Around the Institute

Explaining and Sustaining the Pivot (Rebalance) to Asia

March 5, 2014  • Kurt Campbell, Guest Blogger

This excerpt from The Future of American Defense, a publication of The Aspen Strategy Group at the Aspen Institute, edited by Nicholas Burns and Jonathon Price, first ran in The Aspen Idea magazine. 

The United States will continue with its pivot—or better—its rebalancing of strategic equities to Asia. But it is in America’s profound interests, as well as Asia’s, that this process be undertaken responsibly. A paradox then of the pivot: American attempts to grow its power and prestige in Asia will be judged in part by how it honors both enduring American and Asian interests in the Middle East.

Still, while the American rebalance is broadly supported across Asia—and perhaps as importantly, across the political spectrum in the United States—the policy faces a number of challenges as it moves forward.

The term “rebalance” is a better moniker for the policy because it suggests a process of continual adjustment and fine-tuning, and this is exactly what the circumstances in modern Asia demand. A successful Asia strategy will require effective and continual innovation—bounded by enduring constants and predictability—but this will be a difficult balancing act to maintain over time. This underscores one of the central challenges of sustaining Asia policy—not money, warships, or trade statistics, but people. After more than a decade of war in the Middle East, the U.S. has trained and promoted an entire generation of soldiers, diplomats, and intelligence specialists on the arcana of ethnic rivalry in Iraq, tribal differences in Afghanistan, post-conflict reconstruction strategies, special forces and drone tactics, and how to build civil-military cells for local empowerment. There has been no comparable effort for developing a sustained Asian cadre of expertise across the U.S. government, and a surprising number of senior government officials make their maiden visits to the region at the peak of their power as cabinet officials and senior-most officials (and also near the end of their careers). It is not reasonable to expect even the most accomplished public servant to be able to navigate the contours of Asia’s complexities without substantial prior experience.

In addition, the Asian pivot will be buffeted by twin simultaneous geographic pressures. On the one hand, it will be difficult to transition more time and attention to Asia as long as pressing foreign policy and security issues continue to manifest themselves across the Middle East. Syria, Egypt, Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Middle East peace process all require enormous, ongoing attention and resources, taking badly needed focus from Asia. On the other hand, there will be a growing pressure to come home. At the conclusion of every modern American conflict—World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War, and Gulf War I—there was a demonstrable gravitational pull to come home from the fighting and focus on domestic pursuits. The current winding down from 13 years of war has triggered similar insular dynamics. While the internationalist and strong defense strains in American politics in recent years have been remarkably durable, there are emerging subtle (and not so subtle) signs in Congress that we indeed may be entering a new era where a strong American engagement abroad—even in areas critical to our economic well-being like Asia—is called into question.

Kurt Campbell served as the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs from 2009 to 2013. He currently serves as Chairman and CEO of The Asia Group, LLC.