As the Ukraine crisis heats up, its impact on the US effort to re-balance to Asia, specifically against China, has arisen. The consensus is that, for the most part, a renewed US focus on European security will pull US resources and policy-maker attention away from Asia and back toward Europe. In a similar manner, the US has hitherto struggled to focus on East Asia, as China took off in the last two decades, because of the war on terror. Yet China is of far greater import to the US in the coming decades than either Eastern Europe or the greater Middle East. On that, there is near consensus in the foreign policy community now.
In a strictly mathematical sense, of course, these concerns are accurate. Scarcity and opportunity costs mean that any US resources, troops, time, and so on devoted to Europe do not go to Asia. Were the US to be pulled into a major conflict in eastern Europe – which it should not do – that would be a major diversion from grappling with China, just as the spiraling war on terror became. But that scenario is unlikely.
Should Ukraine avoid full-scale war, there are two reasons – European joint defense and the huge US national security budget – why the US should be able to remain responsibly – i.e., limitedly – involved in Ukraine while still pursuing the pivot to Asia.
European Allies should be Taking the Lead
Elsewhere in these pages, I have argued that the most pressing issue emergent from the Ukraine crisis – after Ukraine’s own fate – is the European Union’s continuing geopolitical paralysis. European leaders have talked for decades about a European defense identity. They took umbrage when former US President Donald Trump accused them of free-riding. And the vision of two liberal superpowers in the world – not just one – is powerfully attractive. A European Union which could act coherently and in tandem with the US would hugely improve the position of democracy in the world and present a far stronger front against autocracies like China and Russia.
If that is too much, then at least European countries should grasp the obvious logic of Russian predation on their eastern flank and build some long-overdue jointness. Some have, but the passivity of large states like Germany, France, and Italy is fairly disturbing. The problem of US over-extension in Eastern Europe at the cost of ducking China once again would immediately be alleviated by a joint European voice. If the Europeans simply refuse to do this, even as their own security is at stake, then at some point the US should let them carry their own mistakes.
US National Security Spending is so High that It should be Enough
An obvious answer to constraints on resources is to simply spend more in order to do more. And the United States certainly does that. The US spends between 700 and 800 billion dollars per year on defense. Its wider national security budget – including security-related spending outside the Department of Defense budget – is around one trillion dollars per annum. In absolute numbers, that is more than twice what China and Russia spend combined. And that does not include wealthy US allies, such as Germany and Britain in Europe, or Japan and South Korea in Asia. Those allies certainly could, and should, spend more, but the sheer volume of money available is massive and should be more than enough for the US and its allies to handle crises – although not necessarily all-out wars – with China and Russia simultaneously.
In the past, this was known as the ‘two major regional contingency’ (two-mrc) strategy. This faded somewhat during the war on terror. The US was sucked into counterinsurgency insertions across a wide swath of territory at spiraling cost. But with that over – President Biden explicitly wound down the Afgan War last year to open space for the pivot – the US should have the resources, with its allies, to push back on China and Russia simultaneously, at least in limited contingencies. And European military integration and rationalization would make all that much easier by bringing a larger pool of resources to the European theater
The Real Issue is Time and Attention
The one area where pivot critics are correct is the time and attention of decision-makers. Elites have only so much time and mental energy. Time spent on Russia is not spent on China. The pivot is hard, as it requires US policy-makers to learn more about Asian history and cultures. The sheer familiarity of the Atlantic architecture is likely one reason for the Biden administration’s comfort with the Ukraine issue. But the long-term challenge is still China, and the sooner the Europeans can take over the European portfolio, the better. It is overdue for US decision-makers to follow the pivot.
Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly; website) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. Dr. Kelly is a 1945 Contributing Editor as well.