While the United States did not formally announce its rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region until January 2012, as part of the Pentagon’s Defense Strategic Guidance, President Obama and several of his top first-term officials—particularly Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell, and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon—had been presenting the strategic justification since the president assumed office three years earlier. They argued not only that the US needed to move on after nearly a decade of wars in the Middle East, but also that developments in the Asia-Pacific would likely shape the course of global order more than those in any other region. Europe did not figure prominently in the administration’s rationale for this shift: while Russia’s invasion of Georgia in August 2008 had caused some jitters across the continent, it generally came to be seen as an aberration from Europe’s post-Cold War peace, not a harbinger of Russian revanchism.
Now, however, after three crises—the acceleration of civil war in Syria, Russia’s incursion into Ukraine, and the ascendance of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant—a growing number of observers are urging the Obama administration to reconsider its approaches to the Levant and Eastern Europe. Robert Kagan, for example, told Walter Russell Mead last month that ‘we are back to having three regions in the world, all requiring a security commitment from the United States, as they traditionally have.’ Some critics of the administration’s foreign policy contend that in reducing America’s focus on counterterrorism and emphasising the growing role of geoeconomics in US engagement abroad, it has tried to wish away old-fashioned geopolitics.
As it prepares to release its new national-security strategy, the administration might be able to strengthen its case for focusing on the Asia-Pacific by making three arguments.
1. The trends that motivated the rebalance did not emerge in the late 2000s; they were apparent in the aftermath of the Cold War.
Ashley Tellis noted at the beginning of the year that ‘[s]ince at least the early 1990s it was obvious that the broad Indo-Pacific littorals were going to shape the future global system. There has been a steady shift of power as well as of [the] productive base from the old Anglo-Saxon world to the new peripheries of Asia….why did it take the United States so long to rebalance?’ The administration should not frame the rebalance as a response to America’s preoccupation in Iraq and Afghanistan; rather, it should argue that devoting more time, focus, and resources to the Asia-Pacific would have been sensible even if 9/11 had not happened and reoriented US national-security policy.
Take the defining strategic development of our times and the ostensible motivation behind America’s rebalance, the rise of China: America’s present concerns about that phenomenon are remarkably similar to those it expressed two decades earlier. Typical of mainstream coverage at the time, a July 7, 1995 New York Times article noted that ‘a growing number of officials and analysts [from the US, the European Union, and China’s neighbors] have recently started to voice some misgivings’ about engaging China. ‘They worry that an economically dynamic China…may be aiming to become the dominant power in Asia, able and willing to use military force to achieve nationalistic objectives.’ Rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific then would not only have eased the strategic drift that emerged in US foreign policy with the collapse of the Soviet threat; it would also have enabled the US to think creatively about managing China’s rise at a time when the gap between the two countries’ comprehensive national power was far larger than it is now.
2. Other major powers have concluded that the Asia-Pacific will be the nexus of global politics this century.
Russia had already begun ‘looking east’ prior to developments of recent months. It is now accelerating that tack: while it primarily seeks to turn its transactional partnership with China into a strategic alliance, it is also, in a quiet hedge, trying to strengthen its relations with China’s neighbors. Even India is looking east: Prime Minister Narendra Modi is intent on strengthening his country’s trade and investment partnerships with India’s smaller neighbors as well as with Japan, South Korea, and Australia. There is also good reason to believe that Western Europe, concerned by relative US decline and the erosion of transatlantic ties, will try to strengthen its foothold in the Asia-Pacific.
3. Developments outside of the Asia-Pacific do not diminish its strategic centrality.
A foreign policy that aligns with enduring trends in the international system is likely to husband limited power resources more effectively than one that tracks the latest crisis. However the crises in Eastern Europe and the Levant play out, the Asia-Pacific’s shares of gross world product, global military expenditures, and other significant metrics will almost certainly continue to rise. The rebalance represents an appropriate grand-order recasting of US priorities; if Washington seeks to remain a leader, not simply serve as a firefighter, it should pursue that recalibration vigorously.
Ali Wyne is a contributing analyst at Wikistrat and a coauthor of Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World (2013). Image courtesy of Flickr user The White House.