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 an architect of President Barack Obama’s so-called Pacific pivot during his first administration, died Oct. 22 in Los Angeles. It was 78.

His death, in a hospice, was from complications of pancreatic cancer, said his wife, Rohini Talala. He lived in the Venice Beach section of Los Angeles.

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

Few Americans have had as much diplomatic or policymaking experience in China as Mr. Bader. His commitment to the country began in 1977 when, as a young Foreign Service officer, he was drafted to help President Jimmy Carter’s administration establish formal relations with Beijing.

The work put him deep into the machinery of American diplomacy, an education that gave him keen insight into how foreign relations 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 was really the quintessential 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 business man.”

Mr. Bader advised both Mr. Clinton and Mr. Obama to take a realistic, clear view of China. He largely rejected both the sentimental view that China was on a path toward greater openness and democracy and the hawkish pessimism that predicted an inevitable clash between the two powers.

“U.S. policy toward a rising China could not be based solely on military force, economic humiliations, and human rights pressures and sanctions,” he wrote in his memoir, “Obama and China’s Rise: An Insider’s Account of America’s Asia Strategy.” (2012). “At the same time, a policy of indulging and accommodating China’s assertive behavior, or ignoring its internal evolution, could encourage misbehavior.”

After serving as a close adviser to Mr. Obama during his 2008 election campaign, Mr. Bader helped oversee what the President called his “pivot” to Asia — a term Mr. Bader avoided as too much militaristic (although the policy change made it have a strong military component).

He preferred to call it “rebalancing,” a term that recognized 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 was a rising global power that needed to be met but not defeated.

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

In a 2012 memoir, Mr. Bader urged the United States to take a pragmatic view of China. He largely rejected both the sentimental view that China was on a path toward greater openness and democracy and the hawkish pessimism that predicted a clash between the two powers.Credit…Brookings Institution Press

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

He graduated with a BA in history from Yale in 1967 and a PhD in the same subject from Columbia in 1975, the same year he joined the State Department.

He married Ms Talalla, a documentary filmmaker and indigenous development advocate, in 1995. He is survived by his brother, Lawrence.

Mr. Bader did not begin his diplomatic career aspiring to become China’s hand. He had studied European history, spoke French and spent his first two years at the US embassy in Kinshasa, the capital of what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

But in 1977, Richard Holbrooke, the new assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, was looking for bright, young officers to help with the massive efforts underway around US-China relations. He brought out Mr. Bader and put him to task.

There was a lot to cover: trade, nuclear weapons, human rights and America’s complicated relationship with Taiwan. There wasn’t even a US 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 very sad, sad place,” he said in a 2022 podcast interview with The China Project, a news and information website. “There were no restaurants, no public restaurants at all. I had virtually every meal at the Beijing 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 China’s rise. Mr. Bader was central to shaping America’s 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 beat in 1999 to serve two years as US ambassador to Namibia, but returned to it in 2001 as assistant US trade representative, helping to finalize China’s entry into the World Trade Organization.

Mr. Bader left the administration in 2002 to become a senior scholar 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 discussing 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, has been preoccupied with China. The global recession had delayed America but 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 pivot underway 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 wasn’t worried. He remained convinced that the ebb and flow of tensions was simply part of great power relations.

“Over time, there are interests that overlap to some extent and diverge to some extent,” he told The New York Times in 2012. “The relationship tends to move up and down over time, as if length of a sine curve. But recent history is mostly positive.”

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