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Why Obama Is Looking West

The nations that ring the Pacific have half the world's consumers, half the world’s trade, and half the global GDP. No wonder the administration is quietly shifting its policies westward.
Why Obama Is Looking West

With little fanfare and far less media awareness than one might expect, last fall the Obama administration initiated a series of defense-policy moves that amount to the most significant transformation of America’s military position in the world since the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union collapsed. This new defense posture may even rework the post–World War II order itself. After all, if we are witnessing the dwindling in importance of Europe, a withdrawal from insoluble Middle East and South Asian crises, the inexorable pull of a growing China, and America turning to face the Pacific rather than the Atlantic, this is no small matter.

The transformation began with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s article, “America’s Pacific Century,” in the November 2011 issue of Foreign Policy, announcing “a pivot point” away from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and “a strategic turn” toward the Asia-Pacific realm — now said to be “a key driver of global politics,” where nearly half the world’s population lives and where “key engines” of the world economy reside. The security of those engines, she wrote, “has long been guaranteed by the U.S. military.” Soon enough she showed up in pariah-state Burma, now apparently democratizing, and announced a resumption of diplomatic relations with one of China’s closest allies.

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama traveled to Australia to establish a new American military base on the underpopulated north coast, not far from the Malacca Straits, through which passes most of the petroleum fueling East Asian growth. Some 2,500 U.S. Marines will soon rotate through the small city of Darwin. Shortly after his visit, with domestic attention focused on the economy, the Republican presidential contest, and the holiday season, Obama brought a definitive end to the Iraq War by calling home the last U.S. combat forces. Then, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta used the New Year's holiday to announce a departure from the “two-war” posture that had defined Pentagon strategy for the past six decades — the capability to fight large wars along both the central front, in Europe, and in East Asia. He also indicated that the “nuclear triad” of air, naval, and land forces was outmoded, particularly in the light of new “smart” technologies that can pinpoint targets anywhere in the world. The seemingly endless European crisis over debt in Greece, Portugal, and Spain, with the future of the euro and the European Union itself hanging in the balance, added its own punctuation to the eclipse of Europe and the dawn of a new Pacific era.


Remember that, since 1945, American bases remain, and the troops have never come home from our major wars, except for Vietnam (and if Washington had found a way to permanently divide Vietnam, troops would have remained there as well). Many new military outposts appeared in the Middle East and Central Asia with the wars in the Persian Gulf, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Having written much about this archipelago of bases, which always had the dual motive of containing an enemy and constraining an ally (by creating defense dependencies among our economic competitors, such as Japan, Germany, and South Korea), I wasn’t surprised that Hillary Clinton called attention to the enormous U.S. military presence in East Asia. But I was stunned that Obama actually meant it when he said all of our combat soldiers would be out of Iraq by 2012. (If a civil war develops again in Iraq, perhaps our troops will return, but as of this writing, they seem gone for good.) Panetta, on the other hand, may have just been running new ideas up the flagpole to see what happened, because he later appeared to retreat from giving up the two-war strategy and the nuclear triad. But big defense cuts are in the offing, and this new posture may win out; certainly most people outside the Air Force find it odd that the 60-year-old B-52 bomber is still part of one important leg of a nuclear triad directed against no credible enemy.

The pivot toward the Pacific seems to place Europe in the shade — Panetta wants to remove as many as 10,000 American soldiers from the Continent. And it arrives during the Arab Spring — a time when the Middle East is not necessarily heading in a direction Americans will welcome (strains in our alliance with Egypt; Libya still in chaos; unpredictable outcomes from the possible fall of the Syrian regime) — and amid loud rumors of war, likely a catastrophic war, if Israel attacks Iran’s nuclear facilities. If you ask what significant Middle Eastern solutions the U.S. has provided in the past generation, the only answer is the 1978 Camp David Accords, now perhaps unraveling in part because of the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the most serious strains in memory between Washington and Jerusalem.

By contrast, the Asia-Pacific region seems placid, like the great ocean itself. Burma is moving in a startling and utterly unanticipated pro-Western direction. The only fly in the ointment is North Korea — the same old fly since 1953, and one that is likely to be preoccupied for the next several years with the grooming of young Kim Jong-un for his seat at the apex of that garrison state. The Obama administration was the first since the Cold War’s end to pay little or no attention to nuclear-armed North Korea, but in February 2012, it appeared to succeed in capping, if not eliminating, the North’s nuclear-weapon and long-range-missile programs. The administration has also sought to heal rifts with Tokyo, over U.S. bases in Okinawa (which brought down the Hatoyama cabinet in 2010), and with Seoul, over changes to the U.S. defense posture in South Korea (relations were at their all-time worst from 2002 — 2007, when George W. Bush and President Roh Moo-hyun were barely on speaking terms). Along a great crescent from Rangoon to Darwin to Manila — with ongoing negotiations to send more U.S. forces there — to Seoul to Pyongyang to Tokyo, the United States is bolstering its position in Southeast and East Asia, with China in the sharpest focus.


The Pacific Centuries

There have been previous spasms of American attention to and rhetoric about the centrality of the Pacific and China, but these have generally come to naught. The first was in the heyday of “Manifest Destiny,” in the 1840s, as California came into the union, and when many people were imagining America to be a Pacific power — even the “middle country” linking Asia to Europe. Perhaps the most florid of the Asia-firsters back then was William Gilpin, who, according to Wallace Stegner in Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, saw the American West “through a blaze of mystical fervor, as part of a grand geopolitical design, the overture to global harmony; and his conception of its resources and its future as a home for millions was as grandiose as his rhetoric, as unlimited as his faith, as splendid as his capacity for inaccuracy.” A newly rising city caught Gilpin’s fancy; he thought the Atlantic and Pacific worlds would come together in Denver: “We consent to face about. The rear becomes the front: Asia in the front, Europe in the rear.” But what was the main point of the various exhortations of the time to bring “Golden Cathay” to St. Louis or the “twinkling sails” of American ships to Canton? Really to restart ancient Asian trade routes? No, the point was the build the transcontinental railroad (the high-technology conveyance of the era), linking sea to shining sea. Later, Gilpin even imagined a railroad linking the U.S. to Eurasia by way of the Bering Strait!

An ocean of similar rhetoric poured forth in that decade, and propelled Commodore Matthew Perry toward his historic rendezvous with a cloistered Japan in 1853. But soon the Civil War diverted attention away from the Pacific, and toward an enormous industrial buildup in the Midwest, centered on a rising city named Chicago. The Midwest was the most productive combine in the world for a century following the Civil War, as steel, corn, pork, and beef poured out of Chicago, autos out of Detroit, coal out of West Virginia, iron ore out of Minnesota. Exploiting and developing the enormous national market occupied Americans until another war came in 1941, providing a tipping point toward the rapid industrial development of the West Coast. The Pacific states, and particularly the future Silicon Valley, benefited tremendously from war procurements, developing new technologies in electronics, microwaves, and the ultimate high technology, nuclear weapons — administered through the most expensive government program in history, the Manhattan Project.

World War II completed the creation of a national, industrialized continent open to Europe, Latin America, and the Pacific, but the aftermath of the war in Europe and then the Cold War led to half a century of Atlanticism in U.S. foreign policy, neatly bookended by Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. In that time, the Midwestern cities declined into a rust belt as older industries migrated to countries with cheaper labor costs. In the 1970s and ’80s, America got the second coming of pacificist rhetoric when Japan’s sudden economic prowess drew attention to something called the “Pacific Rim.” Before then, East Asia had been “painted Red” — its core was "Peiping" and 400 million Chinese armed with nuclear weapons that, in Dean Rusk’s 1960s scenario, threatened South Korea, South Vietnam, Taiwan, and Indonesia with oblivion. “Pacific Rim” was the post-1975 description that revalued the region — as a place of forward movement, and backward occlusion — as Americans sought to “put Vietnam behind us.” In the new analogy, the rim became the locus of a reverse dynamism, now placing pressure back upon the mainland of Asia. In the new inventory were the “miracle” economies of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Singapore. The region’s centerpiece was Japan, a newly risen sun among advanced industrial countries — indeed, it had risen to the very top, as Ezra Vogel said in his perfectly timed book, Japan as Number One (1979). A decade later, the country seemed more like a threat, and we were getting books with titles like The Coming War With Japan. And then the rhetoric and bombast fizzled in the 1990s, as Japan’s bubble burst and it reverted to insignificance in American eyes. In the next decade, we were preoccupied with 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet today, Obama’s Pacific pivot seems inevitable, and serious, and permanent. It also harks back to American strategies that got East Asian industrial growth off the mark after the devastation of the Pacific War.


The Great Crescent.” I wish this were my coinage, but it was Dean Acheson’s at the dawn of the Cold War, when, as Harry Truman’s secretary of state, he sought a revival of the devastated Japanese and German industrial economies, fueled by an ocean of Middle Eastern oil then sloshing into world markets. It was a crescent stretching, in his words, “from Alexandria to Tokyo.”  Cheap energy, revived industrial structures, mass production and mass consumption: here was the ticket to bringing “the American way” to Japan and Western Europe, as consumers hopped into their Toyotas, Volkswagens, Fiats, and Renaults, and sped into the future — the wars that wracked the first half of the 20th century receding in their rearview mirrors. Acheson’s adviser George F. Kennan was more of a “realist”; his containment doctrine said, in essence, that you need your own advanced industrial base to be serious about war-making. We had four in our zone and the Soviets had one, and containment meant keeping things that way.

American military bases in Japan, West Germany, Great Britain, France, Italy, Spain — our allies — provided essentially “free” security. The Japanese and German militaries — the forces that brought on World War II — became inconsequential constabularies. The Harvard historian Charles Maier and others have referred to all this as a “productivist” coalition, working in tandem to produce “miracle” economies in West Germany, Japan, and subsequently South Korea and Taiwan. This coalition so dramatically outperformed most of the Communist world that the latter essentially threw in the towel at the beginning of the 1990s.

Not China. Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, had famously remarked that “a socialist train running late is better than a capitalist train on time”; this sounded like the purest poppycock to Deng Xiaoping, who — in full command by 1979 — asked whether China wanted to crawl along at a snail’s pace, or take a lesson from Japan and South Korea. In the 1980s, Chinese leaders like Zhao Ziyang invented “the new authoritarianism,” a theoretical legitimation for a strong (Communist) state guiding a booming (capitalist) economy along the path of export-led growth. It was wildly successful: if China’s near-double-digit economic growth continues for a few more years, it will be the strongest growth in recorded history. South Korea’s and Taiwan’s GDP grew at an average of about 9.4 percent per year from the mid-1960s to the late 1990s; China’s annual growth rate since 1979 has been about the same.


A New Crescent

The new productivist coalition is similar — centered on a rapidly growing country exporting to the capacious American market, moving up the technological ladder from toys to textiles to autos and steel. It just happens to be run by Communists. But the Great Crescent today is rather different. Middle Eastern oil is still critical, but it is declining in importance, as new oil and gas sources and alternative fuels gain traction, and as China has so polluted its environment that its only solution is to try to somehow stop burning oil and coal.

Instead, we should think of a North Pacific crescent that encompasses the most dynamic core in the world economy — not this or that country, but complex human exchange across an expansive ocean. When talking about a coming miracle or menace, many writers assume that nations compete with each other. But as Paul Krugman showed in his book Pop Internationalism, they don’t: industries compete, firms compete, and exports and imports don’t add up. According to one estimate, about one-quarter of China’s exports to the U.S. consist of Walmart subsidiaries making things and sending them back to  ... Walmart. In contrast to the Japanese and South Korean models, China has allowed much more direct foreign investment — $50 billion by U.S. firms alone, according to Hillary Clinton’s Foreign Policy essay. Absent the American market, the Chinese economy would collapse. Absent Beijing’s willingness to pile up more than $1 trillion in U.S. debt, our economy might collapse. The Pacific crescent is a multifaceted, multilayered web of interdependence.

Half the world’s population lives in the Asia-Pacific region, Clinton wrote. True, but that is far less important than the fact that the region conducts half the world’s trade, has more than half of the buyers of American goods, and earns almost half of the global GDP. When you add in the $2.4 trillion GDP of America’s contiguous Pacific states (California, Oregon, and Washington) — collectively almost as big as France’s GDP — and remember the hundreds of millions of producers and consumers along this arc, you have the most dynamic region in the world economy, which will surely be true for decades to come.

This crescent starts in San Diego; moves up the coast through Los Angeles, Silicon Valley, Portland, and Seattle; goes around the Aleutians to Tokyo, Seoul, Taipei, and Beijing; then travels down to Shanghai, Hong Kong and Shenzhen, and Singapore. The crescent encompasses the top three national economies in the world, vibrant cities that hold tens of millions of well-educated people, and city-states more prosperous than any others in the world. In any of these places, including presumably tired and wheezing Japan, you see affluence and high-tech solutions to the intractable problems that plague the middle regions of the U.S.: bullet trains speed from Tokyo to Osaka, from Shanghai to Beijing; Seoul is the most wired city in the world; two city-states, Hong Kong and Singapore, had a combined GDP of half a trillion dollars; and all of these places are home to bright young people who score high on global math and science tests. California by itself is another Italy in GDP; Japan’s economy is 60 percent bigger than the highly productive German economy; South Korea’s GDP is approaching the size of Spain’s; Silicon Valley and Seattle are unmatched in high-tech prowess.

The financial crash in September 2008 stimulated another period of handwringing about American decline, but just like previous recessions in the past 40 years, you can live in Detroit (median household income: $25,787 in 2010) and experience a postindustrial nightmare, or travel to San Francisco ($71,745) or Seattle ($60,212) or Silicon Valley (estimated GDP: $176 billion, nearly the GDP of Ireland) and witness incredible affluence and be at the high-tech core of the global economy. Real estate prices are again skyrocketing in Silicon Valley, as employees reap the riches of Facebook’s initial public offering. Try to name one significant technology that China (or Japan, for that matter) has that we don’t, and you see why China is no security threat to the U.S. — and the Chinese know this better than anybody.

China’s ubiquitous slogan, “peaceful rise” (heping jueqi), makes logic out of necessity. With America’s commander in chief of the Pacific forces (CINCPAC) headquartered in Pearl Harbor, and watching 52 percent of the Earth’s surface with an air, sea, and land armada unmatched in world history, only fools — like the doddering Soviet elite in the 1980s — would dare field a blue-water navy that was not in CINCPAC’s harness to begin with (as the Japanese and South Korean navies are). When another country can send a Trident submarine (Armageddon in one black tube) gliding up to your coast anytime it wants, or take down your infrastructure in a hailstorm of pinpointed cruise missiles while people sip lattes in a Starbucks two blocks away, your rise had better be peaceful. (The Iraq War illustrates that America has no idea what to do after it pulverizes your economy, but that doesn’t negate the point.)

The export-led revolution that began in Japan in the 1950s has migrated to China, and poses a direct threat to our older, less competitive industries. But today and for the next couple of decades, at least, China poses no real military threat to the U.S. The challenge that Obama’s Pacific strategy faces — one Secretary Clinton has frequently talked about — is to find a way to bring China into Asia-Pacific institutions and agreements that the U.S. influences on a first-among-equals basis. The current preferred arrangement is the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which includes many nations in the region — but not China, unless it agrees to lower trade barriers. Ongoing negotiations may bring China into the partnership, or not. But the talks attest to another American effort to lead and shape this region, and China’s position in it.


The Obama pivot acknowledges three essential facts, and quietly asserts a venerable but largely overlooked American codicil. First, the North Pacific is today, and will be for the long term, the center of the world economy; second, Europe’s long ascendancy in the modern world is ending; third, the long American involvement in the Middle East has come to naught. The U.S. has intervened almost everywhere in the Middle East (Iran, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Libya) but has failed to solve just about every problem or crisis, going back to 1953 when it conspired with the British to overthrow a democratically elected regime in Tehran (and you can draw a direct line from that to the Ayatollah’s 1979 revolution to our present enmity with Iran). Meanwhile, Washington has relied on one feudal sultanate or monarchy after another to extract petroleum from under the desert and spew it into the sky, pushing our environment to intolerable limits.

Obama’s quiet assertion, this “Pacific pivot” exploiting the hundreds of military bases we operate in the region (more or less hidden in plain sight), goes back to Acheson’s political economy and Kennan’s realpolitik. Namely, if you want a productivist coalition to succeed, you have to provide a public good called security, which has the dual advantage of scaring off potential enemies and ensuring that allied countries stay inside their defense harnesses. That way, you avoid Japanese and German militarists and Korean civil wars. China’s distinction is that it is the one great economy in the world that is still outside the harness — and so you build new bases and reinforce old ones all along its perimeter, make friends with pariah states like Burma, and who knows, maybe you even cotton up to Kim Jong-un.

This article appeared in the May-June issue of Pacific Standard under the title “Sea Change.”