During his tenure in the White House Barack Obama did many amazing things. The one that wasn’t all that great was the “pivot to Asia.” This move will most likely be remembered as his biggest mistake. At one moment during his reign, Obama called himself “the first Pacific president.” President Obama did so because he wanted to shift the foreign policy more in the direction of Asia (the economic center of the 21st century) away from the Middle East.
He felt that, after the disastrous Libyan revolution that ousted Gaddafi, the responsibility for keeping stability in the region should fall on the shoulders of America’s European allies. The Libyan campaign was mostly a product of French and British pressure, but neither of the two countries had sufficient resources to bring Gaddafi to heel and stop the civil war that tore the country apart. President Obama sensed that the American public was fed up with costly Middle Eastern adventures that drained blood and treasure and that other countries should step up to the plate.
This pivot turned out to be a complete failure. Not only for the U.S. foreign policy. It had an adverse effect on various parts of the world, mostly on Europe and the Middle East.
The reason that pivot failed was that it was based on wrong assumptions. Obama and his associates believed that U.S. foreign policy has been neglecting the Asia Pacific. This part of Asia had a substantial economic rise in recent years, and the president decided that he could assign more military resources to the region. Those same resources would be pulled from the Middle East and other areas. This caused the tension in Asia-Pacific while at the same time it brought chaos to the Middle East and The Old Continent.
So, what assumption was wrong? When Obama started his term in office, Asia-Pacific wasn’t neglected. The Bush politics in this part of the world was actually a success. It lowered the historically high tensions between China and Taiwan. The free-trade agreements were signed with Singapore, South Korea, and Australia. These agreements were the foundation of what’s today the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The deals with India regarding their nuclear arsenal were signed, parallel with negotiations with Pakistan and Afghanistan. Some of these deals were later changed as apart of Obama’s pivot.
Obama’s Asian pivot did initiate new diplomatic relations (Myanmar), but it shifted its direction regarding security and defense policy. Making Asia the center of its security strategy annoyed the Chinese government. To Beijing, this move seemed like the U.S. is trying to contain their military power. Because of this China became hostile and aggressive. Before 2008, the relations between two countries were normal.
The situation escalated when the Air-Sea Battle doctrine became official. This doctrine was an effort to prepare the U.S. for a possible confrontation with China. The Secretary of The Defense at the time, Robert Gates publicly confirmed this, and as you can expect, authorities in Beijing weren’t glad upon hearing this. The doctrine was seen as a plan to contain China militarily and economically and to narrow the circle around them.
The first significant issue is that primary part of the pivot was militaristic. The second one was that it even had a military element to it. The Asia pivot promised that the U.S. is focusing on that part of the world for economic reasons, but they first started to arm themselves. The primary focus on military shows a little about the economy which was promised.
The premise that Chinese expansion could be checked by the use of soft military power was flawed from the start and only encouraged Beijing to start flexing their military muscles in return, using the American actions as an excuse. Its navy began a series of excursions further away from China’s coast in an effort to assert its dominance in the South China Sea, making securing the infamous 9-dash line its priority. Any objection from American allies in the region was checked with the statement that Beijing is merely responding to Washington’s action.
When Obama declared in 2015 that “TPP allows America — and not countries like China — to write the rules of the road in the 21st century” the Chinese were assured that the primary goal of the pivot was to stop the rise of China. The United States officials publicly confirmed this. The situation was made worse by President Trumps refusal to sign TPP, thus further weakening America’s negotiating position in the region.
The matter didn’t have to go this way. Instead, America could join Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. They were even invited by China. Instead, they refused and also criticized the U.K. for joining. By steering up military tensions, the U.S. missed on many economic opportunities.
The third mistake was that while dealing with Asia, America completely neglected Europe and the Middle East. When they took their eyes away from Europe, Russia went on the field trip to Ukraine glancing at the Baltic states at the same time. This move unsettled Poland and Hungary. In the Middle East, Syrian Civil war exploded causing thousands of deaths and creating 11 million refugees. Islamic State moved to Iraq, while the former U.S. allies in the Gulf fell under Iranian influence.
The power vacuum left by the U.S. withdrawal and its focus shift has only served to encourage Russia and Iran to increase their efforts aimed at obtaining influence in the region. Again, same as with TPP, Trump’s intentions of completely abandoning America’s allies by pulling even the modest number of troops left in Syria will only serve to invite both Moscow and Tehran to step up their game and increase pressure on surrounding nations. Syrian regime in the meanwhile holds steady and is closer every day to regaining full control of the country, with massive Russian and Iranian help.
In the end, the pivot failed. It didn’t stop China from rising. They are more aggressive now and have set their eyes on the South China Sea and to the Senkakus. Militarily they have never been closer to the U.S., and the economy is still on the rise. The TPP is no more, while China is signing trade agreements with its neighbors. It was essential to focus foreign policy to Asia-Pacific but not at the expense of Europe and the Middle East. Now America is at a disadvantage on both fronts. And it’s all thanks to Asia pivot which was Barack Obama’s biggest mistake.