, from Afghanistan to human rights.

The two leaders will meet again next week at the NATO summit meeting in Lisbon, and Obama told Medvedev that he wanted to use that session to talk further about Afghanistan, and also about missile defense.

Obama, in some ways, achieved what he set out to do in this trip.

By spending so much time in Asia, undeterred by his and his party's midterm election "shellacking" on the way out the door, he showed key nations how important they are to the U.S. agenda. And that, in turn, is an investment he expects to pay off over time — by loosening up trade and hiring opportunities for his own constituents, and by building up the base of democratic and America-friendly voices in a fast-growing region of the world where communist China looms ever larger.

"I think that the United States has dramatically advanced its critical goals and its strategic interest in the region," national security adviser Tom Donilon told reporters traveling with the president toward the end of the trip.

"At every stop that we've been on, on this trip, you had an increased demand for U.S. leadership and engagement across the range of dimensions — security, diplomacy, counterterrorism and economics," Donilon said.

In essence, trips like this are down payments on diplomacy, even when immediate returns are neither as great as the president wants nor as measurable to a press corps holding him accountable for his soaring promises.

Yet the trip also underscored one of the president's most nagging problems. He is operating in a world, particularly in regard to the economy, in which he takes a long view and voters want more immediate action. It is much harder for the unemployed, for example, to take much cheer in all the talk of the emerging international structure of the G-20. They want jobs and security now.

And so when Obama stood at the podium in Seoul with South Korea's president and failed to announce the completion of a trade deal that would have been a breakthrough, it seemed to set the tone for the rest of the trip and colored the outcomes of the two economic summits that followed. The trade pact may still be finished within weeks, but its delay robbed Obama of a sense of flourish. It is never good for a president to be standing next to a world peer appearing empty-handed, and all the other cooperation Obama cemented in the course of the trip got overshadowed.

"The lone miscalculation appears to have been allowing the president of the United States and the president of South Korea to meet without an agreement on trade," said Patrick M. Cronin, senior director of the Asia program at the Center for a New American Security. "In hindsight, an accord should have been hashed out months ago."

The best moments of the trips may have been during Obama's three days in India, where he sealed $10 billion in commercial deals, firmly staking a claim in the booming country's future prosperity, and delighted his hosts by announcing his support for a permanent Indian seat on the U.N. Security Council. But it was first lady Michelle Obama who won India's heart by visiting several times with schoolchildren and dancing with them in images replayed nonstop on India's jostling cable networks.

In Indonesia, Obama spoke to an appreciative, collegiate crowd in his boyhood home city in Jakarta, but the trip was brief — less than 24 hours on the ground, cut even shorter when ash spewed by a volcano threatened airspace. South Korea and Japan featured economic negotiations and meetings with world leaders including Germany's Angela Merkel and China's Hu Jintao.

The limits of America's — and Obama's — influence was on painful display as the G-20 failed to produce specific action against China's currency undervaluation and Obama instead fielded questions about the wisdom of the Federal Reserve's recent move to stimulate the U.S. economy through a $600 billion purchase of Treasury bonds, which is expected to inflate the value of the dollar.

Back in Washington, countless challenges await: a lame-duck congressional session expected to feature a showdown over extending Bush-era tax cuts; negotiations with resurgent Republicans; and more potential shakeups to the White House staff.

Despite all that, Obama left Asia on a personal high: a return visit to an enormous bronze Buddha statue in Kamakura, Japan, that he had seen once as a child. Just as he did as a boy, he even got some green tea ice cream.

Information from the Associated Press and New York Times was used in this report.

Obama's Asian trip shows limits on global stage 11/14/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 1:21pm]

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