Symbolism counts for a lot in foreign policy. Adversarial leaders are photographed smiling and shaking hands to show thawing relations. They grimace to show public displeasure. Nonthreatening and soft symbolism makes a point about state relations without allowing for dangerous misinterpretation or miscalculation between nations.
Harder, more aggressive symbolic acts get a lot of immediate attention. In the worst case, they can really confuse matters or welcome unintended consequences. To make a tough point, adversarial nations will sail naval subs into other countries’ territorial waters (Russia), fly new stealth fighter jets during a state visit (China), or blow up nuclear weapons as warning shots (North Korea). This harder symbolism shows off increased military capacities, warns real and potential adversaries, and threatens everyone that these countries’ leaders are serious, if not downright unhinged.
Symbolism can be potent. Striking a balance between a clear symbolic act and a threatening one can be tricky. One thing is clear, however: Empty symbolism gives the impression that a nation is strategically unclear, conflicted or incapable of executing stated policy.
“Pivoting” to Asia is perhaps the most important foreign policy initiative of the Obama administration. The pivot, or “rebalance,” as U.S. policymakers call the shift to Asia, is intended to strengthen American resources, attention and forces toward the Pacific. It is the right American policy for the 21st century, aimed at moving this country closer to the nations where population, trade and power are growing most dramatically.
The pivot is still evolving. Renewed engagement in the Middle East and geopolitical threats elsewhere are demanding the American attention and resources otherwise required for a fuller focus on Asia. As a result, America’s rebalancing messages have been mixed; the symbolism cautious and at times unclear.
On the one hand, any quick or massive U.S. resource shift toward Asian allies could be misinterpreted by Beijing as a strategic threat to a rapidly rising and regionally dominant China. At the same time, the economically challenged Europeans might find any American rebalancing away from the Atlantic alliance a worrisome development as the continent faces fresh Russian assertiveness.
Given this reality, there are still many ways of symbolically showing an Asia pivot commitment, some hard and threatening, others soft. Few, if any, should be empty. Some options remain unexplored.
One way to do it – without raising military fears or taking a confrontational stance – is to move Washington, D.C., to California. Not literally, of course, but by operating a western White House out of California on a regularly scheduled basis, perhaps quarterly. Such an action would signal a shift not only in strategic thinking, but also hold huge potential for future Asia-Pacific summitry.
Sunnylands in Southern California has already functioned as the successful setting for the 2013 meetings between Presidents Barack Obama and China’s Xi Jinping. Surely, an extended and seasonally planned Sunnylands stay, combined with a clear pivot purpose, would make an even greater statement about America’s strategic outlook.
Quarterly administrative working sojourns in California, away from Washington, D.C., may sound like a radical idea at first blush, but for some nations, moving their entire capitals is a standard practice as they evolve and grow.
Nearly all large, powerful countries have changed capitals for strategic or historic reasons. In the last century alone, Brazil, Israel, Turkey, Russia, China and Nigeria relocated their government seats. America last moved capitals in 1800.
These physical moves of national capitals were made long before the Internet revolution and other technological developments that enable telecommuting or piloting distant drones from anywhere in the world. Geography is no longer a significant barrier to operational or managerial efficiency for business; it should not be for government.
The main motivation for getting the White House regularly out West would be to remind the world that the United States is unequivocally a Pacific nation. There would be plenty of domestic benefits to this shift, too.
A move west would build greater proximity to national immigration, education, innovation, incarceration, carbon sequestration and capitalization challenges. This new intimate knowledge could lead to more federal funds and creative solutions for the union’s most populous state.
Obama bemoans Washington culture, lobbyists, infighting and Beltway thinking. Sunny (and occasionally rainy) California would allow him to escape rancorous D.C. and the recent Republican rout to come to a state where he is still looked upon favorably.
China, Japan, India, Singapore, Vietnam, Australia and Russia … in fact, every country and the American people, too, will get the real and symbolic message that this country fronts two oceans and chooses a 21st century future that also looks west toward Asia.
Ultimately, Obama may not be able to move to California while in office, but first daughter Malia is considering undergraduate studies at Stanford in 2016. During her undergraduate years, she should visit the nearby Facebook campus and consider following Mark Zuckerberg’s recent move by learning to speak Mandarin Chinese – that would be both a smart strategy and strong symbolism.
Markos Kounalakis is a research fellow at Central European University and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @KounalakisM.