Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is calling this a “pivot point.” The United States, after a decade of funneling immense amounts of resources into wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and with an eye to the balance of economic and military power in what Fareed Zakaria calls the Post-American World, is reassessing how and where it should invest the bulk of its time and energy. And for the Obama administration the choice could not be clearer: the United States needs to engage in a “strategic turn” to the Asia-Pacific region.
Clinton voiced these views in a recent Foreign Policy piece titled “America’s Pacific Century,” and again at a speech on November 13 in Hawaii at the start of President Obama’s current Asia-Pacific trip. This has seen the president host 21 leaders of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Hawaii, travel to Australia to discuss military cooperation with Prime Minister Julia Gillard, and on November 18 attend the East Asia Summit on the Indonesian island of Bali, as the first American president ever to participate in the gathering. Later in the month Secretary Clinton will go on to South Korea for a separate meeting on aid cooperation. The goal of these visits is to strengthen bilateral security alliances and expand U.S. trade and investment in the region. It is also to formally reassert U.S. presence in a part of the world increasingly in the shadow of a rising China.
The pivot is part of an ongoing shift in American foreign policy pursued by the Obama administration since it arrived in office. Hillary Clinton was the first Secretary of State since Dean Rusk in 1961 to choose Asia as the destination for a maiden voyage, and Obama has often called himself America’s first “Pacific president.” Asia is, as Clinton said in her speech, “home to nearly half the world’s population, it boasts several of the largest and fastest-growing economies and some of the world’s busiest ports and shipping lanes, and it also presents consequential challenges such as military buildups, concerns about the proliferation of nuclear weapons, natural disasters, and the world’s worst levels of greenhouse gas emissions. It is becoming increasingly clear that in the 21st century, the world’s strategic and economic center of gravity will be the Asia Pacific, from the Indian subcontinent to the western shores of the Americas.”
So far the most critical development of the trip has been the long-awaited announcement that a full U.S. Marine task force, to total 2,500 personnel, will in the coming years be permanently stationed in Darwin, Australia. This amounts to the first long-term expansion of the U.S. military in the Pacific since the end of the Vietnam War. In a speech to the Australian Parliament on November 17 the president said he had “made a deliberate and strategic decision – as a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future.” He argued that the deployment of marines on what is being termed the “unsinkable aircraft carrier” of Australia represents a response to the wishes of democratic U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific, who fear an expanding Chinese military presence in the region. And while the official government response has been restrained, bellicose reactions have begun to appear in the Chinese state press, with one Global Times commentary warning Australia that in playing host to a strengthened U.S. military presence in Asia it risks being “caught in the crossfire.”
Administration officials have repeatedly been at pains to emphasize that this strategy will not come at Europe’s expense. They maintain that the shift towards Asia is being modeled on the successful postwar Atlantic partnership, which in the words of President Kennedy was “a system of cooperation, interdependence, and harmony, whose people can jointly meet their burdens and opportunities throughout the world.” But a new U.S. “containment” policy towards China will not be a comfort to European policymakers.
What the pivot means for Europe is most likely an eventual softening of U.S. security guarantees for the continent, a decline in U.S. engagement in Europe’s near abroad (the backseat role played by the United States during most of the Libya engagement being just the beginning), and greater U.S. expectations for a meaningful European foreign policy to help address global challenges. None of this will be easy to contemplate for an EU in the thick of a marathon effort to prevent its debt crisis from spinning out of control. Yet the very gravity of the economic woes in the eurozone, as well as Europe’s rapidly diminishing influence in global affairs, clearly demonstrate the imperative of more strategic thinking in Brussels regarding Europe’s long-term interests.
EU foreign policy over the past decade has been too often divided and ineffective. European leaders could not manage a common position on the 2003 Iraq War, the 2008 recognition of Kosovo’s independence, the NATO intervention in Libya this year, or the recent UNESCO vote on Palestine. At UNESCO, the two EU states with permanent seats on the United Nations Security Council, the United Kingdom and France, split their votes, while the rest of the 27 EU governments were fairly evenly divided into three categories: those voting yes, no, and abstaining. The European External Action Service, a product of the 2009 Treaty of Lisbon, was meant to coordinate the foreign policies of EU member states. It has yet to leave its mark.
“The twentieth century was an Atlantic century, while the twenty-first is going to be a Pacific one,” said the President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, in a speech last week. In order for the European Union to play an active part in the Pacific century it will need a plan to promote greater political unity within Europe, and stronger EU leadership and engagement outside of the continent. The Pacific rethink underway in Washington is a strategic reaction to a changing world, which will result in less U.S. influence in much of Europe’s neighborhood in the years ahead. Now it will fall to Europe to come up with a pivot move of its own.