Indecision on Syria and Europe May Undermine America’s Asia Pivot


In late 2011, President Barack Obama announced an important new agenda for American foreign policy – the “pivot” towards Asia.  Having wound down the war in Iraq and seemingly recognized the futility of endless war in Afghanistan, President Obama declared Asia a “top priority.”  Given internal budget constraints, financial and operational overstretch from two decades of overseas military actions, and major questions about how to manage the rise of China this was a wise realignment in American strategic thinking.

Today, Asia is the center of global economic activity; in particular, the future of the U.S.-China relationship will determine the fate of the region.  The “Asia pivot” is, according to former National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, intended to ensure that “international law and norms be respected, that commerce and freedom of navigation are not impeded, that emerging powers build trust with their neighbors, and that disagreements are resolved peacefully without threats or coercion.”  As Jim Hoagland writes of President Obama’s goals:  “By design or otherwise, he is locating pressure points and acquiring bargaining chips in Asia that can be useful in fashioning a more stable U.S. relationship with China.”  He continues: “These pressure points,” include

…solidarity with Japan, friendship with Asian nations upset over China’s growing shadow, expanding deployment of U.S. missile defense systems around China and putting a few more ships and U.S. Marines in the Pacific – exert mostly psychological pressure on China at this point.  They can be toned up, or down, depending on how conflictual the U.S.-China relationship becomes.

The Asia pivot is important because it reflects a refreshingly realist approach to the world, one that puts a premium on prioritization of interests and the exercise of restraint.  Modern American presidents who have been most successful on foreign policy have benefited from a realist-leaning worldview.  Harry Truman placed a defensive posture of containment at the core of Cold War foreign policy, Dwight D. Eisenhower focused on staying out of peripheral wars, John F. Kennedy bargained his way out of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Richard Nixon discarded ideological blinders and negotiated with adversaries, Ronald Reagan reassured a great power in decline that he would not take advantage of its weakness while negotiating to eliminate an entire class of nuclear weapons in Europe, and George H.W. Bush wisely limited the first Persian Gulf War and preferred a stable Iraq as a tool of containing Iran.

Today, as in past years, realism can help the U.S navigate geopolitical realities – for example, rather than picking a fight with Iran via proxy in Syria, a realist option is to test whether Iran’s new leadership is serious about a new dialogue with the West by arranging a high-level delegation meet with Iran’s new leadership.  Realism also helps decision-makers align America’s moral compass with cost and benefits – for it could be cheaper and probably save more lives to provide bed-nets for every child in Africa that will otherwise die this year from malaria.  But you do not see liberal internationalists railing about bed-nets as much as they do about Syria.

There are inherent dilemmas in the Asia pivot.  Chinese officials increasingly interpret the policy as military containment, and efforts to assuage them are increasingly met with skepticism. American officials have attempted to reassure China that the U.S. presence in Asia is to deal with drug trafficking and piracy. But as Justin Logan writes, “If China tried this sort of rhetoric to defend deploying more than half its naval assets to the Western hemisphere, American leaders would not give the argument a moment’s consideration.” He later notes, “If the success of America’s Asia policy relies on Chinese elites believing this story, the policy is in trouble.”  An overly militarized pivot that provokes nationalism in China will be a failed one.  Rather, reassurance and cooperative architectures combined with shows of America’s ability to use a range of policy tools to influence outcomes in Asia are keys to success.

This pivot requires that America take stock of other commitments that keep it from focusing on Asia. It must reorient away from Europe by responsibly handing over leadership to allies there, and narrow its focus in the Middle East primarily to securing stability around Persian Gulf shipping lanes and either dissuading Iran from attaining a nuclear weapon or, if necessary, containing it.  As John Mearsheimer put it in a recent address at the Army War College:

…Europe is likely to become not the second, but the third most important region.  We talk today about pivoting to Asia, which obviously means shifting forces to Asia from other locations.  This pivot, which is rather low-key at the moment, is likely to accelerate  if China grows more and more powerful.  But if a country pivots to a particular area, that must mean it is pivoting away from some other region.  That other region in this case is  almost certain to be Europe, not the Persian Gulf, which is likely to be the second most important region for the United States.

Despite these shifting interests, the United States appears unable to make a basic decision to remove costly and unnecessary land forces from Europe, instead opting to keep 30,000 troops in Germany beyond 2015.  The U.S. need not leave NATO, and it can deepen the European alliance with plans for a deep U.S.-E.U. free trade agreement.  But there is little rationale for sustaining an ongoing land presence there rather than rebalancing the alliance to put European allies in the lead.

The Middle East presents a similar obstacle to the proposed Asia pivot. While the existing force structure in the Persian Gulf is adequate to a narrower mission there, America finds itself sliding down a slippery slope into Syria – where there is no clear national interest in direct intervention.

The United States has, for two years, managed to stay away from the brutal Syrian civil war.  Now, however, prodded by liberal interventionists like Anne-Marie Slaughter on the left and neoconservatives like John McCain on the right, President Obama announced in June that the United States would arm rebels fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.  In fact, President Obama had already chosen sides and committed American prestige in August 2011, when he stated that the final outcome in Syria would be the departure of Assad.

The policy, Obama administration officials said at the time, was to advance a negotiated settlement – but Obama’s initial escalation of American commitment likely provided Assad little reason to negotiate.  Moreover, there was no reason to think that providing light arms to a diverse group of rebels, many of whom harbored deep hostility towards America, would be adequate to achieve the President’s stated goal.  This is exactly the sort of indecisive intervention that might only prolong the fighting and exacerbate the associated humanitarian catastrophe. Further escalation or a deep hit to American credibility are likely outcomes – as is a very messy post-Assad Syria, even if the policy succeeds. Still, the attention paid to Syria demonstrates an inherent American great power dilemma: to feel Washington must be all things to all people, all the time, rather than stick with fundamental priorities – in this case, the pivot to Asia.

It is not a surprise that the Asia pivot is undermined by an unwillingness to let go of dominance in Europe and to pull back from the Middle East.  Since 1994, when the Clinton administration embraced a strategy focused American primacy in the international system and on the spread of democracy and American values, US foreign policy priorities have been dominated by a worldview advanced by liberal interventionists and neoconservatives.  Budgets, bureaucracies, and operational concepts followed from this vision and are now staples in Washington, D.C.  The impetus has been consistently to “do more” and to assert that American leadership was a necessary international constant.  As the “indispensable nation,” according to then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, “We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future.”

America sought to ensure no other nation could challenge it while adopting a skewed foreign policy priority that equated the spread of democracy with America’s security.  This notion of primacy led America to a flawed assessment of the global security environment: because America had to be everywhere, there were existential threats everywhere.  In reality, however, America is the safest great power in history.

Advocates of this approach have consistently failed to anticipate over-stretch.  For primacy to be credible, it requires sustained military force. In the early 2000s, this took the form of costly military interventions such as Iraq and the ongoing Afghan war, both of which by 2009 were clearly of dubious national interest and involved squandering precious resources.

This worldview also ignored how America’s global engagement incentivized free-riding among allies.  As Barry Posen wrote recently in Foreign Affairs:  “With their high per capita GDPs, [American] allies can afford to devote more to their militaries, and yet they have no incentive to do so.  And while the U.S. government considers draconian cuts in social spending to restore the United States’ fiscal health, it continues to subsidize the security of Germany and Japan.  This is welfare for the rich.”  This entangling worldview has eroded America’s strengths from within and made strategic prioritization deeply difficult to achieve.

Syria is a key test of whether America can effectively prioritize among its commitments, particularly its newly declared focus on Asia.  Pressure to intervene in Syria is already damaging America’s relationship with Russia, whose cooperation is essential for managing Iran and on a host of other vital national interests.  It has also strained the U.S. relationship with China, which also opposes intervention.  Furthermore, a critical element of the pivot to Asia is that America’s friends there must feel Washington is in for the long haul.  If, however, America shows that it cannot stay focused on the larger picture, and gets continually sidetracked by interventionist impulses in other regions, then vital allies and partners in Asia may question America’s staying power.

If President Obama is serious about the Asia pivot – and the realist push underlying it – he needs to explain this to the nation and make it fundamentally clear within the foreign policy bureaucracy.  Thus far, however, Obama’s actions have signaled increased policy confusion.  He appointed as Secretary of Defense realist thinker Chuck Hagel, who has stressed Asia as a priority.  Yet Obama’s Secretary of State, John Kerry, questioned the pivot to Asia in his Senate confirmation process. Tellingly, Kerry made his first trip to Europe, and he has devoted much of his time to Syria and the broader Middle East.  Subsequently, President Obama appointed Susan Rice as his national security adviser and Samantha Power as UN Ambassador – both are strong advocates of liberal intervention, which further calls into question Obama’s commitment to a realist outlook towards new priorities in American foreign policy.

The President must decide if he is serious about a realist pivot to Asia, and he must decide soon. If he is, he must be willing to unravel two decades of Clinton and Bush legacy in foreign policy decision-making. However, if Obama is unwilling or unable to embrace a realist agenda to prioritize American interests, then the likelihood of success of the Asia pivot is slim. Rather, America will be stuck in more unwinnable wars with minimal interests at stake, unable to make the most basic of strategic choices.

Sean Kay, Ph.D. is Director of the Arneson Institute for Practical Politics and Public Affairs, and also Robson Professor of Politics and International Studies Chair at Ohio Wesleyan University. He is the author of Global Security in the Twenty-First Century: The Quest for Power and the Search for Peace.

Photo credit: Patrick Rodwell