Thursday, February 28, 2013

America’s Strategic Re-Pivot to Europe and the Middle East


It seems that the second Obama administration is making a strategic re-pivot to Europe. During the Munich Security Conference, Vice President Joseph Biden launched a new initiative to boost trans-Atlantic ties. Since the Obama administration articulated strategic rebalance to Asia, in view of withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, Biden’s speech surprised the media. Biden called for close trans-Atlantic partnership in Middle East security from Mali to Syria and Iran, and mentioned Europe the cornerstone of US foreign policy (“Biden calls Europe 'thecornerstone' of USforeign policy”; Stars and Stripes; February 2, 2012). In addition to security, Biden proposed a free trade deal with Europe. Since Europe is the largest economic zone in the world, the rise of Asian economies does not necessarily overshadow the Atlantic ties. Europeans welcome Biden’s Munich speech (“Opinion: US rediscovers Europe”;Deutsche Welle; 3 February, 2013).

Following the Munich speech, President Barack Obama expressed his support for formal talks for a free trade agreement with the European Union in the State of the Union speech (“Obama injects optimism into trade deal”;Financial Times; February 13, 2013). A US-EU FTA would represent more than 40% of world GDP and nearly 50% of world foreign direct investment, while a Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) represents “only” 26% of world GDP. The proposed trans-Atlantic FTA is beyond job creation for the United States. On the other side of the Atlantic, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron push for a trade pact with America. Also, both trade deals across the Atlantic and the Pacific are intended to promote liberal political values through economic activities (“EU-US Free TradeAgreement: End of the Asian Century?”; Diplomat; February 20, 2013).

As if showing America’s re-pivot, Secretary of State John Kerry is visiting Europe and the Middle East as the first trip abroad since his inauguration. Remember that his predecessor Hillary Clinton selected Asia for her first official visit (“Travel to Europe and the Middle East February 24, 2013 to March 6, 2013”; Department of State). In an interview of Andrea Mitchell Reports in NBC News on February 22, former Secretary of Defense William Cohen said that Kerry was expected to listen to requests by European and Middle Eastern allies on this trip. Currently, the United States faces common security challenges with them, notably, Syria and Iran. See the video below.



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Last June, NATO summit in Chicagoimpressed disunity of the alliance and the lack of US leadership. It remains to be seen whether the trans-Atlantic alliance will be re-invigorated by the Munich speech and Kerry’s first trip.

The most important thing for US strategy is not a pivot to a specific region but fulfillment of global security responsibility, that is, maintaining the two MRC (major regional conflict) standard. Daniel Goure, Vice President at the Lexington Institute, raises a concern, “The continuing decline in real defense spending posed a larger problem for defense planners seeking to maintain a credible two-MTW capability.”  Quite ironically, investment decline in military modernization pushes up the cost of equipment maintenance, and lowers the capability of conducting simultaneous global operations. Goure points out that the Bush administration tried to overturn such a trend even before 9-11 terrorist attacks (“The Measure of a Superpower:A Two Major Regional Contingency Military for the 21st Century”; Special Reporton National Security and Defense, Heritage Foundation; January 25, 2013). The Obama administration’s defense cut and withdrawal from the Middle East, notably Iraq and Afghanistan, raises critical concerns whether the United States is willing to fulfill the role of the superpower. More importantly, American defense against China has not been build up sufficiently under the pivot to Asia, as McKenzie Eaglen, Resident Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, argues (“Nearing coffincorner: US air power on the edge”; AEI National Security Outlook;March 2012).

The re-pivot to Europe and the Middle East can be interpreted as reconsideration of the above mentioned polices. Obama’s proposed cut of US troops in Afghanistan after complete transition of security responsibility in 2014 was bitterly criticized. Before the meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Washington, DC, the Obama administration even thought of stationing fewer troops in Afghanistan than Britain does (“Some in administration push for only a few thousand U.S. troops inAfghanistan after 2014”; Washington Post; January 8, 2013). Senator John McCain commented that drastic reduction of US troops in Afghanistan would be interpreted as American weakness in the War on Terror, in an interview with CBS News onJanuary 13. Vali Nasr, Dean of the Paul Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, mentions more critically, “If you’re Karzai, you’re basically now facing the same calculation that Maliki did in Iraq. If you’re not willing to stay in large numbers, why do I need you? ” (“PrioritiesAre Far Apart as Karzai and Obama Meet”; New York Times; January 10, 2013). The Obama administration announced to maintain 32,000 troops until Afghan presidential election in April 2014, but Pentagon press secretary George Little announced, "The administration is still reviewing options and has not made a decision about the size of a possible U.S. presence after 2014", and said "We will continue to discuss with Allies and the Afghans how we can best carry out two basic missions: Targeting the remnants of [al Qaeda] and its affiliates, and training and equipping Afghan forces"  (“Panetta:Final 32,000 American troops out of Afghanistan after 2014 elections”; DEFCONHill; February 22, 2013). Considering strategic sensitivity, Afghanistan will be a litmus test for the Obama administration’s engagement in the Middle East and vision of superpower role.

If the United States is to take well balanced strategic emphasis as the global superpower, rather than a Pacific regional power, that will be beneficial for Asian allies like Japan, Australia, South Korea, and so forth. Let me talk about this further in detail. Excessive pivot to Asia can marginalize Europe, and make it inward looking. But Asia needs major European powers along with the United States to manage geopolitical ambitions of China and nuclear North Korea. In addition, Middle East security is an issue of common interests for both Asia and Europe. Among them, Islamic radicalism is the most imminent threat. In the Algeria hostage crisis this year, terrorists attacked non-Muslim foreigners, both Asians and Westerners. Historically, Islamic radicals raided not Christians and Judaists, but also Hindus and Buddhists. Their terrorism is not resistance against “Western crusaders”, but defiance to secular and liberal world order. Energy security is another reason why Asia needs America’s balanced strategic emphasis. Emerging economies in Asia depend on oil and gas import from the Middle East, and US pullout from the region does not work for their interests. Also, we have to note that the Noda administration of Japan made a deal with Central Asian countries on gas supply. In this case, Afghan is a potential route for pipelines in the future. Moreover, Iran’s connection with North Korea has become apparent in the Fordow accident as two North Koreans were killed (“North Koreans among 40 dead at Iran nuke plant”;WND; February 3, 2013).

In view of global Great Games in this century, premature US withdrawal from the Middle East and downturn of the trans-Atlantic alliance can provoke geopolitical challengers like China, Russia, and other emerging powers to defy American supremacy. Let me mention a historical analogy. In World War II, the fall of Singapore eroded British prestige, not just in Asia, but in Europe and the Middle East as well. But unlike Britain in early Pacific War, current America is not defeated in Iraq and Afghanistan. Also, some Pacific nations like Japan share more common political interests with Europe than its neighbors. As an old ally to the United States and a major industrialized democracy, Obama’s shift to emerging economies in the name of the pivot to Asia can lead to relative decline of Japan’s importance to America.

Military strength itself is not necessarily almighty to boost America’s global position, but that is the key to maintain US preeminence over geopolitical challengers. The most critical problem is not strategic balance but defense cut. Particularly, the sequestration will impose critical restrictions on US foreign policy options. David Frum, Contributing Editor at News Week, denounces some fiscal conservatives among the Republican Party such as Representative Paul Ryan, as they remarked that they were eager to force a budget sequester in March. In view of fatal consequence of the additional spending cut on defense, Frum urged defense hawks to act to stop the sequestration (“Defense Hawks, America Needs You Now”; Daily Beast; January 31,2013). Military operations and equipments are not the only victims of this defense cut. Administrative and logistical tasks, and civilian employment are also sacrificed (“Budget Crisis Impact Laid Out By U.S. Navy”; Defense News; January25, 2013). In addition, training will be curtailed drastically (“Army: 78% OfCombat Brigades Will Skip Training Due To Sequester, CR”; AOL Defense; February5, 2013). Those negative impacts will pose considerable constraints on US foreign policy to manage crises on two fronts simultaneously. In order to avoid this, the Foreign Policy Initiatives sent an open letter to leaders of the Democrat andthe Republican parties at the Senate and the House on February 19. However, the White House and the Hill failed to reach an agreement.The sequester starts from a 20 percent pay cut for military technicians  (“Sequester causes military spending cuts”; WTHI-TV News; 2 March 2013).

The world needs America capable of managing crises on two fronts. From this perspective, we should welcome Washington’s policy turn suggested by Biden’s speech at Munich. There are no reasons for the United States to act like Britain at the time of the fall of Singapore. Obama’s failure to manage partisan split has undermined America’s leadership on the global stage. The Munich speech and Secretary Kerry’s first official trip may be the start of restoring the trans-Atlantic alliance and Middle East involvement. The combined effect of sequester and strategic re-pivot needs further observation.