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January 6, 2012


A Risky Shift

by Mike M

Am I the only one who finds the analytical rationale for this “strategic shift to Asia” a bit weak?

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton laid out the basic terms of the concept in her November 2011 Foreign Policy article “America’s Pacific Century,” and in subsequent speeches.  The big wars of the last decade—and the strategic distraction that they embodied—are coming to an end, she announced.  It was time for the United States to recalibrate its strategic mindset.  And that recalibration would point in a single direction:  East.

Asia was where the action is, Clinton announced, holding key sea lanes, energy trading routes, a dominant portion of world trade, key U.S. allies, and—oh, yes, this rather large quasi-communist states that we’ve been growing rather concerned about.

Now Defense has pulled its carrier task forces into the convoy headed to the Pacific with its new strategic guidance.  “We will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region,” it declares.  And again, the reasons:  We have security relationships there; big dollars at stake; major powers at play.

All true, and we ought to begin with a moment of silence for the Grand Strategic Distraction of the last decade, which Team Obama is finally, formally lowering into a well-deserved grave.  A forceful, effective response to 9/11 was urgently required.  A decade of “global war,” unnecessary invasions, and extended COIN was not; and among the most serious prices we have paid was in our sidetracked strategic mindset.  Not totally, utterly (read Condoleezza Rice’s memoir for a sense of the mind-bending range of issues the Bush administration continued to manage); but nonetheless to a damaging way.  The so-called war on terror drained the intellectual energy of the Washington national security community, both official and unofficial, leaving far too little creative attention left for other challenges.

The basic thrust of the recent articles and guidances—to lift our heads up after a decade of myopia, look around, and re-introduce ourselves to true strategic thinking—is both welcome and overdue.

But a disheveled question still clamors in the background of that applause:  Do we really need to exchange one myopia for another?

Not that Asia isn’t important.  It’s just that whole world is, for a global power like the United States; and then, too, the United States is important to the whole world.  When we absent ourselves from key issues in places where U.S. influence has been rife—as Joost Hiltermann reminded us a year and change ago about Iraq, where at the time the administration seemed curiously uncommitted to any particular political outcome while Turkey and Iran were vigorously backing proxies—people notice.

America is declining … and pervasive.  It is resented, feared, hated—its absence as much as its meddling.

These mixed feelings, of course, have never been more present than in a region which gets scant notice these days in American strategy—Latin America.  But as my former student, the brilliant writer Parag Khanna, argued in one of the few pieces to question the Asian shift strategy, Latin America has 900 million people, a combined economy (of $6 trillion) equal to China’s, is younger and more urbanized than China, and, one might add, given embedded democratic traditions in many places (despite income disparities and other social issues), is a better long-term bet as a stable trading partner.

Meantime, there are risks and threats in our own hemisphere, as well.  If we focus too diligently on Beijing, will we miss signs of impending social instability in Mexico City?

And what of Europe?  Its total economy is larger than America’s; the EU is the world’s largest regional market, comprising 17 percent of global trade (versus 12% for America).  Recent turbulence notwithstanding, Europe is chock-full of stable, tolerant democracies.  It is a global leader in innovation, technology, finance, and other critical areas.  It is a world leader in education—with 16 of the world’s top 100 universities, it ranks just behind America (with over 50); Russia has 1, our main Asian Shift targets, China and India, zero, and Japan five.  In 2008, Europe played host to 1.2 million foreign students, a source of soft power and value export; the United States hosted over 620,000.  China brought in less than 200,000, India less than 20,000 (in 2007).  (All of these figures are from Joseph Nye, The Future of Power, 158-162.)

But surely, yes:  Let’s race past these other, secondary regions in our strategic focus on … what, exactly?

Ah, there’s the rub.  Because everyone knows—or will assume—just what our focus is:  China, and the threat embodied therein.  We can talk (as we have since Clinton’s first article) about how we have no desire to make China an enemy, but this strategic shift to Asia walks, looks, and quacks like China containment, and that’s what people are going to call it.  Which is a very dangerous thing, if you believe in the species of international relations phenomenon called the “self-fulfilling prophecy.”

So that maddening  questioner at the back of the room keeps asking:  Why?  Surely, Asia is important, and India and China are becoming more important all the time.  But:

  • Many other regions remain extremely important to U.S. interests and geostrategy as well, and constantly talking about The Pacific Century may create a “second class diplomatic citizen” phenomenon in America’s other relationships.
  • If we keep saying we’re headed to Asia in part to convince China it can’t push people around, we will absolutely, without doubt, exacerbate the existing sense in Beijing that we are out to get them.  We can’t shy away from our deterrent obligations—but this Shift strategy is just about as heavy-handed as we could possibly be.  Thucydides might have a thing or two to say about all this.
  • Internally, if we convince ourselves that Asia is the priority, will it be harder to get attention—in Deputies Committee meetings, on a new National Intelligence Estimate—for other issues?
  • The whole approach is based on the assumption that China (and to a lesser degree India) will dominate world politics in a decade or two.  There are reasons to believe that is at best a risky prediction; China faces immense social, economic and political challenges.  If it doesn’t come true, and in ten years we’re talking about Latin America and a revived EU as the engines of the globe, will we have made a foolish bet?
  • What do we mean by “shift,” anyway?  The narrow idea of prioritizing Asia as a defense planning theater?  Except why then lead with a statement from the Secretary of State, and talk in broad geopolitical terms?  Do we mean having most senior officials spend the lion’s share of their time on Asia?  What is the practical meaning of this–especially when we can’t control events; and so, when a war with Iran breaks out, and we spend the next five years with our head stuck further into Middle Eastern sands, various spokespeople can still be talking about a “Pacific Century,” but our foreign and defense policies will be responding to events, not doctrines.

Someone could say, “Well, if it turns out that way, we’ll just get some GS-14 to go off and write the Secretary of State at that time (Brad Pitt, at the rate things are going) a GQ article on ‘America’s Latin Century,’ and no harm done.”  But if that is the case, why are we announcing this at all?  What do we think we are achieving by this strategy if it could be discarded without cost?

But the major question is this:  Why not shift out of an era of strategic myopia to a period of broad, global strategy, that does not feel compelled to pick favorites among regions?  Why not just say, The world is our chessboard, we engage all, we target no one … we’re the United States of America, and we’re still here.  Wherever you are.

1 Comment Post a comment
  1. Andres Ploompuu
    Jan 20 2012

    No – you’re not the only one.
    Seems to me we were basically happy letting things just bump along as they had for decades in the Pacific. We would complain fairly mildly about human rights abuses, unfair trade practices, and artificially managed exchange rates. But trade continued to flourish, and as long as cheap goods continued to flow into Wal Mart, all was well.
    Until, that is, the conflicts absorbing all our attention in the Middle East began to wind down. And with that, all the vast sums of money being spent on defense. What to do? The military industrial complex Eisenhower warned us about needs a perceived enemy in order to keep urgency levels up, thereby justifying more super-weapons.
    Of course, making this plain to the American people would be political suicide for any elected official. We’re talking about overturning or reversing a trend it’s taken decades to entrench: the militarization of US foreign policy. Going along with that trend has become practically synonymous with loyalty. Going against it is immediately attacked as pacifist or anti-American. It’s just too easy for an elected official or candidate to talk tough about “punishing” Iran to the loud applause of many constituents, and be seen as “defending” American values.
    What is to be done? More exchanges like this, for starters. It’s the only way for our citizens to gain exposure to an alternate way of seeing things.


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