Getting the Asia Pivot Right


America has a new grand strategy – the Asia pivot. The idea of a prioritization of American interests in Asia is prominent in official documents and has been reinforced by senior officials – emphasized last week by Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to Japan, South Korea, and China. The logic of the pivot is obvious – measured in terms of volume of trade and significant security challenges, the need for this policy shift is clear. In practice, however, the Obama administration has failed to explain the policy to the public andCongress, and to drive the policy into American’s foreign policy culture in Washington, D.C. China’s recent establishment of an air control zone that extends close to Japan (while heightening territorial disagreements) and the American air force’s flight of nuclear-capable B52 bombers through that area in response, is a serious warning signal that the Asia pivot needs urgent attention and will require far more engagement than a short trip by the Vice President.

For the Asia pivot to succeed, a major shift in American foreign policy concepts has to occur. For the last twenty years, the United States had focused on a global strategy of primacy – embraced by liberal interventionists on the political left and neoconservatives on the right. This loose coalition was built on a sense that America had to be all things in all places or risk credibility of its commitments. The result was American overstretch that committed the United States to costly conflicts defending peripheral national interests while incentivizing free-riding among allies. The Asia pivot is a major challenge to this worldview because at its core, it is a new prioritization guided by realism that sees the world as it is, not as we wish it might be. The global shift of economic and latent military power is clearly moving towards Asia – while Europe is capable of handling its own security challenges and America’s interests in the Middle East are narrowing. Yet the pivot is dangerously adrift, in large part because the Obama administration has failed to articulate, and implement, the many moving parts that are necessary for success, which has created uncertainty and could cause the concept to fail before it even starts.

First, it is essential to “get the pivot right”. So far, the primary image of the pivot to Asia has been military. In reality, not that much has happened in this regard –the president mainly declared that as other regions of the world are cut, Asia would be protected in the defense budget. Even if the pivot were to “get” the military dimension right, , Asia has suffered from a vacuum of diplomatic and economic engagement by senior U.S. officials. Secretary of State John Kerry has been knee-deep in Europe and the Middle East   The President unwisely cancelled essential trips to the region in the last two years. The Administration has neglected  a sustained effort to build norms of cooperation and predictability in the region and has yet to produce a major new trade agreement, leaving the pivot incomplete – and potentially dangerous — if misread by China as entirely military in nature. Vice-President Biden’s trip was a timely success – but mainly at managing an immediate crisis exacerbated by a vacuum that has been allowed to persist in Asia while the United States found itself strategically distracted elsewhere over the last year.

Second, the pivot to Asia requires realigning America’s role in other parts of the world. The United States is cutting its military presence in Europe, but has yet to develop an integrated approach to helping the NATO allies better pool their resources to assume lead responsibility for their security. Contrary to critics’ complaints about abandoning allies, the administration has invested in the first major increase in collective defense in NATO with its missile defense systems and a new emphasis on a US-EU trade accord. Still, America’s permanent military presence in Europe continues to work against the goal of getting allies there to do more. Meanwhile, core interests in the Middle East are being narrowed to keeping access to oil supplies open (while also advancing new ways to be less reliant on it), addressing concerns over nuclear proliferation, and disrupting terrorist networks. As the president said in his September UN speech, there are many remaining diplomatic challenges in the region – but the United States cannot and should not solve them alone.

Third, the United States must dramatically realign budget priorities. A defense budget that doubled since 2001 – largely to fuel wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – will need a new set of priorities to reflect the challenges in Asia. This will put significant pressure on the U.S. Army – which understandably argues that its readiness for land wars will be hurt if it is cut further. The Army leadership, however, fails to answer the question of “readiness to do what?” – needlessly sustaining 30,000 landforces in Europe or fighting new counterinsurgency wars around the Middle East? Neither fit with near or long-term American national security priorities. The challenges for the Asia pivot are primarily naval and air oriented – with the clear exception of North Korea. Realigning generations of military planning and budgets to support this reality means very difficult, but necessary, choices in the Pentagon.

Fourth, the pivot requires sustaining and bolstering America’s Asia presence, but realigning from other regions because major defense cuts are needed to liberate money for domestic investments at home. An essential element of the pivot’s success is to invest in the internal foundations of American power and competitiveness. While making debt reductions, America will further reduce its global position if it fails to simultaneously invest in human capital and infrastructure of future competitiveness. Other nations are doing this – China in particular – and a failure to conceptualize investments in research and development, broader access to affordable higher education, and the infrastructure to meet 21st century economic and security challenges will cause the United States to lag as other powers rise. America today is cutting its major advantages in human capital which can amount to unilateral disarmament in addressing the security and economic challenges of the twenty-first century at the same time that competitors in Asia are advancing.

Fifth, the pivot needs a prominent advocate. The primary architects of the concept are gone from government. Kurt Campbell, Tom Donilon, and Hillary Clinton were central to the concept but have left. While there is excellent Asia talent in the Obama administration among the professional staff, there is no one with the high-profile status and mandate needed to promote the concept in the region or at home. The president has to own the policy and sell it in a prominent way to the American public. A major presidential statement, well-suited for  the upcoming State of the Union address, on the importance of the pivot would provide reassurance and clarity abroad and at home. This would best be accompanied by appointing a high-profile special envoy to camp out in Asia and drive the policy through the interagency process in Washington, D.C.

To date, some of these key elements are happening – but some is not good enough for success. The United States is reducing its forces and realigning priorities in the transatlantic relationship, but much more can be done. The US wisely avoided the Syrian war – but at the same time allowed the conflict to distract from key priorities for months. The new dialogue with Iran over its nuclear program is an important step towards managing Persian Gulf dynamics, which will be necessary to allow for a greater focus in Asia. The United States is clearly failing, however, on other essential elements which are mainly located in Washington, D.C. As tensions rise between China and Japan, North Korea remains a serious concern, and progress on new trade agreements stagnates, the pivot is at risk. If Barack Obama, Congress, and the foreign policy bureaucracies cannot break through these serious internal constraints, then America’s ability to identify and implement strategy will be increasingly in doubt at one of history’s most important moments of global transition.


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.


Image: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Michael Russell

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