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.