US FOREIGN POLICY
Fresh from a successful and exhausting election campaign, US President Barack Obama is already embarking on another foray into "swing states".
This time the states are overseas, in Southeast Asia.
The whistle stops in this region will be just as exhaustive as on the domestic trail. But the possibility of long-term success remains as yet uncertain.
Taking further the analogy of US presidential politics, Myanmar can perhaps be seen as Virginia - normally solidly in the red column, prised back a while ago, but still a toss-up needing more consolidation and leg work.
Cambodia would be North Carolina - close, had been within reach, but ultimately likely to stay in the red sphere of influence.
And Thailand would be Ohio - a pivotal barometer with varied constituencies/precincts, traditionally displaying vacillating tendencies.
Not surprisingly, the issues on both the domestic and foreign "stumps" are similar - the economy, jobs, trade and investment, security - with that intangible thread running through everything: the "likeability" factor.
The timeframes and rules of the game, however, are different. Mr Obama in the blue corner is elected to a second and final four-year term. In Beijing, in the red corner, a "nominating convention" anointed a new leader, Xi Jinping, for the next 10 years.
No one anywhere would seriously doubt that if the world's 7.1 trillion people were able today to vote for a world leader, the likeable Mr Obama would probably win by several hundreds of millions of votes. But 10 years from now, how would the votes tip in this most populous of regions?
In the context of Asia, the demographics currently favour the United States. But inciting old animosities in Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam and India against China could prove to be a counter-productive strategy in the longer term, and could lead to a popular backlash against what might come to be perceived as a "dirty tricks" campaign to turn a potential flag-bearer of Asian pride into an also-ran.
Creating exclusionary trading blocs that circumvent and go beyond the agreed rules of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) will also not be realistic given the imperatives of global supply chains and the need for new, large, and expanding consumer markets to serve as engines of regional and global growth.
America is still the dominant military power, the only one with global reach, and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.
The danger is that, as David von Drehle observed in a recent edition of Time magazine, a man with a hammer tends to see every problem as a nail.
To erect a security "fence" around the rim of the Asiatic landmass would be overkill and as archaic, wasteful and demographically dubious as erecting one on the US-Mexican border.
Four years ago, in his first inauguration speech, Mr Obama lifted hopes around the world.
"To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow, to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds," he declared.
Not long into his term, the usual corporate lobbies, interest groups and bureaucratic agencies re-took control of US trade, investment and development policies. WTO talks for a "developmental round" of new trade rules aimed at helping the poorest became stalled, the agricultural subsidies continued and dissenting voices were crushed under the weight of infinite Washington, DC, inter-agency position papers.
The American ambassador in Geneva wound up spending a great deal of her time trying to further "bonsai" a minuscule United Nations agency (Unctad) set up to help poor countries trade and develop, trying to prevent it from saying too much and pressuring it do less with less - a negative rather than visionary agenda.
Four years ago in his first inauguration speech, Mr Obama declared: "To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect." He managed to take that a little further than he could go on trade and development, with the epochal "A New Beginning" speech at Cairo University in June 2009.
Noting that the Kingdom of Morocco was the first nation to recognise a newly-independent United States back in 1777, Mr Obama catalogued the long American relationship with the Muslim world and urged that "there must be a sustained effort to listen to each other; to learn from each other; to respect one another; and to seek common ground".
Pointedly, the president - uniquely attuned to cultural and religious diversity, and extremely sensitive to injustice, suffering and hardships - added that "the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable... The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements ... it is time for these settlements to stop".
There was renewed hope that the extremism fanned in the post-9/11 era could slowly subside with the lessening of hatred on both sides and through resolution at long last of the core problem of Palestine.
But as we all know, it was not to be. Again, lobby groups and entrenched bureaucratic and corporate interests gradually took back the helm of US Middle East policy.
For us in Thailand, gone were any hopes that reduced international vitriol could also help defuse some of the angst in our own southern provinces.
Running vigorously in place is an acceptable ploy to convey the impression of forward movement. But it cannot address the reality of a swinging pendulum. Within the next five to 10 years, we in Thailand will be faced with the tantalising prospect of having to make a hard choice.
On the one hand, a model of governance that combines strict state authoritarian control with social sensitivity and economic liberalism, a "guided" democracy that offers the prospect of internal order and stability while at the same time conducive to individual prosperity.
On the other hand, an "electoral" democracy, often messy, where rights outweigh responsibilities and financial resources gleaned from a libertarian but avaricious populace and savvy free-market conglomerates are insufficient to sustain an adequate social safety net for all, but which offers freedom of thought and action.
For us to make a bold choice, we will require a less fractured polity, and cohesive socio-political, bureaucratic and security establishments that appear beyond our reach at the moment. The natural reflex will be to muddle through, get along with all, spread our bets and apportion our affections.
However, the inexorable march of economic and social forces will require a clear choice to be made in the not too distant future. An additional and growing pull of the first model by then could be that it might also be a way out of the domestic impasse we find ourselves in.
A strategic Beijing-Bangkok axis that can yield economic and socio-political benefits both externally and domestically would be risky and even harder to finesse, but still tantalising.
Four years ago, in his inauguration speech, Mr Obama observed that "our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions - that time has surely passed".
But can he offer an alternative vision, one resembling that shining city on the hill, which can sway the decision that we will have to make?
In Cairo, he had said: "Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail". Four years ago at his inauguration he had observed: "Our security emanates from the justness of our cause; the force of our example; the tempering qualities of humility and restraint."
In his campaign four years ago, he outlined the audacious things that can be accomplished with hope, and fleshed out for all the dreams from his father.
We look forward to what he might have to say at his second inaugural in January. After that, Mr Obama must be allowed to go with his basic instincts, his innate decency and sensitivity, his appreciation of the complications of the world around him - unencumbered by bureaucracies and the reams of communiques, talking points and position papers; ignoring strident lobbies; rising above dogma and the ticking of boxes.
He has four years to leave an international legacy and help set the world on a trajectory that can combine for this region the best elements of both competing models. Otherwise, by default, he would have made the choice for us.
So welcome, Mr President. Chok dee krub (good luck, sir). You'll need it, and we will too. But more than that, we now need you to be you.
Kobsak Chutikul is a former Thai ambassador and member of parliament. He also served with the WTO and United Nations in Geneva.
About the author
Writer: Kobsak Chutikul