This graphic is a word-cloud of the president’s state of the union address last week. I am not even sure the word ‘Asia’ is in there.
The following is a local re-up of a piece I originally wrote for the Lowy Institute, where I now blog twice a month. Basically, I argue a theme regular readers here will have heard before – that the ‘pivot’ to Asia is mostly an elite project in the US and that most Americans don’t really care about Asia that much. If I say ‘China’ to my friends in the US, the first thing they think of is cheap stuff in Walmart. So whenever anyone tells me that Asia ‘needs’ the US, or that we’re ‘ceding’ Asia to China, or even Russia (oh, please), because we missed the ASEAN Regional Forum or whatever, I just roll my eyes. Without the American consumer Asian economies would collapse, and, Red Dawn fantasies aside, no Asian state is a security threat to the US (barring the infinitesimally small likelihood of Chinese nuclear strike on the US homeland).
What that means is that the only Americans who think that the US needs Asia are those who support US global hegemony and therefore cannot differentiate among US core interests – such as basic stability in Canada and the Caribbean basin, or a secure oil flow from the Persian Gulf – and US choices to be involved in places like Iraq or South Korea. The pivot to Asia, much like NATO 20 years after the Cold War, is a choice, not a necessity. That doesn’t necessarily mean we shouldn’t ‘pivot’ – indeed, I think it is a good idea myself – but it must also be admitted that retrenchment from many of these commitments would not obviously harm US security, even if many allies would not like it. Neocons and think-tanker far too often elide this crucial distinction. Is Asia important? Does it matter? Yes, sure. Does the US need Asia? No – unless you believe the US and its globe-spanning hegemony are identical (hint: they aren’t). US allies interests are not always synonymous with America’s and if we don’t see that, we invite free-riding, chain-ganged conflicts, and a gargantuan national security state.
“US presidential State of the Union addresses (SotU) are frequently as important for what the leave out as what they include. President Obama’s SotU this year is notable in this regard, especially for foreign policy observers. It has been widely noted that he said almost nothing about Syria and Bashar al-Assad, Egypt, or Iraq. But for the Asia-Pacific commentariat, the region’s almost total absence must also be noted, or more properly put, admitted. It is time to start putting to bed the much-beloved trope of the Asian security and economics conference circuit – that the US ‘needs’ Asia. It doesn’t. In fact, Asia needs the US far more than the US needs it. This is why Obama can scarcely say a word about Asia – China was mentioned just twice in passing throw-away references.
This SotU is yet further evidence of an argument I have been banging away at for awhile – that the pivot is an elite project that only activates the US foreign policy community and think-tank set; that most Americans know little about Asia, perceive it mostly as an export platform for cheap stuff at Walmart, and do not really care that much about it; that the pivot is wildly over-rated in Asia as a some major strategic shift of the US against the Middle East; and that American hardly ‘needs’ Asia as Asian commentators love to intone. (I have a full-blown article forthcoming on this in Pacific Review this year. Email me for a draft version.)
Great powers have the luxury of not learning, of refusing to admit structural pressures that others must accommodate more rapidly. Last week, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was talking up the ‘Chinese menace’ at Davos. China retorted that the Japanese are the ‘nazis of the east.’ Yet Obama did not even bother to mention this mushrooming tension between the world’s second and third largest GDPs, one of which is a long-standing US ally. Why not? Because ultimately, the US, as the greatest of great powers, need not bother if it really doesn’t want to.
Asian elites love to say that the US is ‘losing’ Asia every time it misses some meeting in Asia, as if all these talk-shops like ASEAN actually do much. Last year, when the US missed APEC, there was talk of the US ceding Asia to China. But this is better understood as plea for US attention. By hyping oneself as ‘necessary,’ maybe the big guy on the block will pay attention. But if one actually follows the American domestic political debate (CNN, Fox, the New York Times, and so on) on the pivot, rather than the think-tank/academic discourse, one will not find much urgency. In fact one is unlikely to find much popular interest at all. And one certainly will not find many Americans saying Asia is more important than the Middle East. Just look at Obama’s extended discussion of Iran and terrorism, and compare that to two one-word references to China, plus no mentions of Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia, the South China Sea and so on.
Always remember that Asian states need the US a lot more than the US needs them. US regional allies need it to hold back China, and even China needs Americans to buy all their exports and provide a savings safe haven. Sure, Americans benefit from cheap Asian exports and lending, but that is a lot less important. Almost all of Asia’s growing economies are so deeply based on exporting to the West, that a cut-off would lead to economic chaos and political turbulence. This is one of the many reasons why Asian exporters should rebalance toward local consumer demand. But so long as Asia’s mega-exporter oligarch persists with the ‘tiger’ model of export dependence, the US has enormous leverage. Where would Sony, Samsung and so on be without the American consumer?
Hence in both security and economics affairs, the relationship is very asymmetric, and those who tell you otherwise are trying to cover the weakness of many Asian states and their desperation for US attention with bravado that America ‘needs’ Asia. As I have been trying to argue on my blog for awhile, if Asians do not want the US in Asia, it is no big deal for US security, and it is an economic blow far worse for them than it is for America. And this is getting even more asymmetric as the US becomes energy independent because of fracking – so have fun fixing the Middle East, China! The US Founders identified the luxury of US distance from Eurasia long ago, so forgot all these hyperventilating Asian columnists (Kishore Mahbubani being the most obvious) who resent that America can be a lot more insouciant about Asia than vice versa.
Much of the problem stems from elite discourse on the pivot is that is it informed by other elite discourse. If you spend all your time reading reports from places like the Council on Foreign Relations, Brookings, and their Asian analogues like the Asan Institute (or academics like me, I will admit), then you’d never know that the pivot scarcely arises in the political discussion of the median American voter. Obama’s SotUs have repeatedly said little to nothing on this, nor did the many presidential debates, both in the primary and general elections in 2012. In other words, when US politicians talk to Americans about what they think voters believe is important, they scarcely mention Asia. But most of us are trapped in a ‘hermeneutic circle’ of academia, think-tankery, government and intelligence officials, and so on, where the wisdom of the pivot is simply take for granted.
So why did Iran get so much more play in the SotU than China? I see two primary reasons:
First, domestically, there is no obvious constituency for the pivot in US politics. Asian-Americans are not a coherent voting bloc on this, and they are less than 5% of the US population anyway. Business’ earlier enthusiasm for Asia, especially for China back in the 90s, has waned under relentless mercantilism, industrial espionage, and xenophobic corporate governance environments in Asia. Neither the Democratic nor Republican parties’ coalitions really care about Asia either. Obama voters are focused on domestic issues, as the SotU demonstrated once again, while GOP voters’ foreign policy concerns are overwhelmingly driven by their Christian, post-9/11 kulturkampf against Islam. Born-again Christians comprise 30-40% of the electorate, and these evangelical voters are obsessed with the Middle East. Just go watch Fox News for a few days.
Second, internationally, there is no real geopolitical need for the US to pivot, contrary to the Asian commentariat’s desperate insistence that it must. The US is very safe and comfortable behind huge oceans, its globe-spanning dollar and economic prowess, and powerful military. It may choose to be involved in Asia, but it does not need to be. It can easily buck-pass China to local front-line states like Japan and India. Or if North Korea were to absorb South Korea, how would that effect US security? It would surely be a catastrophe for South Koreans and Asia generally, but not really for the US.
As Stephen Walt has argued for years at his blog, the US has enormous room to play ‘hard to get;’ that is the luxury of superpowerdom and generous geography, however infuriating that may be to Asian elites humiliated and upset at American insouciance.”