Strategic Horizons: A U.S. Strategic Pivot to Nowhere

Strategic Horizons: A U.S. Strategic Pivot to Nowhere

As American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan wound down and the conflict with al-Qaida shifted away from large-scale, protracted military operations, President Barack Obama announced a major adjustment in American strategy (.pdf), stating that the United States “will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region.” Today there is growing criticism that this rhetoric has been backed by little substance and that what became popularly known as the “pivot” to Asia is stalled. In part this is due to the persisting political dysfunction in Washington that hinders all serious initiatives, but it also reflects deeper, more intractable strategic factors that offer guideposts on the future evolution of American security.

For the United States, Asia is both important and potentially dangerous. It represents 56 percent of global economic output and an equal percentage of total U.S. trade. Five of the world's most powerful militaries are involved there. Four of them have nuclear weapons. The six largest armies belong to Asia-Pacific powers. Three of the five deadliest wars in American history took place in part or wholly in that region.

Still, Asia is not the most problematic region for the United States. Like Europe and the Americas, Asia has regional security structures and arrangements that aren't perfect but perform fairly well, at least in terms of preventing major wars. A political scientist might say it has a functional regional order. Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East/North Africa regions, by contrast, do not. In both areas, extensive state involvement in markets and economies raise the stakes of politics to the point that sustaining democracy is extraordinarily difficult—whoever controls the state also controls the economy. Sub-Saharan Africa has long seen internal conflict and violent extremism because its often-artificial and weak states cannot control all of their national territory. North Africa and the Middle East once had the appearance of stability due to rule by nationalistic dictators, but now that veneer has collapsed in the face of demands for government accountability and economic growth. This has been exacerbated by an adaptable, resilient and popular extremist ideology.

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