US President Barack Obama was right to forego the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Bali, Indonesia, and focus instead on dealing with the political pathologies of the US Congress. But his decision, while correct, had the effect of reviving an increasingly common refrain in the East Asian region: What happened to the ‘pivot’?
Conceived as a long-overdue shift in resources and attention from wars and other urgent challenges in the Middle East towards the vast expanse of opportunities in the Asia-Pacific region, America’s much-vaunted strategic pivot immediately ran into a gauntlet of unintended consequences (the handmaidens of inconsistent and poorly articulated policy).
For starters, there was the perception that the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan amounted to a downgrading of US interests in the Middle East. Coming as it did on the eve of the cataclysmic Arab Spring, the Obama administration has struggled with this unintended consequence of the pivot ever since. Whoever in the administration devised the phrase ‘leading from behind’ only compounded the problem.
Second, many Europeans understood the pivot to Asia as implying a reduction in America’s commitment to the Atlantic alliance. Though several European countries have done relatively well in terms of maintaining consultations and commitments with the US, Europe’s leaders have watched with growing concern as the post-war security structure has faltered.
To be sure, Europeans have contributed to this dynamic: Witness their own haste in exiting the Nato mission in Afghanistan. But the increased sense of drift in Euro-Atlantic structures, fuelled principally by Europe’s financial crisis and America’s prolonged political rift, leaves little room for optimism.
Finally, efforts to explain the pivot’s goal — US affirmation that Asia is now at the centre of the world economy — have fallen flat from the start. The Chinese believed that the entire purpose was to confront and contain their country’s geopolitical rise. And who could blame them, given the drumbeat of US policy pronouncements expressing concern about China?
Indeed, in the weeks that followed the initial announcement of the pivot (which came just as the 2012 US election campaign was getting under way), China-bashing by American officials got worse. A perfectly normal extension of the US-Philippines security agreement turned into an occasion to bemoan China’s claims on what former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton called the “West Philippine Sea”.
In this environment, the Chinese perceived a routine decision to send US marines to train in Australia as another link in the chain meant to hold China down. Even the opening to Myanmar was briefed to the press as a move designed to counter Chinese influence in that resource-rich country.
Soon after these episodes, the US Department of Defence announced that it would begin relocating American forces to the western Pacific, focusing China’s attention further. Likewise, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a proposed mega-regional free-trade deal from which China has so far been excluded — has fuelled concern in China regarding US intentions.
But China has been far from blameless: Witness its heavy-handed approach to its Asian neighbours in pressing its territorial claims in the East and South China seas. And, while growing signs of impatience with North Korea have been welcomed as a harbinger of an eventual policy shift, fresh thinking in China has not been sufficient to forestall US efforts to step up military cooperation with South Korea and Japan.
But perhaps China does not need to do anything to change US policy again. Since Obama’s re-election, there appears to have been a pivot away from the pivot, towards something that can be described only as retro. US Secretary of State John Kerry’s effort to jumpstart the Arab-Israel peace process was a laudable initiative. But, if the Arab Spring has taught us anything, it is that the Middle East’s real fault lines have little to do with Israel and much to do with the Arab world’s deepening secularist-Islamist divide and growing sectarian struggle between Shiites and Sunnis. Israel is but a small part of this overall pattern.
More recently, there was America’s event-driven shift towards cooperation with Russia on ending Syria’s civil war, following a chemical-weapons attack that left at least 1,400 people dead.
All of this raises a fundamental question: Does the US even need an overarching design for its foreign policy? If the outcome is to make its foreign policy less reliable and predictable — or, worse, susceptible to misunderstanding — then it certainly does not.
The new world order has given way to an order-less world, in which reliability and predictability have given way to rapid shifts in focus and fickle commitments. And, sadly, this state of affairs seems to be emanating not from countries in crisis, but rather from the US itself.
Now that Obama appears to have a brief respite from his domestic problems, this might be an opportune moment for him to set out America’s foreign-policy priorities and explain how the US plans to pursue them.
Is the pivot to Asia sustainable? What are America’s objectives in the Middle East? Is the US to be a kind of hectoring NGO, lecturing friends and detractors alike for not being more like Americans? And just what is the US trying to accomplish with Russia? Can it identify ways to cooperate with this difficult, undemocratic state, in order to address issues of mutual concern?
It is time for a tour d’horizon from Obama. His administration still has three years to go, and the world is waiting, watching, and, frankly, wondering.
— Project Syndicate, 2013
Christopher R. Hill, former US assistant secretary of state for East Asia, is dean of the Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver.