James Holmes

Four Reasons Not to Pivot to Europe

Some are arguing for the United States to “pivot” towards Europe. James Holmes gives us four reasons to stay the course.

James R. Holmes

You get the sense frustration has been mounting in Europe-first precincts. Teeth are gnashed and garments rended in direct proportion to the policy energy Asia consumes in Washington. In particular, the Obama administration's pivot to the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean has occasioned no end of fretful commentary.

Consequently, the news that the United States and the European Union will commence negotiating a transatlantic free-trade zone gave vent to rapturous commentary. Anne-Marie Slaughter, who oversaw the U.S. State Department's Policy Planning Staff from 2009-2011, hailed "The Coming Atlantic Century," appropriating the title of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's 2011 Foreign Policy essay announcing the Asia pivot. Writing in The New Republic, Brookings Institution scholar William Galston greeted "Obama's Pivot to Europe" while urging readers to "forget China." And so forth. Catharsis is good! Yet the euphoria is largely misplaced.

There are four problems with a putative Europe pivot:

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The pivot is a geographic misnomer. A fallacy about the Asia pivot started making the rounds almost as soon as Secretary Clinton unveiled it, namely that pivoting to Asia means America is turning its back on Europe. Not so. On a standard Mercator map, it does appear that the pivot means executing a 180-degree turnabout from facing eastward toward Europe to facing westward toward Asia. But Atlantic-based U.S. Navy forces steam to the western Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf through the Mediterranean and Red seas, scudding along the southern European periphery along the way. Pivoting to Asia may mean looking past Europe rather than squarely at the continent; it doesn't mean doing an about-face.

There's no military threat. U.S. strategy toward Europe is different in character from U.S. strategy toward Asia. The Asia pivot is largely a military enterprise. It scarcely detracts from transatlantic relations, since Europe faces no military threat and the Atlantic Ocean is a tranquil expanse. The U.S. military could — and I believe should — seriously unbalance its forces toward the Pacific while running little risk. What precisely would U.S. forces do if they pivoted back to Europe and adjoining waters? Attack pirates in the Gulf of Guinea?

Europe can police its own environs. The European Union is more populous and, collectively, boasts a bigger GDP than the United States. It is high time for Europe to take responsibility for its own surroundings, using some of its resources to construct serious armed forces. Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt saw Europe as a natural international policeman. Europe should fulfill the Roosevelts' vision at last, developing the capacity to manage its neighborhood independently of the United States. Pivoting back to Europe would deprive the Union of incentives to achieve its destiny.

Asians will start bandwagoning. Washington's pivot is already a modest affair, equating to a shift of about 20 warships over the next seven years or so. Stopping or reversing the process would send a terrible signal to Asian capitals, prompting them to begin making their peace with Chinese supremacy. Bandwagoning is rather like entering into a protection scheme with the Corleones, whereby ordinary citizens defer and provide goodies to the Family in return for protection from … the Family! Apportioning shrinking U.S. military forces equally between a safe and an embattled theater would constitute dubious strategy at best. America's standing in the Far East would suffer if it were seen as ceding ground to the Corleones.

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Stay the course.