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President Obama is in South Korea today, on the second leg of his four-nation Asian tour, but the escalating crisis in Ukraine and the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian talks are shadowing his visit.
Former U.S. ambassador, Under Secretary of State, and NATO representative Nicholas Burns joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to discuss the factors impacting Obama’s Asia trip.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
This is HERE AND NOW. President Obama continues his trip to Asia. He is in South Korea today, a country that remains deep in the mourning process after the tragic sinking of that ferry, something the president acknowledged in his press conference today.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: As allies but also as friends, we join you in mourning the loss and the missing and especially so many young people, students who represented the vitality and the future of this nation.
HOBSON: The visit to South Korea follows the president's stop in Japan, where he was not able to secure support for a trade deal. And while President Obama has been in Asia, the crisis in Eastern Ukraine continues to escalate, and peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians have suffered a major setback.
Joining us now to talk about all of this and the president's foreign policy in general is Nicholas Burns, for U.S. ambassador and former undersecretary of state. He's now at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Nicholas Burns, welcome back to the program.
R. NICHOLAS BURNS: Thank you very much.
HOBSON: Well, no trade deal, as we said, in Japan and this visit to South Korea that has been largely about grieving with that country. What were the goals of this trip, and have any of them been accomplished?
BURNS: Well, Jeremy, the signature piece of the president's foreign policy over the last five years has been that the United States needs to lead in Asia, that Asia is likely to be, in economic and strategic terms, the most important part of the world. So the president's talked about a pivot or a rebalancing of really the full force of American attention on Asia.
So he wants to maintain that U.S. leadership role that we've held since the close of the Second World War. He wants to show support to allies, thus the visit to Japan, South Korea and The Philippines in the next couple of days. He made a very important statement yesterday in Tokyo, saying the United States would support Japan in its controversy with China over control of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.
He was the first American president to say that those islands do fall under the U.S.-Japan defense agreement, very significant, and I think he's not going to China on this trip, but China's always in the conversation in Asia. He's trying to show balance with China. He wants to work with the Chinese in peace, trade and invest with them, work on climate change, but also show the Chinese that our alliance system and American military power remains paramount in the Asia Pacific region.
HOBSON: Well, you mentioned the comments about those islands that are disputed islands between Japan and China. But it sounds like the way that he worded his statements could be interpreted by both sides as positive.
BURNS: It was very balanced. On the one hand, he did say that the United States defense obligations to Japan extend over the Senkaku Islands, but he also said that - he referred to them as rocks, rocky shoals, and that this ought to be resolved by diplomacy between Japan and China.
He noted that this commitment was made before he was even born. So he definitely, I thought, hedged between the Japanese and Chinese sides, and that might be, I think in his mind, the appropriate place to be because he doesn't want to see a conflict between the United States and China over these islands.
But then again, he's got to stand with Japan because Japan's our strongest ally in Asia.
HOBSON: But then as we said, he didn't get the trade deal that he was after, and while he's in Korea, there is talk that there could be even a nuclear test by North Korea, which is certainly not something that the United States wants.
BURNS: Well, it's a very charged agenda, and you're right. The president has set up a Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free-trade agreement with 10 or so countries in East Asia as one of his major ambitions. He did not get the concessions from the Japanese on lowering barriers to American exports of agricultural products to Japan.
He may still get it, but I think the Japanese are holding out here because the president doesn't have what we call fast-track authority from the U.S. Congress to negotiate this deal, and so the Japanese may feel that he's not going to even get congressional support for this or the big trans-Atlantic trade deal that the president is also negotiating.
HOBSON: Well, how big a problem is that in general for his foreign policy that he does not seem to have the support of Congress on almost anything?
BURNS: The president, as you know, has very broad authority, any president, under the Constitution for the conduct of our foreign policy. But on big issues, and trade is a very big issue affecting every American, Congress has to agree. So if the president cannot get mainly recalcitrant Democrats, who have traditionally been hostile to free trade, to come around on these two big Atlantic and Pacific trade agreements, it'll be a major blow to his foreign policy agenda.
That is one of the singular ambitions that he has as president.
HOBSON: Another big ambition of his foreign policy agenda has been peace in the Middle East, trying to get these two sides, Israel and the Palestinians, to get together and come up with a deal. Let's listen back to Secretary of State John Kerry at a press conference in January.
SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: On the Middle East peace process, we remain committed. The parties met even last night. They are continuing to have their discussions. We will continue no matter what to try to facilitate the capacity of people to be able to make peace.
HOBSON: There was a lot of optimism, and then yesterday Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the peace process between his country and the Palestinians was, quote, essentially buried after the Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas announced a new partnership with the militant Islamic group Hamas. Here's Netanyahu speaking to Fox News' Brett Baier.
PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: I was hoping that he would embrace peace with Israel. Instead he chose a pact with Hamas, and that effectively is what is killing peace. I hope he changes his mind because the only way we can move forward is to have partners who are committed to living with Israel and not killing the state of Israel.
HOBSON: He's talking about Abbas there. Nick Burns, how big of a setback was this in the Middle East peace talks?
BURNS: This is a major setback. Secretary Kerry has made, I think, 12 trips to the region as secretary of state in a little over a year to try to negotiate between the Palestinians and Israelis. But the Israelis said they are breaking off the talks. The Palestinians says, well, we need this united delegation between Hamas and Fatah in order to represent all the Palestinians.
The problem with that is Hamas doesn't recognize Israel's right to exist. So I think in effect these talks are now going to be put on ice for some time to come. It doesn't mean that President Obama and Secretary Kerry can't circle back to them. Times change, the interests of leaders change, but I think the president will now focus more on the Iran nuclear issue and some of these Asian issues, as well as, of course, problems with President Putin on Ukraine.
HOBSON: Well yeah, let's talk about that. You can't talk about foreign policy right now without talking about what is going on there. What do you think? Does the U.S. have an option, especially if President Putin decides to go in militarily into Eastern Ukraine?
BURNS: Well, the U.S. has quite rightly said that this is not going to be a military contest between the United States and Russia over the Ukraine. We have no security commitment to Ukraine. But on the other hand, we have to drive up the cost to President Putin because this is just blatant aggression in invading Crimea, annexing it and now actively destabilizing the eastern part of Ukraine and trying to weaken the government in Kiev.
And so what can the U.S. do? Economic sanctions. The problem there is that our European allies are hooked on Russian natural gas. They're dependent on it, and so they don't want to enact major sanctions, and that really weakens the overall U.S. effort. And the president has not put forward on our own, major American sanctions.
He's going to have to consider that because if Putin believes there's literally no cost, economically or politically, to what he's doing, he might very well proceed to fundamentally destabilize and divide Eastern Ukraine from the rest of the country. That will be a major blow to United States' interests in Europe and to the cause of freedom and democracy, which we've championed for so long in that region.
HOBSON: And there was talk today, even, from the White House of some new sanctions that could be placed on Russia. Nicholas Burns, former U.S. ambassador and undersecretary of state, also former U.S. representative to NATO and former a lot of other things but currently at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Nick Burns, thanks so much, as always.
BURNS: Thanks very much, Jeremy.
HOBSON: This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.