The Pivot to Nothing

Why Tom Donilon's empty claims about America’s rebalancing to Asia obscure a dangerous reality.

The joke about the Obama administration's "pivot to Asia" is that the only people who don't believe it is happening are in Asia. 

All over the world, America's friends and allies feel the ebbing of attention from their regions and problems. But they mistakenly believe that this reduction has resulted in greater attention elsewhere. So Iraq understands that President Barack Obama is indifferent to the violence that continues to burn in their country, but they assume he is increasing engagement in Afghanistan. Afghans understand that Obama is indifferent to the war still raging in their country, but assume he must be deeply involved in ensuring a peaceful transition of power in some other country America cares about more. Europeans see a president walking back from missile defense deployments and the Budapest Memorandum, which commits the United States to the territorial integrity and political independence of Ukraine, and believe that he has chosen to focus on Asia.

But Asian governments understand they're getting the same treatment as everyone else: trade negotiations without political investment by the White House, foreign policy that takes a back seat to domestic political wrangling, sporadic mania of involvement in foreign policy that achieves nothing, and lack of a strategy that either identifies common goals or elucidates the means to collectively achieve them.

Former National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, however, refuses to accept reality. In a wildly implausible op-ed in the Washington Post on the eve of Obama's current Asia trip, he argued that the pivot is alive and well. His opening argument that the administration is pivoting to Asia? "Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's first trip in office was to Asia, something no secretary of state had done since 1961." Not only does it actually suggest how little the pivot has achieved, since a trip five years ago is considered a signal achievement, but travel is the wrong metric for determining foreign-policy success. Countries visited is to foreign-policy success as job interviews are to employment: a necessary input, but no one's impressed by where you had your first interview if you didn't get the job.

That said, Donilon's description is actually a perfect illustration of the shortcomings of Obama's foreign policy, the hallmarks of which include these six elements:

1. Self-importance.

The first trip since 1961, you say! Amazing. The Obama White House promotes this fact as evidence of its superior understanding of the international order: No one else saw this coming! As Shadow Government's Asia hands have often pointed out, much of the Obama administration's pivot is actually carrying through on decisions made during George W. Bush's administration, such as shifting a greater proportion of the U.S. fleet to the Pacific. This Asia strategy is a continuation of its predecessor's, while claiming to be a departure of monumental significance.

2. Talking, not listening.

If the Obama White House had done its due diligence, it would have known that Asian governments were some of the Bush administration's biggest supporters -- and continue to be. The Obama White House might also have checked with America's Asian allies about whether this "grand strategic concept" would be beneficial. Most governments fear it goads China and may force the country into confrontation. Among the Asian countries in which the Pew Research Center conducted polling in 2013, the median rate of favorable views of the United States was 64 percent, but the rate was 58 percent for favorable views of China. Even in Australia, a long-standing ally of the United States, 40 percent of people polled think it's more important to have strong relations with the United States than China -- but 33 percent think the opposite. Governments in Asia don't want to have to choose between their main economic partner and their main security provider, and they wish the Obama administration hadn't put them in that position.

3. Symbolic gestures.

Hillary Clinton seemed to believe that "miles traveled" is the measure of a secretary of state's success, but her difficulty answering the question of her achievements in that position is its own refutation. Her successor, John Kerry, is evidently on the same travel awards program; he at least can claim devotion to a few key issues. But a trip by the secretary of state is actually of little consequence. The fact that Clinton said in Beijing on that first trip that the United States ought not to focus so much on Chinese human rights violations and restrictions on political freedoms of its people is conveniently left out in Donilon's op-ed -- but that statement resounded across Asia and beyond. Substance matters more than symbolism.

4. Underappreciation of the existing order.

If the United States were under attack, it's conceivable that the president might get the news from a Canadian voice -- not because Canadian troops would be burning Washington (again), but because the U.S. and Canadian militaries jointly protect the countries' airspace. The United States exports twice as much to Canada as to China, and since the 9/11 attacks, Canada and the United States have administered their border with a remarkable level of cooperation. The Obama White House takes for granted an order that its predecessors worked to construct; it assumes all of America's international advantages will continue to accrue if it does nothing to sustain or advance them. As a result, that international order is eroding.

5. Inattention to allies.

Donilon claims the United States is "modernizing its alliances" in Asia, but even that phrasing suggests its alliances are currently unsatisfactory. Getting South Korea and Japan to cooperate on defense policy -- they won't hold joint exercises, for example -- or on how to counter China would be a major modernization of America's alliances in Asia. Donilon recognizes that, but his tepid recommendation that "the president should follow up on his recent efforts to mitigate long-standing tensions between the two countries" will hardly persuade countries that have seen their relations worsen during the Obama presidency. Asian allies know the Obama White House isn't going to solve their problems.

6. No better options.

A corollary of the Obama administration's belief that the international order will just maintain itself is that allies have no alternative than to do what the United States wants. So the White House balks at negotiating with Germany to continue participation in the Afghanistan mission, the logic being that if it's not in Berlin's immediate interest, it's not worth doing. This approach conveniently allows the Obama White House to know and care nothing about the domestic politics and problems of America's allies. But Canada surely notices that Clinton was rapt by Asia, rather than the country with which America shares values, an intertwined economy, common air defenses, a solemn pledge that an attack on one would be considered an attack on both, and, incidentally, a 5,525-mile border. How much will Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government risk to help a White House that continues to avoid a decision on integrating their two countries' energy potential? The United States shouldn't take for granted that Ottawa will continue to do things that are in the U.S. interest. It's threatening to forgo the Keystone XL pipeline for a westward route to unilaterally deliver fuel to Asian markets, for example, and it's less likely to keep troops in Afghanistan or pony up fighter planes for Baltic air policing.

* * *

Countries with small margins for error and dependence on the protection of others -- like America's allies in Asia -- tend to have very sensitive antennas to the potential for abandonment. The Obama White House may think that its fecklessness on Syria has no consequence or that its downward negotiation of what constitutes an end to Iranian nuclear weapons programs has no downside. The administration seems genuinely to believe that the president proudly insisting that "I don't bluff" is adequate to reassure countries nervous about America's willingness to make good on promises. It isn't. The pivot to Asia is one more instance of the Obama White House patting itself on the back while America's allies fret about the country's lack of seriousness.

Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images


Pay No Attention to that Panda Behind the Curtain

It doesn't matter what Obama says -- his Asia trip is all about China.

President Barack Obama is in Asia, ostensibly to reassure U.S. allies that he really does mean it when he says we're "pivoting" to Asia (or "rebalancing," or whatever). Yet even as he attempts to put the focus on Asia, events elsewhere are raising precisely the sort of doubts that he'd like to dispel. And that makes me worry that he'll spend all his time on this trip making promises and flowery speeches, instead of getting some commitments from his hosts. 

This trip, like so many others, takes place amid doubts about U.S. credibility. If the United States and NATO don't do more to help Ukraine, what does that say about our commitment to uphold current territorial arrangements in the South or East China Seas? (Answer: not much, but many people seem to think it does.) But if the United States does do more regarding Ukraine (or Syria), what does that tell U.S. allies about its ability to make Asia a bigger priority and to stick to those priorities when crises emerge elsewhere? No matter what the United States does, its Asian partners are going to raise questions about Washington's staying power and strategic judgment.

Frankly, this recurring discussion about U.S. credibility -- including the sincerity of the pivot and the subsequent rebalance -- strikes me as silly. For starters, the United States is still the most powerful military actor in the world -- including Asia -- and it will be for some time to come. One can wonder about the regional balance of power at some point in the future, but not right now. And if China's increased military power is really so alarming, why are countries like Japan, South Korea, and Australia doing so little to bolster their own military capabilities? Either they aren't as worried as they pretend, or they have become accustomed to assuming Uncle Sam will take care of them no matter what. It seems to be easier to complain about U.S. credibility than to dig deep and buy some genuine military capacity. 

And there shouldn't be any doubt about the sincerity of the pivot/rebalancing strategy, because U.S. national interests dictate a greater focus on Asia in the years ahead. As former Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell and Ely Ratner make clear in a recent article, Asia's growing economic clout and China's emergence mandate an American response. The credibility of the U.S. commitment in Asia doesn't depend on what presidents say or how often they visit, but ultimately rests on whether other states believe that it is in the U.S. interest to be engaged there. If it were truly not in America's interest to be a major strategic actor in Asia, no amount of presidential speechifying or handholding would convince our Asian partners otherwise.    

More than anything else, Obama needs to spend his time in Asia explaining to officials there why it is in the U.S. interest to maintain its security position in Asia. This policy is not an act of strategic philanthropy; it is rooted in U.S. self-interest, geopolitics, and America's longstanding desire to be the only regional hegemon in the world. If China continues to rise and develop its military power, it might one day be in a position to strive for regional hegemony in Asia. The United States would like to prevent this, because a balance of power in Asia forces Beijing to focus a lot of attention on regional affairs and prevents it from meddling in other parts of the world (including the Western hemisphere). It's impolitic to say this out loud, but the long-term purpose of the "rebalancing" policy in Asia is to contain the more powerful China that seems likely to emerge in the decades to come. That's what Chinese leaders think, and they're right. 

Moreover, the United States also has an interest in discouraging nuclear proliferation in Asia. China already has four nuclear-armed powers on its borders (Russia, Pakistan, India, and North Korea), and several other states might go nuclear if they decided they could no longer count on American security guarantees. As long as nuclear non-proliferation remains a core objective of U.S. foreign policy, it will have a strategic interest in remaining in Asia.

For all of these reasons, America's Asian partners shouldn't question the U.S. commitment to maintain its military presence in Asia and its security commitments to its various Asian partners. This policy is rooted in geopolitics and America's own strategic interests. Obama could do everyone a favor if he explained this to his hosts in simple, clear, and forceful terms, and reminded them that the U.S. security presence has been a powerful bulwark of regional stability for decades. 

Unfortunately, such assurances might not be enough. As I've noted before, managing relations with our skittish Asian partners is going to be a challenging task in the years ahead. Not only do some key U.S. allies keep quarreling with each other -- as Japan and South Korea are wont to do -- they tend to be unhappy no matter what Washington does. If the United States focuses its sights elsewhere and doesn't give Asia lots of love and attention, they complain they are being neglected. (With the exception of India, this accusation was partly true during the Bush years). But if the United States re-engages and tries to do more, then its allies fret that the United States is "remilitarizing" the region and threatening to ignite a new Cold War. They also use renewed U.S. attention as an excuse to free-ride some more.

I suspect Obama will try to walk a very fine line this week. He'll do his best to reassure his hosts that the United States is serious about devoting more time and energy to Asia, while denying that any of this is directed at Beijing. He'll make it clear that he wants to see a peaceful and stable Asia in which all nations can grow richer, and he'll pretend that serious geopolitics is "so last century." Above all, he'll try to convince America's Asian allies that Washington still has their back, but that it won't act in ways that might raise the temperature in the region. 

But I wonder if it's time for a slightly different conversation. Obama should tell his hosts that the United States is committed to maintaining a balance of power in Asia and preventing Chinese hegemony down the road, for the reasons listed above. But maybe he could also find a way to remind them that while the United States cares about the Asian balance of power and about its allies' security, it cannot and should not care more about this than these countries do themselves. He might gently suggest to his hosts that although the United States prefers to lead a network of strong and reliable Asian allies, it could do without those allies if it absolutely had to.  

In other words, the credibility of America's Asian alliances is more our allies' problem than ours.

Helping maintain a balance of power in Asia may be in our interest but it won't be cheap, and providing the necessary level of assistance ought to be worth a lot to our Asian partners. Instead of flying off to Asia just to hold their hands, I hope Obama will also remember to ask them what they are going to do for us, and for themselves.

Photoillustration By FP