Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Friday, June 7, 2013

Is the US Scrapping the Pivot?

A few days ago political scientist and Eurasia Group president Ian Bremmer made an astute point on Twitter: "Hillary/Donilon/Geither to Kerry/Rice/Lew. Lots, lots less Asia focus in 2nd term Obama team. Let's hope Xi Jinping doesn't notice." I think Bremmer's assessment is spot on. Practically all of the most important people who have worked to implement the economic, diplomatic, military-security, and political components of the so-called Pivot to Asia have left the Obama administration. Even (former Defense Secretary) Leon Panetta, who did significant work on the pivot, is gone.

And it's not as if the outgoing personnel are being replaced with a new cast of Asia hands. John Kerry, Susan Rice, Samatha Power, and so on, are most comfortable working on transnational relations, ethno-religious conflicts, genocide, failed states, Africa, and the Middle East. All of these issues are important, to be sure, so is peace and stability in Asia. At this point, it seems the Pivot has quickly become a thing of the past.

Of course, we can debate whether the Pivot was the right set of policies to cope with a rising, confident Asia, a region with much promise and potential pitfalls. I have questioned the Pivot's emphasis on military and security affairs in Asia, believing it risked appearing too provocative to China. That said, if the Pivot wasn't working, if it wasn't achieving it's designed goals, that's not a good reason for America to scrap completely its focus on Asia. Create and execute a different Asia policy. But, alas, apparently that's not the case.

Just look at what John Kerry has spent most of his time on in his new position: the Middle East. He made a quick three-day visit to Japan, China, and South Korea in mid-April, a trip that was narrowly focused on crisis diplomacy involving North Korea. On the other hand, Kerry has already made four trips to the Middle East, as he tries to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace initiatives and resolve the ongoing violence in Syria. In fact, those four visits don't include his travels to Russia and Belgium, where he continued his diplomatic maneuvering on Syria.

I fear this is what foreign policy will look like for the rest of Obama's term in office. Team Obama will fixate, as has been the case in American foreign policy, on Middle Eastern politics. Asia will surface from time to time, only when a crisis emerges or when the US coordinates a visit with Asian political leaders, like today's trip to California by Xi Jinping. This is unfortunate.

By again obsessing about the Middle East and downplaying the importance of Asia, the U.S. will, in effect, cede ground to China in the competition for power and influence, especially in Asia. As a result, China can breathe a sigh of relief. Team Obama has probably just relaxed the noose of containment. America's allies, such as Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, etc., should be very concerned about their status and position in the region. And once again, the U.S. is likely left wanting for a set policies that can protect its interests in Asia.


  1. This is very well put.

    However I'm about to get a bit out there, and this is just my opinion. It may also be possible that the Obama Administration is still fixated on the Benghazi aftermath. Rice's promotion was a reward to her for her support of the Administration line there, and also a position where executive privilege can be used to prevent her testifying about it, however the reward is a shortsighted one.

    Similar to the attempt to bring back Anthony Weiner's career as Mayor of New York (For Huma) which is being rejected by several key NYC Democratic voting blocs right now, they are focusing on rewarding their team that handled the Post-Benghazi spin, with Kerry focused on the Mideast as you said, rather than picking an "All Pro" team at all levels of their team.

    It is true that the Mideast is a focus, but it may be closer to the reality to say their main focus is still a "Campaign mode" of maintaining their spin and rewarding the people who have stuck to the "Party Line" on Benghazi and various other domestic scandals, rather than a concrete foreign policy.

    You are absolutely right in the likely effect of this, at a very sensitive time in Asia, and you may be right that it is a conscious pivot away from Asia, abandoning a smart piece of National policy from the recent past. It could be that, I just wonder if the Administration's motivations are more to do with domestic politics and more shortsighted.

  2. Hi David, thanks for your comment. Actually, your comment and my blog post could fit together. I really only pointed out the recent changes in US personnel and then suggested some of the consequences of those changes on American policy and politics in Asia. I avoided the question as to why Obama made the personnel selections he has, which is what you discuss in your comment. But, honestly, you could right. It's possible that Obama has played favorites here, picking those people who have remained loyal to him and his administration though the various foreign policy snafus and fiascos over the last 6-9 months.


  3. Brad, that's exactly what I'm thinking, that policy itself is taking a back seat. I just hope it doesn't bite us. Given the situation between Japan and China right now the cold shoulder he gave the newly elected Abe when Abe visited DC on the first state visit boggles me. At least in the interests of regional stability it is logical to do more than just run in circles whenever Kim Jong Un makes some noise.

    As the Philippines have also looked to closer ties to Japan as a way of dealing with China's growth in presence and the US' lack of Cold War level presence, which is amazing given the history between Filipinos and Japanese, it would seem that making ties with Japan and reaffirming our presence for the sake of the Philippines and ties with Manila as well would make sense.

    Not only that, but if we were able to sell more arms to nations in the area worrying about China, as well as reaffirming our ties, it would be a boost to our economy.

    Nature abhors a vacuum, the Chinese are moving to feel one that they sense and by not moving to react we are not just encouraging them in their border and maritime disputes but increasing the chance our traditional allies will feel they have been left out on their own, it risks decreasing our influence, but more importantly the stability of trade and of our allied nations in the region.

    Thank you for your postings Brad, this forum is a great place, I am glad I have found it.


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