It is impossible to know what a president’s foreign policy legacy will be until long after they have left office. But there is good reason to believe that the “pivot to Asia” will come to be seen as President Barack Obama’s greatest foreign policy mistake.
Obama once referred to himself as the first Pacific president and the pivot is touted by Obama’s defenders as a great success that properly rebalanced America’s foreign policy focus away from costly interventions in the Middle East to Asia, the prophesied center of the 21st century economy. The reality is that the pivot was a failure that caused serious negative side effects in other parts of the world.
The pivot was based on a series of flawed assumptions, namely: That U.S. foreign policy had previously neglected the Asia Pacific, that Asia’s rising importance in the global economy called for the assignment of more military resources to the region, and that the United States could afford to pull back from the Middle East and other regions. By taking the approach it did, the Obama administration managed to make tensions in the Asia-Pacific worse while also allowing the Middle East and Europe to fall into even deeper chaos than before as a result of neglect.
First, it is simply wrong that the United States was ignoring the Asia Pacific when Barack Obama came to office. Far from being neglectful, the Bush administration’s Asia policy was a success. The Bush administration helped get tensions between China and Taiwan to a historic low. It concluded free trade agreements with Australia, South Korea, and Singapore and began talks on what became the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). It also concluded a civilian nuclear agreement with India and forged a new relationship with that country while simultaneously managing to build a partnership with Pakistan to deal with Afghanistan. Some of these policies were later repackaged by the Obama administration as part of the pivot.
The pivot did include some new diplomatic initiatives (such as the rapprochement with Myanmar) but the real problem was the shift in security and defense policy. By putting Asia at the center of its security strategy, the Obama administration inadvertently made the entire enterprise seem to Beijing like an effort to contain China militarily. This led China to respond by becoming more aggressive, helping to undo the general tranquility that existed before 2008.
Emblematic of this mistake was the roll-out of the Air-Sea Battle doctrine. First outlined in a then-classified memo in 2009, ASB became official doctrine in 2010. From the beginning, it was an effort to develop an operational doctrine for a possible military confrontation with China and then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates openly discussed the need to counter China’s growing military capabilities. The signal received in Beijing was the United States had hostile intentions toward China and was trying to contain it militarily. The result was that the entire pivot was seen by Beijing as part of a broader effort to encircle China.
If the first flaw in the pivot was the prominence of its military component, the second flaw was that there wasn’t a compelling reason to have a military component at all. The premise of the pivot was that Asia was more important relative to other parts of the world because it was home to a rising proportion of global GDP and was now at the center of the world economy. But this called for an economic response to take advantage of an opportunity, not a military response to counter threats. Yet, the pivot to Asia contained a robust military component.
This led China to view the entire enterprise, not just its military components, as part of a broader effort at containment. For example, when the TPP was finalized in 2015, Obama said, “TPP allows America — and not countries like China — to write the rules of the road in the 21st century.” Even trade deals were being presented as a way to counter the threat from China. It is no mystery why Beijing believed U.S. strategy in the region centered on containing China’s rise. The United States publicly said this is exactly what it was doing.
It didn’t have to be this way. One obvious opportunity for a different approach was China’s invitation for the United States to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). The United States refused to participate and even objected to the U.K. joining the AIIB. As Leland Lazarus explained for The Diplomat, this decision was an enormous error. If the United States had pursued the Trans-Pacific Partnership by publicly emphasizing it hoped China would one day join while also joining the AIIB, the entire perception of any pivot in Beijing would have been radically different. Instead of appearing to be a strategy to undermine China it would simply appear to be an effort to take full advantage of the economic opportunities presented by Asia’s dynamic economic growth. Instead, the United States chose a path that heightened military tensions and missed out on economic opportunities.
The third grave error was the United States took its eye off the ball in Europe and the Middle East. The Obama administration appears to have believed that the United States could not walk and chew gum at the same time and focusing on Asia meant losing focus somewhere else. This was both untrue and highly dangerous. American neglect of Europe was followed by Russian adventurism in Ukraine, an increased threat to the Baltic states, and the erosion of democracy in Poland and Hungary. After America pulled back from the Middle East, the Syrian Civil War displaced 11 million people and caused a refugee crisis, Islamic State moved into Iraq, and America’s relationships with its Gulf allies frayed as Iranian influence expanded throughout the region.
The final tally is not pretty. The pivot did not contain the rise of China. Instead, China became more aggressive, pressing its claims in the South China Sea and to the Senkakus. China also continues to close the gap in military capabilities with the United States. Its economy continues to grow, as does its share of global GDP. The TPP looks to be dead in Congress while China pursues trade deals of its own with key countries in the region. The pivot failed to achieve its key goals in Asia while inattention helped make matters worse in Europe and the Middle East. The pivot to Asia has been a failure on all fronts. Given the importance of the Asia-Pacific, this failure is likely to be remembered as President Obama’s greatest mistake in foreign policy.
John Ford is a Captain in the U.S. Army JAG Corps who studied at Peking University. He has previously written for The Diplomat on China’s economy and its maritime disputes in the South China Sea. The views expressed here are his own. You can follow him at @johndouglasford on twitter.