- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
The Obama administration is in the midst of doing something rather extraordinary. While most of the U.S. government and frankly, most major governments worldwide, are mired in a swamp of political paralysis, victims of their own inaction, the president and his national security team are engineering a profound, forward-looking, and rather remarkable change.
It is addressed directly in National Security Advisor Tom Donilon’s column in today’s Financial Times entitled "America is back in the Pacific and will uphold the rules." It has been manifested in the president’s recent trip to Asia and it will be further underscored through Secretary of State Clinton’s historic trip to Myanmar later this week.
Superficially, this shift can be and might be perceived to be what Clinton has called "the pivot" from the Middle East to Asia as the principal focus for U.S. foreign policy. But as Donilon’s brief article effectively communicates, this shift is far more sweeping and important than has been fully appreciated.
In the beginning of the article, he writes that presidents must struggle to avoid become so caught up in crisis management that they lose sight of the country’s strategic goals. Listing the astonishing array of crises President Obama has faced, Donilon then notes that he has nonetheless managed to pursue "a rebalancing of our foreign policy priorities — and renewed our long-standing alliances, including NATO — to ensure that our focus and our resources match our nation’s most important strategic interests." Asia, he asserts, has become "the centerpiece" of this strategy.
As the article goes on it reveals dimensions of this pivot that have gotten less attention than the simple but nonetheless refreshing restatement of the Obama administration’s recognition that — to oversimplify for contrast’s sake — China is more important to America than Iraq. Because while Donilon writes of regional security agreements and the decision by the administration to embark on a "more broadly distributed, more flexible and more sustainable" defense strategy in the Pacific Basin, what is striking about the article is how often the words it uses and the subjects it references are economic in nature.
Donilon speaks of our priorities in the region as tying to "security, prosperity and human dignity." He defines security needs in terms of concerns about commerce and navigation. He talks about alliances as being "the foundation for the region’s prosperity." And he makes a core point of saying that "As part of an open international economic order, nations must play by the same rules, including trade that is free and fair, level playing fields on which businesses can compete, intellectual property that is protected everywhere and market-driven currencies."
Establishing, observing and enforcing international rules are another core theme of the piece and of the statements that Obama, Clinton, Donilon, and others have regularly been underscoring.
The message then is not just that the United States has shifted its regional priorities. It is that the Obama administration has undertaken a broad redefinition of the concept of national security. It has gone back to its roots in that. Washington himself argued that the only reason to even have a foreign policy was to protect commercial interests. But those were simpler times and a different America. We have very real security interests. Violent extremism remains a threat to our national interests in the Middle East and elsewhere. But this president has in a comparatively short time, done more than just "rebalance." He has restored balance, recognizing the deep and essential interplay between our economic and security interests.
That his national security advisor is at the forefront of making this case … much as his secretary of state has been in her recent New York and Hong Kong speeches on the subject … illustrates how central this has all become. That national security officials are often planning the lead role in delivering these messages stands in marked contrast to some of Obama’s recent predecessors, even Bill Clinton who shared his desire for a broader definition of foreign policy.
So, the "pivot" is actually multi-dimensional. We are not only winding down our wars in the Middle East and shifting our focus to Asia, not just moving away from massive conventional ground wars against terrorist but mastering more surgical drone, intelligence and special forces-driven tactics, not just closing the book on exceptionalist, unilateralist policies and moving to toward multilateralist, rules-based approaches, not just setting aside reckless defense spending and moving toward living within our means, not just ditching the binary "you’re with us or you’re against us" rhetoric for policies open to more complex realities (as with China, our rival and key partner), but we have also made a pronounced move toward recognizing that the foundations of U.S. national security are also economic and so too are some of our most potent tools.
The talk that somehow because of Guantanamo or because of continued need to go after terror targets Obama was somehow just like Bush needs to end. The change in foreign policy has been sweeping and the results will make almost certainly make America stronger in the long run. It is interesting however, that the only ones who have not seemed to get this message are the Republican candidates for President who appear, based on their last debate performance, to be the only people in America who are nostalgic for panicked, reckless, dangerous, and ineffective security policies of the Bush years.