Confronted by a rapidly evolving global environment, the United States of America (US) is faced with difficult long-term existential questions. Since coming to office in 2009, the Obama administration has sought the answers in the Asia-Pacific, made apparent by President Obama’s 2011 speech before the Australian Parliament. However, it has been 18 months since the 2011 address and the US struggles with its options whilst its allies watch on with some perplexity.
With some of the world’s largest economies and militaries, the strategic need to establish a stronger role in the Asia-Pacific is understandable. However, despite the considerable ambition and complexity of the “Rebalance” initiative, there remains concern over its coherence and clarity. At the root of the clarity-coherency problem lie several issues. First is the nature in which US strategic policy is formulated. Second are the effects of recent national trauma to strategic thinking.
The American Way Professor Richard K. Betts noted in his Centre for a New American Security article “American Strategy: Grand vs. Grandiose” that “the US Constitution is, in effect, anti-strategic”. Before clamouring to assert the heresy of Professor Betts’ statement, a moment should be taken to understand the reasoning. The constitution insures the diffusion of power so that no single man or group may gain complete control nor that power itself rest too long in a single place. However, though checks and balances insure the integrity of US democracy, the nature of the constitution endows a logic and rhythm counter-intuitive to strategic thought. Faced with constant changes and beset with internal rivalries, the legislature and executive will produce strategy that is often unclear, diffuse and the subject of contestation. Admittedly, further debate has been helpful, as the drive and tussle towards consensus sharpens the coherency and applicability of ideas. However, Grand Strategy requires a careful and consistent process coupled with a unity of vision. Again, according to Professor Betts this is “not because of stupidity, but because of democracy”.
It is here we return to the Obama Administration. Faced with a political system which seems to encourage anti-strategic tendencies, the outcome of incoherence and lack of clarity on the Rebalance to Asia seems almost inevitable. However, the administration has at least achieved a baseline unity in vision as noted by the acceptance of the need of the rebalance by members across the aisle. Nevertheless, given the current circumstances facing the US, it is clear that there will be a reluctance to expend further political capital on the issue for the foreseeable future.
Blood and Money The US engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the Great Financial Crisis, has left an indelible mark on the national psyche. The effects of these recent traumas will serve as a demotivation for national leaders to work towards long-term grand strategy. Firstly, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan will hinder considerations into policies that could be perceived as ‘aggressive’. Given the loss of manpower, prestige and treasure due to the aforementioned conflicts, the reluctance to engage too deeply in a relatively contested region is palpable. Secondly, the Great Financial Crisis as well as the more recent Budget Sequestration has done much to dampen the short-term economic prospects of many Americans. Faced with an unhappy electorate, politicians will be unlikely to invest or tout a series of policies which provide too little in the way of immediate gains and risk too much for long term ones.
Leave you holding the bag An often forgotten fact in the politics of a Superpower, are the effects of its policies or lack thereof on smaller powers. As the nature of the Rebalance remains in flux due to the earlier mentioned issues, there has arisen an increasing awkwardness with which the Asian US Major Non-NATO Allies (MNNA) must confront their own national issues. MNNAs such as Japan, South Korea, Australia and the Philippines each calibrate their key policy areas to varying degrees based on what is decided in Washington DC. Whether it is major military acquisitions to minor adjustments in trade preferences, very few regional arrangements have more influence than the US Pacific alliance system.
Therein lies the issue. As strategic policy as large as the US Rebalance to Asia experiences flux it will leave states such as the US MNNAs particularly vulnerable. Though each state no doubt creates and delivers its own policies, substantial consideration is made on behalf of US strategic alignment. Hence, in the absence of this certainty comes a correlative increase in other behaviour such as risk-taking and hedging. Ultimately, if the US seeks to achieve President Obama’s tentative goal of playing a “larger and longer term role” through the Rebalance, it should start with clarity and coherence as the lack thereof may in fact be undermining its attainment.
Andrew Kwon is a 2012 Masters graduate in International Security from the Centre for International Security Studies at the University of Sydney. He is currently an Intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed are exclusively his (firstname.lastname@example.org).