Shadow Government

Hagel’s Departure Is Bad News for the Asia Rebalance

Peter Feaver is right when he says that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s performance would not make the top 10 list of national security woes plaguing this administration. In the "don’t do stupid stuff" category, he is a star player compared with the rest of the national security team. And viewed from Asia, particularly our allies, ...

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Peter Feaver is right when he says that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s performance would not make the top 10 list of national security woes plaguing this administration. In the "don’t do stupid stuff" category, he is a star player compared with the rest of the national security team. And viewed from Asia, particularly our allies, his departure will cause as much angst as head-scratching. A frequent refrain from allied officials in the region these days is something along the lines of, "Well, at least we can work with the Pentagon for the next two years since they actually want to get things done."

Except for the Office of the United States Trade Representative on the Trans Pacific Partnership, the Department of Defense (DoD) is the only agency of the government really delivering on the so-called "pivot" to Asia. DoD is driving the revision of U.S.-Japan defense guidelines; capacity-building for maritime states under Chinese pressure; multilateralism in Southeast Asia (where multilateral defense exercises have far outperformed multilateral diplomacy); and the shift of resources to Asia (though the talking points about more ships and planes to the Pacific has to be put in the context of a dangerously shrinking defense budget). Hagel has inaugurated a U.S.-Association of Southeast Asian Nations defense ministers meeting despite enormous pressure from China on the smaller states not to attend. And he has saved National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Vice President Joe Biden, and Secretary of State John Kerry from their misconceived embrace of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s "New Model of Great Power Relations" by unilaterally dropping "great power" from the formulation in his own speeches and making it clear that he does not preference China over allies (who are not "great powers" like the United States and China according to Beijing’s logic).

Hagel came to the job with more background on Asia than his colleagues and will leave it having done far more good for the United States in the region than they have. Whatever caused the president to sack Hagel, it cannot have been Asia strategy. And that will leave friends in the region wondering exactly how much the White House really cares about Asia after all. There are some possible replacements for Hagel who would bring credibility on the region — former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy comes to mind. But Hagel’s relatively strong performance on Asia — a supposed priority for the administration — makes it even more curious that he was chosen as the scapegoat.

Michael J. Green is senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a professor at Georgetown University. He served as the senior National Security Council official on Asia policy during the George W. Bush administration. Follow him on Twitter: @JapanChair. @JapanChair
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