Reassurance. Out of necessity, it’s become a prevalent theme of President Obama’s foreign policy, including his trip to Asia that he embarks on today. After all, how else to assuage jittery U.S. allies and their grave misgivings over Washington’s capabilities and resolve to defend them against escalating security threats.
The first allies to feel misgiving over the administration’s foreign policy were the Europeans, who worried that Obama’s much-touted “Asia Pivot” in 2011 meant a reduced American commitment to their defense. The withdrawal of two U.S. Army brigade combat teams heightened Europe’s trepidation. “Nonsense,” was the U.S. reply, “a pivot toward Asia doesn’t mean a pivot away from Europe.” But the strategy was still relabeled as “Asian rebalancing” to reassure the Europeans.
Asian allies, initially heartened by the renewed U.S. focus, became increasingly nervous of China’s unrelenting push of extra-legal sovereignty claims on their territories. The Obama Administration’s weak response to Chinese bullying forced the Philippines to effectively cede its claims to the Scarborough Shoals.
Observing these developments, an increasingly skittish Tokyo repeatedly called for stronger U.S. support to deter similar Chinese intimidation over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands. Imagine Tokyo’s anxiety upon hearing Admiral Samuel Lockleer, U.S. Pacific Fleet commander, testify last month that, if a crisis arose, the United States does not have enough assets to carry out a contested amphibious operation in the Pacific.
South Korea and Japan watched with growing dismay as the Obama Administration first cut $480 billion from the military, and then warned of the catastrophic consequences that sequestration would have on U.S. armed forces. Yet, when the sequester hit, the administration claimed it could still fulfill American security commitments, though admittedly with “additional but acceptable risk.”
Seoul and Tokyo were flummoxed by Obama’s refusal to live up to his pledged military response when Syrian President Assad crossed the U.S. redline against using chemical weapons against civilians last year. Our allies are now fearful that Obama might similarly abandon U.S. defense commitments to them if North Korea or China attacked.
Russia’s military incursion into Crimea and subsequent U.S. affirmation of support to European NATO nations triggered Asian concerns of a “reverse Asia Pivot.” Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel were dispatched to, once again, reassure both our European and Asian allies. Hagel announced the U.S. is considering sending ground troops to Poland. A “Europe Pivot” would have been much easier—and more effective a deterrent—had Obama not previously pulled the brigades out of Europe. The ease with which Putin gained international acquiescence to his annexation of Crimea triggered Asian anxiety that China could be emboldened to try a similar blitzkrieg in the Pacific.
Further south, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States remain apprehensive of U.S. nuclear negotiations with Iran—talks that could leave Tehran with more uranium enrichment capabilities than the total ban called for in U.N. resolutions. Naïve U.S. attempts to diplomatically reverse North Korea’s steadily growing nuclear capabilities and a timorous international response to Pyongyang’s repeated violations of U.N. resolutions are not a reassuring precedent to the Middle East.
The Obama Administration proudly claimed that, because of its pivot, the U.S. was “back in the Pacific.” Yet, three years later, it remains unclear just how Obama’s pivot differs from previous administrations’ policies on Asia. Despite Obama Administration officials attending more meetings in Asia than their predecessors—a case of putting more diplomats’ wingtip shoes, rather than soldiers’ boots, on the ground—the pivot has yielded no discernible accomplishments.
Reassurance and proclaims of renewed resolve are neither reassuring nor resolute if allies perceive weakness. After Crimea fell to Russia, President Obama disdainfully dismissed the idea of conflict in Europe as “the kind of thinking that should have ended with the Cold War.” Similarly, Secretary of State Kerry opined, “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country.” Unfortunately, America’s opponents don’t share the same genteel view of international relations.