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Obama’s Pacific Pivot

CAMBRIDGE – Asia’s return to the center of world affairs is the great power shift of the twenty-first century. In 1750, Asia had roughly three-fifths of the world’s population and accounted for three-fifths of global output. By 1900, after the Industrial Revolution in Europe and America, Asia’s share of global output had shrunk to one-fifth. By 2050, Asia will be well on its way back to where it was 300 years earlier.

But, rather than keeping an eye on that ball, the United States wasted the first decade of this century mired in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it in a recent speech, American foreign policy will “pivot” toward East Asia.

President Barack Obama’s decision to rotate 2,500 US Marines through a base in northern Australia is an early sign of that pivot. In addition, the November Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting, held in Obama’s home state of Hawaii, promoted a new set of trade talks called the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Both events reinforce Obama’s message to the Asia-Pacific region that the US intends to remain an engaged power.

The pivot toward Asia does not mean that other parts of the world are no longer important; on the contrary, Europe, for example, has a much larger and richer economy than China’s. But, as Obama’s national security adviser, Tom Donilon, recently explained, US foreign policy over the past few years has been buffeted by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, concerns about terrorism, nuclear-proliferation threats in Iran and North Korea, and the recent Arab uprisings. Obama’s November trip to Asia was an effort to align US foreign-policy priorities with the region’s long-term importance.