So Much for the Pivot to Asia – A Response to Obama’s 2013 Address to the UNGA

In November 2011, then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton published a piece in Foreign Policy Magazine outlining America’s “Pivot to Asia.”  Here is how it began:

As the war in Iraq winds down and America begins to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan, the United States stands at a pivot point. Over the last 10 years, we have allocated immense resources to those two theaters. In the next 10 years, we need to be smart and systematic about where we invest time and energy, so that we put ourselves in the best position to sustain our leadership, secure our interests, and advance our values. One of the most important tasks of American statecraft over the next decade will therefore be to lock in a substantially increased investment — diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise — in the Asia-Pacific region.

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Moments ago, President Barack Obama addressed the United Nations General Assembly.  His speech lasted roughly 45 minutes.  How many times do you think he mentioned China?  Twenty?  Fifteen?  How about only once.  Look for yourself in this transcript, published by the Washington Post.  But this reference was in the context of renewed US efforts to engage Iran with the help of Europe, Russia, and China; not in addressing “substantially increased investment…in the Asia-Pacific region.”

There was one oblique reference to the dragon in the room.  As he began to conclude, Obama sketched his vision for America’s active role in the world, with particular emphasis on the need for multilateral intervention to prevent the slaughter of civilians at the hands of tyrants shielded by sovereignty.  “Some may disagree,” he said.

And that was it.  In fact, while Obama explicitly called out Russia and Iran for backing Bashar al-Assad with the sovereignty argument, he quite notably left China off the list.  But even loose followers of international politics will know that China certainly belongs in the “sovereignty trumps all” club.  See: China’s policies towards the Sudanese genocide, their evasion of sanctions against Iran, and of course their staunch inaction in the Syrian Civil War.

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In her 2011 piece, Secretary Clinton continued:

…people are also wondering about America’s intentions…In Asia, they ask whether we are really there to stay, whether we are likely to be distracted again by events elsewhere, whether we can make — and keep — credible economic and strategic commitments, and whether we can back those commitments with action. The answer is: We can, and we will.

Today, Barack Obama announced:

In the near term, America’s diplomatic efforts will focus on two particular issues: Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

So yes, Iraq and Afghanistan are indeed receding from the list of priorities.  But if today’s speech is any indicator, they are not being replaced by China and the Asia-Pacific region; America’s foreign policy focus remains fixated on the Middle East-North Africa region.

Is it reasonable to reduce the foreign policy of the world’s superpower to one barely-45 minute speech?  Of course not.  Are there real and pressing threats to US national security currently posed by instability in the MENA region?  Many intelligent and experienced men and women, from military strategists to international economists, will tell you yes.

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And I’m in no position to refute them.  But I have read a little bit about Realist theory in international relations.  The reigning heavyweights here in America are Stephen M. Walt and John J. Mearsheimer.  They will be the first to tell you that the Middle East and America’s unbreakable bond with Israel are more than just a distraction: they are a ball and chain dragging us down while China rises and reaches to snatch the superpower tiara off of our head.

There is, of course, a third answer.  That perhaps America—the world’s largest economy, its heaviest spender on military expenditures, the biggest donor to humanitarian causes—can do more than one thing at one time.  That maybe, just maybe, international politics isn’t a zero-sum game.  Iranian President Hassan Rouhani sure seems to think so.

I’ll let you be the judge.  There’s plenty of analysis about MENA and America’s national security interests in the region; you can find those articles on your own.  Below is a small collection of recent writings from the Realist school of thought, arguing that China is our biggest threat.  Or rather, that China’s rise is the most important challenge to America that needs addressing.  But, as Secretary Clinton urged in 2011, challenges of this nature and magnitude require “time and energy…to sustain our leadership, secure our interests, and advance our values.”  Meaningful bilateral solutions to conflict-prevention can’t just be pulled out of thin air (well, unless you’re Secretary of State John Kerry).  And no matter the size of America’s coffers, no country can pay for more hours in the day.

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