Pivot, Rebalance, or Reinvigorate? Words Matter in U.S. Strategy toward Asia

At an event last Friday on the Ukraine crisis and possible implications for U.S. foreign policy in Asia on the eve of President Obama’s trip there this week, Senior Fellow Kenneth Lieberthal said that “words and attention” matter in terms of how U.S. strategy is seen in the Asia-Pacific region. His opening comments during the panel discussion are printed below; of particular interest is his discussion of the terms used to describe U.S. strategy toward the Asia-Pacific region: “pivot,” “rebalance,” or “reinvigorate,” which is the term Lieberthal says should have been used from the start.

Let me say first of all, words and attention matter. And so it’s not just a matter of $10 billion [the amount of defense spending that panelist Michael O’Hanlon said the U.S. planned to reallocate to Asia]. One of the things about the military dimension of the rebalance strategy is there was an assurance that the military commitment for Asia would not decline despite obvious future downward pressure on the defense budget. So there’s an issue of priority and conceptualization. And here I think the Obama administration saw the rebalance toward Asia as perhaps its biggest strategic framework statement in its first term in office.

The idea was to reinvigorate attention paid to the Asia-Pacific region after enormous focus on—for obvious reasons after 9/11—Iraq, Afghanistan, and the global war on terror. And recognizing that the Asia-Pacific is by far and away the most dynamic region in the world,  U.S. interests require that we enhance our engagement there and certainly not be seen as neglecting the region for other priorities.

This required conceptualizing and implementing an Asian-wide integrated strategy. In other words, integrating economic, military and diplomatic components of strategy, not separately toward Northeast Asia, China and Southeast Asia, but having an integrated approach to the entire region. Anyone who has worked on the National Security Council or at the top of the State Department or the Defense Department and tried to integrate policy toward all of Asia knows that we’ve never been able to do that effectively. It’s a very high bar and at least putting it actively on the agenda I thought was an impressive goal to seek and to pursue. And then all of this was to assure that America would play an ongoing role in Asia and would devote sufficient resources to that by way of protecting those resources in the U.S. budget.

Now, we’ve heard three different terms used even among the first three speakers [on this panel]. … “Rebalance” was the original name of this strategy. That frankly was contentious within the administration. There were some in the administration, not in the White House, who wanted to call it a “pivot”—jazzier, sharper. Who cares about rebalancing when you can pivot? But the difference is substantial in terms of the implications of what you are doing, especially since we were drawing down in the Middle East. “We can pivot to Asia” sounds like that’s now the center of everything and the rest is by-the-by.

The third term that’s been used and one that I think actually should have been used from the start and really describes what we were seeking to do was to “reinvigorate.” We never left Asia. We’ve had huge interests out there. We haven’t neglected them, but we’ve put so much attention elsewhere that reinvigorating the effort to Asia would have put us in the right position, to my mind. Unfortunately with the kind of contention among these terms, very quickly “pivot” won out. And here [on this panel] we’ve been more balanced, but if you look at the popular discourse it’s all about the “pivot” to Asia.

When you say “pivot to Asia” it raises three questions that have been very much in the minds of various audiences in Asia about what they should expect and how they evaluate the future of this policy, what this policy will be able to really produce.

First of all, to what extent does success of the “pivot” (pivot in quotes for me at least) in the future depend upon an assumption that the Mideast will go smoothly and that Europe will not again become a major problem? If you think of it as a “pivot” in the literal sense of the world, that’s an obvious concern.

Secondly, to what extent does the credibility of the “pivot” depend upon overcoming dysfunctionality in Washington that may make even a very high-quality executive branch policy not very credible in implementation?

And then thirdly, can the U.S. deliver on both economic and security elements in a way that is credible to allies and partners in the region, but also avoids the trap of falling into making China the bulls-eye of the policy rather than making China a central component of the policy?

Something that sounds like a rhetorical distinction [between “bulls-eye” and “central component”] is in fact a fundamental distinction because China is at the center of Asia. It is the largest trading partner of virtually every country in Asia, including all of our allies. And so if you can build China in in a constructive fashion (and that’s not easy), if you can stay on that side of the line, then you really are achieving greater stability in Asia and a huge U.S. role there. If China is on the other side of the line and Asia becomes increasingly divided [and] countries feel they have to choose one or the other, there’s not a single country that would regard that as a successful American effort. Every country says what they want to do is have America handle the relationship with China “wisely.” Which is to say, don’t let China steamroller us, but don’t divide Asia over China. Don’t force us to choose either [one]. 

So with that as background, let me just briefly take a look at where we stand in Asia on views of the pivot as the president goes out there.

I think the developments from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf, added to the recent developments in Ukraine, made many feel that their sense of the key premise of the pivot—it relies on not having things go wrong elsewhere—is now really quite questionable. And so countries on the president’s trip will be looking, among other things, for strong and skillful reassurance both on the president’s security commitments and on the administration’s related tactical skills in assuring that those commitments produce desired results.

Secondly, in terms of U.S. political dysfunction, in terms of delivering needed congressional support, the initial news was bad. Sequester, the president having to cancel his last major trip to Asia because the government was shut down, pessimism over the trade promotion authority and therefore over ability to deliver on a Trans-Pacific Partnership if that is successfully negotiated—all these are certainly major concerns.

But they shouldn’t be seen in isolation, because there is a widespread appreciation in Asia of the economic recovery of the U.S. We are now the strongest growing economy of the industrialized world and a lot of the rapidly growing, big emerging markets are now encountering a lot of trouble. The president has used executive authority through the EPA to actually establish a pretty good record on meeting commitments on greenhouse gas emission reduction. And there’s greater confidence that the U.S. will avoid another government shutdown or debt ceiling crisis. So I think on balance there is more confidence that the U.S. is still capable of real economic dynamism. And that is huge in expectations of expectations of the U.S. role in Asia.

There are still concerns about government dysfunction. I think TPP, if it gets negotiated and submitted to the Congress, will be a critical test of that with enormous repercussions, positive or negative, depending on how we go.

Finally, the issue of whether China is the bulls-eye or China is a central part of our reinvigoration strategy toward Asia that we can handle well—we want to make it the latter. There is a lot of pressure that pushes the administration, at least tactically, to make comments and commitments that the Chinese would interpret as the former. And I think one of the real tests of the administration in the coming months and years will be how they are able to stay on a constructive side of what is a very difficult line. … How Ukraine plays out will be one of the elements that will shape that assessment.

Lieberthal was joined by Senior Fellows Michael O’Hanlon, Jonathan Pollack, and Steven Pifer in the event, which was moderated by Visiting Fellow Jeremy Shapiro.

Listen to the event’s audio below or visit the event’s page for more information.