The Russia Crisis Proves the Case for the Asia Pivot

March 27, 2014

It is the worst crisis in Europe since the end of the Cold War.  It is the end of the post-Cold War order.  Alarm bells are ringing over Russia and Ukraine.  America must now rethink its entire role in NATO, look to deploy troops in Eastern Europe, rush Georgia into NATO, and re-do the ballistic missile defense architecture to emphasize Poland and the Czech Republic.  And, above all, America must now rethink its “pivot” to Asia.  These actions would all be imprudent and risk making a bad situation with Russia even worse.  Moreover, the fundamental strategic assumptions are wrong.  The Russia-Ukraine crisis all the more shows the need for the Asia pivot.

The narrative that drives the aforementioned assumptions sees Russia as a neo-imperial threat.  Is it?  A nationalistic Vladimir Putin has lost Ukraine, one of his most important buffers with the west.  He has gained Crimea – a piece of land that Russia already had de facto control over.  Yes, it is possible he could move forward putting further pressure on the government in Kiev by encroaching into eastern Ukraine or Trans-Dniester.  But even still, Russia is weak and isolated and will be more so in the days to come if they choose badly.  Putin has done grave damage to his nation’s desire to be treated with respect in the world.  As President Obama said in Europe this week, “Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors, not out of strength but out of weakness.”

With that, suddenly, Crimea is more important than the Asia pivot?  Really?  For example, New York Times columnist Roger Cohen gave voice to those who have long opposed the pivot to Asia, using the Ukraine crisis to say:  “…certainly, pivot to Asia does not look like such a great idea right now.”  Yet, structural realities, not just opinions, matter in the world.  The United States trades twice as much with Asia as it does with Europe and thus the global correlation of power has dramatically shifted, especially as the Eurozone crisis lingers.  Meanwhile, the potential for China to translate economic gains into military power is generated by its size, location, and population, which could prompt Beijing to adopt a more outward-looking national security policy – especially towards the South China Sea and with risky moves like its announced air control zone late last year.  Still, the pivot seeks to balance between sustaining a hedge against future Chinese threats, while engaging China constructively to cultivate mutual interests as a basis for cooperation as is natural between major world powers.

That is not to say what happens in the Russia crisis is not relevant to Asia.  It is important to demonstrate a strong and cohesive series of costs for Russia’s illegal actions to signal reassurance to allies in Asia.  On the other hand, it is equally probable that China benefits from seeing the United States pulled into peripheral conflicts outside of the Asia-Pacific region and making the pivot more difficult to achieve.  Therefore, the central question moving forward for America and Europe is how to best align the transatlantic relationship so that America’s allies there will be better prepared to address their primary security concerns while the pivot continues on to Asia?

The Asia pivot has been continually mischaracterized as a retrenchment – or even retreat – from other areas of the world.  This is not the case.  In Europe, the United States has invested in the first major collective defense effort since the Cold War’s end in NATO – via the European missile defense system.  The US is also providing symbolic but important reassurance to new NATO allies like the Baltic countries who are nervous about the Russia-Ukraine crisis and unsure whether Americans would really go to war with nuclear-armed Russia to defend them.  In the Middle East, the United States has been engaged in some of the most robust and – so far successful – diplomacy to date with Iran and it successfully got international agreement for chemical weapons destruction in Syria.  In broader strategic terms, the pivot to Asia does not assume a hostile relationship with China.  In fact, so far, China has been helpful regarding the Russia crisis by abstaining at the United Nations on a resolution criticizing Russia’s illegal actions and reinforcing China’s long-stated views on the principle of sovereignty. Playing the “China card” to keep Putin off balance is likely in the long-term to be more effective than anything we might do via NATO.

The Asia pivot does mean putting capable allies out in the lead, especially in Europe, and narrowing our interests around the Persian Gulf.  This does not imply ignoring major crises in these areas, but instead protecting broader national interests with a view towards restraint and not being dragged into conflicts of peripheral interests. This is especially true in the Russia crisis, which is a conflict of peripheral American interest adjacent to a nation with nuclear weapons.  The absence of any realistic military solution, i.e. for NATO, on Crimea or elsewhere in Ukraine thus means understanding the right levers to pull relative to these kinds of crises which are economic, and fostering long-term political isolation that erodes support for Putin or those like him from within. In fact, given the rapid amount of capital flight from Russia, the seeds for the destruction of Putinism are already well planted.  Crucial to fostering that process will be helping Putin see off-ramps, or working with time to separate the Russian’ people’s understandable desire to be seen with respect as an important nation, versus Putin’s reckless and isolating counter-productive actions.

At the core of the pivot, and its implications for Europe, is a return to realism in American national security strategy priorities.  Realists have been largely marginalized in Washington, D.C. policy circles for two decades.  This is ironic, because realists have been consistently right in predicting the major catastrophes that the dominant liberal and neoconservative paradigm have driven the United States into: Iraq, the surge in Afghanistan, and – most relevant to the current discussion – NATO’s 2008 declaration that Ukraine and Georgia would eventually become members of the alliance.  Consider the words of America’s architect of the Cold War containment policy – George F. Kennan.  Commenting in 1998 on NATO’s first round of enlargement, Kennan said:

I think it is the beginning of a new cold war…I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies.  I think it is a tragic mistake.  There was no reason for this whatsoever.  No one was threatening anybody else.  This expansion would make the founding Fathers of this country turn over in their graves.  We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources or the intention to do so in any serious way.

History tells us that this first round of NATO enlargement had its plusses, in stabilizing Poland – that long contested area between a rising unified Germany and declining Russia.  However, in selling it largely as a democracy building project with an open door, America conflated spreading its values in an area, Central and Eastern Europe, with its vital interests, which had historically meant staying out of that region. Ultimately, this meant extending the periphery of its concerns right up to Russia’s border.

This enlargement approach embraced an idealism which was premised on a belief that America could simply tell Russia how to calculate its interests, rather than calculating American interests based on how others might perceive them.  This has an important implication for the success of the Asia pivot because, for the pivot to succeed, America will have to accept that there are limits to how far it can extend its peripheral security concerns in Europe by limiting its role in out-of-area operations and commitments.  In fact, this is already happening, as President Obama made clear that the primary American role in the Ukraine crisis is diplomatic and possibly economic, and there is not a military solution beyond reassuring allies of NATO’s classical role of collective defense.

Despite some clarion calls to “end the pivot” and return to Europe, if anything the crisis proves the need to move forward with the Asia pivot.  America’s main security interests in Europe are to get its very capable allies in the lead in a new and rebalanced transatlantic relationship.  This means reigning in out-of-area military interventions with NATO and when those do happen, enabling allies to be out front.  The worst case right now in Europe would be that, were the Russia-Ukraine crisis happening and a major conflict broke out in the Persian Gulf or Asia, the United States would have to call on its allies to take lead responsibility for their own backyard. But today our allies could not do so.  This is a failure of both vision, and implementation, in American policy towards Europe.

As the United States and its European allies consider the long-term implications of the still unfolding dynamics of Russia and Ukraine, the allies need to stay focused on basic realities.

First, this is not a new Cold War – Europe and America clearly have important interests in a relationship with Russia and these will, over time, likely constrain all sides as was the case in the 2008 Russia-Georgia war.  Of course Putin might miscalculate – but so might we.  If the solution is to continue doing what we have been for the last 20 years in European security, then we are likely in for rough days ahead.

Second, the crisis does, however, accelerate the need to get the European allies – which have roughly 2 million people in arms and 2 nuclear powers, to better pool their resources so that they can be in the lead.  America’s role in NATO should be limited to its Article V collective defense commitments. It should sustain those commitments mainly as a hedge against massive instability from the East with symbolic, but relatively small rotational presence in places like the Baltics and Poland – at least under the existing balance of power, which overwhelmingly favors the western allies.  Even then, it should be the allies with the most at stake who are out front, with America facilitating and keeping its main forces allocated to Europe in strategic reserve.  Ultimately, the best way to reassure the Baltic countries is to find the right creative levers to de-escalate the crisis with Russia and Ukraine.  This outcome, if we are being realistic, will have to include a sustained Ukrainian commitment to neutrality and no further NATO promises to Kiev, as were made in 2008, that the alliance has no intention of fulfilling anyway.

By 2015 the United States will go down to about 30,000 land forces deployed in Europe.  This number, given the new crisis, probably will not go lower – but it certainly need not go higher.  The number of US landforces is less important than the signaling of presence, combined with continued naval and air basing, that the United States currently maintains, mainly in Germany and Italy.  Its primary European command, EUCOM, continues to need to be reformed so that it serves more as an integrated facilitator of European-led military cooperation, not perpetual dependence on American military power.  The main purpose of America’s troop presence in Europe should not thus be as the spearhead in Eastern Europe, but rather to cultivate capable allies in the lead position of responsibility for their own security.

It is worth remembering that the biggest crisis in Europe today is not Crimea.  It continues to be the ongoing Eurozone challenge.  This means that calls out of Washington for more European defense spending will continue to fall on deaf ears because allies have other vital interests at stake.  Thus the challenge is to incentivize the European allies to better pool their resources so that they will be the lead party responsible for their own peripheral security concerns.  It is not a lot for the United States to ask its most capable allies and best of friends to assume primary responsibility for their own security in Europe so that Washington, D.C. can carry on with a calibrated and careful pivot to Asia which remains America’s most important strategic priority.


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 the forthcomingAmerica’s Search for Security:  The Triumph of Idealism and the Return of Realism (2014).


Image: Lachlan Fearnley and John Roberts, CC