Obama and democracy in Asia

politics and culture — By on November 12, 2010 at 10:00 am

Obama Air Force OneIf you’ve followed news reports about President Obama’s current trip to Asia, you’ve no doubt heard that a plume of volcanic ash in Indonesia re-arranged the president’s flight schedule and that Michelle Obama donned a headscarf for a visit to a mosque. If you’re a traveler who believes in engagement with the world, though, then you’re probably also interested in some of the more substantive things that took place. One of those things, of course, is an emphasis on trade and exports. But if you look at Obama’s speeches, statements and schedule, it becomes obvious that this trip is also about promoting democracy and shared values. That gets highlighted much less in the media, but here is a snapshot of the trip from that perspective.

Obama’s schedule has taken him to four Asian countries with democratic governments.

The itinerary of America’s self-proclaimed “first Pacific President” has taken him to India (the world’s largest democracy) and Indonesia (the world’s biggest Muslim-majority democracy) before he attends a pair of global summits in South Korea (a dictatorship turned democracy that was saved from communism by U.S. intervention) and in Japan (Asia’s oldest democracy). Even though the vagaries of democratic politics had just dealt Obama what he called a “shellacking,” the U.S. President has spent much of his tour highlighting the virtues of governance by the people.

And his major speeches have played up the role of democracy in those nations. In India:

“Instead of being lured by the false notion that progress must come at the expense of freedom, you built the institutions upon which true democracy depends,” Obama told the Indian Parliament on Nov. 8. “The lesson is clear: India has succeeded not in spite of democracy; India has succeeded because of democracy.”

And in Indonesia:

Today, we sometimes hear that democracy stands in the way of economic progress. This is not a new argument. Particularly in times of change and economic uncertainty, some will say that it is easier to take a shortcut to development by trading away the right of human beings for the power of the state. But that’s not what I saw on my trip to India, and that is not what I see here in Indonesia. Your achievements demonstrate that democracy and development reinforce one another.

And, as a fun but intriguing aside, some of the president’s old elementary school classmates in Indonesia joined him at his Jakarta speech and reminisced about how those formative years may have helped to influence his adult beliefs in tolerance and diversity.

Twenty-seven of them, out of an original class of 38, were at the university yesterday to hear Mr Obama’s speech…As they tell it, it was during this period of his life, when Obama was at the very impressionable ages of nine and ten, that the future president learned the core values that he believes in, values he spoke about at length in his latest visit to Jakarta.

Religious tolerance? His former classmate Rully Dasaad argues that it was in their shared classroom that Barry learned all about respecting religious and ethnic diversity. The class included several Muslims (the majority faith in Indonesia), but also a Hindu, a couple of Christians and Barry himself. This diversity itself reflected Indonesia’s own enormous diversity…“Unity in diversity” was a phrase that Mr Obama returned to again and again in his Jakarta speech, and his classmates firmly believe that he came to appreciate this concept, emotionally and intellectually, at their school in Menteng.

Just another perspective on the president’s Asian trip that goes a bit beyond most of the headlines.

Photo credit: Public domain photo via Wikimedia Commons.

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