The importance of re-vitalizing the “Special Relationship” after the American “Pivot” toward the Asia-Pacific region.

Perspectives Internationales 25/01/2013 0

The “Pivot” East

The United States elected President Obama to a second term in this most recent election, mostly on the promise that he would continue to secure America’s economic future. A rarity in Presidential politics, the 2012 election paid very little attention to actual foreign policy issues.

With the start of the new year and America’s economy modestly improving, despite all the anxiety over the fiscal cliff, the President has foreign policy issues that need addressing. President Obama has important decisions to make over important nominations to critical departments and agencies within the federal government. Secretaries of State and Defense, in particular, will need nominating and Senate approval, as well as the Directorship of the Central Intelligence Agency.

These nominations, and hopefully confirmations, will dictate the direction in which the US will be moving for the next four years. The US, in President Obama’s first term, made a much discussed “pivot” toward the Far East and Pacific region. Addressing the Australian Parliament in 2011, President Obama stated: “After a decade in which we’ve fought two wars that have cost us dearly in blood and treasure, the United States is turning its attention to the vast potential of the Asia-Pacific region”. Further, he stated that this was a conscious and calculated move in American foreign policy, “As President, I have therefore made a deliberate and strategic decision. As a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger role and long term role in shaping this region and its future”[1].

This new “pivot” included more than just an increase in military presence, but across the board enhancements including increased diplomatic presence, and improved economic ties and development projects. This increase in the non-military presence of the United States was visible with the high volume of visits to the Asia-Pacific region by the leading diplomat, the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Secretary of State Clinton visited the region thirty six times in her first three years in office compared to only eighteen for her predecessor, Secretary Rice[2]. Even more telling, Secretary Clinton’s first visit as Secretary of State was to Asia. In 2009, Secretary Clinton visited Japan, Indonesia, South Korea and China indicating the administration’s interest in the region from the beginning. Secretary Clinton would go on to become the most traveled Secretary of State in American history, visiting one hundred and twelve countries, logging an astonishing 956,733 miles (1.539 million km) and almost eighty-seven days of travel time[3].

China’s reaction to this new shifting of foreign policy attention and assets has been lukewarm, at best. While it was never explicitly stated, most of the United States’ moves in the region have been in some way directed at China. The moving of American carrier groups into the region are particularly alarming to some Chinese analysts. Perception of this “pivot” is that this is a new form of Cold War style containment. Mr. Jia Xiudong of the Chinese Institute of International Studies states that, “many [Chinese] believe that at least part of the policy is directed at China”[4]. The term “pivot”, itself, has been lambasted as having subtle military undertones causing the Obama administration to re-label it a “re-balancing” instead, but the term “pivot” had already stuck[5].

These fears of some kind of American “neo-containment” policy are mistaken. It makes little sense given the interconnectedness of the American and Chinese economies. The mutual dependence on each other makes any sort of isolation ridiculous. Former Governor Mitt Romney’s assertion that he would declare China a currency manipulator on Day One of his Presidency, should he be elected, epitomizes the kind of ridiculousness that lacks any basis in reality. Essentially declaring economic war on China would be suicide for both economies, and thus, the global economy.

This “pivot”, or “re-balancing”, toward the Pacific makes perfect sense considering the significant trade interests the US has in the region, and the security needs of its allies in the region. But what often goes unnoticed is the effect this had on America’s “special relationship” with Europe. As President Obama pointed out in his speech in Australia, the United States is a Pacific nation, but it is also an Atlantic nation. How has this much publicized “pivot” been perceived across the pond? What does it mean about the future of “the West” and, more specifically, of NATO?

The end of “the West”?

Before discussing the possible end of “the West”, it would be appropriate to first discuss what the term even means. We often hear in the media, and are probably guilty ourselves, the use of the term “the West”. Usually it is made in reference to the United States, or the United States plus its European allies. But what is really meant by this term? We all have our own notions of its meaning, but when pressed to provide a definition, its less easy a task.

With the end of the Cold War, the world is less easily divided into clearly politically defined parties of West versus East. Yet the term still persists and, therefore, must retain some kind of meaning. Is it a cultural term? Is it region specific? How would we define a country like Japan or South Korea that could also match criteria for a “Western” society? Perhaps it is a religious divide that the term encompasses? But, again, there are millions of Christians that do not live exclusively in “Western” countries. China, the Philippines, Brazil, Mexico, and even more significantly, Lebanon, all are host to significant numbers of Christians.

Most people, when using the term, use it interchangeably with the United States or Western and Northern Europe. The old countries that would have fit within the “Western” capitalist bloc that fought against the Communist East during the Cold War. And for the purposes of this article, I will use a similar definition. The “West” can be thought of as an amorphous term, loosely encompassing the United States, and most of Europe that was free from the Iron Curtain. It does not include cultures that have Western looking characteristics like Japan and South Korea merely because of their lack of geographic proximity to the rest. The countries of “the West”, as defined, share a long history and good relationship in the modern era, that could even be described as “special”.

The aforementioned (in)famous “pivot” East, by the United States, whether it is openly admitted by officials or not, has had an adverse effect on the European partners in the “special relationship”. Given the range of challenges the world faces, it is in the best interest of everyone that “the West” re-kindle its relationship and not allow the “pivot” to permanently alter perceptions of a still very relevant alliance.

The continued atrocities in Syria, persistent global climate changes, fragility of the world’s economy, and security threat posed by a global network of terrorists, are all best confronted together rather than separately. It is more than simply history that has kept the relationship between the United States and Europe so prominent for both parties. The division of labor, with the United States dominating in military “hard” power, and Europe’s specialization in the finer aspects of foreign policy, unfortunately labeled “soft” power, should not be understated. The partnership, so often criticized as imbalanced, must be continued and strengthened to everyone’s benefit. In the same way that alienating China would do little good to the United States, alienating our closest allies is similarly unwise. This might not be the end of “the West”, but rather an opportunity to further reinforce itself. Like all relationships, this one requires sustained work, attention, care and understanding on both sides.

The importance of perception

In the same way that the “pivot” East by the United States was seen poorly by the Chinese, regardless of intentions, its perception by America’s closest allies could not have been much further off.

With American troop downsizing throughout the continent and “re-balanced” toward Asia, European fears of an American withdrawal from the whole continent would regain traction. With the European Union’s continued lack of development of its own independent military framework outside of NATO, if the US withdrew, how would Europe’s security concerns be handled?

Having just won the Nobel Peace Prize, and the continuing unstable economic situation over its common currency, the European Union is not likely to be able to tackle the complicated issue of joint defense. Nor should it have to. It is important for the EU to maintain its principles in foreign policy and improve its capabilities in areas not dominated by the United States or any other power. Related to this self-understanding on the part of the EU to its asymmetric advantage in “soft” power, the United States needs to, in turn, also accept this role and to treat its partner as a necessary equal to its “hard” power. This often discussed division of labor, if understood correctly by both parties, has the possibility to make domestic tensions much easier to handle as each can claim to be handling serious global issues without compromising its value system. This all hinges on perception and understanding of the role each partner is to play moving forward.

Hopefully, leaders in Europe can see passed the rhetoric of “pivots” and “re-balances” toward the Pacific region just as the Chinese leaders have managed to avoid the hawkish rhetoric of Presidential election campaigns. Perceptions of preferences and motives are important in international affairs. The United States needs to act more carefully when making such grandiose changes to its foreign policy. The new year, new term, and new foreign policy team, will provide the Obama administration such an opportunity to clarify and change the perception of itself as a leader for the better.

The future and relevance of NATO

The biggest concern for a possible resurgence of transatlantic relations is the military alliance that has underpinned it for so long. NATO now, with a significant portion of the “pivot” being military, finds itself “in uncharted waters”[6]. The United States’ defense priority now seems to be focused on Asia and not on Europe. If a conflict is to develop that will require the United States’ full military attention it is most likely in defense of Taiwan or somewhere else in the Asia-Pacific region. Recent minor military scuffles between China and its neighbors over off-shore islands lends credit to this belief.

European military capabilities, let alone desire, to project power on the other side of the planet are even further limited. Returning to the point about perception, this should not be seen by European leaders as a disinterest in the European continent by its American partners. Merely, this is, as President Obama stated, a deliberate and strategic decision. The furthering of specialization of the relationship, and not faking unreasonable capabilities, is the key to strengthening and reinforcing a fragile European-American relationship. This relationship has withstood the test of time and other crises in international politics. Surely this challenge, despite growing increasingly complex with the euro crises throwing the possibility of European integration into question, will be just another blip in the road.

The new relevance of Africa : a new emphasis for NATO ?

With the recent French military involvement in Mali, a normally reluctant European military power has engaged in direct military action. While the French were acting in response to a request from the Mali government, it still marks a significant departure from traditional European attitudes toward the direct use of force outside of an international sanction from the United Nations. Coincidentally, Secretary of State Clinton’s long awaited testimony on the Benghazi attacks alluded to Africa’s importance in American foreign policy. Citing the importance of the recent Arab Spring revolutions as having “scrambled power dynamics and shattered security forces around the region”[7]. Continuing, she states that the “United States must continue to lead … in the Middle East and all around the globe”[8].

Given European colonial history, and apparent resurgence in willingness by once reluctant European military powers to engage in the continent’s affairs, Africa could represent as a new common agenda for the relationship to deepen. American interests remain truly global, and with its armed forces already stretched considerably thinner with recent Defense Department reductions, an increased capacity for NATO would likely be welcomed.

Domestically for EU members, as well, this might seem a welcome rallying cry for further European integration. With slow, but arguably steady progress on the Euro-crisis front, other challenges to the future of the EU are emerging. Prime Minister Cameron’s recent announcement of a planned EU referendum could have serious implications for the future of the EU as we know it. As one of the other major European military powers, giving the United Kingdom a prominent role in leading its efforts in the realm of security and defense could be the kind of responsibility and international prestige it still desires.

Solutions that satisfy the needs of everyone involved are possible. All that is truly needed is the willingness to engage in dialogue to figure them out. Like any individual relationship, this one between states requires a strong foundation in communication – a criteria that has been, over the first Obama administration, marred by perceptions of neglect and disinterest. Now is the time to rekindle the relationship, starting with increased dialogue. Mutually beneficial solutions are waiting.


Mike Chinoy, “The Pivot”, USC US-China Institute,

Mark McDonald, “A Closer Look at the American ‘Pivot’”, New York Times, 30 October 2012

The Congressional Research Service,

The United States Department of State,

The Wall Street Journal,

The White House,

Tomas Valasek, “Europe and the ‘Asia Pivot’”, New York Times, 25 October 2012


Tim Decker

Tim Decker is a recent Master’s graduate from the London School of Economics where he studied “Politics and Government in the European Union”. His dissertation, “Europe’s Incomplete Monetary Union – Solving the Democratic Deficit, the European Central Bank  and the US Federal Reserve Compared” examined the institutional governance structure of the ECB and the Federal Reserve in terms of its democratic legitimacy. An American raised in Germany and the United Kingdom, his interests include American foreign policy, European Affairs, and international relations.

[1]   The White House Press Office, – Accessed January 11, 2013

[2]   The Congressional Research Service, – Accessed January 11, 2013

[3]   The United States Department of State, – Accessed January 22, 2013

[4]   Chinoy, Mike, University Southern California’s US-China Institute, – Accessed January 11, 2013

[5]   McDonald, Mark, – Accessed January 11, 2013

[6]   Valasek, Tomas, – Accessed January 11, 2013

[7]   Wall Street Journal Transcript, – Accessed January 24, 2013

[8]   Ibid

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