September 16, 2016
Book Review: Kurt Campbell’s The Pivot
by Francis P Sempa
A frequent reader of the American foreign policy journal Foreign Affairs will feel right at home reading Kurt Campbell’s The Pivot. The author was the Obama administration’s principal architect of the US pivot or “rebalance” to Asia, and beyond the abundance of conventional wisdom, offers some important insights into the emergence of what many are calling the “Asian Century”.
Campbell, currently Chairman and CEO of the Asia Group, a strategy and capital advisory firm based in Washington with an office in Hong Kong, served as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs from 2009 to 2013, and he draws upon that experience, which included many visits to the region, in explaining the need for the United States to “reorient its foreign policy to a rising Asia even in the midst of punishing and inescapable challenges” in other parts of the world.
The meaning of the pivot or rebalance is simple. “Asia,” he writes, “should be placed more centrally in the formulation and execution of American foreign policy.” It is the details, however, that are difficult. The United States has limited resources (including declining defense budgets) and worldwide commitments, is exhausted by two seemingly endless wars in the Middle East and Southwest Asia, and continues to battle Islamic jihadists at home and in other parts of the world. Meanwhile, America’s foreign policy bureaucracies remain largely Eurocentric, a legacy of shared culture, World War II (“Europe first”) and the long Cold War.
Campbell reviews the history of US interaction with Asia, and contends that the region was long considered a “secondary theater” in American foreign policy. One reason was geography: the United States was Atlantic-oriented until it completed its Manifest Destiny by expanding across the North American continent in the late 19th century. It was only after the swift victory in the Spanish-American War (1898) that the US became an Asian power with the appropriation of the Philippines, Guam and other previously Spanish possessions.
Another reason was cultural: early Americans were of European origin and this reinforced an Atlanticist worldview. To be sure, Campbell notes, there were “moments of concentrated focus on Asia,” but these were “rare and transient.”
Interestingly, Campbell is highly critical of FDR’s neglect of Asian affairs in the early-to-mid 1930s, and President Truman’s early postwar disengagement from Asia, especially with respect to China. America stood-by, he notes, as its Nationalist Chinese allies were defeated in a civil war. “Even Mao,” he writes, “was shocked by the lack of American reaction to events in China.” Campbell approvingly references President Eisenhower’s remark that “the loss of China was the greatest diplomatic defeat in [US] history.”
The author praises President Obama’s efforts to begin implementation of the pivot to Asia (even grudgingly assigning a modicum of credit to President George W Bush), and has extravagant, indeed excessive, praise for his former boss, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. (The book begins and concludes with fawning praise for the current Democratic candidate for President). But, he counsels, more needs to be done.
He proposes a plan for the pivot that has ten core elements: “clear and authoritative declarations of US Asia strategy”; “a focus on strengthening ties to our Asian allies”; “embedding China policy within a larger Asia policy framework”; “increasing ties with long-standing partners like Taiwan and New Zealand, as well as new partners including India, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Pacific island states”; “integrate the Asia-Pacific both regionally and internationally through the expansion of free trade agreements and economic interaction”; “helping build trans-Pacific institutions and capacities over pan-Asian groupings”; “update and modernize its military capabilities in the region”; “support Asia’s transitional states on their democratic journeys”; “strengthen people-to-people ties”; and “more integrated transatlantic approach to the region’s challenges”.
There is nothing controversial or provocative there. But his approach to the pivot is largely based on a progressive outlook that emphasizes multilateral solutions and views nationalism as a tragic holdover from the 19th century.
For example, throughout the book Campbell urges US policymakers to persuade Asia’s leaders to abide by “twenty-first-century rules”, to adopt “twenty-first-century values”, and to conduct themselves according to “twenty-first-century principles”, in spite of the evident fact that state-based politics are, if anything, strengthening in East Asia. He writes about the need to include Asian states in “global governance”, and time and again identifies climate change as the greatest security threat to America and the world in the twenty-first-century.
He recognizes the tension inherent in China’s challenge to US predominance in Asia and the world, and notes the potential flashpoints in East Asia and the Pacific Rim that could lead to open conflict. But he believes that a more “subtle” and “nuanced” US policy can persuade China to compete according to twenty-first-century rules, values and principles. Yet subtlety and nuance would not have stopped Russia in the Crimea, and it is unlikely to affect China’s actions in the South China Sea. As Henry Kissinger once wrote about Asia’s rise in this century, “despite the mantra of globalization, there are geopolitical realities that overwhelm fashionable reveries about universality.”
Francis P Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century and America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War. His writings appear in The Diplomat, Joint Force Quarterly, the University Bookman and other publications. He is an attorney, an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University, and a contributing editor to American Diplomacy.
The Pivot The Future of American Statecraft in Asia, Kurt Campbell (Twelve, June 2016)