In the early 2010s, then-U.S. President Barack Obama articulated the need for Washington’s foreign policy focus to ‘pivot to Asia’. In 2011, his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, penned “America’s Pacific Century,” an essay where she argued for a “strategic turn to the region.” Since that time, Democrats and Republicans have agreed on very little except the growing importance of the Indo-Pacific region and the threat posed by China.
The pivot to Asia was meant to shift the weight of Washington’s diplomatic, economic, and military efforts to that region in order to challenge the rising power of Beijing, which is deemed to be a strategic competitor as the global order shifts from the U.S.-led unipolar order to a multipolar one.
Even with the perceived decline of American power, Washington’s global responsibilities have hardly diminished, and the intended pivot has been beset with roadblocks. Successive crises have made such a dramatic shift in strategic focus difficult. As the old adage goes, “Man plans and God laughs.”
Obstacles: The Ukraine and Gaza Conflicts
The latest roadblocks to the pivot have come in the form of major international conflicts. Since February 2022, the Biden administration has largely been absorbed in its efforts to support Ukraine against Russian aggression. Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 already cast doubt over the long-held notion that a major war on the European continent was unthinkable. Putin’s invasion in 2022 dispelled this perception entirely. It seems unlikely that Washington will be able to relax its security commitments to Europe any time soon.
In late September, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan infamously opined that “The Middle East region is quieter today than it has been in two decades.” Just eight days later, Hamas launched a devastating terrorist attack against American ally Israel. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) responded by bombarding the Gaza Strip, followed by a ground invasion that continues to unfold. The conflict threatens to spread on multiple fronts. Hezbollah could attack Israel from the north, while regional actors such as Iran could become more involved. Meanwhile, the U.S. has dispatched two carrier strike groups to the region and has an initiated a flurry of diplomatic activity.
Getting U.S. Priorities Right
How much these crises should perturb American policymakers and what should be done about them really depends on several strategic calculations. First, one must consider to what extent the European and Middle Eastern theaters matter versus the Asian one. Then, Washington must appraise the means and ways available to it and allocate resources and attention appropriately.
The conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza may be momentary or long-lasting, but they bring into question Washington’s geostrategic priorities. Chiefly, to what extent do the threat posed by China and the growing importance of Asia override strategic interests in Europe and the Middle East? To put it another way, to what extent is the pivot to Asia a necessity, and how comprehensive should that pivot be?
Historically, the U.S. has intervened to prevent adversaries from achieving regional hegemony. It did this in the Second World War to stop Germany from achieving hegemony over Europe, and Japan over Asia. After the Cold War, the U.S. achieved primacy and became the singular global power on the world stage.
Regional balances of power remain important to Washington, because a competitor that achieves regional hegemony could aspire to achieve global hegemony and challenge U.S. interests. The rationale for the pivot to Asia is to prevent China from achieving regional hegemony, but threats to the balance of power in other regions also pose a potential threat.
Events like the Russian invasion of Ukraine or the outbreak of hostilities between Israel and Gaza demand immediate responses from policymakers. They should also stimulate thinking about grand strategy. Ideally, Washington’s responses should be calibrated by an overarching strategic approach and realistic assessment of regional importance.
The Argument that the U.S. Should Focus on Asia
The most important argument in favor of the pivot to Asia is that China is the only actor capable of achieving regional hegemony. It is generally accepted that Russia is one of the three great powers in the emerging multipolar world order, but it is a distant third behind the US and China and does not possess the capabilities to achieve hegemony over Europe. In the Middle East, the prospects for a regional hegemon are even lesser. Middle powers like Iran and Saudi Arabia are locked in fierce competition, but they cannot conceivably achieve regional hegemony.
Although the U.S. remains the most powerful country on the world stage, its resources are finite and must be allocated to the most pressing strategic concerns. Speaking at the Centre for Independent Studies just last month, American political scientist John J. Mearsheimer commented, “It’s not in America’s interest to be deeply involved either in the Gaza war or in the Ukraine War because great powers in my opinion have only limited bandwidth.”
Mearsheimer went on to explain that Washington’s preoccupation with conflicts in Europe and the Middle East is detracting from the need to shift efforts to confront China in Asia. “What’s happened is that the United States has lost focus, and it’s got diverted into the Ukraine war in Europe, and it’s now getting diverted into the Middle East with the war between Hamas and Israel and the United States, and therefore is unable to pivot completely to Asia and I think this is a major mistake for the United States.” he said.
The Argument for Persistent U.S. Global Engagement
One counterargument to Mearsheimer’s position is that if Washington wants to maintain global strategic primacy, it must remain regionally engaged across the geostrategic chessboard, not just in Asia. This is because American primacy is not wholly dependent on regional balance of power dynamics, but also on the adherence of states to the liberal international order established and upheld by the U.S. since the end of the Second World War. Countering threats to this order, be they from state actors like Russia or Islamist militant movements like Hamas, will remain vital for Washington.
The extent to which this is feasible depends on American capabilities. Earlier this year, Andrew A. Michta, the director and senior fellow of the Scowcroft Strategy Initiative argued that, “The ‘pivot to Asia’ school misreads how global power is distributed and takes for granted the United States’ continued economic decline and societal fracturing.”
Michta instead proposed that the U.S. retains the means to play a key role in both the Asian and European theaters. He proposed that, with an adequate percentage of GDP allocated to defense spending and sufficient commitments by NATO partners to do the same, Washington can “build a cross-domain Joint Force that can both confront the rising Chinese threat in Asia and shore up Europe.”
In the Middle East, disengagement might prove costlier than prolonged involvement. Given that the region is responsible for the majority of the world’s oil output, its continued importance is assured even without the credible threat of a rising regional hegemon. An argument can be made that with judicious diplomatic efforts and limited military assistance, the U.S. can manage its interests in the region cost effectively by working with allies like Israel.
Ultimately, American policymakers must decide which strategic interests are most important. On one hand, there is broad agreement in Washington that China’s rise constitutes the greatest threat to U.S. interests, and there is strong bipartisan support for addressing this risk with increased attention and resources. However, as crisis after crisis has shown, the rest of the world will not cease to matter just because the Americans want to focus on Asia.
The strategic weight the U.S. ascribes to each major region, and the military, diplomatic, and economic resources it is prepared to dedicate to securing its interests across the globe, will play a huge role in determining the course of global politics in the years ahead. As is often the case in international relations, the balance sheet of risks associated with divergent courses of action makes it difficult to determine the best strategic approach.