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What will become of the Asia “pivot”—the Obama administration’s “rebalance to Asia”—in Donald Trump’s America? One guy’s guess: less will change than you might think. The logic behind the pivot is timeless and compelling—even for a president-elect who flouts convention with glee. Asia will remain central to US foreign policy and strategy even as—perhaps—Europe reclaims its former stature within that space.
Now, the terminology—pivot, rebalance—may change. Incoming presidential administrations famously distance themselves from their predecessors—especially when those predecessors come from a rival party. The pivot is an Obama administration artefact, and thus might appear destined for the political refuse heap.
But although Secretary of State Hillary Clinton coined the term in a Foreign Policy essay back in 2011, the concept of a military and diplomatic swing from the Atlantic theatre to maritime Asia long antedates the Obama administration. Indeed, it represents a bipartisan venture stretching back to the George W. Bush years, if not to the Cold War’s aftermath a quarter-century ago.
Moreover, the pivot’s underlying logic—a logic holding that America should balance against domineering countries or alliances in Eurasia—dates back over a century.
In short, the pivot is a strategic concept grounded in longstanding US foreign policy traditions. And it commands across-the-spectrum appeal. President-elect Trump is a foreign-policy rulebreaker—witness his recent phone conversation with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, which cast doubt on Washington’s “One-China policy”. Nevertheless, oddsmakers versed in US history might wager that the pivot will survive the impending changeover of power at the White House.
Why? Let’s investigate the history, geography and maritime strategy impelling the pivot to Asia. The pivot’s prehistory dates back at least a century, to the fin de siècle age when the US began its ascent to world power. Those were the days when geopolitical thinkers like Theodore Roosevelt and Alfred Thayer Mahan started pondering the purposes to which the US should put its waxing diplomatic, economic and military power.
Their ideas had a saltwater flavour, which makes sense: the US Navy constituted the long arm of US foreign policy until military aviation made its debut in the 1910s. (And even after, as the scope for integration increased and naval aviation came into its own.)
Roosevelt, Mahan and kindred naval proponents beseeched Americans to concentrate their attention and energies on what Yale scholar Nicholas Spykman, writing during World War II, would dub the “rimlands” of Western Europe and East Asia. Rimlands were coastal zones from which an enemy could project armed force across the oceans into the Americas—and to which Americans needed access to export the wares churned out by domestic industry.
Navalists, consequently, entertained both defensive and offensive aims for an outward-reaching US foreign policy. In the realm of military defence, they wanted to prevent hostile powers from dominating either of the rimlands.
If, say, Germany were to conquer Western Europe, including the British Isles, it would gain control of the Royal Navy—the world’s strongest fleet. Berlin would usurp enough martial strength from its neighbours to project power across the Atlantic Ocean. And a similar cataclysm could come about in the Far East. Japanese conquests, for example, would pose a threat to the Philippine Islands, the Asian archipelago wrested from Spain in 1898. An Asia-straddling Japan might even menace North America.
The rise of hostile powers wouldn’t do, insisted geopolitical scribes. It behooved the US leadership to help European and Asian powers “balance” against—and, ideally, forestall—burgeoning challenges. By throwing US diplomatic, economic and military resources onto the scales, Washington would help weaker powers in Europe and the Far East stare down overbearing neighbours potentially hostile to the US. Balancing might deter war. Or if it did break out, US military might could help prevent an antagonist from overrunning the rimlands.
China’s Beiyang Fleet was met in battle at the Korean west coast by imperial Japan’s navy and defeated, overturning Asia’s Sinocentric order. Coming in the wake of a series of unequal treaties, Opium Wars and European occupation of its seaports, it hastened the collapse of China’s dynastic order and ushered in its century of humiliation.
This was a defensive strategy displaying an offensive tincture: defensive goals, offensive methods. Seldom did US statesmen or commanders explain their balancing purposes as overtly or clearly as Theodore Roosevelt did. Still, the US fought two world wars and a Cold War in Western Europe and the Far East. Part of Washington’s strategy for those conflicts was keeping the rimlands fragmented, beyond the grasp of would-be “hegemons”—strong states such as Germany, Japan and the Soviet Union.
The focal point for the US’s balancing strategy shifted around as the rimlands came under threat or enjoyed periods of calm. World War I, for instance, was a mainly European affair. Washington’s balancing effort remained confined to amassing an expeditionary army, constructing the wherewithal to supply and transport that army, defeating German U-boats in the Atlantic Ocean, and landing the army in France.
Meanwhile, the East Asian rimland was quiet, letting US leaders concentrate on Eurasia’s west. World War II and the Cold War, by contrast, were truly global affairs—compelling statesmen and commanders to divide their attention and energies between the rimlands.
The Cold War’s end muted threats to Western Europe around the same time China commenced its economic and military rise by the mid-1990s. East Asia took on new prominence in US strategic thinking as a consequence—and the US Navy started gradually swinging forces from Atlantic to Pacific.
Think about it: the Obama administration’s pivot envisions stationing 60 per cent of the sea service’s ships, planes and manpower in the Pacific theatre by 2020. The 60/40 ratio is old news for segments of the US Navy. For instance, 60 per cent of US Navy nuclear-powered attack submarines already called the Pacific home by 2006—fully five years before the pivot’s inception.
In 2007, moreover, the US Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard published a triservice Maritime Strategy that vowed to stage “credible combat power” in the Western Pacific, Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf for the foreseeable future. In effect, the service chiefs declared the Western European rimland a safe zone, while at the same designating the East and South Asian rimlands as primary theatres for US maritime endeavor.
USS Carl Vinson, a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier of the US Navy, in the Indian Ocean (file photo, 2009)
The upshot: the Indian Ocean replaced the Atlantic as the second ocean for what remains a two-ocean US Navy. The 2015 revision to the 2007 Maritime Strategy reaffirmed the sea services’ Asia-centric outlook. In a sense, then, the Obama administration merely ratified and made explicit a subterranean realignment in US maritime strategy that had commenced in the 1990s.
Balancing is an obvious strategic choice for the US, now as in the age of Teddy Roosevelt. It is a bipartisan venture of long standing. President-elect Trump and his cabinet may—and probably will—adjust US maritime strategy and force posture in the coming years. That they would break with US geopolitical traditions altogether beggars belief.
This leads to the second dimension of the pivot: geography. Many commentators in North America and Europe have allowed maps to lie to them about the rebalance. They reprimand Washington for “turning its back” on Europe to pivot to the Pacific, and they typically implore Washington to “pivot back” to the Atlantic basin. Such arguments make sense only if you look solely at a standard Mercator world map. America looks east to Europe—ergo, if it pivots to the Pacific, it must swivel 180 degrees to the west to gaze toward Beijing, Tokyo or Seoul. That’s what the map says—right?
Not so much. If the Indian and Pacific oceans constitute the main show for the US sea services, how do ships get there from their homeports? Well, they journey to the Far East from the US west coast, or from island bases such as Hawaii or Guam. Straightforward. But they voyage to the Indian Ocean from east-coast seaports. They set out from, say, Norfolk, Virginia, and traverse the Atlantic Ocean, Mediterranean Sea and Red Sea. That comprises their shortest, most convenient route to the Indian Ocean or Persian Gulf.
Now toss out that Mercator map and look at a polar projection. To reach their theatres of operation, US-based task forces sweep around each side of Eurasia. If US leaders peer along the route between the east coast and the Indian Ocean, they are peering at that all-important Mediterranean waterway—just to the European rimland’s south.
The US presidential polls were a rage in countries like Taiwan, with live telecast of results drawing big crowds
So Washington may have deflected its strategic gaze a few degrees to Europe’s south, and it may be looking at Europe as a facilitator for US maritime strategy in Asia. What it has not done is turn its back on Europe!
Nor is it likely to. Strategy is about setting and enforcing priorities, lest a state fritter away economic and military resources aimlessly. Even if the Trump administration does reapportion forces among the Western European, South Asian and East Asian rimlands, it’s doubtful in the extreme that it will abandon friends and allies in any Eurasian theatre.
And lastly, maritime strategy. President-elect Trump went on record during this year’s campaign in favour of a 350-ship US Navy. That constitutes a sizable boost from today’s 272-ship fleet, and from the 308-ship goal the naval leadership set back in 2014. It more or less aligns with the navy’s new wishlist: in mid-December the service released a study espousing a 355-ship force.
As it happens, the difference between a 308- and 350-ship navy is almost precisely the number of vessels the Congressional Research Service estimates it would take to re-establish the US Sixth Fleet—the navy’s Mediterranean fleet—as a serious fighting force. The Sixth Fleet languished after the Cold War, dwindling to a command ship based in Italy and a few destroyers in Spain. Rejuvenating it would let the navy safeguard passage through the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean while also counterbalancing Russia in Europe and the Levant.
A bigger US Navy, in short, would help the US continue pivoting to Asia while restoring something resembling America’s traditional balancing posture in the Western European rimland. A larger navy, in other words, would hand the Trump administration a heavier, sharper implement for balancing against opponents all around the Eurasian periphery. Fortifying US maritime might does not signal that the incoming administration intends to let Russia, China or Iran overrun the rimlands unopposed.
Far from it. Judging by his choices for key national security posts—retired US Marine Corps general James Mattis, a former Middle East regional commander, as secretary of defense, or Congressman Randy Forbes, a tireless proponent of a brawnier US Navy, as secretary of the navy—Trump will take a more, not less, forceful approach to the American balancing mission in Eurasia.
If so, the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia—an eminently worthwhile enterprise—will persevere under new management. Friends and allies can take heart, prospective foes will weep bitter tears, and the US will remain true to its strategic heritage.
One can hope.
(The writer is professor of strategy at the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, and co-author of Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010. The views voiced here are his alone.)