The US will not ‘Pivot’ much to Asia (1): We don’t really Want to

Asia According to USA

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.

13 thoughts on “The US will not ‘Pivot’ much to Asia (1): We don’t really Want to

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  3. Nicely written Bob, though your argument puts a great deal of stock in American policy maker’s concern with what voters think or what the level of voter knowledge is of a region. History shows they seldom act in accordance with the wishes (or lack thereof) of the electorate. Where to begin? Latin America? Vietnam? The Korean peninsula? Early engagements in China during the grab happy days of the west? The list goes on.

    The Middle East will remain a focus, due not to an American familiarity with it or who is wailing at the wall, but simply for the resources on which the landmass rests. Once that dries up or an alternative arises, the only American presence will be sweaty backpackers clutching dated volumes of Lonely Planets.

    As to contemporary moves in East Asia we may well look back at a ‘pivot point’ (of the numerous historically in the region, which kinda waters-down the words ‘pivot point’) being June 28th last year when Chinese intelligence officials learned at the morning briefing that 462 Tomahawk missiles had suddenly appeared in their back yard over night.,8599,2002378,00.html

    • That’s right. I am assuming that democratic pressure will eventually feed through the system and direct American priorities. You may be right that the executive’s wide policy scope may push forward the piovt anyway, and as I argued, there are really good reasons for it nonetheless. I just wonder if the American public really cares or wants this compared to long-standing commitments to Europe or the Middle East, or the desire to keep Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. We can’t have all these things. Prioties will have to listed.

  4. If by constituency, you mean a constituency for war, I agree it is not present, yet. China’s rise is unlike that of the Soviet Union’s which, even before WWI ended, was seen as a foe. China rise seems more like that of Germany’s vis a vis Britain prior to WWI. China was a kind of ally in the 1970s and 1980s during the Cold War. Its adoption of capitalism makes it seem like the US. It finances the US debt and there are many cultural, educational, and commercial connections.

    However, I disagree that there is no anti-China constituency on the horizon.

    1) The Military-Industrial Complex: As Eisenhower predicted, once you create this monster, then it must be fed. The military and its private industrial base will want an enemy. They will not simply sit by while peace breaks out. It’s hard to justify many aircraft carriers and stealth bombers if our biggest enemy is Iran or Syria. Politicians who support the MIC will latch onto this rational soon enough.

    2) Labor: Its views on trade are not outdated but relevant and becoming more so. With a likely long-term dismal job outlook, workers of all stripes will be receptive to blaming China. Very much the same thing happened in the 1980s with Japan. Whether you believe China’s currency manipulation, etc. makes a difference to the US economy, it is the sort of boogie man that politicians and workers will focus on.

    3) Human Rights sympathizers: China worries human rights advocates. It is not that China is so much worse than some other countries. (India is not so great either when it comes to human rights). But, China is a role model – a powerful, successful model of authoritarian development. That worries human rights advocates. I know human rights is not a big part of American foreign policy but it is much easier for Americans to dislike a dictatorship (democratic peace theory). And, never underestimate Americans’ missionary zeal. It ebbs and flows, but it’s there.

    4) Everyone: China is a resource-hungry bemoth. Its demands will drive up the price of oil. Other commodities will follow suit. Americans may come to see China in the way many people in the world have long viewed this US – a bloated consumer of the world’s resources. And, every American wants to feel good about America’s power – we have gotten used to that. As China eclipses the US economy, as its military muscle gets bigger, and its soft power grows (more questionable), Americans will want to see the US behaving like a great power and balancing all that.

    5) Generic politicians: Nationalism and fear of a foreign enemy are common fallbacks for politicians who cannot, or don’t care to, solve domestic problems. Bush used this in 2004 to defeat Kerry. Republicans repeated used this against Democrats after McGovern’s nomination in 1972. America likely faces economic hardship, declining power, and an unhappy electorate. Not much mileage is left in the terrorism fear – unless there is another attack. And, Iran is just not that scary. These leadership elites are very skillful at managing public opinion. American presidents don’t go to war against popular opinion – they manage popular opinion to support the war. The Tonkin Gulf incident, HW Bush’s campaign to present Kuwait as a poor, raped child, G.W. Bush’s WMDs, and, arguably, the Cold War were examples of American presidents creating public support for militarization.

    I am not saying that these groups are ready to march off to war with China. But, would they come to support the containment of an ever more powerful China – I think so.

    Let me close with this regarding your point about Americans caring more about Europe and the Middle East. I agree that America has, in recent decades, focused more on Europe and the Middle East. But, before WWII, America’s military focus was on East Asia (and Latin America). The war in the Pacific was precipitated by America attempting to contain Japan. That war was for US or Japanese hegemonic dominance in East Asia. Unlike in Germany, America alone restructured Japan. After WWII, America fought two big wars in East Asia. It would not surprise me if, with the end of security threats in Europe and the sheer exhaustion of dealing with the Middle East, the US returned to its historic geopolitical interest – East Asia.

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