As events unfold in Ukraine we are all reminded once more that neither geopolitics nor the challenges of history are dead and buried in Europe. While numerous foreign policy experts seemed content to write off the continent as beyond great power rivalry or naked power politics, the events of the last several days prove otherwise. In fact, with Russian moves into the Crimea it seems Europe is destined for a perilous predicament the likes of which have not been seen since the days of the Cold War.
Ukraine, a nation referred to by Samuel P. Huntington as a “cleft country with two distinct cultures” that serves as a “civilizational fault line between the West and Orthodoxy” seems destined to draw away much needed attention from matters in the Indo-Pacific world, and rightly so considering the stakes. Yet over the long term the rise of China, issues of trade and economics, territorial claims and counterclaims as well as America’s stake in the region will continue to be a global focus no matter the crisis of the day. Asia hands here in D.C. and around the world can draw some valuable lessons from the Ukraine crisis. Here are four as I see them:
1. Be mindful on those big, sweeping, foreign policy declarations, like a “Pivot”: It seems no matter how much Washington wants to make that big pivot/rebalance to the Asia-Pacific or Indo-Pacific, current events seem to get in the way. Last summer it was Syria. Now it’s Ukraine. Clearly Washington is very plugged into events in Asia, and has never left, contrary to what others may say. Yet the pivot seems to have lost its way thanks to a lack of military resources, American domestic political drama, and budding international hot spots that seem to shift the focus. The pivot, one of the great bumper sticker foreign policies if there ever was one, seems to suffer from what can only be seen as self-created, high expectations. Instead of backing off or lessening such expectations, the administration in some respects seems to be feeding them. Take for example comments just last November from National Security Advisor Susan Rice, in which she declared the “rebalancing toward the Asia Pacific remains a cornerstone of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy. No matter how many hotspots emerge elsewhere, we will continue to deepen our enduring commitment to this critical region.”
Can the pivot maintain its focus in this and future administrations considering the many challenges around the world Washington is constantly being asked to manage? My heart says yes, but my mind says stay tuned.
2. Having a foreign policy based on reaction is a big, big mistake: This is certainly old news, but does America even have a foreign policy, grand strategy or something that guides its moves beyond just simply reacting to events? No. And to be fair, I am not sure this would have halted events in Ukraine, but Washington still needs to let the world know what it stands for. America needs to let the world know what its vision for the world is. Simply reacting to events is not a policy and invites snap decisions that could lead to tragedy. Policymakers in Asia are watching, and I can tell you they are concerned. While Obama might be content to wind down the clock, nations in Asia don’t have the luxury of time, and will make their decisions accordingly.
3. You bet China is watching very carefully: OK, so it’s not exactly a lesson but what China learns from this whole thing is important. It has been mostly quiet beyond the normal boiler plate statements; yet watching Russia intervene in Ukraine must have analysts in Beijing working overtime. Are they drawing lessons from the U.S. and EU reactions? Will opinions in China change concerning warming ties with Russia? What lessons will Beijing learn when it comes to its own interests in areas of contention with Washington and how to manage such challenges in the future?
4. Expect the unexpected in Asia: Yes, this is a pretty basic lesson but as foreign policy watchers we seem to keep forgetting the basics. We constantly study the major challenges of the day when it comes to matters of foreign policy or war and peace, but it is the items that are not on our daily radar that often trip us up, causing an unexpected calamity when we least expect it (think 9/11 and a war against terrorism that few predicted). Asia watchers are so dialed into a possible showdown in the East and South China Seas or between China and India—and for good reason—that many other challenges can get missed. Indeed, we need to also keep our focus on other possible flashpoints. For example, Sino-Russo relations over the long-term could very well go negative. China itself is not exactly a bastion of stability economically or in many other respects. Bottom line Asia hands: expect the unexpected.