Experts discuss Asia, an Obama presidency

Thursday, November 6, 2008

On the day after a historic presidential election, more than 50 students gathered in the Sidney Frank Hall for Life Sciences to hear two leading foreign policy experts discuss the challenges President-elect Barack Obama will face in the months and years ahead. In a lecture entitled “The Next American Foreign Policy,” Douglas Paal ’69 of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Jonathan Pollack of the Naval War College discussed the United States’ past, present and future roles in global affairs. As part of the Strait Talk Symposium ­­- an ongoing, weeklong dialogue about the relationships among the United States, China and Taiwan – the two panelists placed particular emphasis on the United States’ interactions with East Asia.

Paal, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the former director of the American Institute in Taiwan, stressed the importance of viewing the United States’ current East Asian interactions within a historical context. For more than half an hour, he provided an overview of the last three decades of the United States’ involvement with Taiwan. Tracing American foreign policy from the Nixon era to today, Paal spoke of the “lasting impact” of various White House administrations. He said that while Obama will face “policy challenges,” he will most likely follow President Bush’s agenda in Taiwan.

“President Bush has not done a bad job in Asia,” said Paal, who also served as a special assistant to President George H.W. Bush. Obama inherits a “promising outlook” with China and a “relatively calm situation” in Taiwan, he said.

Pollack seconded the sentiment, noting the “surprising legacy” of the Bush administration in Asia and the “unusually positive” current political and economic climate in Taiwan.

Yet the situation is far from perfect. Pollack said that Obama must examine any “unresolved circumstances” and think “seriously about what the American interests are,” as China continues to accumulate political and economic power.

In regards to relations with both China and Taiwan, Obama must work towards a more constructive cross-strait dialogue, both men said.

But Paal conceded that the president-elect has a “long agenda” of other items that should be addressed first, both domestically and internationally.

Dealing with China-Taiwan relations may be Obama’s “twentieth” order of business, Paal said. Aside from dealing with the current global economic crisis, Obama must look at foreign policy in a “global context,” examining the United States’ relationships with Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and Russia, he said.

“Only after he looks at (those countries) can he turn to Asia,” Paal explained, “where the United States’ focus will most likely be on North Korea.”

Nevertheless, Paal said that Obama devoted some attention to the current situation in Taiwan during his campaign.

On March 22, Obama released a statement of congratulations to the then recently-elected president of Taiwan, Ma Ying-jeou P’08. In his letter, Obama said that the United States should “rebuild a relationship of trust and support for Taiwan’s democracy” and “reopen blocked channels of communication with Taiwan officials.” Obama also noted the importance of encouraging Taiwan and China “to build commercial, cultural and other ties” to ultimately move toward resolution of the two countries’ differences.

More recently, in October, Obama welcomed the Bush administration’s decision to sell $6 billion in military equipment to Taiwan.

Paal said that he is confident in the abilities of the Obama administration to deal with diplomatic issues surrounding the United States, China and Taiwan­­.

Paal cited many of Obama’s advisers as his close friends. “They understand the problems in East Asia,” he said.

Now in its fourth year, Strait Talk is a weeklong, student-run symposium intended to promote dialogue and peace building in the Taiwan Strait. Founded in 2005 by a group of Brown undergraduate students, Strait Talk seeks to transform an “80-year-old conflict” by “connecting the right people in the right way.” The program brings together 15 student delegates from Taiwan, China and the United States as they discuss the dynamic relationships among the three countries. The symposium is primarily sponsored by the Watson Institute for International Studies.

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