Is the Pacific pivot a dead letter? Despite President Obama’s Asia tour this week, that’s certainly the impression, as senior administration officials have delayed or cancelled visits to Asia and the United States becomes increasingly involved in security crises in Europe and the Middle East.
The latest evidence that the shift in focus to the Indo-Asia-Pacific may be stalled occurred last week, when Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel postponed his trip to Myanmar and Vietnam citing the need to attend to the Islamic State, or ISIS, fight and congressional hearings in Washington. The President may be able to reverse this trend through his trip to China, Myanmar, and Australia, but the narrative of a pivot on pause seems increasingly immutable.
Looking from the outside in, the administration does indeed seem completely consumed with managing a number of crises, often at the expense of the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and its subsequent invasion of the Donbas region of Ukraine have fundamentally altered – for the worse – the security situation in Europe. What most had considered a reasonable, measured policy of gradually reducing the U.S. military presence in Europe now appears downright reckless, as the Pentagon has scrambled to project rotational U.S. forces back onto the continent while the State Department ramps up other efforts to reassure allies and stabilize security in NATO’s east.
Meanwhile, the success of ISIS has threatened to not simply upend security along the nebulous Syrian-Iraqi border but to also threaten stability in Jordan, Turkey and Saudi Arabia – all lynchpins of American security policy. The administration was right in ultimately realizing that vital U.S. interests were increasingly at stake. But it is still unclear whether U.S. strategy will suffice, in limiting American military involvement to what is minimally necessary for indigenous ground forces to turn the tide against ISIS.
Additionally, the Ebola epidemic in Africa has become an important national security issue as well, emphasizing yet another role Washington expects of the U.S. military: combating infectious disease outbreaks. Although West Africa is of limited consequence vis-à-vis U.S. interests, the spread of the virus beyond that region to Europe and North America is very much of vital concern for Washington.
Largely as a result of these crises, the pivot to Asia appears postponed. However, the U.S. government can in fact walk and chew gum at the same time. That is, the U.S. national security bureaucracy can continue to devote attention to and engage constructively in solving the political, economic and security challenges in the Indo-Asia-Pacific while also promoting and protecting vital and important U.S. national security interests across other regions of the world. Although a return to sequestration funding levels will inexorably eat away at the U.S. government’s capacity and capability, for now the national security structure remains able to secure U.S. interests around the world.
Perhaps more importantly, the ‘pivot postponed’ narrative fails to recognize that vital U.S. interests are diverse and disparate. Given the geography of the United States, American national security and the way of life it underwrites ultimately depend on economic relationships with other countries. Today, the list of top 15 U.S. trade partners includes six European countries but only five from the far larger and more populous Indo-Asia-Pacific region. Saudi Arabia is the only Middle Eastern country on the list, but U.S. allies in Europe, Southeast Asia and East Asia are dependent on the oil trade and stability in Southwest Asia. So while U.S. trade with Indo-Asia-Pacific countries is likely to grow at a faster pace than with Europe in the coming decades, it is easy to see why crises in Europe and the Middle East today must necessarily command attention of senior U.S. leaders.
Finally, the ‘pivot postponed’ narrative fails to acknowledge the very nature of the rebalancing effort underway. Although the pivot seemed to be unveiled in late 2011 and early 2012 through speeches, statements, and ultimately the January 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance, the policy of shifting more attention toward the Indo-Asia-Pacific region is more evolutionary than revolutionary. It has been clear for at least 15 years that the Indo-Asia-Pacific region would likely overtake Europe and North America in terms of economic production. As a result, the U.S. has slowly but steadily shifted to Asia more diplomatic, economic and military attention and resources. The occasional crisis in Europe or the perennial conflicts in the Middle East are unlikely to alter that trend.
A visit by the secretary of defense to Southeast Asia certainly garners headlines and has a powerful signaling effect among allies and potential adversaries alike. To think though that somehow other senior American diplomats and military officials are not also routinely and frequently engaging with foreign counterparts and otherwise minding the national security store is inaccurate. The administration would do well to better promote and emphasize the real work being done below the ceremonial level. When the public – or administration critics – focuses almost entirely on counting Obama, Hagel and other dignitary visits to Asia, it leaves one with an uninformed view of vital U.S. interests today and of the structure, functions and modalities of the U.S. government in promoting and protecting those interests.