The Pivot to Nothing

Why Tom Donilon's empty claims about America’s rebalancing to Asia obscure a dangerous reality.

Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The joke about the Obama administration’s "pivot to Asia" is that the only people who don’t believe it is happening are in Asia. 

All over the world, America’s friends and allies feel the ebbing of attention from their regions and problems. But they mistakenly believe that this reduction has resulted in greater attention elsewhere. So Iraq understands that President Barack Obama is indifferent to the violence that continues to burn in their country, but they assume he is increasing engagement in Afghanistan. Afghans understand that Obama is indifferent to the war still raging in their country, but assume he must be deeply involved in ensuring a peaceful transition of power in some other country America cares about more. Europeans see a president walking back from missile defense deployments and the Budapest Memorandum, which commits the United States to the territorial integrity and political independence of Ukraine, and believe that he has chosen to focus on Asia.

But Asian governments understand they’re getting the same treatment as everyone else: trade negotiations without political investment by the White House, foreign policy that takes a back seat to domestic political wrangling, sporadic mania of involvement in foreign policy that achieves nothing, and lack of a strategy that either identifies common goals or elucidates the means to collectively achieve them.

Former National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, however, refuses to accept reality. In a wildly implausible op-ed in the Washington Post on the eve of Obama’s current Asia trip, he argued that the pivot is alive and well. His opening argument that the administration is pivoting to Asia? "Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s first trip in office was to Asia, something no secretary of state had done since 1961." Not only does it actually suggest how little the pivot has achieved, since a trip five years ago is considered a signal achievement, but travel is the wrong metric for determining foreign-policy success. Countries visited is to foreign-policy success as job interviews are to employment: a necessary input, but no one’s impressed by where you had your first interview if you didn’t get the job.

That said, Donilon’s description is actually a perfect illustration of the shortcomings of Obama’s foreign policy, the hallmarks of which include these six elements:

1. Self-importance.

The first trip since 1961, you say! Amazing. The Obama White House promotes this fact as evidence of its superior understanding of the international order: No one else saw this coming! As Shadow Government‘s Asia hands have often pointed out, much of the Obama administration’s pivot is actually carrying through on decisions made during George W. Bush’s administration, such as shifting a greater proportion of the U.S. fleet to the Pacific. This Asia strategy is a continuation of its predecessor’s, while claiming to be a departure of monumental significance.

2. Talking, not listening.

If the Obama White House had done its due diligence, it would have known that Asian governments were some of the Bush administration’s biggest supporters — and continue to be. The Obama White House might also have checked with America’s Asian allies about whether this "grand strategic concept" would be beneficial. Most governments fear it goads China and may force the country into confrontation. Among the Asian countries in which the Pew Research Center conducted polling in 2013, the median rate of favorable views of the United States was 64 percent, but the rate was 58 percent for favorable views of China. Even in Australia, a long-standing ally of the United States, 40 percent of people polled think it’s more important to have strong relations with the United States than China — but 33 percent think the opposite. Governments in Asia don’t want to have to choose between their main economic partner and their main security provider, and they wish the Obama administration hadn’t put them in that position.

3. Symbolic gestures.

Hillary Clinton seemed to believe that "miles traveled" is the measure of a secretary of state’s success, but her difficulty answering the question of her achievements in that position is its own refutation. Her successor, John Kerry, is evidently on the same travel awards program; he at least can claim devotion to a few key issues. But a trip by the secretary of state is actually of little consequence. The fact that Clinton said in Beijing on that first trip that the United States ought not to focus so much on Chinese human rights violations and restrictions on political freedoms of its people is conveniently left out in Donilon’s op-ed — but that statement resounded across Asia and beyond. Substance matters more than symbolism.

4. Underappreciation of the existing order.

If the United States were under attack, it’s conceivable that the president might get the news from a Canadian voice — not because Canadian troops would be burning Washington (again), but because the U.S. and Canadian militaries jointly protect the countries’ airspace. The United States exports twice as much to Canada as to China, and since the 9/11 attacks, Canada and the United States have administered their border with a remarkable level of cooperation. The Obama White House takes for granted an order that its predecessors worked to construct; it assumes all of America’s international advantages will continue to accrue if it does nothing to sustain or advance them. As a result, that international order is eroding.

5. Inattention to allies.

Donilon claims the United States is "modernizing its alliances" in Asia, but even that phrasing suggests its alliances are currently unsatisfactory. Getting South Korea and Japan to cooperate on defense policy — they won’t hold joint exercises, for example — or on how to counter China would be a major modernization of America’s alliances in Asia. Donilon recognizes that, but his tepid recommendation that "the president should follow up on his recent efforts to mitigate long-standing tensions between the two countries" will hardly persuade countries that have seen their relations worsen during the Obama presidency. Asian allies know the Obama White House isn’t going to solve their problems.

6. No better options.

A corollary of the Obama administration’s belief that the international order will just maintain itself is that allies have no alternative than to do what the United States wants. So the White House balks at negotiating with Germany to continue participation in the Afghanistan mission, the logic being that if it’s not in Berlin’s immediate interest, it’s not worth doing. This approach conveniently allows the Obama White House to know and care nothing about the domestic politics and problems of America’s allies. But Canada surely notices that Clinton was rapt by Asia, rather than the country with which America shares values, an intertwined economy, common air defenses, a solemn pledge that an attack on one would be considered an attack on both, and, incidentally, a 5,525-mile border. How much will Prime Minister Steph
en Harper’s government risk to help a White House that continues to avoid a decision on integrating their two countries’ energy potential? The United States shouldn’t take for granted that Ottawa will continue to do things that are in the U.S. interest. It’s threatening to forgo the Keystone XL pipeline for a westward route to unilaterally deliver fuel to Asian markets, for example, and it’s less likely to keep troops in Afghanistan or pony up fighter planes for Baltic air policing.

* * *

Countries with small margins for error and dependence on the protection of others — like America’s allies in Asia — tend to have very sensitive antennas to the potential for abandonment. The Obama White House may think that its fecklessness on Syria has no consequence or that its downward negotiation of what constitutes an end to Iranian nuclear weapons programs has no downside. The administration seems genuinely to believe that the president proudly insisting that "I don’t bluff" is adequate to reassure countries nervous about America’s willingness to make good on promises. It isn’t. The pivot to Asia is one more instance of the Obama White House patting itself on the back while America’s allies fret about the country’s lack of seriousness.

Kori Schake is the deputy director general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

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