A debate has raged for the past few months about what to call President Obama’s Asian strategy. To be honest, it really doesn’t matter whether you call the shift toward Asia a pivot, a refocus or a rebalancing. What does matter is that it’s a relatively hollow move which belies something of much greater concern: The administration is effectively jeopardizing American national security interests by promoting a foreign policy approach far too reliant on soft-power diplomacy.
Although coined by Joseph Nye, the practice of soft-power diplomacy is of course nothing new. It has always played some role in American foreign policy — even in the days of gunboat diplomacy. However, it has never before served as the central tenant of American foreign policy strategy because previous administrations always recognized that soft-power diplomacy does not work in the absence of hard-power leverage. That is why we have continuously invested in the world’s most dominant military.
As Americans, we must be realistic about our future. There is no guarantee that the balance of power in Asia will remain in America’s favor. Sending a few thousand Marines to Australia or convening meetings with regional partners might serve as nice data points at news conferences. But, they are not enough to ensure that the United States remains dominant in the Western Pacific. We need to do something far more substantive than what the Obama administration has done to date.
The problem with the administration’s current approach is the unwillingness to make hard decisions when it comes to reorienting the U.S. military’s force structure in the Pacific. Obama officials are not willing to commit to developing new platforms and weapons systems required to counter emerging threats emanating from Asia. Instead, they promote public diplomacy and strategic communications that do little more than send mixed signals to potential strategic competitors.
The South China Sea is a great example. When the United States closed its bases in the Philippines, America lost its hard-power leverage in the region. A power vacuum was created when the Association of Southeast Asian Nations could not match the strategic influence of the U.S. forward presence. This, in effect, provided China with an opportunity to challenge the regional order and redraw the borders in its favor. What did China do? It pounced at this opportunity — exactly as realists would expect.
The point here is that the United States cannot rely on soft-power diplomacy alone to promote our interests in Asia. We need to establish a strong forward presence in the region that sends the right signal to potential regional competitors that the U.S. is not going to allow others to challenge peace and stability in the region through coercive actions. This is not about containing others but it is about maintaining primacy. We should not shy away from saying that is our objective.
In the end, the United States cannot continue to be caught empty-handed in Asia. We need the Obama administration to be far more decisive in implementing the change required to ensure our primacy in the region. Politics aside, we cannot afford to see our Asia pivot devolve into another Russian re-set fiasco — the stakes are just too high. That’s why we need the Obama administration to reconsider its approach in Asia even though it’s an election year, when domestic issues predominate.
Eddie Walsh is an Asia-Pacific foreign-policy specialist.