Manufactured failure: press coverage of Obama in Asia

20 Nov 2009 07:52 pm

I have what I think is some interesting new info coming on this front over the weekend; stay tuned, starting Saturday afternoon. For the moment, two more installments in my argument, previously here and here,  that Barack Obama's recent swing through Asia was a relative success, and certainly nothing like the disaster that most U.S. coverage implied.

Installment one: me talking with Bob Garfield of NPR's On The Media just now, about why American fantasies of an omnipotent, rising China may have distorted American press reaction to what Obama said and did.

Installment two: the before-and-after analyses from a private client newsletter by Damien Ma, Divya Reddy, and Nicholas Consonery of the Eurasia Group, reinforcing the idea that what actually happened on the trip was almost exactly what informed observers expected to happen, and not some humiliating disappointment.

November 11, just before the trip:

"President Barack Obama's first visit to China on 16 November will produce positive rhetoric, but achieve little on a range of issues from North Korea to economic rebalancing. Washington and Beijing will continue to highlight areas of mutual cooperation and interests, but domestic political agendas will pose serious constraints on the extent of near-term progress....

"Little to be expected on economic rebalancing and trade... Obama will likely raise the currency issue as part of a broader economic rebalancing framework. But the Chinese will continue to reject greater emphasis on the rebalancing issue, because Beijing interprets it as Washington shifting more of the blame on China for the global recession....

"No bilateral agreement will be reached on emissions reduction targets that might precipitate an ambitious global climate change treaty next month in Copenhagen. Obama's more modest task is to prevent China from aligning too closely with the G77 developing country bloc in global negotiations, although he has limited bargaining chips to encourage cooperation from China." [emphasis mine]

November 20 (today), post-action assessment, which boils down to, it went just as expected, and maybe a little better:

"President Barack Obama's first visit to China met the modest expectations set by the White House, making some progress on creating a more expansive relationship and on clean energy and climate change cooperation...Obama appears to have effectively reassured Beijing that the US does not intend to contain China's rise, creating a framework for mutual assurance that could augur a more mature relationship in the longer term.

"The US-China presidential summit involved a genuine attempt by both sides to push toward closer cooperation -- producing a robust joint statement that highlighted a range of common interests. In particular, Obama's first visit to China saw deliverables on clean energy and climate change cooperation, as expected. By dampening Copenhagen expectations in Singapore, Obama avoided a potential collision with China at next month's meeting... But Chinese domestic politics prevented Beijing from publicly discussing contentious issues such as currency and economic rebalancing during the trip...

"While policy disagreements and trade frictions will continue in the near term, Obama took an important step with a very public reassurance for Beijing that the US does not seek to contain China's rise. Beijing's receptiveness to this appeal indicates the intent of both countries to reduce the mutual distrust that has colored aspects of the relationship -- from currency, military engagement, and Taiwan to human rights and climate change. The Obama administration's more public approach, if successful, can promote longer term stability by engaging China on a broad range of issues within the context of a more mature and pragmatic relationship -- and in preventing specific, contentious issues from defining the relationship."

Why bring this up? Because it's bad all around when American press coverage makes people feel that perfectly predictable results constitute a shameful failure for the country and its leadership. More on this theme tomorrow.