I pulled this image from here.
So the US pivot toward Asia is all the rage in foreign policy now. Obama and Secretary Clinton genuinely seem to believe in this, and there good reasons for it. Briefly put, Asia has the money, people, and guns to dramatically impact world politics in a way that no other region can now. But I think the US Asian pivot won’t happen much nonetheless, because: 1) Americans, especially Republicans, don’t care about Asia, but they really care about the Middle East (a point the GOP presidential debates made really obvious); 2) Americans know less about Asia than any part of the world, bar Africa perhaps; 3) intra-Asian soft balancing (i.e., almost everyone lining up informally against China) means we don’t really need to be that involved, because our local allies will do most of the work; 4) we’re too broke to replicate in Asia the sort of overwhelming presence we built in the Middle East in the last decades.
On the face of it, a US pivot seems like a good idea, and if the US followed secular, rationalist, (realist-defined) national interest criteria, we would indeed pivot. Looking at global regions, Asia pretty clearly outweighs the rest. Europe and Latin America are mostly democratic, fairly prosperous, and at peace. We don’t really need to be in these places, and we shouldn’t either abet Euro-free-riding or worsen our already bad history in Latin America. Getting out serves our (and their) interests. Africa, sadly, remains a backwater of US interest, with no clear (national security) reason for an already overstretched US to do much. The Middle East, to my mind, is wildly overrated for us. Like Walt, Sullivan, Friedman, and so many others now, I think it’s fairly obvious, ten years after 9/11, that: our relationship with Israel has become unhealthily close, almost obsessive; Islamic terrorism is a wildly overrated threat to the US which we risk worsening by the inevitable blowback to all our action in the Middle East; and we should be moving toward alternative energy so that we can get out of the Gulf. In short, Europe and the Western Hemisphere are basically democratic peace zones, Africa is (sorry) irrelevant, and the ME needs to be cut down to size in our foreign policy phobias.
That leaves Asia, and the reasons for attention should be blindingly obvious. Asia’s economies are growing fast, almost uniformly so. Even place like Cambodia and Vietnam are clocking 5+% growth now. Asian savers and banks fund the ridiculous US budget deficit and export lots of stuff we buy. The number of people Asia has added to the global labor pool (2 billion in the last 25 years) has kept global inflation down for a generation (the largest ever one-time shift in the ratio of capital to labor). Asian markets are now major export destinations for American industries (including academia).
Next, there are a lot of Asians. This seems trite, but if you consider that there are only around 500 million people stretching from Rabat to Islamabad, but 3 times that just in India (!), you quickly get a sense that sheer demographics plays a role. Half the world’s population lives in South, Southeast, and Northeast Asia. And unlike many people in the greater Middle East, Africa, or even Latin America, these people participate in the global economy a lot – as low-cost labor, big savers, importers, exporters, etc.
Third, lots of people means inevitable friction, and lots of money means lots of weapons. Especially NE Asia sometimes feels like Europe before WWI: big, tightly-packed, fast-growing economies; lots of money for bigger and bigger militaries; lots of nationalism and territorial grievances to create sparks. Regional conflict in Asia would dwarf anything since the Cold War. And specifically, China’s rise to regional hegemony would have very obvious security ramifications for the US.
So all this says Asia’s important, but the trends of US domestic politics run strongly against this. I think the Asian pivot for the US won’t take off, at least not for another decade:
1. Who is the constituency for a US shift to Asia? Who in America actually cares about this region enough to drive a major realignment away from long-standing US interests in Europe and the Middle East? I guess the business community cares; they pushed PMFN for China 15 years ago, but they’re souring on China today because of its relentless mercantilism. Perhaps Asian-Americans would like to see this, in the same way that Hispanic-Americans impact US south-of-the-border policy. But there aren’t that many Asian-Americans (4-5%), and they don’t strike me as an organized voice loudly demanding this pivot. Perhaps foreign policy elites want this, but to my mind the think-tank/op-ed pages set (AEI, WSJ, NYT, Fox, Heritage) still seem more interested in the Middle East – when is the last time you read an op-ed about US basing in Japan or Korea, or US CT cooperation with Indonesia? The relevant Asian security stuff regarding the pivot is still scarcely on the radar of the regular media (compared to the coverage of US domestic politics or the Middle East). Finally, does Obama’s electoral coalition care about or want this? As a rule of thumb, the less wealthy you are, the less you care about far-off issues like foreign policy, so it’s unlikely that the underprivileged and youth who helped Obama win want or even care about this. While college educated whites, who also broke for Obama, likely support this, the rest of the Democratic coalition traditionally focuses on domestic issues like education, social mobility, the courts, redistribution and safety nets, etc. Maybe labor unions care a bit, but their trade concerns are dated and generic, rather than Asia-specific, and they probably want less not more engagement with Asia.
But most importantly, the Republican Party, which I think worries about foreign policy a lot more than the Dems, really cares about the Middle East. Remember that something like 30-40% of Americans claim to have had a born-again experience. For them, Israel is, easily, America’s most important ally. Their post-9/11 Kulturkamp with Islam is a central value; they know that worshipping Allah is blasphemous. In that fetid Christianist mindset, what are Korea or China but factory floors far away who make stuff for Walmart? Asia doesn’t activate or mobilize these ‘Jacksonian-Christianist’ voters. When Santorum said in the New Hampshire debate that Iran’s nuclear program is the most important issue in US foreign policy, he was channeling probably one-third of the electorate. Romney and Gingrich too discuss Iran constantly and pledge ‘no daylight’ with Israel. By contrast, what does the Tea Party know or care about China or India? At least Islam looks like a ‘heathen’ analogue to Christianity (a book, similar godhead, prophets) to the US right, but what to make of Hinduism, Confucianism, Shintoism, Taoism? Does anyone really believe Joe Tea-partier cares a wit about that stuff? It’s all about culture and religion to the base of the American right these days, and Asia is like outer space to those voters. Where is the ideology, the excitement, the fervor that created the wild paranoias like ‘WWIV’ or the ‘long war’ regarding Islam, in regard to Asia? Zippo…
In short, the Democrats don’t really care about Asia one way or another, besides a vague sense that China is ‘cheating,’ and Republicans want to keep the focus on the Middle East.
Continued in part 2.