Keep Your Eyes on the Prize: The Asia Pivot

September 9, 2013

The Syrian crisis has produced a chorus of criticism of the Obama administration’s foreign policy as indecisive and lacking either domestic or international leadership credibility. The Assad regime’s apparent use of chemical weapons has further complicated an already challenging picture, as the international community is divided not just between Assad’s supporters in Moscow and his opponents in the United States, but also among the western democracies, as clearly illustrated by the British government’s failure to win a parliamentary vote in favor of retaliatory action in Syria.

As the Syrian tragedy plays out, it may be useful to reflect on the impact of the “pivot” (subsequently called “rebalancing”) of US strategic focus away from the Europe and the Middle East and toward Asia.

The Obama administration, by disengaging from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, has made the point that the United States does not wish to be the world’s policeman. The pivot policy was based on the reality that the United States could make some sensible reductions in its military presence in Europe and the Middle East, given the pending end of U.S. and NATO lead combat roles in Afghanistan.  However, dressing up those practical steps as a strategic shift in US policy focus may have had some serious negative consequences for U.S. interests.  In particular, it raised profound questions about U.S. commitment and leadership both in Europe and across the Middle Eastern region.  After all, when you “pivot,” you move away from one focus as you are moving toward another.

While the administration has stated that it has no intention to weaken its commitments in either region, the articulation of the pivot/rebalancing policy sent signals to important players in both.  For instance, in Europe, some observers eagerly seized on the pivot as a sign that the United States was in the process of turning NATO leadership over to the Europeans.  Many Americans, not unreasonably weary of supporting the costs of the United States’ international leadership, welcomed the prospect of such a development.

But the vision of a united European-led alliance, with the United States taking a back seat, ignored the fact that Europeans are themselves deeply divided on issues related to the use of military force.  Moreover, increasingly, European military capabilities for even modest military missions are credible only in concert with their American ally.

In the Middle East, the Arab Spring has led to region-wide instability, currently being played out most violently in Syria.  The Obama administration has sought to avoid taking a leading role in the various crises, as was made apparent most recently in the ongoing Egyptian tumult.  But events in the Middle East have a way of imposing themselves on the American foreign policy agenda, and America is too willing to be imposed upon.

One of the reasons the U.S. finds such difficulty in curbing its involvement in Middle East crises is its determined support and close alliance with Israel. Objectively, if the United States intends to continue to offer support for Israel’s security, it needs to be militarily and politically credible in the Middle East region more broadly.  And, for that credibility, the United States needs to operate from a strong allied foundation based in NATO Europe.  American leadership of the international community and successful pursuit of issues in the United Nations Security Council and other fora have traditionally started with the European allies lined up in support of the US position.  If the United States cannot convince its most like-minded allies of the wisdom of its policy, the chances for gaining wider international credibility are slim.

Many Europeans and Americans may regret or even resent this set of dependencies, but they are unlikely to change unless the United States abandons Israel.  And, the United States is unlikely to do so for a wide variety of moral, international and domestic political reasons.

So, no matter what forces are moved toward Asia and away from Europe and the Middle East, the pivot policy rhetoric may have seriously eroded the U.S.’s credibility and degraded its capacity to promote its interests in the two regions.  This political damage to the perception of U.S. commitment and leadership is far more consequential than just a physical shift of military resources.  And one might ask, did the United States gain anything by shining a bright light on Asia?  The United States has been “present” there since the end of WWII, fighting two wars (Korea and Vietnam), maintaining key alliance relationships with Japan, South Korea and Australia, and stationing tens of thousands of American service members in the region.

Perhaps one lesson learned is that there is no substitute for U.S. global leadership. There is no readily available force of influence prepared to fill the vacuum left by reduced American involvement in strategically important regions.  If – and it is a big if – the United States acts with some constructive effect against the Assad regime, perceptions of a disengaging America may be mitigated.  But the inability of the Obama administration to gather a European coalition behind its approach to Syria suggests that American leadership has already been seriously weakened, and history may show that the pivot policy played a key role in that process.


Stanley R. Sloan retired as Senior Specialist in International Security Policy for the Congressional Research Service.  Since then he has taught courses on American power and transatlantic relations at Vermont’s Middlebury College.