Daniel W. Drezner

Too Big to Pivot

Too Big to Pivot

Walter Russell Mead has not been the biggest fan of the current president, so it’s worth quoting at length what he said in a recent blog post about Obama’s Pacific Rim trip

The cascade of statements, deployments, agreements and announcements from the United States and its regional associates in the last week has to be one of the most unpleasant shocks for China’s leadership — ever.  The US is moving forces to Australia, Australia is selling uranium to India, Japan is stepping up military actions and coordinating more closely with the Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea, Myanmar is slipping out of China’s column and seeking to reintegrate itself into the region, Indonesia and the Philippines are deepening military ties with the the US: and all that in just one week. If that wasn’t enough, a critical mass of the region’s countries have agreed to work out a new trade group that does not include China, while the US, to applause, has proposed that China’s territorial disputes with its neighbors be settled at a forum like the East Asia Summit — rather than in the bilateral talks with its smaller, weaker neighbors that China prefers.

Rarely has a great power been so provoked and affronted.  Rarely have so many red lines been crossed.  Rarely has so much face been lost, so fast.  It was a surprise diplomatic attack, aimed at reversing a decade of chit chat about American decline and disinterest in Asia, aimed also at nipping the myth of “China’s inexorable rise” in the bud….

[I]t was as decisive a diplomatic victory as anyone is likely to see.  Congratulations should go to President Obama and his national security team.  The State Department, the Department of Defense and the White House have clearly been working effectively together on an intensive and complex strategy.  They avoided leaks, they coordinated effectively with half a dozen countries, they deployed a range of instruments of power.  In the field of foreign policy, this was a coming of age of the Obama administration and it was conceived and executed about as flawlessly as these things ever can be.

You know it was a good foreign policy trip when Politico runs the "Obama will soon miss his foreign policy successes as he returns to the Washington mire" storyline upon his return. 

The standard line among the press and expert analysts is that the combination of speeches and actions represents a dramatic foreign policy "pivot" to East Asia.  This elides some prior speeches that suggested this was under way for some time, but still — what does it mean? 

I’d suggest three things.  First, it’s an interesting moment to highlight some macro trends that are relatively favorable to the United States.  In comparison to, say, China or Europe, the United States looks to be in decent shape.  Over the longer term, trends in both energy and manufacturing suggest that the United States will continue a time-honored tradition and emerge from a crisis of its own making in a stronger relative position than before.  If the administration is smart, it will marry its recent successes to these longer-term trends as a way of constructing a more optimistic strategic narrative. 

Second, China is likely to pursue a more accommodating posture in the short run.  As Mead notes, the official Chinese reaction has been muted.  The unofficial reaction has ranged from the hyperbolic to the inscrutable.  Still, as I’ve pointed out repeatedly, China’s behavior in 2009 and 2010 was a giant honking invitation for the rest of the Pacific Rim to cozy up to the United States.  And that’s what should worry Beijing.  It’s not that the United States is interested in maintaining its presence in East Asia — that interest has not wavered.  What has changed is the eagerness with which the countries in the region, ranging from Australia to Myanmar, have reciprocated. 

Third, while the Obama administration deserves credit for this foreign policy swing — and for some fun, compare and contrast coverage of this trip with Obama’s Pac Rim swing from two years ago — the "pivot" language is badly misplaced.  A pivot implies that the United States will stop paying attention to Europe or the Middle East and start paying attention to East Asia.  While I’m sure that’s what the Obama administration wants to do, it can’t.  Europe is imploding, as are multiple countries in the Middle East.  The United States can’t afford to ignore these regions, since uncertainty there eventually translates into both global and domestic problems.  A European financial meltdown or an Egyptian political meltdown will have ramifications that simply can’t be ignored. 

Talking about a United States "pivot" in foreign policy is meaningless.  The US, like an overstuffed couch, is simply too big to pivot. 

What do you think?