Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

What’s right and what’s wrong: The two faces of the Pacific pivot

I agree with my colleague Will Inboden that the Obama administration’s renewed emphasis on the Pacific is the most important thing that it got right this year. Developments in the Asia-Pacific region are likely to be of the greatest consequence for the United States in coming decades, and the rise of China will most certainly ...

Kent Nishimura/Getty Images
Kent Nishimura/Getty Images
Kent Nishimura/Getty Images

I agree with my colleague Will Inboden that the Obama administration's renewed emphasis on the Pacific is the most important thing that it got right this year. Developments in the Asia-Pacific region are likely to be of the greatest consequence for the United States in coming decades, and the rise of China will most certainly pose a challenge to long-held American aims, including the protection of American territory, defense of allies, and security of the maritime commons. The region deserves greater attention than it has been receiving.

The "Pacific pivot" has, in truth, been a decade in the making. One need look no further than the 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review to see that prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks the Bush administration understood the increasing importance of Asia. Moreover, the Obama administration's announcement of the basing of U.S. troops in Australia was an outgrowth of agreements reached by the Bush administration with the Howard government in Canberra.

I am concerned, however, about two aspects of the administration's new-found emphasis on Asia. First, it remains to be seen whether the administration's words will be backed by actions, particularly in the military realm. The Defense Department has intimated that forces in the Pacific will not face the kind of cuts that appear to be in store for the rest of the military. That's fine, if true. However, sustaining American power in the Pacific will require more than the status quo; it will demand an increase in American sea and air power in the region, as well as the acquisition of new capabilities, including the long-delayed modernization of the U.S. bomber fleet. Such new investment will be necessary to demonstrate to America's allies, friends, and competitors that the Obama administration's words are to be taken seriously. 

I agree with my colleague Will Inboden that the Obama administration’s renewed emphasis on the Pacific is the most important thing that it got right this year. Developments in the Asia-Pacific region are likely to be of the greatest consequence for the United States in coming decades, and the rise of China will most certainly pose a challenge to long-held American aims, including the protection of American territory, defense of allies, and security of the maritime commons. The region deserves greater attention than it has been receiving.

The "Pacific pivot" has, in truth, been a decade in the making. One need look no further than the 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review to see that prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks the Bush administration understood the increasing importance of Asia. Moreover, the Obama administration’s announcement of the basing of U.S. troops in Australia was an outgrowth of agreements reached by the Bush administration with the Howard government in Canberra.

I am concerned, however, about two aspects of the administration’s new-found emphasis on Asia. First, it remains to be seen whether the administration’s words will be backed by actions, particularly in the military realm. The Defense Department has intimated that forces in the Pacific will not face the kind of cuts that appear to be in store for the rest of the military. That’s fine, if true. However, sustaining American power in the Pacific will require more than the status quo; it will demand an increase in American sea and air power in the region, as well as the acquisition of new capabilities, including the long-delayed modernization of the U.S. bomber fleet. Such new investment will be necessary to demonstrate to America’s allies, friends, and competitors that the Obama administration’s words are to be taken seriously. 

The second concern has to do with what the administration has turned its back on in order to face East Asia: Iraq and Afghanistan. Thus the most consequential thing that the administration got wrong this year was its poor handling of the draw-down in both countries. This failure has as its root an incorrect definition of success. The administration has portrayed victory as bringing home U.S. troops when its real measure is to be found in what U.S. forces leave behind. In failing to appreciate that basic fact, the administration runs the real risk of trading failure for success and chaos for progress. 

The real tragedy is that it need not have been thus. An extension of the Status of Forces Agreement in Iraq could have made a real difference, and a more gradual draw-down in Afghanistan still could. One can only hope that the administration will change course while it still can.

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.