[Viewpoint] Examining Washington’s ‘pivot’

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[Viewpoint] Examining Washington’s ‘pivot’

President Barack Obama’s visit last month to Hawaii, Australia and Indonesia presented a robust assertion of continued American commitment to leadership and engagement in Asia. The central theme of the trip was framed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in an article in Foreign Policy in October, which argued that the United States would now “pivot” to Asia after winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The pivot theme has evinced quite a bit of debate in Washington, some partisan as one might expect in an election period, but some focused on the legitimate strengths and weaknesses of the concept in terms of strategy.

The strength of the pivot argument reflects the importance of Asia to the future of U.S. foreign policy. For most of U.S. history, Asia took a back seat to other regions. In the First World War, Woodrow Wilson allowed Japan to expand in Asia out of deference to Britain, which was Japan’s major ally and the key to preventing German victory in Europe from threatening the Atlantic and the U.S.

In the Second World War, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill agreed on a “Europe first” strategy to defeat Hitler before Japan. Before the Korean War, the Truman administration limited its security commitment to the peninsula, keeping its primary focus on the Fulda Gap and Germany. For most of the past four decades, polls have shown that a majority of Americans thought Europe was more important than Asia.

That has all changed. Polls by the German Marshall Fund show that a substantial majority of Americans now think Asia is the most important region in the world to the United States. Corporations overwhelmingly see Asia as the center of their global growth strategies. Even amidst defense budget cuts, the Pacific Command is being reassured by the administration that force structure reductions will happen in Europe and not Asia.

The pivot accurately reflects those shifting priorities in U.S. foreign and security policy strategy. In concrete terms, Obama also took important steps to demonstrate U.S. commitment to the region, including securing the passage of the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement in Congress before his trip, announcing progress on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, reaching a new agreement with Australia to rotate 2,500 Marines through for regular training and a generally successful first session for the United States at the East Asia Summit. These are the building blocks of a sound Asia strategy that Republicans and Democrats generally support. In fact, most of them were initiated during the Bush administration.On the other hand, the administration’s pivot theme has struck many at home and in Asia as overdone. For one thing, the situation in Southwest Asia is not so conveniently calm as to allow the United States to shift its gaze in new directions, particularly given Iran’s unsettling rush for nuclear weapons capability. Moreover, while it is reassuring for the Pacific Command to be told there will be no cuts in their force structure, the fact is that the commander does not actually “own” his forces. With the $450 billion in defense spending cuts promised by the Obama administration over the coming decade, there will be considerable strain on global U.S. forces.

That strain could become acute if the Congressional supercommittee’s inability to reach a compromise on budget deficit reduction leads to automatic cuts that approach $1 trillion. If the result is fewer carrier battle groups and Army brigades in Europe and Southwest Asia and things become hot in that region, then forces will be drained out of the Pacific Command. A pivot strategy is no substitute for funding the security requirements of a global superpower like the United States, and given historically low defense spending as a percentage of GDP, the Obama administration could afford politically and fiscally to make a stronger case for national security spending than it has.

The second problem with the pivot is that superpowers cannot afford to appear too “spastic,” as my friend Tom Christenson at Princeton puts it. In 2009, Obama’s message for Asia emphasized a concert of power with Beijing based on mutual respect for each others’ “core interests,” “strategic reassurance” and an elevated strategic and economic dialogue.

The reality is that U.S. strategy toward China will by necessity be a mix of concert of power and balance of power - engaging and hedging. But this is better done quietly and consistently rather than swinging from one to the other.

The political desire to score big points in domestic U.S. media may have blinded the White House to Theodore Roosevelt’s famous maxim that the United States should “speak softly and carry a big stick.” The next administration - Republican or Democrat - will have to learn to keep funding the big stick and keep working on speaking softly.

*The writer is a senior advisor and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

By Michael Green
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