Barack Obama’s new defence strategy caps the most important year in American foreign policy for a decade. Whatever grade one gives to the president’s decisions, they are certainly consequential, adding up to the most profound shift in US foreign policy since the convulsive period between September 2001 and August 2002.
The shift is reflected in the planned defence posture outlined last week by the Obama administration, which makes clear that the “Atlantic community” is being eclipsed by the rising Asia-Pacific one.
Some of the Asia-Pacific move reflects older initiatives; some is mainly symbolic. However, the cumulative boost of American energy and commitment is palpable. Indeed, the main challenge now for Washington may be to restrain the momentum of the large, coarse Sino-neuralgic political forces it has set in motion. Some of America’s Asian friends are uneasy. They wanted more reassurance, but not at the expense of rattling the table.
In central Asia, the US operation that killed Osama bin Laden put the al-Qaeda threat into less nightmarish proportions, highlighted the anomaly of dedicating so much American energy to nation-building in Afghanistan and accelerated the breakdown of a schizophrenic relationship with Pakistan. The decision to take most US forces out of Afghanistan seems to be a firm one, the only remaining question being how fast. The Pakistani military had, by their lights, done a rather brilliant job of playing the Americans while denying them victory in Afghanistan. Now the fundamental incompatibility of Pakistani and American interests is staringly apparent.
In south-west Asia, Mr Obama ended the US military intervention in Iraq. Resisting calls from his men in the field, he held to his resolve to leave Iraq’s future to Iraqis, come what may. Meanwhile, confrontation with Iran has sharpened, with the US assembling coalitions of military and economic partners across the Gulf and in Europe to squeeze a weakened, divided, unpopular and quite dangerous regime. Iran remains the wild card in all US foreign policy plans.
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Revolutionary turmoil across the Muslim and Arab world has focused on internal malaise. That is healthy. The two biggest regional losers from the revolutions are probably Iran and Israel. Despite some stumbling, the US and its European allies ensured that in Libya Muammer Gaddafi did not lead a successful counter-revolution. In Syria they are completing the cordon that has brought the regime of Bashar al-Assad to the brink.
In fact, one of the more interesting phenomena of the past year or so is the rising US reliance on “grey power” – neither traditional diplomacy nor conventional military might – that operates in twilight worlds of special operations and financial clearing houses.
These examples are part of a giant global pivot in US foreign policy, the “rebalancing” to which President Obama is deeply committed. Despite a renewed outbreak of declinist expectations, this “rebalancing” is not necessarily a withdrawal. It is conservative with a small c, reminiscent of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s consolidating moves in 1953 and 1954.
So far Mr Obama’s moves are enlarging the room for US strategy to manoeuvre. For example diminished reliance on Pakistani supply lines frees up US policy choices. US capabilities have not materially diminished. Spending on the armed forces is not reverting to pre-9/11 levels. Fielded forces will be leaner, relying more on reserves for large and sustained operations.
The period of post-1940 US dominance in global politics did not come to an end this year. It came to an end about 40 years ago. Since the early 1970s the US role in world politics has been central, not dominant. On its good days it has helped to shape epochal choices made principally in Asia and Europe. That can still be so.
The more interesting question about the great pivot is where Mr Obama now takes the ball. He has not yet offered persuasive leadership for a renewal of capitalism and the global political economy. He has not yet contributed much to shape the emerging agenda of transnational “formestic” concerns.
The core problem is not a lack of fiscal or military brawn. And, recently, we see tactical competence. The moves are unusually coherent. Practically all of what the US did in 2011 was done by leading coalitions in different regions. That required considerable skill. Contemporary US government has many professionals steeped in process.
The challenge for the president is to offer more substantive direction. A little more personal engagement one-on-one might also help. Many foreigners would like to see more US leadership, not less. They don’t miss American sanctimony. There is still enough of that on offer. What they do miss is American drive and purposefulness, even the kind that makes them smile.
Mr Obama has a cool, reticent style. During the past year, a very consequential year, that style has worked for him. As he completes his big pivot, he may need to step in and be more of a playmaker.
The writer is a dean and professor of history at the University of Virginia. From 2005 to 2007 he was counsellor of the US Department of State