From Pivot to hammer
21 Nov 2016|

Image courtesy of Flickr user Dustin Gaffke.

‘If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.’

As the Pivot passes, Asia confronts a new President who seems to think all the US needs is a bigger and better hammer. The law of the instrument posits too much reliance on a familiar tool.

For Asia, Amexit looms. Following the Brexit model, this is a US that no longer wants to bother with the systems and institutions Asia needs; an America tired of trying to write the rules and make the diplomatic weather.

As Rod Lyon judges, it’s ‘likely that the US will be absorbed in an agenda of “America First” while large-scale strategic transformation plays out in Asia’. Trumpists such as Rudy Guiliani predict a ‘gigantic’ build-up of US military forces to thwart China’s ambitions. This plays to the Rod Lyon view that Trump has ‘already signalled a preference for using force massively or not at all’.

Trump may build a bigger hammer while all the other instruments the US needs in Asia are ditched. The Pivot logic was that the US hammer was necessary but not sufficient for Asia. Indeed, the argument from the White House, State Department and Pentagon was that the hammer dimension of the Pivot was subservient to other more important elements: economic and trade interests, diplomacy and institution building, and the service of American values. Don’t expect too much care for those other elements from the new US Caudillo-in-Chief.

The Pivot, for all its problems, attempted to grapple with the complexities of the Asian century as an extraordinarily powerful yet hopeful phenomenon. Take Trump at his word. He doesn’t do complexity. He does deals.

Kurt Campbell’s The Pivot is a 400 page argument about what the Pivot should have done next. While now serving as extended epitaph, Campbell offers an understanding of what will be lost by Amexit. He riffs on the power of balance in serving the balance of power.

The power of balance aligns all the US tools, ‘high level political engagement and consultations, military options, trade promotion or sanctions, and human rights demarches… When the US approach places one element of our strategy out of balance with the others, the equilibrium and effectiveness of the overall strategy suffers’.

Campbell’s balance aim—‘to strengthen Asia’s operating system’—is about to get a hammer test. America, he writes, needs ‘to break the habit of occasional absence, hesitancy and inattentiveness’. The Amexit I’m describing will be another of Campbell’s ‘costly periods of withdrawal and neglect…This cycle of intense focus and relative strategic neglect has blighted American efforts in Asia for decades’. Blight looms.

The Pivot was a work in progress that hadn’t made that much progress in its five years. The problem wasn’t the lack of US ambition, but the size of Asia’s changes. That five year history gets a fine workout in the latest edition of Security Challenges.

The overview piece is classic Allan Behm, both magisterial and muscular; think Monty Python’s Piranha brothers sketch—one brother nailed people to tables (‘He was cruel but he was fair.’) while the other brother used sarcasm (‘He knew all the tricks, dramatic irony, metaphor, bathos, puns, parody, litotes and satire.’).

Allan describes the Pivot as a 20th Century solution to a 21st Century problem, viewing the region through the lens of US strategic primacy, and ‘neither clear nor robust enough to guide US policy through the difficult strategic tides that will characterise the next decade or so’.

Both cruel and fair, yet we’re going to miss the Pivot for all its shortfalls.

Asia confronts a moment akin to a NATO meeting described by Kurt Campbell, in which the Europeans were lamenting the ignorant, arrogant, graceless Americans, drawing this response from Britain’s Lord Carington: ‘Ah, but alas—they are the only Americans we have’.

The Pivot did alter things, especially the responses it produced in Japan and China. The lasting impact may be in Beijing and Tokyo, not Washington.

Feng Zhang argues that the Pivot’s unintended consequence was to trigger a vigorous Chinese pushback (Beijing’s own Pivot), raising tensions and making US–China relations worse:

‘The rebalance has largely failed as a mixed strategy of reassurance and resolve toward China. Far from “building a constructive and productive relationship with China”, as [Kurt] Campbell intended it to be, the rebalance has instead contributed to China-US strategic distrust and stimulated China to strive for new strategic adventures in Asia. It is not clear who will win and who will lose. It may be a “lose-lose” outcome for both countries.’

For Shinzo Abe, the Pivot seems a classic example of US pushing being cheered on by Japan to achieve difficult shifts deeply desired by Tokyo. As David Envall concludes, this produced ‘a significant transformation of Japan’s grand strategy which well illustrates Japan’s commitment to the US-led order’.

Trump may not be committed to that order, but there’s no going back for Japan. China’s systemic challenge means Japan can’t revert to the softly-softly days of soft balancing. As Envall puts it: ‘Japan is being transformed through its response to the rebalance; in the coming years, Japan’s strategic reorientation may transform Asia-Pacific security as well.’

A Donald Trump Amexit—relying only on the hammer—gives the US just one tool. The US will have less ability to influence this stage of the making of the Asian century, as economic miracle and strategic conundrum keep building speed and adding mass. Evoking the Newtonian equation of force, mass and acceleration is the proper end note for the fading mechanics of a policy Pivot.