East Asia First, Europe Second: Picking Regions in U.S. Grand Strategy
All the furor about great power competition in the United States may be obscuring a seemingly obvious point: not all great power competitors matter equally. Failure to acknowledge that simple fact could come at a considerable strategic risk. But to sort out its strategic prioritization puzzle, Washington should look beyond individual great power competitors and focus on which regional balance is most vulnerable: Europe’s or East Asia’s.
Many U.S. defense experts agree it is high time for the U.S. military to downgrade terrorism and other transnational threats, and focus on what matters most: high-end warfare against peer competitors. But there is a catch. The Pentagon itself speaks of two, not one, great power competitors: Russia and China. Therefore, serious questions remain about which of those competitors will be prioritized, and under which circumstances. Surely, such decisions transcend the realm of military strategy: they must be resolved at the higher level of grand strategy, a concept that integrates all the different instruments of power in pursuit of a state’s highest objectives. After all, deterring or militarily defeating China or Russia is not an end in itself. It matters to the extent that either of those countries may threaten to upset the balance of power in east Asia or Europe. And to do that, great power competitors of the United States must make headway in all the key domains of power: military, economic, and diplomatic. In which region is the balance of power across these different elements more vulnerable? And in which is it more stable? These are the type of questions that should continue to inform U.S. strategic priorities going forward.
Today, the European balance looks relatively stable from an American point of view. True, Russia poses an imminent military threat to some of America’s European allies, and is engaging in hybrid activities to destabilize many European countries. But Moscow is in no position to make a credible bid for regional military hegemony, is economically weak, and is relatively isolated diplomatically. Other regional actors like Germany or the European Union may have accumulated significant economic or diplomatic influence over the last few years, but they are far from being dominant in either domain and remain militarily dependent on the United States. In other words, no single European actor is in a position to make a credible cross-domain bid for regional hegemony. Meanwhile, in East Asia, China has approached a position of regional economic dominance, has made good progress in terms of altering the local military balance to its advantage, and enjoys good political relations with (most of) its neighbors. Even if Washington continues to hold its ground militarily, economically, and diplomatically in east Asia, its predominant position appears increasingly vulnerable. Against that backdrop, we see only one logical strategic hierarchy going forward for the United States: Asia first, Europe second. Other powers would be wise to start accepting that reality and devising their own strategies accordingly.
In trying to help inform the debate on U.S. strategic prioritization, we discuss the relationship between competitors and regions in U.S. grand strategy, and then examine how America’s Europe versus East Asia tradeoff has evolved from the Cold War years to the present.
From Competitors to Regions
Outside of North America, Europe and East Asia are the most important regions for the United States, by virtue of their relative wealth, demographic potential, and concentration of industrial and military resources. If a single power managed to dominate the resources of either Europe or east Asia, it would be in a position to out-produce and out-arm the United States, potentially undermining its global interests and even encroaching into the western hemisphere. Following this logic, preventing the emergence of a regional hegemon in east Asia and Europe has been a core strategic objective for the United States ever since World War II. If any great power competitor is to meaningfully challenge U.S. power globally, it must first achieve a position of regional dominance or near dominance. From a U.S. viewpoint, boxing (potential) competitors within their home region has its own advantages, as it allows Washington to make sure that the status of “global power” is reserved for itself. In other words, the regions of Europe and east Asia constitute the first line of defense of U.S. power and security.
Experts are right when they argue that any sound U.S. defense strategy must entail ”hard choices,” prioritize between competitors, and allocate national security resources accordingly. But, in order to make those hard choices, Washington must look beyond defense proper. The sort of military challenge posed by China and Russia matters primarily to the extent that it contests the balance of power in the critical regions of Europe and east Asia. U.S. strategy should focus on preserving a favorable balance of power in those two regions, and balancing or engaging the power of individual competitors should be seen primarily as a means to achieve that end. As the history of U.S. strategy in Europe and east Asia shows, yesterday’s competitors (e.g. Japan and Germany) have become today’s friends, whereas yesterday’s friends (e.g. Russia and China) have become today’s competitors. In other words, the particular competitors may come and go, but the importance of preserving a favorable balance of power remains constant.
In order to achieve a hegemonic position in a region – and upend the existing balance therein – a given challenger must look beyond defense proper and achieve a position of dominance or near dominance in all of the key domains of power: military, economic, and politico-diplomatic. These three aspects of power are inextricably tied to one another. Wealth constitutes the foundation of military power, just as military prowess can allow the control of those vital resources (raw materials, industry, population) that are key to the production of wealth. At the same time, a country’s political and diplomatic might, and its ability to articulate strategic alliances and partnerships, depend largely on its military and economic position.
U.S. Regional Prioritization During the Cold War
Since the closing days of World War II, U.S. planners have sought to prevent different powers in Europe or east Asia from achieving a dominant position in any key domain of power. Think of American efforts to prevent Japan from becoming an economic powerhouse through initiatives such as the 1985 Plaza Accord. Even though Japan remained militarily dependent on the United States, Washington worried about the possibility that Tokyo may acquire a preponderant economic position. Similarly, U.S. policy toward Russia today centers on offsetting Moscow’s local military advantages through programs such as the European Deterrence Initiative and NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence. Russia may not be challenging the United States in economic or political terms, but Washington still seeks to ensure that any specific imbalance is being corrected or mitigated.
Only once a single power (or coalition of powers) makes significant headway along all or most of the dimensions of power is it in a position to seriously bid for regional hegemony. This, in turn, could allow such a power to break free from America’s geopolitical straitjacket, openly challenge U.S. power globally, and even threaten the western hemisphere and the continental United States. On this basis, the United States has prioritized that region where the overall balance appeared most vulnerable. In other words, the American prioritization of East Asia or Europe tends to be a function of the extent to which any single power is willing and able to meaningfully challenge the balance of power. By that, we mean both significantly (i.e. acquiring a dominant position) and comprehensively (i.e. across more than one domain of power). To be sure, a single power need not acquire a dominant or near dominant position in all domains of regional power simultaneously for the United States to prioritize that region. Our point of departure is that the United States is strongly engaged in both regions and seeks to correct any perceived imbalances, even if they are not critical or are only confined to one domain of power. But it has in the past prioritized that region in which the balance of power is threatened most significantly and comprehensively. Thus, for instance, if a given country poses a moderate threat to the military balance in Europe and another country poses a significant threat to the military balance in East Asia or a moderate or significant threat to the military and economic balance in that same region, the United States should prioritize East Asia over Europe.
Such holistic and strategic thinking about the regional balance of power explains why Washington prioritized Europe over East Asia during the Cold War. Back then, the East Asian balance appeared rather secure. Even if Moscow dominated much of Eurasia’s continental hinterland, its power in the critical East Asian rimland was rather modest in the military and politico-diplomatic domain and almost negligible in economic terms. In the early decades of the Cold War, Washington also kept an eye on communist China, which it regarded as a potential regional challenger. However, the Chinese communists were primarily focused on domestic developments, and the country remained relatively poor and unable to meaningfully challenge U.S. or Soviet power in East Asia. Japan, for its part, came to represent a significant economic challenge from the 1970s, but it was also weak in military and politico-diplomatic terms, as well as highly dependent on the United States. Overall, the probability that any power would achieve regional hegemony in East Asia during the Cold War was rather low.
East Asia’s condition contrasted with Europe’s. Throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union seemed repeatedly on the verge of overturning the European military balance to its advantage. Politically and diplomatically, Soviet prowess varied across time and space. The Warsaw Pact and a quasi-alliance with Yugoslavia provided Moscow with a sphere of influence across eastern, central, and southeastern Europe. Although the reach of Soviet-leaning communism was never as critical in western Europe, occasional Soviet successes in gaining the allegiance of political parties and social movements in countries like France and Italy did leave the United States vigilant. The Soviet Union’s productive base was also firmly anchored within Europe. Thus, Washington was careful to embed wealthy western European states within an US-led economic bloc, lest they (consciously or not) help turn Moscow into an economic hegemon.
Throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union was able to challenge the balance much more significantly and comprehensively in Europe than in East Asia. Admittedly, specific Cold War crises and wars – most importantly in Korea and Vietnam – led to temporary and sudden shifts of U.S. resources and political attention from one region to another. Nonetheless, Washington was careful never to let these instances undermine its primary Cold War aim: to prevent the Soviet Union from achieving hegemony over the European continent (and western Europe in particular).
Fast Forward to the Present: Asia First, Europe Second
Today, the situation is markedly different. If we look at the evolving balance of power in Europe, we see a relatively healthy situation from Washington’s perspective. In contrast, in East Asia, China is increasingly in a position to upend the existing balance of power across the military, politico-diplomatic, and economic domains. Against this backdrop, it is unsurprising that both the Obama and the Trump administration have supported a strategic reorientation to that region, albeit in different forms. Critically, both administrations also specifically highlighted the need to respond to China in all three domains of power.
When it comes to Europe’s military balance, Russia’s military modernization has caught Washington’s eye. Moscow may indeed threaten U.S. allies in Europe (especially in eastern Europe), and engage in hybrid activities to destabilize most European countries, or even the United States itself. But it is not in a position to actually upset the regional military balance, which remains overwhelmingly favorable to NATO – an institution that allows the United States to both deter Russia militarily and stave off any calls for European strategic autonomy. Critically, NATO’s expansion to central, eastern and southeastern Europe after the end of the Cold War pushed the alliance’s defense perimeter further eastwards, both on the continent and in the Baltic, Mediterranean and Black seas. The United States is also militarily superior to Russia, even if some experts argue that Russia enjoys “local escalation dominance” in parts of Europe. Moreover, other regional powers with credible military capabilities (such as the United Kingdom or France) are part of the U.S. orbit, and are firmly embedded in the NATO framework. That means they can help balance Russian power, but are not in a position to independently challenge the regional military balance by themselves (assuming they wanted to).
Economically speaking, Russia is much less impressive. But there are other important economic powers in Europe, with Germany being a case in point. A look at the trade balance within Europe and foreign direct investment patterns avails this fact. Some scholars and pundits have gone as far as labelling Berlin as Europe’s economic hegemon, a narrative that has been partly embraced by the United States as well. The Obama administration criticized Germany’s austerity approach in dealing with Europe’s financial and debt crisis, and sided with smaller European states. The Trump administration has been even more explicit on this point, having accused Germany of being bent on the domination of Europe, and having described the European Union as a racket and a vehicle for German economic and political power. Yet, critically, the European Union is a key referent in Europe’s regional economic architecture, not least given its critical mass and the fact that this is arguably the one area where the Union exercises its influence most clearly and directly. Thus, the need to negotiate decisions with multiple partners and institutions limits Berlin’s economic rise, and France (and the United Kingdom) remain important counterweights to German leadership. It is also highly questionable that Germany actually wants to replace the United States as the leading actor in European geopolitics – Berlin’s strategic subordination to Washington through the NATO framework bears testament to this fact. As for the European Union as a whole, the fact that it is no decisive factor in the other two domains constrains its potential to challenge the overall regional balance as a bloc. In fact, it has been a U.S. priority to make sure the European Union does not become a serious military or political actor precisely for that reason. Once again, the NATO framework continues to prove most useful in that regard.
In politico-diplomatic terms, there is no clear referent in Europe. While some European countries often gather around the European Union, and see that institution as a useful vehicle to resist pressure from powers such as Russia or even the United States, the fact that the union is not a unified political actor marks serious limitations. In particular, most central and eastern European states tend to see their bilateral relationship with the United States as the foundation of their security and political autonomy, and have a higher political allegiance to the United States and the NATO framework than they do to the European Union. Even other countries in southern and western Europe – including, most notably, the United Kingdom – have reservations about the prospect of a supranational Europe. All in all, different European countries are splitting their allegiances between different powers, notably Germany, Russia, and the United States, and, within the European Union, between Germany and France.
Overall, with no power being in a position to dominate either of the key dimensions of regional power – let alone dominate multiple dimensions of power simultaneously – the existing balance of power in Europe appears rather resilient. And that balance works to America’s advantage. Washington is still paying attention to certain imbalances, such as Russian military adventurism, the European Union’s economic position (and Germany’s), or the prospect of greater European defense integration. But the absence of a critical and comprehensive threat to the regional balance of power in Europe means the United States is not too worried about that region.
The picture in east Asia is more daunting. U.S. planners are alarmed by China’s continuing military modernization, and more specifically its missile buildup, which increasingly complicates America’s ability to project military power onto the east Asian rimland. Furthermore, the U.S. security perimeter in east Asia lacks much strategic depth – being confined to a series of offshore islands and having no footing on the east Asian continent, with the sole exception of South Korea. Yet, Seoul refrains from taking sides in Sino-American competition and explicitly dissociates U.S. military presence on the peninsula from any potential China threat. Moreover, China’s investment in anti-access/area denial capabilities and nuclear modernization pose a challenge to the military balance, and have emboldened Beijing to resort to grey forms of warfare to alter the status quo in places like the South China Sea. Even if the United States still enjoys military superiority vis-à-vis China, its position in the region is not as strong or stable as it used to be.
China is also acquiring a dominant position in the economic domain and it is already translating that might into political influence. Indeed, many regional states are hedging their bets politically, and they refrain from engaging in a confrontational approach vis-à-vis their rising neighbor. Sure, some states may feel uneasy about China’s rise. However, many of them (with the exception of Japan and Taiwan, and the partial exception of Australia) reject engaging in balancing behavior, let along joining any sort of anti-China balancing coalition.
It is true that the United States continues to enjoy a strong military, economic, and diplomatic position in east Asia. At the same time, China’s decisive advance on all three key elements of regional power, points to the fragility of the existing regional balance of power. No such challenge exists in the European region at present.
Although the temptation might be great, history teaches us that adopting an omni-directional (re)balancing strategy is a recipe for strategic insolvency. Successive U.S. administrations have made the case for a gradual strategic reorientation toward East Asia. Given the relative vulnerability of the U.S. position in that region, such decision should come as no surprise and will probably continue to guide U.S. policy going forward. Others had better take note: “Asia first, Europe second” is here to stay.
Luis Simón is Research Professor at the Institute for European Studies (Vrije Universiteit Brussel) and Director of the Brussels office of the Royal Elcano Institute. He has a PhD in International Relations from the University of London and an MA in European Studies from Sciences Po (Paris).
Linde Desmaele is a doctoral fellow at the Institute for European Studies (Vrije Universiteit Brussel) and a researcher at the KF-VUB Korea Chair. Her thesis examines the changing role of Europe in American grand strategy as Washington rebalances to the Asia-Pacific region.