No matter the winner of this fall’s US presidential elections, Europeans can expect much continuity in American foreign policy – even if Barack Obama and his likely Republican rival, Mitt Romney, have two contrasting styles and see both Europe and US’s role in the world very differently. On Europe, for example, the Democrats, led by President Obama, tend to be more optimistic about (despite frustrations) and the possibility for greater transatlantic convergence. The Republicans – including Mitt Romney, Marco Rubio, Eric Cantor,…– criticize Europe’s socio-economic model and its crippling effect on growth and innovation. For them, Europe is America’s bleak future should Obama be reelected.
In three years, the Obama administration has not revolutionized the content or the conduct of American foreign policy, but it did change tone. It did set into motion some new orientations that will gain even greater momentum after November – most notably the “pivot,” or rebalancing, to Asia Pacific. The next president – Democrat or Republican – will not undo the shift, but will determine both tone and tactics based on his reading of US interests and how to achieve them.
Context for Pivot and US Perceptions of Europe
Before addressing the reasons for the pivot and its implications on Euro-American relations, first a word to highlight the basis on which the policy was not conceived. The pivot is not meant to replace Europe with Asia. The pivot does not exist in a zero-sum vacuum in which devoting more energy to one zone necessarily means discarding one’s engagements in another. However the pivot does afford the occasion to examine some US worries about the current state of transatlantic ties. Many believe that Europe will not be the locust of innovation for the future; that the alliance suffers from a dearth of new European experts on the US and rests on a dated network of individuals, networks and ideas; and that there is a regrettable lack deep, consistent Track 2 links – the lower-level contacts that keep the alliance active, thriving, and relevant even as high-level relations ebb and flow. These are things to keep in mind as Europeans question how to foster closer ties in a context in which Europe is neither a problem nor a solution for the US (cf. Hubert Védrine).
Taking full measure of the increasing importance of Asia Pacific (related to demography, markets, wealth and defense), the US needed to redirect its considerable investment away from cumbersome conflicts in the Middle East and Central Asia to begin to focus more appropriately on emerging long-term challenges elsewhere. For some, the pivot might signal doom for the transatlantic relationship, but it may instead offer an opportunity to infuse new relevance into the alliance and to bolster the West’s in a multipolar world.
The Asia-Pacific Economic-Security Continuum
There are two interrelated approaches at play in addressing Asia Pacific– the economic and the security-based – each with ensuing challenges and opportunities. The two components coexist on a single continuum, with the relative importance of each shifting according to events on the ground, competing interagency agendas, and executive leadership. For all the tough US domestic rhetoric about China’s economic practices, the economic component of the pivot fundamentally rests on the belief that Asia will contribute significantly to the world’s future economic growth and that there are benefits to be drawn therein. By focusing primarily on constructing a region-wide economic order in which America figures prominently, the US would confirm (even implicitly) the notion of Europe’s decline, or the impression that it looks past Europe and directly to Asia when it assesses where it is more likely to find vitality and possibility.
On the other end of the continuum is the security component, which places the focus more squarely on managing China’s rise and curbing its influence regionally and beyond. This is a major challenge for America, historically preoccupied with eliminating peer competitors. The US-China rivalry is not limited to the confines of Asia Pacific. While there is friction between the two socio-economic models, the US is also challenged to compel China to become a true international stakeholder – to move Beijing away from its pattern of reluctant international action designed only to advance its strategic position and toward a greater willingness to identify its interests within coordinated action carried out by global institutions whose rules were written largely by the West. It is a struggle of competing, often conflicting, interests in Iran, Africa, South America…
A Role for Europe
While pursuing integration in Asia Pacific, Washington cannot ignore the threat posed by China’s rise (cf. recent alerts by military officials of Beijing’s unprecedented peacetime hacking operation against US systems and its acquisition of technologies to rebuff US capabilities). America will need alliances new and old to develop strategic partnerships around the world. Within Asia Pacific, it will always brush up against a key constraint in its efforts to rally the region’s nations - limited willingness to commit fully to the US agenda. No country in the region wants to choose between China and the US or be caught in a power play between the two. They want an American security guarantee should China’s posture become aggressive, but they want to benefit from China’s economic potential (and for the majority, the largest trade partner is not in Washington, but in Beijing).
In depending on the use of influence to place pressure on the Chinese regime, the US would do well to solicit Europe to play a central role in building effective coalitions. With the world’s largest single market and the status as China’s largest trade partner, Europe would be a strong ally in an effort to apply economic and financial constraints on Beijing. An actor capable of projecting its power globally – via its veto power on the UN Security Council; leadership positions at the summit of international organizations; nuclear capability; and clear stances on human rights, democracy, and climate change – Europe would be a formidable partner in any diplomatic coalition. And though the US would not likely ask of Europe an armed intervention, the two do share exceptionally close military ties and a common interest in promoting the Western liberal democratic model. This makes a compelling case for fostering transatlantic cohesion and presenting the world with a united West, characterized by solidarity rather than fragmentation.
Leadership Matters: Considering Obama v. Romney
Ultimately, leadership matters. Where the US places its emphasis (fostering cooperation or quashing competition) will depend heavily on the next occupant of the Oval Office. Mitt Romney’s is not an ideologue but does have a traditional, even nostalgic, conception of American power based on dated paradigms of US supremacy, singularity, and dominance. He advocates excluding China, treating it as an adversary rather than as a more complex combination of friend and competitor. With his belief that China’s rise directly detracts from America’s unchallenged power, Romney condemns China’s economic practices and rails against its success in luring American jobs. By spending a great deal of effort on describing the threat emanating from China, Romney often fails to specifically detail the ways in which Washington might benefit from closer ties to the region more generally.
On the other hand, Obama understands the need to adapt to China’s rise, to accompany it from within where the capacity for influence is greater. Without ignoring the real challenges – lingering mutual suspicion, limited military-to-military cooperation and transparency, etc. – Obama recognizes that protracted competition between the two powers is not beneficial. Reluctant to accept the notion of American decline but cognizant of the changing nature of American power, Obama has made efforts to foster comprehensive region-wide ties including participation in its major forums, new initiatives in bilateral relationships, and creating channels for formal and informal interaction at levels of government (not just among chiefs of state and cabinet secretaries). Despite his election year flirtation with populist rhetoric, Obama’s vision aims to reconsider the definition of US interests and how to most successfully pursue them, and to assure that the US is nimble and creative enough to adapt to the new geopolitical context in which it operates.
It is thus that Europe would do well to wish for an Obama reelection. In a second term, Obama is more likely than a president Romney to seek balance on the Asia-Pacific economic-security continuum. Rather than adopting a go-it-alone approach committed to defending a simplistic reading of threats, Obama would be most likely to maintain a comprehensive approach that includes not only addressing China, but also focuses on fostering deeper bilateral and multilateral ties with the whole of the region. In parallel, Obama seize the occasion of the pivot to give new strategic urgency to the Euro-American relationship. By working together to find common ground and a common mission on the objectives, tactics, and tone of policy towards Asia, Europe and the US could reinforce Western influence and solidarity. It would be the chance to act as a single voice to advocate the founding tenets of Western society in a world in which the West is less apt to dictate the rules and more engaged in a competition to define them anew.