The Pivot Trumped, Amexit looms
14 Nov 2016|

Image courtesy of Flickr user Stuart Rankin.

Five years ago this week, Barack Obama launched the Pivot. Thus, on its fifth birthday, the Pivot expires. This is an epitaph.

The American people have decided and the Pivot is Trumped. Asia confronts Amexit: not a rebalance towards Asia but a lurch away. The Pivot was a work in progress because Asia has made so much progress. The Pivot’s achievements were partial and contested because Asia’s issues are so large. Looking at what Obama and Hillary Clinton were trying with the Pivot offers ways to consider what Trump will do to US policy in Asia—and to the regional settings of Australia’s alliance.

Go back five years to see the stakes. The US President stood in the Australian Parliament on 17 November 2011, delivering a speech marking ‘the 60th anniversary of our unbreakable alliance.’

Beyond alliance, Obama outlined ‘the larger purpose’ of his visit to the Asia–Pacific, to launch a ‘broader shift’ by the US: ‘After a decade in which we fought two wars that cost us dearly, in blood and treasure, the United States is turning our attention to the vast potential of the Asia–Pacific region.’ The ‘new focus on this region,’ he said, reflected ‘a fundamental truth—the US has been, and always will be, a Pacific nation.’ Obama announced a ‘deliberate and strategic decision’ that America ‘will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future.’ The Pivot ambition was to make the 21st century a US-flavoured Pacific century, not just the century of Asia resurgent. Obama proclaimed it as responsibility and right.

The word ‘Pivot’ wasn’t in the speech. The label was launched the previous month in Hillary’s Foreign Policy article, ‘America’s Pacific Century’. The Secretary of State put it in her first sentence:  ‘As the war in Iraq winds down and America begins to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan, the United States stands at a pivot point.’ In the 5,000 words that followed, ‘pivot’ was used twice more. The Pivot was born.

Hillary claimed creator rights. She saw Asia as pivotal and wanted the US at the heart of a great geo-political and geo-economic shift in world affairs.

Goodbye to that.

The tides that created the Pivot still rise. The headlines have taken an amazing turn, but the trendlines continue. Those trends will pound Trump. As the world’s centre of gravity—economic and military and even political—settles in Asia, the Pivot was a US claim to a large role in making the gravity. More than military might, the Pivot was about partnership, engagement, diplomacy, cooperation, values and norms. Pick how much of that The Donald will adopt.

The Pivot ambition was Robert Browning territory:

‘Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,

Or what’s a heaven for?’

The US grasped to shape the contours and course of an increasingly powerful Asia. How to manage relative decline yet reach to maintain relative dominance? No wonder the US military prefers Rebalance—much balancing needed!

The power shifts were dissected in the US National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends, issued 12 months after Obama’s Canberra speech. The Council pronounced the end of the US unilateral moment. The Megatrend prediction was the diffusion of power: ‘There will not be any hegemonic power. Power will shift to networks and coalitions in a multipolar world.’

Networks and coalitions aren’t the language of the US’s 45th President.  Consider the Pivot’s three essentials and what Trump will do to them.

Pivot: stay Asia’s military guarantor and guardian for decades

The Navy is shifting from a 50/50 Pacific-Atlantic split to have 60% of forces in the Pacific by 2020; 60% of the Air Force will be in the Asia–Pacific by 2020. The departing Defence Secretary, Ashton Carter promised: ‘The Pentagon is operationalizing the military part of the rebalance to ensure that the US remains the primary provider of regional security for decades to come.’

The military machinery of Pivot/Rebalance should grind on. And Trump promises the US will maintain the world’s most powerful military. As an American Firster, though, Trump has no interest in being the ‘primary provider of regional security.’ He wants everyone else to pay more.

Pivot: write the economic and trade rules

The Trans-Pacific Partnership is dead. Trump threatens a 45% tariff on China as a currency manipulator. Trade war trumps trade rules.

Obama set the stakes dangerously high with his description of the TPP as the test of US will in his State of the Union Address:

‘China wants to write the rules for the world’s fastest-growing region.  That would put our workers and businesses at a disadvantage.  Why would we let that happen?  We should write those rules.’

The economic importance of the TPP was overstated. But as an expression of US intent it became emblematic. Trump’s victory says the US isn’t interested in writing rules and its will-to-power in Asia wanes.

Pivot: make Asia’s diplomatic weather in partnership with Asia

The Trump weather forecast is for storms and unpredictable gusts.  Amexit won’t be full-blown withdrawal from Asia of the magnitude of Brexit from Europe. This is the Amexit of shrinking ambition and refusal to show up. Anger replaces imagination: can’t pay, don’t care. It’s the Amexit of a US no longer committed to write the rules and run the region, an America less interested in partnerships and building institutions to serve its values.

Trump does deals, not designs.

The 400 page epitaph is Kurt Campbell’s book, The Pivot. His Pivot prescription—‘the future of American statecraft in Asia’—was ‘bolstering traditional alliances, forging new partnerships, engaging regional institutions, diversifying military forces, defending democratic values, embracing economic statecraft.’

Goodbye to that.