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So Much for the Pivot
Pivot to Asia? More Like Stuck in Place

“The Mediterranean is the ocean of the past, the Atlantic the ocean of the present, and the Pacific is the ocean of the future.” So said former Secretary of State John Hay, as quoted in a new report prepared for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The report, published just ahead of the President’s trip to Asia, finds that the pivot hasn’t lived up to its name, and that it has been too focused on the military dimension over economic relations.

According to the report, the entire Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs received just 8 percent of the total available resources under the FY2015 budget for the State Department, or the second least of the six regional bureaus. In fact, funding for the bureau has decreased since its peak in 2011. As the report observes, “Budgets, not rhetoric, are a leading indicator of real commitment by a government.”

Partly the failures of the pivot has been a consequence of events outside Washington’s control. The Middle East has consumed attention and resources, and the Ukraine crisis bumped Asia down on the Obama Administration’s to-do list. But the Administration has also made plenty of fumbles. Members of President Obama’s own party scuttled a vital part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a bold, multi-national trade agreement. Obama himself canceled his appearances at two summits in the Asia-Pacific last year, blaming the government shutdown.

The Washington Post spoke to several Administration insiders and policy scholars about the pivot:

“Showing up matters a lot in Asia. The good news is that it’s pretty easily fixable,” said Benjamin Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser. […]

Despite that optimism, there is a feeling outside the administration that the energy and enthusiasm that marked the launch of the policy has been lost with the departures early last year of Clinton and national security adviser Thomas E. Donilon. Their successors, John F. Kerry and Susan Rice, respectively, have been focused foremost on conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, a Middle East peace pact, and Iran’s nuclear program.

“For a lot of reasons, none egregiously negligent, it adds up to us not being there,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution. “Perceptions are everything, and now the whole idea of the rebalance is at risk.”

America’s Asian allies have repeatedly expressed their concern that Washington is not as committed to them as they once hoped. President Obama will be trying to assuage these fears on his upcoming trip to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines later this month, and on a second trip to the region in the fall.

He has his work cut out for him. Just today, the discussions between the U.S. and Japan over the TPP hit an impasse. Both President Obama and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have touted the TPP as advantageous to both countries, as well as to the allies and trading partners they have in common. That the Administration can’t get this agreement off the ground is proof enough that his Asia policy is ailing.

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  • Breif2

    “There is a feeling outside the administration that the energy and enthusiasm that marked the launch of the policy has been lost” as the time has come for action and not merely rhetoric.

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