With a considerable amount of fanfare, the Obama administration has spent most of the past two weeks “pivoting” our foreign policy toward Asia. This “pivot” is being broadcast as if the current administration was the first to notice Asia’s importance. Never mind that American presidents have been actively involved in Asia at least since Commodore Matthew Perry was sent there to force open Japanese ports for trading. If we forget about the Pacific theater in World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Nixon’s trip to China, etc., then maybe it is possible to believe that this administration is the first one to take note of Asia’s importance. Of course, Presidents Clinton and Bush visited Asia over a half-dozen times each. So there is a chance the region was relatively high on their agendas. Last week’s Asian tour was President Obama’s third visit to the region, although one of those was for a G-20 summit. As far as I can see, therefore, the current administration has so far paid about as much attention to Asia as its predecessors.
So what does this much-heralded strategic “pivot” mean? Rather than admit that its Asian policy for the past three years has been a disaster, the administration has decided to go with the story that it neglected Asia for three years so as to concentrate on fixing the rest of the world. With Iran about to go nuclear, the Arab Spring turning into the Arab Winter, and Europe melting down, the administration has apparently decided to write off these unsatisfactory places and “pivot” its attention to Asia. On the plus side, however, after three years of getting it all wrong in Asia, the administration is apparently ready to face reality.
For the first time, the administration appears ready to give up on policies and initiatives that portrayed us to the Chinese as weak and irresolute. Previously, the administration’s refusal to sell much-needed arms to Taiwan and the decision not to have President Obama meet with the Dalai Lama caused our regional allies to start questioning America’s willingness to stand up to Chinese bullying. As the American financial crisis worsened and the administration offered Congress plans to substantially cut the military, our Pacific allies were given additional reasons to doubt America’s ability and commitment to stay engaged in Asia.
China was not slow to take advantage of the perception of American strategic retreat. Instead of cautiously testing the waters in its relations with its neighbors, China began dictating to them. This new aggressiveness is clearly on display in the oil-rich South China Sea, which China is rapidly trying to turn into a Chinese lake. That other nations in the area believe they have an equal right to the sea’s resources is of no concern to Chinese leaders, who have demonstrated nothing but contempt for their neighbors’ complaints.
Almost 2,500 years ago, Thucydides wrote about the small island of Melos, which was trying to navigate a difficult middle ground as the two great powers of the age — Sparta and Athens — warred with each other. At one point, Athens demanded that Melos renounce neutrality and join the Athenian alliance against Sparta. The Melians first told Athens to beware, as they were a Spartan colony and Sparta would surely come to their aid. Seeing that the Athenians were openly contemptuous of Sparta’s power and resolve to come to their aid, the Melians switched tactics. They began pleading that it was wrong for a state as powerful as Athens to behave in such an aggressive manner to its weaker neighbors. The Athenians replied: “. . . you know as well as we do that right is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” In the end, the Melians resisted but were rapidly overcome. The price for not bending to Athens’ will was that all of the Melian men were killed and the women and children were sold into slavery.
The growing perception that America lacks either the wherewithal or the resolve to come to the aid of nations in China’s proximity has sent those countries scurrying to find other solutions to their security problem. With China treating them with the same contempt Athens showed to Melos, and unsure that America’s protective umbrella was still overhead, the region has begun looking toward its own self-defense. If this trajectory continues, one can easily foresee a regional arms race culminating in at least South Korea and Japan becoming nuclear powers. Moreover, as China continues pushing its neighbors about, the chances for miscalculation and war increase exponentially.
So, it was a bit of a relief earlier this year when many of those within the administration who had been most loudly advocating dangerous levels of accommodation with China were finally purged. We are now seeing fruits of a new, more muscular policy being put in place by their successors. As this column has stated before, it would be a major policy blunder to try to interfere with China’s rise. Any such attempt would be likely to fail in any event. But that does not mean America should look away when China dangerously throws its weight around. Rather, China must be encouraged to use its growing power within the international norms created in the wake of World War II. Because China is strong does not mean it should be allowed to “do what it can” as a weaker Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Philippines “suffer what they must.” These nations will suffer a fate similar to that of Melos if the United States abdicates its role in the region and the world.
One should keep in mind that a transfer of power in the Pacific from America to China is not likely to have the same exceptional results as the earlier global transfer of power to us from Great Britain. When Britain decided not to hamper America’s growth and later turned over its global responsibilities to us, this was done with a certain awareness that the two nations shared similar political philosophies and world views. Few in Britain worried that a world dominated by America would have radically different norms from what the British would have created if they possessed the power to do so. In fact, Churchill was so sure of our shared traditions and common outlook that he bequeathed some valuable advice to his successors: “Stay close to the Americans.”
No one says anything similar about China. Unlike the leadership handoff from Britain to America, which resulted in a huge amount of geostrategic continuity, a handoff of power from America to China, either globally or just in the Pacific, would transform the world. There is a quantum difference between a world policed by a brutal dictatorship and one where a free and democratic state plays the dominant role. No American president is ever going to say, “Stay close to the Chinese.” Making room for China’s rise, therefore, does not mean the United States should retreat from the world and hand over the mantle of global leadership to China’s dictators.
The nations of the Pacific have recently seen the true nature of China’s Communist regime. That is why so many of them are eager to embrace a larger American military presence in the region, and why they are signing on to new American-led regional pacts. Still, there are concerns. America would not have to “pivot” back to Asia if we had not first pivoted away. Moreover, the very notion that the world’s global superpower should ever “pivot” is a false one. America cannot afford to pivot. Pivoting by its very definition means that you are focusing on one area while neglecting another. The problems in Europe, the Persian Gulf, the Middle East more generally, and the rest of the world will not disappear because we pivoted away. In fact, our neglect just assures they will all worsen. We can’t fix everything or even most things, but we can often keep everything from going to hell in a handbasket.
America remains the indispensable nation. The world’s, as well as our own, peace and prosperity rest on the United States’ remaining engaged throughout the world. America does not pivot. Being a global superpower, and usually a force for good in the world, means staying fully engaged everywhere. When we have failed to do that in the past, the result has always cost us dearly in blood and treasure.
In that regard, there is one more thing that worries me about our new, more muscular policy in Asia. How do we plan to back up our new initiatives? China will not be influenced by words. It is not cowed by soft power or even smart power. It does, however, understand the hard power of military might. Seemingly in recognition of this, President Obama said in Australia, “Reductions in U.S. defense spending will not — I repeat, will not — come at the expense of the Asia-Pacific.” This is nonsense. One simply cannot cut one or two hundred billion a year out of the defense budget without its affecting our military in the Pacific. That is, of course, unless you are ready to denude everywhere else of all U.S. military forces.
— Jim Lacey is professor of strategic studies at the Marine Corps War College. He is the author of the recently released The First Clash and Keep from All Thoughtful Men. The opinions presented here are entirely his own and do not represent those of the Department of Defense or any of its members.