A U.S. Strategic Pivot to Nowhere.
For the United States, Asia is both important and potentially dangerous. It represents 56 percent of global economic output and an equal percentage of total U.S. trade. Five of the world's most powerful militaries are involved there. Four of them have nuclear weapons. The six largest armies belong to Asia-Pacific powers. Three of the five deadliest wars in American history took place in part or wholly in that region.
Still, Asia is not the most problematic region for the United States. Like Europe and the Americas, Asia has regional security structures and arrangements that aren't perfect but perform fairly well, at least in terms of preventing major wars. A political scientist might say it has a functional regional order. Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East/North Africa regions, by contrast, do not. In both areas, extensive state involvement in markets and economies raise the stakes of politics to the point that sustaining democracy is extraordinarily difficult—whoever controls the state also controls the economy. Sub-Saharan Africa has long seen internal conflict and violent extremism because its often-artificial and weak states cannot control all of their national territory. North Africa and the Middle East once had the appearance of stability due to rule by nationalistic dictators, but now that veneer has collapsed in the face of demands for government accountability and economic growth. This has been exacerbated by an adaptable, resilient and popular extremist ideology.
So while Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East/North Africa region may not be as important and potentially dangerous for the United States as Asia, they are more problematic. And America's historical tendency is to focus on the most pressing problems rather than issues of the greatest long-term importance. This is amplified by the current politicization of national security strategy and the crumbling of the domestic constituency for a strong defense.
One other factor has also hindered the Obama administration's pivot toward Asia: China has begun playing more nicely, toning down its rhetoric and attempting to appear less provocative. Beijing is even reining in its dangerously unpredictable client, North Korea.
Obama's abrupt cancellation of a trip to Asia last week, which the White House attributed to political turmoil in Congress, amplified the perception in Asia that the United States is “increasingly befuddled,” with its focus on Asia “slipping.” Many Asian nations, according to Singaporean strategist Barry Desker, have concluded that they will not see “a significant shift of U.S. forces” to Asia.
The Obama administration's inability or unwillingness to push its pivot toward Asia leaves the U.S. military lacking strategic direction. Combined with sequestration and China's decision to focus its provocation on cyberattacks and other methods short of outright military action, this has taken some wind out of the sails of those advocating the operational concept known as Air-Sea Battle (.pdf). While the concept’s proponents always claimed it was a generic approach to countering the proliferation of military methods and technologies that could be used to deny the United States access to a region, few defense experts saw it as anything other than an anti-China idea. Certainly the Chinese considered Air-Sea Battle aimed at them. Regardless, the slowdown in support for Air-Sea Battle has not been accompanied by shift to an alternative strategy. Those in the military and the wider defense community who argue that the most likely future threats faced by the United States will not be high-tech, conventional ones but protracted, asymmetric conflict have not been able to capitalize on the opportunity to gain support or make their case. Americans continue to see Iraq and Afghanistan as typical of asymmetric conflicts and choose to believe they can opt out of them in the future. As a result, the U.S. military is not clear on the grand strategy it must implement five or 10 years down the road.
Despite all this, the Obama administration says it remains committed to the strategic rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific. White House press secretary Jay Carney called the canceled trip a “setback,” but insisted that “the president is committed to the pivot of U.S. policy toward Asia.” At the same time, the surge in terrorism in Africa and recent U.S. commando raids have led some analysts to suggest that the United States is “shifting to Africa rather than pivoting to Asia.”
Might the pivot to Asia simply be paused? Perhaps. Some analysts place blame directly on Obama. Nikolas Gvosdev, for instance, argued that Obama's Sept. 24 address to the U.N. General Assembly indicated a clear focus on the Middle East and inadequate concern for Asia. Gvosdev recommends devoting “serious time to a sustained outreach to the Asia-Pacific region.”
If it is true that the stalled pivot is a reflection of decisions made by Obama, then it could be reinvigorated, if not by this administration, then by its successor. But if it is the deeper structural factors that are stalling the pivot—especially America's obsession with short-term problems rather than long-term strategies, the politicization of U.S. national security policy, the partisan gridlock in Washington, the collapse of the domestic constituency for a strong American defense, the continuing tumult in the Middle East and the subtler tactics employed by Beijing—it may never be more than lofty rhetoric. There will be a persistent strategic vacuum, as whoever occupies the White House focuses on whatever world crisis can do the most short-term political damage. What the United States may be undertaking is not a geostrategic rebalancing but a pivot to nowhere.
Steven Metz is a defense analyst and the author of "Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy." His weekly WPR column, Strategic Horizons, appears every Wednesday.