Jeffrey A. Bader, who helped steer Obama’s ‘Pivot’ to Asia, dies at 78

Jeffrey A. Bader, one of the nation’s leading experts on China and the architect of President Barack Obama’s so-called Pacific pivot during his first administration, died Oct. 22 in Los Angeles. He was 78 years old.

His death at the hospital was the result of complications from pancreatic cancer, said his wife, Rohini Talalla. He lived in the Venice Beach area of ​​Los Angeles.

In a statement, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken called Mr. Bader “one of the most knowledgeable and insightful hands on East Asia of his generation, his intellect matched only by heart and decency.”

Few Americans have had as much diplomatic or political experience in China as Mr. Bader. His involvement in the country dates back to 1977, when, as a young diplomatic service officer, he was hired to help the administration of President Jimmy Carter in establishing formal relations with Beijing.

The work put him deep in the machinery of American diplomacy, a training that gave him a keen insight into how foreign relations actually work – not through grand ideologies and pronouncements, but through day-to-day person-to-person contact.

In the late 1990s, Mr. Bader led the East Asia portfolio for the National Security Council under President Bill Clinton, a role he repeated a decade later under Mr. Obama.

“He really was a fundamentally effective diplomat,” Susan Shirk, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego who worked with him in the Clinton administration, said in a telephone interview. “He was the sharpest operative.”

Mr. Bader advised both Mr. Clinton and Mr. Obama to take a pragmatic, clear view of China. He largely rejected the sentimental view that China is on the road to greater openness and democracy, as well as the hawkish pessimism that predicted an inevitable conflict between the two powers.

“U.S. policy toward a rising China could not rely solely on military might, economic smears, and human rights pressure and sanctions,” he wrote in his memoir, “Obama and the Rise of China: An Insider’s Account of America’s Asia Strategy” (2012). . “At the same time, a policy of leniency and accommodation to China’s assertive behavior, or indifference to its internal evolution, could encourage bad behavior.”

After serving as a close adviser to Mr. Obama during his 2008 campaign, Mr. Bader helped oversee what the president called his “pivot” to Asia — a term that Mr. Bader shunned it, considering it excessively militaristic (although the change in policy was to have a strong military component).

He preferred to call it “rebalancing,” a term that recognizes China’s growing importance to America’s future and the need to devote more resources to managing the bilateral relationship. He recommended a nuanced approach, recognizing that China is an emerging global power that needs to be addressed but not confronted.

“He was not naive about China, but he saw the importance of a constructive relationship,” said former California Gov. Jerry Brown, who now serves as chairman of the California-China Climate Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, and who relied on Mr. Bader for advice in recent years. “He had a view that was more realistic and optimistic.”

In his memoirs from 2012, Mr. Bader urged the United States to take a pragmatic view of China. He mostly rejected the sentimental view that China is on the way to greater openness and democracy, as well as the hawkish pessimism that predicted a conflict between the two powers.Credit…Brookings Institution Press

Jeffrey Allen Bader was born in New York on July 1, 1945 to Samuel Bader, a lawyer, and Grace (Rosenbloom) Bader, a lawyer and homemaker.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Yale in 1967 and a doctorate in the same subject from Columbia in 1975, the same year he joined the State Department.

In 1995, he married Ms. Talalla, a documentary filmmaker and advocate for indigenous development. Along with her, he is survived by his brother Lawrence.

Mr. Bader did not begin his diplomatic career with the aspiration to be China’s hand. He studied European history, spoke French and spent his first two years at the American embassy in Kinshasa, the capital of the present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo.

But in 1977, Richard Holbrooke, the new Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, was on the lookout for bright, young officers to help with the massive effort on US-China relations. He pulled out Mr. Bader and gave him a task.

There was a lot to cover: trade, nuclear weapons, human rights, and America’s complicated relationship with Taiwan. There was not even an American embassy in Beijing.

Mr. Bader lived in Beijing for several years, an experience he often described in detail to explain how far the country had come.

“The town itself was a pretty dreary, dreary place,” he said in a podcast interview with The China Project 2022, a news and information website. “There were no restaurants, no publicly accessible restaurants at all. I ate basically every meal at the Peking Hotel for two years, which is a fate I wouldn’t wish on anyone.”

He left in 1983, but returned four years later to find clear signs of the modern consumer economy the country would become.

He also saw the dangers in the rise of China. Mr. Bader was instrumental in shaping the American response to the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 and the sudden tensions that arose after China conducted a series of missile tests near Taiwan in 1996.

He left the China post in 1999 to serve as US ambassador to Namibia for two years, but returned in 2001 as assistant US trade representative, helping to finalize China’s entry into the World Trade Organization.

Mr. Bader left the government in 2002 to become a senior fellow in Washington Brookings Institution. Then, in 2005, Mr. Obama, then a freshman senator from Illinois, asked him for a briefing on China.

The two spent three hours in the senator’s office, eating Thai takeout and talking politics. Mr. Bader left their meeting convinced that if Mr. Obama ran for president, he would win – and that he would like to be part of the Obama administration.

The Obama White House, especially in his first term, was preoccupied with China. The global recession set America back, but it relatively spared China, which began to assert itself internationally.

Mr. Bader stayed with Mr. Obama for more than two years before returning to Brookings, long enough to see the turnaround unfold and to believe that America was on the right track. And while he later criticized the administration of Donald J. Trump for its protectionist approach to China, he was unfazed. He remained convinced that the ebb and flow of tensions were simply part of great power relations.

“Over time there are interests that overlap to some degree and diverge to some degree,” he told The New York Times in 2012. “The relationship tends to go up and down over time, like a sine curve. But the recent story is mostly positive.”

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