Understanding the US Pivot: Past, Present, and Future


Understanding the US Pivot: Past, Present, and Future

RUSI Newsbrief, 26 November, 2014

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With the resurrection of Russian revanchism on Europe’s Eastern borders and the near-collapse of the Iraqi and Kurdish states under the onslaught of ISIS, it seems as though the American pivot to Asia may be over before it has begun. Certainly, America’s ‘first Pacific President’, as he has been described, has found it more difficult than anticipated to end America’s wars in the Middle East and swing the country’s focus towards the Asia-Pacific.

The Obama administration’s ‘pivot’ to Asia was created during the re-election campaign by a group of the president’s closest advisors, with personal input by the president himself. Initiated with the prediction that Asia would become the centre of the global economy by 2050, by the belief that the US’s political absence had been bad for regional security, and by the notion that the US had become bogged down for too long in unwinnable wars in the Middle East. Emerging as a term to describe the US’s new Asia policy, a key assumption was that despite the challenges posed to the West by Islamists non-state actors and terrorist groups like Al-Qa’ida, these threats were manageable and the true focus of the US should instead be on Asia. The need for the US to shift its diplomatic, economic and defence resources to the region was perceived as especially urgent with the rise of Chinese regional power and influence, and China’s apparent inclination to exercise its burgeoning military power in territorial spats with its neighbours. The fact that these spats affected sea lanes vital to the US and its allies meant that their peaceful resolution was of direct concern to Washington. While these circumstances continue to exist, however, it is clear that growing insecurity in Europe and the Middle East mean that the US and its allies will now have to co-ordinate a much more holistic global strategy for the future.

In the three years since the pivot was unveiled, the policy has been much criticised, much maligned, and some would argue, much misunderstood. This is perhaps because it challenges a number of assumptions inherent to the ‘pre-pivot’ world. First, it challenges the notion that Europe is the global centre of gravity; second, it challenges the notion that the Middle East should be Washington’s overriding security priority; and third, it implicitly challenges the assumption that China will become the region’s lead power. At home, its domestic critics claim that the policy represents mere Democratic posturing, representing – at best – a simple repackaging of various Bush-era policies, including the trilaterals – a unique set of quasi-alliances with Japan, Australia, South Korea and India established between 2002 and 2010 – closer ties with Tokyo, and capability-building among Southeast Asian states. Why claim that the US would return to Asia, they puzzled, when it had actually never left.

Asian critics of the pivot also emerged, viewing the policy as overly-antagonistic toward China, and likely to fuel great-power rivalry, which might force regional states into an unwanted binary choice. Oddly, this saw the same Southeast Asian states that had back-channelled requests for greater US presence in the region voice disquiet as the policy was rolled out, fearing a Chinese backlash. This was not long in coming, as Chinese officials and media blasted the policy as a euphemism for containment – one they claimed rested on a Cold War, balance-of-power logic. Despite the administration’s insistence that this was not the case, the charge became a handy weapon for Beijing to keep Washington on a back foot as President Obama and others toured the region in April.

In Europe, understanding of the policy was even less apparent. Many US allies viewed the shift with alarm, and despite Hillary Clinton’s claim that the US could ‘walk and chew gum at the same time’, there was a concern that the prioritisation of Asia was at Europe’s expense.

Indeed, the ‘pivot’ represented an unfortunate choice of nomenclature as it implied that the US only had one face, and like a player on a basketball court, would pivot either in one direction or another in order to move up court. This debate caused led to an unfortunate dumbing down of the actual issues behind the policy, and one that led to increased misrepresentations of overall US global strategy.

Attempts to correct this definitional issue foundered in light of the fact that President Obama personally liked the term, leaving American diplomats floundering between the use of ‘pivot’ and ‘rebalancing’. In some ways, the debate came to resemble that which had clouded China’s 2003 ‘Peaceful Rise’ policy, in which China’s efforts to reassure the region backfired when many observed the balance of power connotations in the term ‘rise’. Obama administration officials at the coal face of the policy, such as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, Kurt Campbell, worked hard to get the debate back on track by focusing on substantive issues and de-emphasing the policy name on his visits around the region. However, by 2012, the fiscal climate in Washington had begun to deteriorate, sowing new suspicion that Washington could ill-afford the new policy.

The sequestration in 2013 and ensuing budget cuts to the Department of Defense (hitting the Navy particularly hard) have led some, like Senator John McCain, to question the administration’s ability to fund the policy, despite its insistence that such funding was ring-fenced. At a defence industrial event in March 2014, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Acquisition Katrina McFarland told the audience that ‘the pivot is being looked at again, because candidly, it can’t happen’. Within hours of her remarks, McFarland sought to withdraw them, contacting Navy Times, which was due to publish her comments, with a correction. The unfortunate back-and-forth served only to heighten the gathering suspcioun both within Washington and in the Pacific region that the administration will be unable to follow through on its intentions.

And yet, despite its fiscal challenges, the Obama administration maintains that its efforts in the Asia-Pacific will continue, and despite naysayers, has demonstrated its commitment to the pivot through a major political and military outreach programme. This has included an increase in presidential visits to the region – Obama having carried out more than any other sitting president – significant changes to the country’s defence posture in-region, with new deployments to Australia and Singapore, and an increased American presence in regional fora such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the East Asia Summit (EAS). On top of that, it has sought – with limited success so far – to re-energise its economic relationship with the region through the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

However, despite all of this, perhaps critics of the pivot are right in one way: US attention to the region cannot come at the expense of others. As the economies of the Asia-Pacific grow, for example, so too do their dependence on Middle Eastern energy supplies, linking the security of the two regions. The US will therefore have to adopt a more holistic approach to its global strategy and continue trying to co-ordinate with its allies to establish what each can do, and where they can best do it. The pivot to Asia cannot leave behind security of the Middle East, when so many of its Asian and European allies depend on the region for their energy supplies.

US allies in Europe and in Asia can play a constructive role in developing and implementing this linked-up strategy, as a loose bloc to defend and augment the current rules-based order. Indeed, there have already been some nascent signs of this as allies in the Asia-Pacific have become more integrated into NATO missions in the Middle East and the Gulf of Eden, and in Brussels. There have also been signs of European allies integrating politically with Asian powers. Further institutionalised co-operation between these states and NATO is a good way forward, also helping to build up capacity in key target areas, like cyber-security and maritime security. This has already begun – on a limited capacity – between key US allies like the UK, Australia, and Japan.

Those European allies pushing for the US to recommit to Europe will also have to put their own houses in order and recommit to NATO spending targets, despite the recession. The fact that last year the US accounted for more than 73 per cent of all NATO defence spending (up from 68 per cent in 2007), is a sorry state of affairs that simply cannot continue. The US simply cannot carry the weight of all of its allies.

European allies will also have to acknowledge Asia’s importance in US global strategy; after all, Asia – as the future centre of the global economy – is becoming more important to them too. As such, in addition to taking on more stepping up in Eastern Europe and in the Mediterranean, they should help to free up those US assets that are needed in Asia. They can also adopt a more co-ordinated approach towards defence exports to China – one more in line with a broader Western strategy. Meanwhile, another little acknowledged facet of China’s build-up has been its use of European military technology, acquired in civilian joint ventures with firms like Eurocopter, Agusta Westland and Pratt & Whitney. The US should not have to deal with advanced European systems in its bid to maintain stability and a balance of power.

Finally, US strategy in the Asia Pacific region must continue to try to manage the Thucydidean trap presented by China’s rise by careful hedging, combining political engagement with hard balancing. Whether referred to as a pivot, rebalance or something else entirely, Washington must pursue policies that strengthen its Asian allies, including new models of security co-operation, while also trying to deter China from military revanchism. If one compares this period to the 1930s, when Western liberal democracies and the League of Nations were in disarray, one might see that the cards are stacked more in the Western power’s favour. Unlike in that period, the US is fully and proactively committed to the defence of global stability, and its allies – though in financial straits – are co-ordinated and committed to the same. Going forward, this generation must not repeat the mistakes of the past and lose sight of the need to defend the current rules-based order

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