Sunday, November 23, 2014
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America’s Perilous Pivot

MADRID – The Pacific or the Middle East? For the United States, that is now the primary strategic question. The violence in Gaza, coming as President Barack Obama was meeting Asia’s leaders in Phnom Penh, perfectly encapsulates America’s dilemma. Instead of being able to focus on US foreign policy’s “pivot” to Asia, Obama was forced to spend many hours in conversation with the leaders of Egypt and Israel, and to dispatch Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from Asia, in order to facilitate a cease-fire in Gaza.

Of the two geopolitical focal points demanding America’s attention, one represents the future and the other the past. Whereas Asia played an important role in a US presidential election campaign that was marked by often-heated references to China’s rise, the Middle East has kept the US bogged down for decades. In addition to the eternal Israel-Palestine conflict, Iraq’s instability, the Arab Spring, Syria’s civil war, and the ongoing nuclear standoff with Iran all demand America’s attention.

If the Iran crisis were to boil over, the pivot to Asia would no longer be America’s main foreign-policy priority. But if the dispute with Iran is resolved diplomatically, the Middle East might, perhaps, be relegated to a position of lesser importance, as Obama clearly desires. The question, therefore, is whether the US will find itself drawn into another war in a region on which it depends less and less for energy.

Indeed, the revolution in non-conventional hydrocarbons, particularly shale gas and oil, which the International Energy Agency recently predicted would make the US the world’s largest oil producer by 2020, and the top energy producer overall by 2030, will have enormous global repercussions. For the US, energy self-sufficiency is the perfect excuse for a phased withdrawal from the Middle East; freed from energy dependency, America should be able to concentrate on the Pacific.

Although maintaining stable global energy prices and its alliance with Israel means that the US cannot cut itself off completely from the Middle East’s troubles, the shift in focus to Asia began early in Obama’s first administration, with Clinton announcing America’s strategic reorientation even before US troops began withdrawing from Iraq. Following his re-election, Obama’s first foreign visit was to Myanmar, Thailand, and Cambodia – a choice that cannot have pleased China, as all three are ASEAN members, while Myanmar was, until it began its democratic transition, a close Chinese ally.

Asia is, of course, experiencing rapid economic growth, but managing the region’s strong nationalist tensions calls for the creation of regional security structures, together with closer economic integration. Complicating matters even more is what US scholar Kenneth Lieberthal and Wang Jisi, the dean of international studies at Peking University, called in a recent paper for the Brookings Institution “strategic distrust.”

Cultivating strategic trust between the twenty-first century’s leading powers will be fundamental to the international system’s harmonious functioning. But how can this be achieved? As China will be importing three-quarters of its oil from the Middle East by 2020, one step forward would be China’s cooperation in finding solutions to the region’s problems.

After the January 2013 Israeli elections, Iran will again move to the top of Obama’s foreign-policy agenda. Military intervention in Iran – which itself will be holding a presidential election in June – would incite not only regional, but global, instability. The Arab world, Russia, and China would be forced to take sides, straining global relations between the different poles of power and raising tensions in the Pacific. So China has a large strategic interest in working with the US to avoid a showdown.

Beyond Iran, the volatile situation throughout the Middle East urgently demands solutions. The latest eruption of violent conflict between Hamas and Israel underscores the importance of reviving the peace process. Syria’s civil war, in which a growing number of regional players have become involved, is beginning to look increasingly like a trial run for all-out war between Sunni Muslims (Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States, Turkey, and Egypt) and Shia Muslims (Iran and Hezbollah) for regional dominance.

Iran’s leaders appear to believe that the US, having incurred extremely high economic and human costs from more than a decade of war, would rather avoid another military intervention. US public opinion seems to confirm this. A recent survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs indicated that 67% of Americans believe that the Iraq war was not worthwhile. Moreover, 69% do not believe that the US is safer from terrorism since the war in Afghanistan, and 71% say that the experience in Iraq shows that the US should take greater care in how it uses force.

But, if Americans seem unlikely to be willing to invest billions of dollars in another dead-end foreign adventure, Iran’s leaders, for their part, are increasingly hemmed in by international sanctions, which are beginning to wreak havoc on the country’s economy. Both sides may believe that their best option – at least for now – is to negotiate.

Peaceful resolution of the Iranian question would help the US to complete its shift toward Asia. China may not wish for that outcome, but its own vital interest in the security of Middle East energy supplies should compel it to cooperate. After all, another Middle East conflict would poison and distort relations in the region for decades, which would be the worst of all possible consequences – for the US and China alike.

Read more from our "America's Pacific Pivot" Focal Point.

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    1. CommentedLeo Arouet

      Una cooperación es la salida más prudente para las relaciones tensas; sin embargo debemos tener en cuenta que el nacionalismo asiático se posiciona como fuente que impedirá en el futuro un acercamiento real. Esto se evidencia a través de la senda armamentista que se está produciendo en la región.

    2. CommentedLeo Arouet

      Una forma adecuada de fortalecer las relaciones con Oriente Medio es que no se emplee la fuerza como medio para solucionar las tensiones. Un ataque preventivo a Irán causaría más perjuicio y daño que una acción diplomática restrictiva.

    3. CommentedJitendra Desai

      Sooner USA gets rid of its middle east fixation,better for all.America's predicted oil self sufficiency is good news for all.War on Afghanistan was [and is] right.War on Iraq was wrong.While Chinese threat is matter of perception based on her growing strength,threat to America and the world from Islamic terror is real.The "Pivots" will have to factor in this threat.

    4. CommentedCarol Maczinsky

      The Russians should intervene in the Middle East on the side of the Americans. That would break their encirclement. Asia is simply about attrition but this time the US can't win.

    5. CommentedGillian King

      Good Lord! Why this slavish focus on the Middle East?

      Interest in the region is on a decline that exactly corresponds to the inevitable shift away from fossil fuels. I look forward to a future where conflict in the Middle East attracts as little international attention as conflict in Congo.

      As clean energy rolls out, many countries are grabbing it with both hands. Justified as 'energy security', surely a key motivation is to be free from the manic self-absorption of Middle Eastern egos?

      Solana notes China's "vital interest in the security of Middle East energy supplies should compel it to cooperate." No wonder they are setting the world's highest targets for renewable energy!

      Hermann's comment sets the scene for a future where we manage to go beyond "either/or" and see situations in a wider perspective.

      This is not a PERILOUS pivot, it is an INEVITABLE pivot.

    6. CommentedZsolt Hermann

      The dilemma facing Obama and the US administration only makes sense in the framework of the previous polarized, fragmented world-view, with separate regions, enemies and friends, where people and nations seemingly had the freedom and luxury to "shift focus".
      Today this is not the case.
      The world has become round, a single interconnected and interdependent network, where individuals and nations are tied together on multiple levels.
      The global crisis, the different geopolitical flash-points, even the natural catastrophes offer enough evidence of it, how not only the major regions of US, China, Europe and the Middle East are interwoven, but that other parts of the world, regardless of their "size and importance" are capable of dragging the major powers independent of their focus.
      Unless leaders and the public alike gets used to viewing the world as a single system, taking the whole system into consideration for any planning or action, all the countries will continue to be dragged from conflict to conflict, crisis to crisis endlessly.

        CommentedClaudia Carmen de Sierra Lepori

        Mr Zsolt Hermann
        I agree with you 100%, and I am not the only one to think alike, but the change in this case has to come from the top, from the leaders and they still think of thier geopolitical-shpere-area of influence, look what it is happening with Greece they said we'll help then said not, now it seems they will help but who knows tomorrow what will happen.
        Yes we live in a interconected world but not everyone believe is true and want to be interconected, humanity still has to learn lo live in a global society and to be aware of the butterfly efect. Maybe in 2 generation that will be possible.

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