Why the U.S. won’t pivot to Asia anytime soon
A paramilitary policeman guards in front of an emblem of the Communist Party of China at Tiananmen Square on June 28, 2011 in Beijing, China. (Getty Images)
March 29th, 2012
10:10 AM ET

Why the U.S. won’t pivot to Asia anytime soon

Editor’s Note: Robert E. Kelly, Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, is a professor of political science at Pusan National University, South Korea. A longer version of this essay may be found at his website, Asian Security Blog.

By Robert E. Kelly - Special to CNN

A U.S. ‘pivot’ to Asia is the foreign policy talk of the moment, but I think Americans are unlikely to embrace it.

True, Asia outweighs other global regions as a U.S. interest. Europe and Latin America are mostly democratic, fairly prosperous and at peace. Africa, sadly, remains a U.S. backwater. The Middle East is overrated. Israel and oil are important but hardly justify the vast U.S. presence. The terrorist threat is ‘overblown.’

By contrast, Asia’s economies are growing fast. Asian savers and banks fund the U.S. deficit. Asia’s addition of two billion people to the global labor pool kept world inflation down for a generation. Asian markets are now major export destinations for American industries. Five hundred million people live in the Middle East but three times that just in India. Half the world’s population lives in South, Southeast, and Northeast Asia.

Lots of people mean friction, and lots of money means weapons. Big, tightly packed, fast-growing economies spend more for bigger militaries, while nationalism and territorial grievances create sparks. Regional conflict would dwarf anything the world has seen since the Cold War. China’s rise to regional hegemony would have obvious ramifications for the U.S.

But four trends in U.S. domestic politics contravene this narrative:

1. Americans don’t care that much about Asia

Which constituency in America cares enough about this region to drive a realignment away from long-standing U.S. interests in Europe and the Middle East? The business community might, but they’re souring today because of China’s relentless mercantilism. Asian-Americans are few and have not loudly organized to demand this. Asian security is still scarcely on the media radar compared to the coverage of U.S. domestic politics or the Middle East.

Does Obama’s electoral coalition care? As a rule of thumb, the less wealthy you are, the less you care about far-off issues like foreign policy. So it’s unlikely that the underprivileged and youth who helped Obama win care much. While college-educated whites, who also broke for Obama, likely support this, the rest of the Democratic coalition traditionally focuses on domestic issues.

By contrast, the GOP deeply cares about the Middle East. Something like 30-40% of Americans claim to have had a born-again experience. For them, Israel is, easily, America’s most important ally, which the Republican primary on made very obvious. A Kulturkampf with Islam, not Asia, mobilizes these ‘Jacksonian-Christianist’ voters.

What does the Tea Party know or care about China or India, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Shintoism, or Taoism? It’s all about culture and religion to the base of the American right these days, and Asia is like another planet to those voters.

2. Americans know less about Asia than any other region bar central Africa

Of course, it’s true Americans don’t know a lot about the world generally. As a superpower, we don’t have to know about others; others have to know about us. But Asia is the most culturally different social space in the world from the U.S. I can think of, with the possible exception of Bantu Africa.

Latin America, Europe, Oceania, and Russia are all in, or close enough to, Western Civilization that our memory of high school civics classes applies. They look like us (kind of); they eat like us, their languages are fairly similar (Indo-European roots); they dress like us; they worship like us. The tribal cultural gap (how others eat, dress, talk, worship, look, write, etc.) is not that wide.

But consider how many Americans can speak a non-Latinate Asian language, identify a major Asian author, discuss even the basics of Buddhism or Confucianism, use chopsticks properly, distinguish Hindu gods, recognize Angkor Wat, etc.?

What does that say about the American electorate’s cultural-intellectual interest in this pivot? The U.S. public, mostly descended from European immigrants, had a fair idea of Europe, so a ‘North Atlantic Treaty Organization’ was a coherent concept.

When the U.S. rose to dominance over the Middle East in the 1990s, the deeply religious attachment of many Americans provided a strong foundation. What exactly is the U.S. cultural, intellectual, linguistic, religious, etc. connection to Asia that will sell this to a public wary of more wars and interventions? If you wonder why tiny Iran is so much more important to Americans than huge China or India, well here you go…

3. U.S. allies can do a lot of the work

The Middle East is characterized by so many non-democracies that the U.S. must be heavily invested to meet current goals - oil, Israel, counterterrorism. America has no strong subordinate anchor-state in the region, so an enduring presence is necessary for actions like dual containment (Iran and Iraq) of the 90s, and or the Iraq war of the 2000s.

By contrast, in Asia America has lots of allies and semi-friends who are strong and functional - Japan, Australia, Korea, and Taiwan - with improving relations with India and Vietnam too.

Smart policy would push a lot of the costs of American goals in Asia onto them. Why should America encircle, contain, or otherwise fence with China, when the frontline states should do it first? They don’t want to be dominated by China, and they will suffer a lot more than the U.S. if China becomes the regional hegemon. So America can hover in the background, offshore, over the horizon.

4. America can’t really afford it anymore

America obviously needs to spend less, and money which could fund domestic entitlements is going to defense instead. The opportunity cost of buying aircraft carriers to semi-contain China is cutting Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.

Those programs, plus Defense, comprise around 70% of the U.S. budget, making the ‘pivot’ a classic guns vs. butter trade-off. America’s debt exceeds ten trillion dollars and its deficit a trillion. Bush borrowed hugely, and the Great Recession worsened the red ink.

Given China’s enormity, a U.S. build-up in the region could cost massive sums that just aren’t there anymore. The average American voter will see that domestic entitlements are suffering to fund the continuing post-9/11 U.S. military expansion. It is unlikely Americans will choose guns over butter (aircraft carriers instead of checks for grandma) in the medium-term.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Robert E. Kelly.

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Topics: Asia • Foreign Policy • United States

soundoff (36 Responses)
  1. paul

    I disagee with Mr kelley's statement regarding "guns and butter'. In todays "security" environment [ or lack thereof ] most americans will forego the butter for the gun, if necessary. Americans will not be bullied.

    March 29, 2012 at 10:43 am | Reply
    • George Patton

      Isn't that the other way around, paul? Today we are the bullies, especially in the Middle East!!!

      March 29, 2012 at 11:17 am | Reply
      • patrick

        If you are calling americans bullies, could you then provide examples of when and how americans have bullied?
        Remember, that these examples must be valid, reliable and verifiable.
        George, Abdul, you cannot bully people into believing your own statements or belief are correct.

        March 29, 2012 at 11:50 am |
      • George Patton

        You seemed to have forgotten about Vietnam where that country was split in two by our behest at the 1954 Geneva Conference and we later sent troops to hold the southern half while bombing the daylights out of the northern half!!! More recently is the example of Iraq where we, without any provocation whatsoever in 2003, invaded that country only to set up a puppet regime there in the place of that of Saddam Hussein!!!

        March 29, 2012 at 7:38 pm |
      • Lionel Mandrake

        Initially, the United States had little interest in Vietnam and Southeast Asia, however as it became clear that the post-World War II world would be dominated by the US and its allies and the Soviet Union and theirs, isolating communist movements took an increased importance. These concerns were ultimately formed into the doctrine of containment and domino theory. First spelled out 1947, containment identified that the goal of Communism was to spread to capitalist states and that the only way to stop it was to “contain” it within its present borders. Springing from containment was the concept of domino theory which stated that if one state in a region were to fall to Communism, then the surrounding states would inevitably fall as well. These concepts were to dominate and guide US foreign policy for much of the Cold War.

        In 1950, to combat the spread of Communism, the United States began supplying the French military in Vietnam with advisors and funding its efforts against the “red” Viet Minh. These efforts continued in 1956, when advisors were provided to train the army of the new Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). Despite their best efforts, the quality of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) was to remain consistently poor throughout its existence.

        March 29, 2012 at 8:35 pm |
      • Lionel Mandrake

        The Iraq war, begun in 2003, has been justified through several different reasons. One of the primary causes was the fear of Saddam Hussein housing Weapons of Mass Destruction in the country, as the Iraq leader had repeatedly failed to disclose their number and location. The United States issued an ultimatum on March 17, 2003 to Hussein. When this was not met, a formal declaration of war against Iraq was made on March 20, with the support of Great Britain. Bush argued that Hussein refused to conform to the policies on human rights, and terrorist activity following the first Gulf War in the early 1990s.

        March 29, 2012 at 8:40 pm |
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        April 2, 2012 at 7:22 pm |
    • peace1

      America is the Big Bully, no contest. It bullied tiny little Cuba into starvation, decades after the boge of communism vanished; it killed off millions of Vietnamese with napalm and Agent Orange. The mad vision of an American president ensured that hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died for no reason. The list is ad nauseum.
      No Asian country has waged war in the last fifty years. Look at the record of USA.
      It is not that America is bad or Americans are bullies. The people are wonderful, the land is wonderful. They are unfortunate to be governed in (non-existent) foreign policy by people who cannot spell 'foreign', leave alone 'policy'

      March 29, 2012 at 1:00 pm | Reply
      • George Patton

        Thank you, peace1. You took the words right out of my mouth!

        March 29, 2012 at 7:39 pm |
      • Lionel Mandrake

        Poor tiny little wee innocent Cuba.
        It never do nothing wrong–well, just those nukes from russia aimed at America, but notihing else really–well maybe all that spying, but that's all really...
        hehehe...

        March 29, 2012 at 8:43 pm |
      • Lionel Mandrake

        "hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died for no reason"

        About 162,000 people were killed in Iraq from the start of the 2003 US-led invasion up to last year's withdrawal of American forces, a British NGO says.

        Iraq Body Count (IBC) warned that, contrary to apparent trends in figures released by the Iraqi government, the level of violence has changed little from mid-2009, though attacks are markedly down from when the country was in the throes of sectarian war in 2006 and 2007.

        In all, the non-governmental organisation said an estimated 162,000 people were killed in Iraq in the nearly nine years of conflict.

        Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/world/iraq-war-death-toll-put-at-162000-20120103-1pioz.html#ixzz1qYZgqDFZ

        March 29, 2012 at 8:48 pm |
      • mimi

        4500 american soldiers died because America made a mistake.
        100,000 or more iraqis died partly by Americans but mostly by each other in a civil war within American-Iraq war.

        America should feel responsible for breaking out a civil war by removing hussein, but it is also iraqis themselves that have to deal with ethnic violence. Kurds in north, Sunnis in central and Shias in south all have to work out something themselves.

        March 29, 2012 at 10:22 pm |
      • habibi

        mimi-what is really a mistake?
        How do you know?
        Would more have died had America not intervened?
        Noone, in their right mind, condons all the deaths, but it is so easy to call it a mistake without a thorough analysis of what would or could have been otherwise.

        March 30, 2012 at 6:17 am |
  2. George Patton

    Before anything else, this country needs to "pivot" it's way out of the Middle East and Central Asia, militarily speaking of course. Next we need to keep our relations with China cordial and improve realations with Vietnam. Last but not least, we need to suggest to the European leaders the dissolution of the Eurozone which has never been a good idea in the firstplace!!!

    March 29, 2012 at 11:15 am | Reply
    • Lionel Mandrake

      piv·ot/ˈpivət/Noun: The central point, pin, or shaft on which a mechanism turns or oscillates.

      George, habibi, are you now saying that "this country" should now be the central point in the Middle East and Central Asia-militarily speaking, of course.
      you are a most complicated guy. First you want America out of everything, then you want to dissolve the Eurozone.
      All this separation of friends and allies–for what purpose?
      Explain yourself habibi.

      March 29, 2012 at 9:02 pm | Reply
  3. j. von hettlingen

    The author wrote: "A U.S. ‘pivot’ to Asia is the foreign policy talk of the moment, but I think Americans are unlikely to embrace it". He saw it out of a popular point of view. Experts of foreign policy and those at the state department see things differenty. Asia is the most populous continent on earth and relations between three of the BRICS members are not always cordial. There are more hotspots in Asia than in anywhere else and regional conflicts make this continent a tinderbox.

    March 29, 2012 at 5:42 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      We live in a world of interdependence and our economy and international relations are much affected by negative ripple effects.

      March 30, 2012 at 4:07 am | Reply
      • Lionel Mandrake

        wow, way tooooo deeep.
        Who is creating those negative effects habibi???????

        March 30, 2012 at 8:39 pm |
  4. mimi

    ignorance or lack of interests about asia might be true of baby boomers and older Americans,
    but i see young people embracing asian food, games, anime, fashions and tv shows as strong sub-cultures.
    college students probably almost always have asian classmates and most urban and suburban kids probably have in their high schools. there are Asians moving down to the south and heartland where they never used to.

    also, i think the author might be on the pessimistic (realist, some might say) alarmist side about china and other asian countries going into a military conflict. Those countries have bitter histories and China might get more nationalistic, but they are in the 21th century. They already fought pretty brutally previously. The memory might be still fresh enough.

    i hope Asians today are not the same as emerging European countries in early 20th century.

    Meanwhile, Americans should not be protectionist or isolationist. China bashing i hear sometimes from washington is a bit worrisome.

    March 29, 2012 at 10:13 pm | Reply
    • habibi

      China bashing, as you put it, worries you but, bashing America is no problem.

      March 30, 2012 at 6:20 am | Reply
      • Marine5484

        This thing here is habibi, is that all this China bashing by we Americans is tantamount to biting the hand that feeds us. After all, they are financing a huge part of our current budget deficit!

        March 30, 2012 at 8:50 am |
      • patrick

        provide something that is reliable, valid and verifiable to prove your statement.
        otherwise, we might think that you are pulling these statements out of your as s.

        March 30, 2012 at 11:42 am |
      • habibi

        While China is an export powerhouse, it remains an investment lightweight. Total outward Chinese direct investment is smaller than either Ireland or Singapore. And the U.S. share is particularly small — just 2 percent of China’s overseas investment, even though the United States currently receives about 15 percent of total global investment.

        March 30, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
    • jOE

      "i hope Asians today are not the same as emerging European countries in early 20th century." What an ignorant statement, you must be one hell of a redn eck.
      The only things americans truly think about are themselves and the young more so. As Patrick said , americans reach for their a r s e (ass) to pull out a comment.

      April 2, 2012 at 9:21 am | Reply
  5. jOE

    The article is spot on and for your interest most Aussies wouldn't even know how many states there are in the USA, or care. either , so it's pretty mutual. Don't go and think that every Australian likes americans. That is hardly true. Quite the opposite. Sadly the USA military is installing a base of 2500 marines in the North of Australia. pandering to the military power of the USA. The irony is that americans invented the words, trailer trash. As for tourists, grateful we are that most americans are too poor to travel as tourists nowadays.

    April 2, 2012 at 9:11 am | Reply

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