It's Hard To Project Power Abroad With A Shutdown At Home

The White House has cancelled President Obama's trip to Asia, where he was planning to attend some major international summits. Instead, Kerry will attend these meetings while Obama deals with the government shutdown at home.

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President Obama was supposed to leave tomorrow for a trip through Southeast Asia. On the itinerary, Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines. But the White House has now called it off because of the government shutdown. In Obama's place, Secretary of State John Kerry will attend a pair of major economic summits. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports on what dysfunction at home means for American power abroad.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: In a speech at the U.N. last month, President Obama warned of dire consequences if the U.S. steps back from its role as a preeminent world leader.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Creating a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill.

SHAPIRO: Some foreign policy analysts fear that is what's happening right now. Richard Haas is president of the Council on Foreign Relations. His new book, "Foreign Policy Begins at Home," argues that to be a great power, you have to be predictable and reliable.

RICHARD HAAS: This is something that your friends and allies count on. This is something that your foes ought to take into account and potentially fear. And what we are doing is undermining the very essence of what it is to be a great power, which is that predictability and reliability.

SHAPIRO: The sudden cancellation of this trip is embarrassing for the U.S., especially since Obama talks a lot about a pivot to Asia. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke in Tokyo this week.

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: As a Pacific power, the United States understands the fundamental importance that our Pacific partnership gives to our security and to our prosperity.

SHAPIRO: The Asia pivot helps the U.S. counter China's rising power. And this week, China's president is doing a major tour through some of the nations Obama was supposed to visit. Xi Jinping became the first foreign leader ever to address Indonesia's parliament.

PRESIDENT XI JINPING: (Through translator) And I can feel the blossoming of our relations.

SHAPIRO: Some foreign policy analysts argue that the U.S. government shutdown is just a hiccup in foreign relations. Daniel Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts.

DANIEL DREZNER: I mean, there's a term that's used in D.C. a lot called optics, and certainly the optics do not look good on this. But it's still the case that many of these countries want to negotiate entry into the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is a way to cement the U.S. presence in the region.

SHAPIRO: The TPP, as it's known, is a trade agreement with a bunch of Asian countries, but not China. Before the shutdown began, U.S. trade representative Mike Froman told a Christian Science Monitor breakfast that the deal has a lot of momentum.

MICHAEL FROMAN: We're working towards closing this year, and the meetings in Bali will be an important step in that process to give guidance to the negotiators about how to close out the remaining issues.

SHAPIRO: Now, Obama won't be at those meetings. Homi Kharas of the Brookings Institution says there's no question this is a bump in the road.

HOMI KHARAS: One can never tell when one bump will be the bump that will really knock you off-kilter. In the grand scheme of things, I think this is a small bump, but it is nevertheless a bump.

SHAPIRO: Yet Richard Haas of the Council on Foreign Relations warns that it is not an isolated bump.

HAAS: All of this is taking place against sequester. It's taking place with uncertainty about whether the Congress will vote to increase the American debt ceiling. If the president had pressed a few weeks back for a vote to authorize the use of military force in Syria, it's not at all obvious to me that he would have succeeded. Indeed, I believe he would have failed.

SHAPIRO: In phone calls to Asian leaders last night, Obama reiterated his commitment to the region. His sincerity seems real, but some world leaders may question his ability to keep that commitment. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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