Talk of the United States taking a renewed interest in Asia was plentiful at the time Barack Obama was elected. However, detailed discussion of how the United States might better engage the nations of the Pacific was largely deferred. With the financial panic on Wall Street elevating concerns about economic growth to the top of the political agenda, and discussion of foreign policy dominated by the United States’ ongoing roles in Iraq and Afghanistan, there seemed little space for discussing the U.S. role in Asia.
But that has all changed in recent months, with the launch of economic, diplomatic, and security initiatives that demonstrate a comprehensive reorientation towards East Asia. For a start, a major effort to develop trade ties has taken strides in the form of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an agreement that will give U.S. companies greater access to a host of Asian economies. The United States has also sought to engage countries with which it hasn’t traditionally enjoyed strong relations, including a major thaw in ties with Vietnam, and President Obama’s decision to dispatch Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Burma this week. And, on the security front, the United States has unveiled its intention to base marines in Darwin, Australia, underscoring the renewed military commitment to the region.
Such developments are not just the product of an administration in Washington that’s eager to move beyond the crises of the last decade. They are also indicative of an Asian region more willing to accommodate an American presence. This is partly the consequence of the new president, whose moderate tone and time spent growing up in Indonesia has helped make him a more effective messenger for his country than his predecessor. But it is also the product of a greater desire for American engagement within the region itself. Japan, South Korea, and the countries of Southeast Asia increasingly regard the United States as a potential counterweight to Chinese assertiveness, even if they are unwilling to make this point explicitly.
It’s right and proper that the United States should seek to strengthen its role in East Asia, not least because the United States has been a Pacific power for as long as it has been an Atlantic one. However, while the United States’ “pivot” is welcomed by much of Asia, it is causing concern to the nations of Western Europe. Having relied upon the United States for security and economic growth since the latter half of the 20th century, the nations of the EU will soon find that they are no longer the focal point of American attention. This was already true in part due to the end of the Cold War, and the defeat of Communism. Yet it will become ever more so as the United States looks further East. In order to prepare for this shift in geopolitics, European countries must initiate a carefully calibrated response of their own.
What ought such a response to entail? Three priorities come to mind. Primarily, European members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization must give much more consideration to their own defense and security. The Libyan conflict demonstrated the limited capabilities of Europe’s armed forces, and the extent to which they rely on the United States for support. More consideration must be given to interoperability, bilateral agreements of the kind signed by France and the United Kingdom, and the overall level of funding set aside for military expenditure, which remains insufficient.
In addition, European states should give consideration to some Asian outreach of their own. Britain has already demonstrated what might be possible in this regard. Prime Minister David Cameron led a major trade delegation to China within six months of taking office, and the British government has also sought to revitalize its ties with Commonwealth countries, among them Australia and New Zealand. London also pre-empted Obama’s announcement on Burma, scheduling a visit by the Minister for International Development earlier this month.
Last, European nations should actively embrace the United States’ new willingness to engage the Asian world. Whatever misgivings they may have about dwindling interest in Europe, greater co-operation amongst Pacific countries need not be regarded as a zero-sum development. Indeed, strengthened American ties with Asian countries carries the prospect of indirect access to a host of new markets and opportunities.
Transatlantic ties are by no means immune to periods of instability. Indeed, the Bush administration’s pursuit of regime change in Iraq greatly destabilized transatlantic ties by dividing a continent that prizes harmony. Moreover, America’s shift in focus is likely to be gradual. The United States remains actively involved in NATO, and has been supportive of the steps that EU nations have taken in an effort to resolve their ongoing sovereign debt crisis.
Still, Washington’s determination to engage Asia represents a fundamental change in the United States’ order of priorities, and one that is unlikely to be reversed. European nations will only be able to remain secure and prosperous by responding, not fearing, the change.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind is the Conservative Party Member of Parliament for Kensington and a former British Foreign Secretary. He is currently chairman of the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee.