The Strategist Six: Kurt Campbell
30 Jun 2016|


Welcome to The Strategist Six, a feature that provides a glimpse into the thinking of prominent academics, government officials, military officers, reporters and interesting individuals from around the world.

1. What are the major challenges facing the future of the US role in Asia?

The biggest challenge that the United States currently faces is not the result of external variables, but rather our domestic politics. Among both Republicans and Democrats, this election has called into question some of the foundational aspects that have defined how the United States has engaged in Asia for generations, such as strong support for alliances, careful engagement with China, an emphasis on trade, and a recognition of the importance of defence relationships in Asia. Each of these items are in play in American domestic politics at the moment and the questions that the campaigns have raised, both in the left and right of the United States, are likely to have seismic consequences in Asia for some time. I think many in Asia now believe that regardless of who wins the Presidential election, even if it’s a more reassuring candidate, bigger questions are now in play about the future of the US role in the region.

2. If you were advising the next US President on their Asia policy, what would your counsel be about maintaining domestic support for the U.S.’s central role in Asia?

The historic status quo to maintaining domestic support has been much less active than what is required today. I think this new era requires much more explanation and context to the American domestic political environment in order to ensure that there’s a broad understanding about why we do what we do in Asia. If you look at how the United States has handled issues in the Middle East, you see dozens of speeches by President Obama and former President Bush, explaining why we took various steps in Iraq and Afghanistan. We’ve not done a comparable set of explanations about why we need to do what we do in Asia, so I’d very much like to see a dedicated, persistent and sustained effort by the next US President to explain to Americans why the lion’s share of the history of the 21st century will be written in Asia, and why we have to play a strong and determined role in this critical region.

3. You were one of the main architects of the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia. What’s your assessment of the pivot almost five years on?

I think the pivot, or the rebalance, has proceeded in fits and starts, but I am proud of elements where we undeniably made a major contribution. You’re starting to see across the board a strong recognition that we need to step up our game in Asia—in defence strategy, the TPP, diplomacy and our commitment to multilateral institutions. But at the same time, it’s undeniable that the amount of focus at a senior level of our government has been on the Middle East and South Asia for over 10 years, so finding the wit and wisdom to engage appropriately in Asia remains a tough balance. I think we’re doing better, but to be truly effective in Asia it will take a succession of Presidents who are committed to ensuring the US’s important role in the region, not just one administration. However, I think that overall President Obama has made a very good effort in turning the page on a period in which we were almost exclusively focused on the Middle East; there’s now a broader recognition that we need to do more in Asia.

4. While the United States and China may not be predestined for conflict, to what extent is it now inevitable that the two countries have now entered a contest for regional leadership?

I think the United States and China recognise, at a fundamental level, that despite misgivings they must work together going forward. Sharing leadership responsibilities will be difficult for both countries but nevertheless that’s the essential purpose of high-level diplomacy between Beijing and Washington. It’s true that China wants to play a larger role in Asia but I would still argue that the US’s efforts and role have been unique in how we’ve provided the operating system of Asia. Much of China’s actions have to do with securing its immediate neighbourhood —almost in the way a 19th century power would do so with respect to spheres of influence. The rest of the region must convey quite directly to China the expectation that Beijing plays a reassuring and stabilising role in an increasingly complex Asia. That’s going to be essential.

5. How is Asia viewing the US elections? What kind of questions is Donald Trump raising for US allies and partners in the region?

I get questions everywhere I go about it. I’ve worked on Asia for almost 30 years and I’ve never seen this level of anxiety, nor these kinds of questions about the implications of Trump’s candidacy and the current state of American politics for the continuing US role in Asia. We do what we can to be reassuring, and explain that the US has been underestimated or counted out many times before and almost always has rebounded and demonstrated hidden reserves. The Trump candidacy is something quite different though. Almost every major initiative that the US has undertaken in Asia has been bipartisan. Trump’s departures from these Asian orthodoxies are potentially destabilising and dangerous, and I think coddling dictators, encouraging proliferation, disdaining our allies doesn’t constitute a coherent foreign policy. I think if such an unbalanced approach were implemented it would undermine literally decades of hard bipartisan work to advance and strengthen the U.S. role in Asia. It would be deeply counterproductive and profoundly regrettable.

6. What is the biggest threat to global security?

Unchecked climate change is the biggest challenge to global security—in ways that are both direct and pernicious. There is a view somehow that the threat of climate change lies well in the horizon. I do not think that’s the case. We’re already seeing its effects: more intense storms, desertification, coral bleaching, changing food patterns, and rising sea levels. All of these things have extraordinarily negative potential consequences. And I am of the view that discussions around climate change are intrinsically tied with the challenges of the South China Sea; it isn’t somehow a soft issue. Climate security is central to American and global purpose going forward.