Obama’s teaching moment: more than about face
Rumor has it that US President Barack Obama’s on-again-off-again visit to the Philippines might be rescheduled for Spring 2014, and if not then, he should at least show up when the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit comes to the country in 2015. That is, if budget showdowns and issues of “face” don’t once again get in the way.
The contrasts could not have been greater last month as Obama cancelled first his trips to the Philippines and Malaysia, and then his participation in summits in Indonesia and Brunei. Meanwhile, Chinese President Xi Jinping embarked on a triumphant trip to Southeast Asia, becoming the first foreign leader to address the Indonesian Parliament. In Malaysia, he announced new economic and strategic initiatives, paving the way for greater Chinese business investment.
This does not bode well for the United States’ so-called “pivot to Asia,” and my own call for a greater US business pivot to the region. Perhaps it also underscores that it is not US diplomats, but business executives, entrepreneurs, teachers, and other everyday Americans who will be increasingly important to US engagement in the region.
Ironically, as businesspeople take steps to understand China’s shifting landscape, Obama has provided an unfortunate “teaching moment” about what is arguably, along with money and power, one of the three great motivators in modern China. That is the concept of “face” or “mianzi.”
In Chinese, as in English, the definition of face includes that space between a person’s forehead and chin. But as Scott D. Seligman, a historian, former Fortune 500 business executive, and author of “Chinese Business
Etiquette,” explains, face also describes a somewhat intangible concept that is tied to notions of personal dignity and respect.
Losing face in Asia can have much more consequence than a bit of momentary embarrassment. People view you differently. Credibility erodes. Power, prestige and influence can decline.
Just more than a year ago, Obama drew his line in the sand, declaring that if Syrian President Bashar Assad were to use chemical weapons, a strong, significant US response would follow.
So what happened? Chemical weapons were used, and Obama’s bluff was called. A nonresponse would have been a huge presidential loss of face. But Obama had failed to make a strong enough case to the American public for US military action so soon after Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan.
And so, the US president did an about-face on whether the US Congress needed to authorize a potential strike of ever shrinking size. That was before he changed his mind again and welcomed a decision to delay a possible vote. Obama might have seen this as a face-saving way out of a dilemma of his own making, but the view from Asia was of a far-from-decisive leader.
Russia shrewdly stepped in with a proposal to avert a US military strike against Syria. Make no mistake, though. Russian President Vladimir Putin was not practicing the Chinese concept of “giving face”—described by Seligman as the practice of “enhancing someone else’s esteem through compliments, flattery or a show of respect.” Putin has helped keep Assad in power for now and reasserted Russian influence in the Middle East.
If the United States can be outmaneuvered by Russia on Syria, what about by an increasingly assertive China in Asia? As the region comes to terms with China’s growing economic and military power, a United States that complements defense and diplomacy with a “soft power pivot” driven by commercial, educational and cultural engagement would be welcome.
Seligman writes that “no one can say how much money has been wasted, how many people toppled from power or how many friendships have been destroyed” over the abstract concept of face. But as those of us who work in Asia know, face can also be deadly serious business.
With Obama’s approach to the entire Middle East under question and prospects of more battles with a divided US Congress, one can well understand some Asian leaders’ quiet concerns about America’s attention span and focus, particularly in the face of China’s rise.
That is something the White House should keep in mind the next time it considers canceling yet another trip to Asia.
Curtis S. Chin served as US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank under Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush (2007-2010), and is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC.
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