Stephen M. Walt

Explaining Obama’s Asia policy

Explaining Obama’s Asia policy

If you’ve been paying attention — and maybe even if you haven’t — you’ll have noticed that U.S. strategic attention is shifting toward Asia. The United States has already moved the bulk of its naval deployments towards the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has stated that future defense cuts won’t be felt in Asia, and the Obama administration announced the other day that it is sending 2,500 Marines to a new base in Australia. Today, we learn that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is going to visit Myanmar, a move clearly intended to encourage the military regime there to continue its recent reform efforts and to try to wean the government from Beijing’s embrace.

This trend reflects several developments: 1) the recognition that Europe faces no significant security threats and thus doesn’t need U.S. protection, 2) the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have gradually convinced even die-hard liberal imperialists and a few neo-conservatives that using thousands of U.S. troops to do "nation-building" in the Middle East or Central Asia is a fool’s errand; 3) Asia’s growing economic importance, and 4) the widespread perception — both in Washington and in the region — that China’s power is rising and needs to be countered by the United States (and others).

But why? Even some astute commentators are puzzled why Americans should care about Asian security. Writing on his blog over at the Daily Beast, Andrew Sullivan inquires:

What on earth are we doing adding a military base in Australia to piss off China? Why shouldn’t China have a sphere of influence in the Pacific? … I see no way that putting a base in Australia somehow defends the homeland of the United States. It does nothing of the kind. It just projects global power."

In fact, there is a perfectly sound realist justification for this strategic shift, and the clearest expression can be found in George F. Kennan’s book American Diplomacy. Kennan argued that there were several key centers of industrial power in the world — Western Europe, Japan, the Soviet Union, and the United States — and that the primary strategic objective of the United States was to keep the Soviet Union from seizing any of those centers of power that lay outside its grasp. That’s what containment was really all about, even if it was distorted and misapplied by people who thought areas like Indochina were critical.

More broadly, this logic reflects the realist view that it is to U.S. advantage to keep Eurasia divided among many separate powers, and to help prevent any single power from establishing the same sort of regional hegemony that the United States has long enjoyed in the Western hemisphere. That is why the United States eventually entered World War I (to prevent a German victory), and it is why Roosevelt began preparing the nation for war in the late 1930s and entered with enthusiasm after Pearl Harbor. In each case, powerful countries were threatening to establish regional hegemony in a key area, and so the United States joined with others to prevent this.

The point isn’t a moral or ethical one: it is straightforward realpolitik. As long as the United States is the only great power in the Western hemisphere, it is much safer and doesn’t have to worry very much about territorial defense. If you don’t think this is important, ask Poland or any other country that has lots of powerful neighbors and has suffered from frequent invasions. And as long as Eurasia is divided among many contending powers, these states naturally tend to worry mostly about each other and not about us (except when we do stupid things, like invading Iraq). Instead, many Eurasian states have been eager for U.S. protection against local threats, which is why the United States has been able to lead successful and long-lived alliances in Europe and in Asia. In fact, it is the combination of enormous security here at home and compliant allies abroad that has enabled the United States to meddle in many corners of the world, sometimes to good purpose but often not.  

Now consider what might happen if China had a "sphere of influence" in Asia akin to the U.S. position in the Western hemisphere. Not only would it be able to influence its neighbors’ behavior in ways that we might find unpleasant, but it would also be much more secure at home and therefore able to focus more of its power on shaping events in far-flung areas. Given that China is going to be engaged in world markets and increasingly dependent on resources from all over the world, a prudent Chinese strategist would want to have the capacity to safeguard vital sea lines of communication and affect the political calculations in other key areas. And it will be much easier for Beijing to do that in the Persian Gulf or other vital areas if its immediate neighborhood is a sphere of influence from which outside powers — and especially the United States — are excluded, at least in terms of security commitments and military forces.

One can take this logic one step further. Once China established a secure sphere of influence, it would be easier for Beijing to forge closer political ties with countries in the Western hemisphere, some of whom have long resented U.S. dominance. It does not take a lot of imagination to see where this leads: for the first time since the 19th century, the United States might have to face the prospect of a rival great power with a significant military presence in the Western hemisphere. Recall that the Soviet attempt to place nuclear missiles in Cuba brought the two countries closer to war than at any other time during the Cold War, and you get an idea of the potential for trouble here.

Thus, for the United States to increase its military presence in Asia and to seek to reassure its current Asian allies is not just a way to "project global power." There is an underlying strategic rationale here, and one that to me makes far more sense than a lot of the other military missions we’ve indulged in over the past decade.

There are, of course, various counterarguments to the position I’ve just sketched. One could argue that nuclear weapons obviate the sort of geopolitical analysis I’ve just set forth, because neither the United States nor a much more powerful China would ever risk a nuclear exchange by actually using force against each other. Maybe so, but nuclear weapons didn’t prevent the US and USSR from competing pretty energetically (and in lots of places) over four decades.

One could also argue, as Michael Beckley does in a forthcoming International Security article, (preliminary version here), that China’s rise has been exaggerated and that its future prospects are less rosy than many analysts believe. He might be right, in which case this problem largely disappears. But until we know, prudence suggests hedging against the possibility that China will continue to grow more powerful and will seek to use that power to expand its sphere of interest and pressure other Asian states to distance themselves from Washington.

Or one could argue, as some have done in the past, that the Chinese and American economies are too tightly linked to one another to permit a serious military rivalry to emerge. Unfortunately, economic interdependence has never been a completely reliable barrier to security competition. Even if an intense rivalry would harm both countries, economics is not the only thing that matters to states and neither Washington nor Beijing can be sure that prudence and cool heads will always prevail. And this means that both are likely to hedge against the possibility of future trouble, even if this response may be somewhat self-fulfilling. And that means they will worry about their relative power and their geopolitical position and they will compete for influence in Asia. Obviously, 2,500 Marines won’t make an objective difference to the balance of power, but they are an obvious a sign of the U.S. commitment to stay.

The bottom line is that there is a sound case for a gradual shift in strategic attention to Asia. This move should be accompanied by extensive diplomatic engagement with China and with our various Asian partners, to ensure that Beijing is not unduly alarmed and that our allies don’t free-ride on us. As I’ve noted before, managing our Asian alliance ties is going to be a lot more difficult than managing NATO ever was (and it wasn’t always easy), so I’m glad that the region is starting to get a lot more top-flight attention. Now if we can just liquidate some other commitments that don’t seem to be paying off, or that don’t contribute to our overall strategic position…