The so-called US strategic “pivot” has been much analysed in policy circles and among academics. Can Washington afford to ignore the Middle East in its turn towards Asia, asks Al-Sayed Amin Shalaby
Ever since former secretary of state Hillary Clinton offered what remains the clearest articulation of “the pivot”, or rebalancing strategy, of American foreign policy, the US political and academic scene has debated the concept — particularly whether the US should maintain its commitment to the Near East or focus more on Asia.
The first school argues that Washington should focus on the Middle East and is supported by the analysts Kenneth M Pollack and Ray Takeyh. They believe that US policymakers have traditionally tried to minimise the US’s involvement in the Middle East, but that the Middle East’s problems always seem to draw the US back in.
For example, Eisenhower was sucked into the Suez Crisis in 1956; Lyndon Johnson was drawn in via the Six Day War in 1967; Richard Nixon found himself grudgingly involved in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war; and George W Bush — not particularly interested in the region — was obliged to pay attention after the 9 /11 attacks. Obama planned on arrival to remove Washington’s Middle East engagements. His success in doing so was moderate at best.
They also refer to arguments raised by senior officials who believe that the US has overinvested in the region. They contend that this imbalance can be corrected with a pivot of US diplomatic and military resources away from the Middle East and toward Asia. These officials believed that the Middle East’s problems have been exaggerated and could be easily resolved, and that many of the regions’ worst problems are the product of the US’s over-involvement.
But the fact is that the US disengagement has not produced a more stable or secure Middle East. The region is in crisis: civil wars have erupted in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. The situations in Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon are also dangerous. Instability has spilled across borders into Algeria, Jordan, Kuwait and Turkey. Moreover, these stresses have collectively provoked a vicious proxy war between Iran and a group of Sunni Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, that many fear will snowball into a region-wide, Shia-Sunni conflict.
If the US can help promote democracy, or at least democratic reform in those countries, then the Arab Spring will have had a small but lasting positive impact. The problems of the Middle East remain too deeply intertwined with US national security and the American economy to ignore, forcing the Obama administration to take a greater interest in the Middle East.
Washington ought to have learned from its long and painful history in the Middle East that ignoring the region’s problems will not make them go away. There should be no doubt that Asia is central to US foreign policy. But that does not reduce the importance of the Middle East. Washington should be doing more in Asia, but it must not, and need not, do so at the expense of the Middle East.
The second school supports the shift of Washington’s focus to Asia. This school is represented by Kurt M Campbell and Ely Ratner, both of whom are prominent scholars. Their point of departure is that the US is in the early stages of a substantial national project: reorienting its foreign policy to commit greater attention and resources to the Asia-Pacific region, a region that welcomes US leadership and rewards US engagement with a positive return on political, economic and military investments.
As a result, the Obama administration is orchestrating a comprehensive set of diplomatic, economic, and security initiatives now known as the “pivot,” or “rebalancing,” to Asia. The policy builds on more than a century of US involvement in the region, including important steps taken by the Clinton and George W Bush administrations. As US President Barack Obama has rightly noted, the United States is, in reality and rhetoric, already a “Pacific power”.
Whether Washington wants this shift or not, Asia will command more attention and resources from the US, thanks to the region’s growing prosperity and influence and the enormous challenges the region poses. The question, then, is not whether the United States will focus more on Asia but whether it can do so with the necessary resolve, resources and wisdom.
The region is the leading destination for US exports, outpacing Europe by more than 50 per cent, according to the US Census Bureau. Both US direct investment in Asia and Asian direct investment in the US have roughly doubled in the past decade, with China, India, Singapore and South Korea accounting for four of the 10 fastest growing investors, according to the US Bureau of Economic Analysis.
The United States also has five defence treaty allies in the region (Australia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand), as well as strategically important partnerships with Brunei, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, and Taiwan, along with evolving ties with Myanmar (also known as Burma). Major US military bases in Japan and South Korea are central to Washington’s ability to project power in Asia and beyond. US military alliances have undergirded the region’s security for decades, and one of the main purposes of the “pivot” is to deepen such ties.
The rebalancing strategy calls for a substantial increase in the US engagement with multilateral institutions of the Asia-Pacific region. Under the Obama administration, the US gained membership in the East Asia Summit, the region’s premier annual gathering of heads of state, and signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, which signals enhanced US commitment to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
The United States is responding to the new reality that the Asia-Pacific region increasingly drives global economic growth. The Obama administration advanced US economic interests by bringing the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement into force in 2012 and pushing hard to complete negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership — a massive free-trade agreement including a dozen countries.
Opponents of the pivot have raised three main points of critique. First, they worry that the pivot will unnecessarily antagonise China, ignoring the fact that a greater engagement with China has been a central feature of the rebalancing policy. A second critique is that it would be unwise or unrealistic to shift Washington’s focus from the Middle East to Asia, given the conflicts in Afghanistan and Syria, instability in Egypt and Iraq, and the long-running confrontation between Iran and western powers. Third, in Asia, economics and security are inextricably linked, and the US will not be able to sustain its leadership there through military might alone.
The writer is executive director of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs.