international analysis and commentary

Stop chasing unicorns: time for the White House to pursue the Asia Pivot


For the record, I think that former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is the last Roman, the final exemplar of the brand of sure-footed realism that made the foreign policy of George H. W. Bush such an unmitigated historical success. Saying this, the scathing excerpts of the Secretary’s memoirs that have been highlighted in the press strengthen a fundamentally misdirected narrative about the Obama presidency, that it is directionless, and all about political expediency. Frankly, this is just flat wrong, certainly during the President’s first term.

The first-term global strategy of the White House can be summed up succinctly. Like a bad bank, the Obama team determined to wind down the neo-conservative excesses of the disastrous era of George W. Bush, getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan come what may. Second, the President would hold the line with Wilsonian humanitarian interventionist types within his own party, seeing to it that no new significant foreign adventures were embarked upon. Third, having done this, the White House could safely and thoughtfully pivot to the Indian Ocean Rim (IOR) and China/Asia, where the political, economic, and hence strategic action were likely to be in the new multipolar era. In shorthand, this rebalancing called for limiting American involvement in the thankless (and increasingly unimportant) Middle East and shifting the foreign policy establishment’s focus to Asia.

The rationale of the pivot

This key foreign policy insight, championed by then National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, rested on a few fundamental suppositions. While the growth rates of China and other emerging markets such as India will cool, the IOR and the rest of Asia will still be the engine of new global growth for the foreseeable future. Rather than being a flash in the pan, the economic locus of the world has decisively shifted, and America’s foreign policy priorities ought to follow in its wake.

If the IOR and the rest of Asia are the goose laying the golden egg it was also far from certain that this trend can be sustained, as the newfound prosperity could well sputter over any number of geo-strategic crises: the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands; Beijing’s general belligerence in the seas around it; the concurrent rise of India and China, and the determination of Japan under Prime Minister Abe not to be left behind; China’s implicit long-term strategic challenge to America’s position of dominance in the region. Damagingly, and unlike in Europe, there is no large, established, multinational security forum like NATO to work these problems through. Rather, today’s Asia eerily resembles Europe of the Edwardian era, with great power politics and brinksmanship dominating the headlines, all within an unstable multipolar setting. Precisely to avoid the absent-minded suicide of Europe in 1914, certainly it was reasonable for America to pivot to Asia, spending far more time and effort seeing off the dreadful possibility that 1914 could recur.

Lastly, the first-term Obama team looked askance at full-throated involvement in the swamp that is the modern Middle East. Rather than wasting time trying to find the Holy Grail of Palestinian-Israeli rapprochement or spending further hundreds of billions vainly trying to impose nation-building on sullen and resistant locals in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Obama White House – at almost every turn – tried to downplay the region, whatever the pressures on it, not to be derailed into an over-involvement in an under-rewarding part of the world.

That meant getting out of Iraq, even if an increasingly dictatorial and maladroit Prime Minister Maliki was far from optimal. That meant exiting Afghanistan whatever the threat of a partial Taliban resurgence. That meant leading from behind in Libya, neither committing militarily fully to the conflict there, nor throwing away countless dollars in another fruitless effort at nation-building. For all the sturm und drang over Syria, in the end the President (just) managed to stay out of that hellish conflict, which was certainly his first choice before the horrendous Assad regime backed him into a corner due to its barbarism. In other words, the closet realism of Barack Obama, while widely misunderstood and certainly never trumpeted to the world, was a coherent, rational, well-structured foreign policy strategy, designed to meet the challenges of our very new age.

Chasing unicorns in the Middle East

But the President – unable to level with either the Wilsonian foreign policy majority in his own party or the neocon-dominated Republicans – has paid a significant price for not clearly articulating the uncomfortable point that realism has become the only workable American strategy in the new era of many powers. America still is the Chairman of the Global Board, but is also now in relative decline, facing a new cohort of rising regional powers, such as Indonesia, South Africa, Brazil, Turkey, India, and of course China. Barack Obama did not make this gloomy (certainly to the ears of American exceptionalists, i.e. ninety-plus percent of the American foreign policy elite) reality clear, that in this new world America no longer had the luxury to run any sort of foreign policy not based very largely and explicitly on primary American national interests. Thus, the President had to quietly conduct what seemed to many to be a disjointed foreign policy in order to avoid a significant domestic political conflict.

With the change in second-term personnel (and in the foreign policy world, more than most, key individuals and their beliefs really do shape policy) this coherent policy has been hard to defend, unarticulated as it has been. Secretary of State John Kerry, UN Ambassador Samantha Power, and National Security Advisor Susan Rice are all unabashed Wilsonians, card-carrying members of the majority view of their party, quite unlike their President. They have unsurprisingly tried to move the administration’s foreign policy dial back to the default position of their forebears, all without noticing and certainly without acknowledging that we now live in another time, this one of far more limited American power, where Wilsonianism simply doesn’t make much strategic sense.

As a result the coherent Asian rebalance has suffered, as the old-school Wilsonians do what comes naturally: fail in the Middle East. Nothing else can explain Secretary Kerry’s chasing unicorns over some imagined Palestinian-Israeli settlement; the Secretary’s utopian priorities have seen him take 10 trips to the region in just the 10 months he has been in office. His plan is the same, tired, bromide American Wilsonians have peddled for decades: an American-imposed agreement (as though either the Israelis or the Palestinians will ever embrace such an non-organic “solution”) that will magically make Hamas come to the table, agree with Fatah, and reach an arrangement with Prime Minister Netanyahu which in turn will inspire the hardline Israeli Prime Minister to ignore his coalition government, sacrifice the bedrock principles of his lifetime, and agree that the lion may now lie down safely with the lamb. Such intellectual lack of -seriousness does not pass the test.

But unicorn chasing is not a harmless folly. By indulging in such obviously misguided strategic priorities, Secretary Kerry and Obama’s second term foreign policy team are throwing away the insightful closet realism focus on Asia that so animated the President’s first term, and seemed to offer a genuine and thoughtful way forward for America in the new multipolar era. Don’t believe the standard over-confident Washington reply to the point that America can do everything and well; From my decade-long experience in the capital it became painfully apparent that American foreign policy can only focus on a couple of points at a time. Priorities simply matter, and matter a lot.

There is only one man who can right the ship, steering American foreign policy back to the promise of the first term, back to the Asia rebalance, which made sense then as it does now; that is the President himself. It is long past time for him to come out of the closet, to defend his form of realism, to trumpet the rational things he has done, to set in motion the new foreign policy debate the country so desperately needs. Now is a time to be brave, to stake out over foreign policy the legacy the White House so desperately craves. President Obama should do this, because, in the words of Henry Kissinger, it has the added advantage of being true.