The Pivot Under Pressure
Image Credit: REUTERS/Beawiharta

The Pivot Under Pressure


Senior U.S. administration officials have been at pains in recent weeks to demonstrate how Washington’s strategic focus is shifting from the military quagmires of the greater Middle East to the dynamism of Asia. It’s a tough sell, and there is reason to doubt that America’s allies and friends in the region are buying it.

Even before the cancellation of President Barack Obama’s Asia trip, which would have included the APEC and East Asia summits, doubts about U.S. focus were rising. Take Obama’s address before the UN General Assembly earlier this month. Its core takeaway is that the manifold problems of the Middle East have once more re-asserted their claim on Washington’s attention. 

Unveiled with much fanfare (here and here) two years ago, the so-called Asia pivot is all about shoring up the U.S. presence in a vital region that is increasingly under the sway of an ascendant China. Obama dubbed himself “America’s first Pacific president” and declared that Asia is where “the action’s going to be.” Vowing that the future would be “America’s Pacific Century,” his lieutenants rolled out two specific initiatives: 1.) A buildup of military forces that is plainly directed against China; and 2.) An ambitious set of trade and investment negotiations known as the “Trans-Pacific Partnership” (TPP) that would contest Beijing’s economic hegemony in East Asia.

But the pivot – or the “strategic rebalance,” as administration officials now prefer to call it – was birthed with two congenital defects: It was unveiled just as the convulsions of the Arab Spring began tearing apart the decades-old political order in the Middle East, and just as an era of severe austerity in U.S. defense budgeting was taking shape.

Until a few weeks ago, Obama gave every appearance of a man wishing the problems of the Middle East would just go away. But much like the Glenn Close character in Fatal Attraction, the region refuses to be ignored. For all the talk about turning the page on years of military and diplomatic activism in the region, Obama keeps having to take notice. Indeed, he was forcefully reminded of its combustibility when the outbreak of fighting in Gaza between Israel and Palestinian militants intruded on his last trip to Asia a year ago. And despite his stubborn determination to steer clear of it, he now finds himself sucked into Syria’s maelstrom.

The president’s General Assembly address underscores the power of this gravitational pull. In it, Mr. Obama affirmed: “We will be engaged in the region for the long haul,” and outlined the security interests that he is prepared to use military action to protect. He reiterated his intention to see through the uncertain prospect of Syria’s chemical disarmament and then staked his prestige on two long-shot projects: stopping Iran’s nuclear weapons program and brokering an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. 

He also pledged renewed focus on sectarian conflicts and humanitarian tragedies like the Syrian civil war. This marks quite an evolution in Obama’s thinking from earlier in the year when he justified his Hamlet-like ambivalence on Syria by pondering: “And how do I weigh tens of thousands who’ve been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?”

In all, Obama’s remarks last month mark a noticeable change in his foreign policy agenda. As the New York Times noted:

“For a president who has sought to refocus American foreign policy on Asia, it was a significant concession that the Middle East is likely to remain a major preoccupation for the rest of his term, if not that of his successor. Mr. Obama mentioned Asia only once, as an exemplar of the kind of economic development that has eluded the Arab world.”

December 9, 2013 at 02:01

You pivot all over the world while the homeland goes up in flames, with rampant shootings, collapse of society, infrastructure, unemployment and income inequality. Where are the leaders?

Devesh Kumar
October 11, 2013 at 22:44

Can’t stop laughing. …you are the same guys who were implicit in the cutting of Chinese watermelon …….remember. .
And now when the same China has risen again. ….this time very smartly outmanoeuvring you in the field of economy. ….you started to have coldsweat. …….
Though my suggestion to both to the US and China is to follow Gandhi and Buddha. ……and I have heard that mr. Obama is a noble peace prize laureate. So he should be a messenger of peace. ……agaain can’t stop laughing. ……

Wulfe N. Straat
October 11, 2013 at 12:02

All smoke and mirrors.


As Wulfe N. Straat said: Some two hundred million Chinese live as well
as any American, European or Japanese. However, the Chinese have
1.1 billion people living on less than 3 dollars a day. There is no
internal market for expensive computers or cell phones or TV sets in
China because the people can't afford them. If the US stopped buying
Chinese goods and made it impossible for Europe to buy Chinese goods,
the Chinese economy would collapse. Add Japan to that mix, and the die
is cast.

For that reason, the default in the US is simply a loaded gun at
China's head. As long as the default keeps Americans scared of buying
at Walmart, money doesn't flow out of the US into China. Soon enough,
the workers in China have to be laid off or fired. In China, no work
means starvation. Massive unemployment means famine on a grand
scale…which leads to revolution and the dissolution of the PRC.

This is what the Republican House in Congress has decided to do to
China in order to break it up into its seven constituent elements. The
default is simply another financial weapon employed by the US to ensure
that Japan never has to fight and destroy the PLA Navy and PLA Air
Force in the Battle of the Senkakus in 2017, because a
Japan that goes to war against China and beats that monstrosity will
then become a greater threat to world peace.

Now, the default is being pushed back another six weeks. And then,
another six weeks, etc, so as to undermine the American consumer
confidence. The longer that happens, the weaker the Chinese economy
becomes. The default is simply an end-run to break apart the PRC so
that Japan will not militarize any further and thus become the dominant
military force in all of Asia.

October 10, 2013 at 13:23

Look from the American perspective (because it is a resource allocation decision for USA). US plans for a quick attack on Syria were disrupted by Russia. Now USA is tied up in Syria, having to wait till the chemical weapons are dismantled, restart regime change again, neutralize Iran, etc. AQ aligned groups need to be sustained longer with a higher chance of spillover effect. The longer this process goes, the longer it takes to deploy sizable effort, manpower and equipment to Far East Asia.

From a global point of view, averting another needless war is a good thing. However, the chain reaction of delays it creates to US interests is damning.

October 10, 2013 at 12:12

Pivoting back to San Diego is a more sensible course.  It saves a lot of money and letting  Pacific nations enjoy building their own prosperity is beneficial in the long term for the US.  Time for the US to stop brandishing weapons in Asia.  Time to go home and let others be.

October 10, 2013 at 05:38

Comrade Bankotsu,

There're still some rogue states  in the globe such as China, etc., so the world still needs Uncle Sam in the Middle East for a while to make sure that those thugs could not disrupt the global order!

Juliana Geran Pilon
October 10, 2013 at 00:49

Bankotsu, you are absolutely right: and while we're at it, declare the end of cancer. WHO exactly do you think wants war with its enemy: the US?? Israel?? What have you been reading??

This is an good, clear article.

October 10, 2013 at 00:25

Correction:  Russia helped preserve it's near monopoly on European gas markets by strategically (and successfully) preventing the Qatari trans-Syrian pipeline.   Russia does not prop up Bashir out of love and friendship.   There are no non-self-interested actors here.    "Preserving peace" is a very poetic way of putting it.  

October 9, 2013 at 21:34

The Chinese influence at the APEC summit was palpable.   The US essentially abdicated to China.   Kerry was ill-equipped, and China came bearing gifts.  If the current US administration thinks that it is expanding it's influence in Asia or that they are containing China, they are simply not paying attention.  Obama has never been a foreign-policy president.  His inward/domestic focus at a time of rapidly shifting global allegiances and a vast sea-change in balance of power will likely go down in history as woefully inattentive. 

Add to that the sorry state of the US dollar, and the rise of a dovish Fed chairwoman and we have a recipe for imperial decline.  The dollar's fall,  which academic, know-nothing economists believe will increase exports (as if the US could ever hope to compete an export economy even with a dollar at half it's current value) is precipitating a loss of faith in US hegemony.  As we all know:  Belief precedes reality, often in breathtakingly rapid succession.  

The Asian pivot will require a strong, foreign-policy adept president and a strong global-reserve currency. We have neither.  There will be no pivot.

October 9, 2013 at 15:50

"But China and Russia surely stirring up the pot in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, latin America and even the Arctic."

How can that be, Russia and China helped to preserve peace in Syria by preventing U.S. attacks. 

October 9, 2013 at 15:28

"Beside just terroritorial there is not much gain for US in these region unlike Middle East where there is oil." 

But U.S. doesn't need middle east oil. U.S. is now no.1 producer of energy in the world. U.S. control of oil in middle east is mainly to control europe and Japan. If U.S leaves Japan on its own, U.S. control of oil in middle east would lose its meaning.

New technologies have enabled the U.S. to become the world's top producer of oil and natural gas

October 9, 2013 at 13:33

This gives China and Russia more options to either force USA out of Asia pivot or for a half hearted Asia pivot. I recon this is why China is now into Israel-Palestine peace process. Funding instability in the Middle East is a sure way to keep USA busy in that region. Happenings in the Middle East, Central Asia and AEAN in the past few weeks have been incredible.

The slower the Asia pivot takes place, the less confident US allies in ASEAN will be and the more likely they will be compromising with China. This is what Imperial Japan could not do in WW2. But China and Russia surely stirring up the pot in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, latin America and even the Arctic. The global policeman must run to all these places or it loses its command.

October 9, 2013 at 07:36

Asia should not put all their hopes into the pivot strategy. Yes, there are some deployment here and there but it can be seen as just a superfacial move mainly to show their presence in the region.

Beside just terroritorial there is not much gain for US in these region unlike Middle East where there is oil. There enphasis will also be in Middle East where the resources in that area is whst America need most. Strategically, it is more easily to cover the Middle East region than Asia or South East Asia in their theatre of operation.

October 9, 2013 at 06:38

Missing APEC – pathetic, abominable, I just can't find one word that can sum up this complete lack of feck, as in feckless…

TPP – is not really about trade and in the long run would only anger the citizens in all the countries it impacts, the USA, too.  In fact, who would the armed forces then be working for?  Doesn't sovereignty mean anything to you guys?  Well, maybe it's a step toward one world government.  Then none of our countires would need armed forces.  Uparmored police departments would be all that's necessary. 

And, we're not going to fight China.  If Russia, Syria and Iran have out maneuvered the cabal that seeks endless war until America is spent as a global force for, well, whatever.  The Chinese are going to reassert themselves as the dominant global economy, and that's just the way it will be.

When everyday all I can see in the land around me is the USA crumbling and being turned into a failed state, sorry, but our shiny boats are going to rust.

October 9, 2013 at 03:38

The Obama admin is in a fix: the base of the Democratic Party will insist of further deep cuts in defense to sheild needed entitlement programs and at the same time US allies are asking for a buildup of US maritime capability. This is an impossible contradiction and paradox that has no easy political answer. Being that all politics is local… and that demographic shifts will favor the left in the US… the "Pacific Pivot" will not be sustainable. In fact, there are likely to be significant cust to US maritime capability over the next decade… and many in the US left who are eager to see it go-especially power projecttion assets.

October 8, 2013 at 19:47

I think the U.S. should make peace with Iran and force Israel to make peace with the Palestinians; resolve the issues in middle east so that U.S. can concentrate all of its attention and resources to deal with China in asia pacific. Now, there is a swing - back and forth from asia pacific to middle east - back and forth, back and forth. This is not the right way to conduct strategy with China.

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