The rebalancing to Asia is real and the president isn’t there right now to salvage a phantom policy.
- By Ely RatnerEly Ratner is the Maurice R. Greenberg senior fellow in China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was deputy national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden from 2015 to 2017 and previously served in the Office of Chinese and Mongolian Affairs at the State Department and as a professional staff member on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. His current work focuses on U.S.-China relations, regional security in East Asia, and U.S. national security policy in Asia.
Former Vice President Al Gore told a crowd at the University of Hawaii on April 15 that using fake science to mislead the public on climate change is "immoral, unethical, and despicable." Currently on a weeklong trip to Asia, President Barack Obama can probably sympathize, as he faces a cadre of skeptics committed to the idea that one of his leading foreign policy priorities — the pivot to Asia — is somehow an illusion.
After a decade of war in the Middle East and South Asia, Obama and his national security team launched a comprehensive set of initiatives in the fall of 2011 to afford greater attention and resources to Asia. The official moniker has since evolved into the "rebalancing" to Asia, but its contents haven’t changed much. And its achievements are considerable.
But don’t tell that to the Pivot Deniers, who won’t talk about Obama’s successes on trade and development in Asia, such as the Lower Mekong Initiative, an innovative assistance program strengthening cooperation among Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam; implementing the U.S.-South Korea free trade agreement, which the U.S. International Trade Commission estimates will increase U.S. exports by over $10 billion through tariff cuts alone; and striving to complete the most important trade deal in a generation, the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Pivot Deniers never mention that the United States has dramatically deepened its engagement with the region’s institutions, either: Since 2009, it has joined the East Asia Summit, the premier leaders’ forum in Asia; stationed a resident ambassador to the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the region’s most important multilateral body; and now regularly attends the ASEAN Regional Forum, which, thanks to high-level U.S. participation, has been ground zero for critical multilateral diplomacy on dangerous disputes in the South China Sea.
They further ignore the diplomatic opening with Myanmar and the substantial progress in revising the U.S. military presence in the region; new agreements that give U.S. troops access to bases in Australia, the Philippines, and Singapore; and the substantial deepening of U.S. engagement with China that has seen more presidential-level meetings, more substantive cooperation on key geopolitical issues like Iran, and more military-to-military engagement than in the previous decade. The deniers almost universally discount that, in more instances than not, U.S. officials and their counterparts in Asia describe bilateral relations as having "never been stronger."
None of that matters to the Pivot Deniers, who refuse to admit that the administration has accomplished more in Asia, and has a more coherent approach to the region than any other part of the world.
So who are these folks? The most prominent group is the hardcore anti-Obamanians who fill the conservative halls of Congress and right-leaning think tanks. Facts have failed to clear the fog of the ever-popular "over-promising and under-delivering" meme of Obama’s policy. And despite supporting almost every element of the rebalancing strategy, this crowd nevertheless feels compelled to argue that the policy "doesn’t really exist" or, even if it once did, is now "dead." No setback or gaffe is too small to elicit a torrent of obituaries.
A second group of Pivot Deniers appears more emulous than angry. These are the former Bush administration officials who bristled at former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s declarations that "the United States is back" in Asia. They contend that everything Obama has done in the region had antecedents in the mid-2000s. These are Bush initiatives, they say — Obama is just following through.
To them, the rebalancing policy is just a marketing exercise, and a clumsy one at that.
They call the pivot a "myth" or a "misnomer," because the United States never left. But they are wrong. U.S. troops based in Japan and South Korea were sent to backfill in Afghanistan and Iraq; and U.S. policy in Southeast Asia after 2001 centered on fighting the war on terror, rather than building stronger institutions and partnerships. That may have been the right call at the time, but there’s no question that it distracted from Asia.
The final group of deniers is a motley crew of op-ed writers, editors, and D.C. pundits who can’t resist the easy hook. Here’s how it works: Pick your favorite crisis of the day and use a catchy title like, "Forget Asia — Pivot to Europe" or "The Year the US Pivoted Back to the Middle East" or even "Are We Pivoting to Africa Rather Than Asia?" Then, without actually assessing U.S. policy in the region, simply declare that, "the pivot to Asia appears to have been largely called off." And even if your article has nothing to do with Asia, use a subtitle like, "How the standoff in Ukraine could split NATO and kill the Asia pivot." [Ed. – Sorry, that one’s on us.]
Journalists are equally culpable. I get it. Sometimes you need a good narrative and no one — besides me, perhaps — wants to read a story titled, "Obama Goes to Asia to Continue Relatively Successful, Long-Term Reorientation of U.S. Foreign Policy." So instead, you go with something foreboding, like "Obama Looks to Salvage Asia ‘Pivot’" or "Obama’s Strategic Shift to Asia Is Hobbled by Pressure at Home and Crises Abroa
The problem is that all of this noise and nonsense has led to serious misreporting from some of the best and most reliable commentators in the business. It’s simply not true, as the New York Times suggested on the eve of Obama’s departure on April 22, that "the larger diplomatic presence [in Asia] has not materialized." Nor is it true, as the Financial Times reported the same day, that: "The main non-military aspect of the pivot is the drive towards a new Trans-Pacific Partnership." Folks, you’re better than that.
Of course, the administration is partially to blame for the shoddy public discourse on U.S. Asia policy. The president still hasn’t spoken to the American people about the importance of Asia, and the White House has been overly reliant on speeches and magazine articles rather than offering an official document on what the rebalancing policy actually entails.
But Washington’s chattering classes need to do their homework as well. The rebalancing to Asia is real and the president isn’t there right now to salvage a phantom policy.