Pivotal dilemmas
5 Feb 2013|
President Barack Obama talks with senior advisors before a phone call with President François Hollande of France in the Oval Office, June 27, 2012.

Last year the Obama Administration rebranded one of its signature foreign and strategic policy initiatives. What for months had been described as America’s ‘pivot’ towards Asia—essentially, a set of policies aimed at reinforcing American hegemony in the face of a rising China by reinvigorating US diplomatic and military engagement throughout the region—had suddenly become known, less emphatically, as the Asian ‘rebalance’.

Ordinarily, this mightn’t be all that significant. American foreign policies are often boiled down for public consumption into simplistic catch-cries—think ‘hearts and minds’ in Vietnam or the beleaguered ‘reset with Russia’. And while these help to communicate complex ideas to a domestic audience that is for the most part either distracted, detached or uninformed, the slogans themselves rarely betray anything substantive about the prospects or limitations of the policies they represent, the nuances in their execution or their underlying strategic logic.

In this case, however, the official shift from ‘pivot’ to ‘rebalance’ was unusually revealing, because it reflected concerns about abandonment among Washington’s allies and clients outside of Asia, especially in Europe and the Middle East. For them, an American pivot toward Asia implied the possibility of Washington pivoting away from their regions and divesting responsibility for strategic functions on which which they continue to depend.

In Washington, ‘rebalance’ thus represented a compromise—a means of assuaging allied fears of abandonment, with an implicit assurance that American commitments from Europe to the Persian Gulf wouldn’t be retrenched as Washington cast its strategic gaze across the Pacific.

Herein lies one dilemma, among many, in the ‘rebalance’: Washington has so far refused to trim any global commitments in order to concentrate on Asia. That’s problematic, and not only because of America’s diminishing defence budget or bleak fiscal outlook. Nor simply because of the inexorable growth of China’s economic and strategic weight, which has already begun to erode America’s capacity to impose a high level of order and predictability on the region. It’s also problematic because Washington is simultaneously committed to preserving hegemony in Europe and the Middle East—two regions with their own substantial challenges that will continue to demand US resources and attention in the coming decades, and which will dilute Washington’s singularity of effort in Asia.

After one of the bloodiest and most competitive centuries in its history, Europe has now enjoyed over two decades of relative tranquillity since the end of the Cold War. In Western Europe at least, power politics has been held in abeyance by a durable rapprochement between Britain, France and Germany – itself underpinned by American hegemony on the Continent. By deploying US military power into Central Europe, the United States has forestalled the need for major conventional rearmament in Paris, Berlin or London, thereby reassuring each about the other, and, through NATO, all of them about Russia.

But American commitments haven’t been confined to Western Europe. The sudden disintegration of the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War led to NATO expansion and the result today is US overextension in Eastern Europe. As US force levels on the Continent diminish to accommodate America’s Asian rebalance, Washington remains committed, through Article 5 of NATO, to the defence of Poland and the Baltic States, among others, along Russia’s western periphery. Western Europe, meanwhile, beset by its own fiscal crisis and sobering economic outlook, is in no position to assume a greater share of the alliance burden, while the Eurozone crisis has served as a demonstration of the limits of European countries’ willingness to accept extensive commitments on behalf of each other.

Of course, Russia today isn’t the Soviet Union. It evinces no immediate territorial ambitions and is in no hurry to test American resolve in Eastern Europe. But nor is Russia a satisfied power. History has never been kind to Russia when it hasn’t dominated its periphery. In the modern era alone, the legacy of multiple invasions has created a pervasive and enduring sense of insecurity in the minds of Russian leaders, whose instinctive response has been to expand Russian frontiers westward. In short, if the US is to remain credible in Western Europe, it will need to remain credible in the East as well. This means retaining sufficient force-levels, particularly air and ground forces, to play a decisive role in European contingencies, including major war with Russia. This will constrain the resources and attention that the US can redirect to Asia.

Simultaneously, the preservation of US hegemony in the Middle East is becoming more exacting. The war in Iraq has ended, at least from an American perspective, and the war in Afghanistan is ending, even as violence in both places persists and in some cases intensifies. In Iraq, Saddam may be gone but his regime has been replaced by a fractious political system (the strongest elements of which are more amenable to Tehran than Washington), ongoing bloodshed, and a limited form of Iranian hegemony, now being consolidated in the absence of US forces and set to become further entrenched with an Iranian nuclear capability. A nuclear-armed Iran will have greater latitude and confidence to extend its regional influence because it will deter any major power from undertaking operations that threaten Iran’s vital interests. As a result, Iran is set to become more important to extra-regional players like China and Russia.

As in Western Europe, America’s allies in the Middle East, particularly the small Gulf States and Saudi Arabia, are in no position to effectively counteract Iran’s expanding influence. They’re too small and weak, and increasingly inward-looking as a result of the Arab Spring. Responsibility will therefore continue to fall on the United States, whose strategic dominance in the region, in the absence of major bases, will depend to an increasing extent on the availability of advanced air and maritime forces that will consequently not be available for diversion to Asia.

Europe and the Middle East present their own distinct strategic challenges. For the United States, which is unwilling to relinquish its dominance in either, the presence in both regions of a potential hegemonic challenger with expansive geopolitical ambitions, as well as an anxious and dependent set of allies, spells trouble for the coherence of its strategic rebalance to Asia.

Raoul Heinrichs is a Sir Arthur Tange Scholar in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University. Image courtesy of Flickr user The White House.