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How Asia trade deal could make or break Obama's foreign policy vision (+video)

Hanging in the balance is Obama’s vision of America’s place in the world and the kind of leadership it can best wield in the 21st century, some foreign-policy analysts say.

President Obama is not battling to save his Asian-Pacific trade agenda simply because he suddenly believes in free trade.

For Mr. Obama, the fight in Congress over granting him Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) is about something much bigger.

Hanging in the balance is nothing less than Obama’s vision of America’s place in the world and the kind of leadership it can best wield in the 21st century, some foreign-policy analysts say.

Winning or losing TPA will make or break Obama’s foreign policy vision of the United States – no longer the go-it-alone superpower – leading a multipolar world where associations of like-minded nations build regional security and economic prosperity, these analysts say. With the Obama administration pursuing not only the Asian-Pacific trade deal but also a “transformational” trade pact with the European Union, the moment, they add, could not be more critical.

“Without the trade deals, America does not get to set the global economic rules for the new era, using trade to bind its allies around the globe to the US and to one another,” says John Hulsman, a US foreign policy analyst based in Germany. “It is not too much to say,” he adds, “that without TPA, there simply is no grand strategy for the new era” in America’s relations with the world.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, that Obama had hoped to conclude by the end of the year with 11 other Pacific Basin countries – most critically Japan – is currently at the top of Obama’s agenda because of what it means for his Asia strategy.  

Without TPA – the ability to negotiate trade deals with the assurance that Congress will only be allowed a simple yes or no, non-amendable vote on a concluded trade accord – Obama has virtually no chance of securing a TPP deal. And without TPP, the “Asia pivot” in US strategic interests that Obama has been pushing since taking office in 2009 will be halted in its still tentative tracks – reduced largely to the aspirational rhetoric that critics claim it has been all along.

For Obama administration officials, the Asia pivot – or what they prefer to call a “rebalancing” of US interests towards a dynamic and fast-growing Asia – is not just about the number of US forces stationed in the region (Two pieces of the rebalancing so far have been accords to rotate troops into Australia and the Philippines).

Perhaps even more important is the economic dimension of the turn to Asia. Not only does Obama underscore at every turn possible the importance of securing America’s stake in the booming Asian economy, he also notes that some power is going to determine the rules of the road for the world’s most dynamic trading region. (The insinuation being that it’s much better that it be the US and not China, the region’s other dominant power.)

The challenge to Obama’s Asia policy – and the death blow that failure to move ahead on TPP would deliver to it – is not lost on the region’s leaders.

“If you don’t do this deal, what are your levers of power?” Singapore’s foreign minister, K. Shanmugam, said in a warning issued in a Washington speech Monday. “The choice is a very stark one,” he said in remarks delivered at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “Do you want to be part of the region, or do you want to be out of the region?”

Singapore’s top diplomat – his tiny but booming island country is one of the 12 TPP countries – noted that without the economic dimension to its Asia policy, the US is reduced to primarily a military power in the region. But in a part of the globe where trade and economic prosperity are the focus, he added, “that’s not the lever you want to use.”  

Noting that the 40-percent share of global GDP that the region represents is only expected to grow, Mr. Shanmugam said, “In all of this, where is the United States?”

The Asian diplomat sounded almost like he could have been speaking from White House talking points, suggesting that if the US chooses not to lead that Asian countries will have no choice but to look elsewhere.

That argument may not sway Congress, however, which some see as too inwardly focused to grasp the changes going on in the world. “We are shifting into a more multipolar world, but it’s not clear Washington realizes that,” says Mr. Hulsman, who is president of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a global political risk firm.

On Tuesday, it looked like the next test in Congress for TPA – and thus for Obama’s Asia pivot and his grand global strategy – might not come until late July. But if the president hasn’t been able to sell his vision over years of promoting it, it seems at least uncertain he’ll be able to save it now.

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