hen President Obama and Secretary Clinton launched what quickly came to be known as the Pivot to Asia, they had a number of different ideas in mind. First, there was the feeling that the United States was stuck in the Middle East quagmire and needed a sharp change of direction to escape. Second, there was the fear that America’s role in other parts of the world had been neglected, sometimes with destabilizing consequences. Finally, and perhaps more fundamentally, the Pivot was anchored in a particular philosophy of history. As Clinton and her Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Kurt Campbell, never tired of proclaiming, Asia was where the history of the next century would be written. The United States needed to share in the action.
For such a formidable claim a lot was left unexplained, but in his famous interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, Obama contrasted the Middle East with Asia in the following terms: The latter “is filled with striving, ambitious, energetic people who are every single day scratching and clawing to build businesses and get education and find jobs and build infrastructure. The contrast [with the Middle East] is pretty stark.” In Asia, Obama saw young people yearning for self-improvement, modernity, education, and material wealth. “They are not thinking about how to kill Americans,” he said in a moment of uncharacteristic bluntness.
Obama, in brief, thought that Asia was the most salient part of the world for America’s future, and that no U.S. President could afford to take his eye off this brute fact. But even if Clinton had won the 2016 election, the Pivot was ill-conceived from the beginning and would almost certainly have ended in failure. Its architects correctly recognized that Asia’s extraordinary success in the last two decades derived from the continent’s increasing interconnectedness with the wider world; China, they argued, had to be understood within a much more inclusive regional framework, not just studied in isolation. The problem was that the Pivot then attempted to construct this framework around an ill-defined Asian continent, whose borders remain unsteady (was Pakistan part of Asia for the purposes of the Pivot?) and whose relevance to contemporary realities is unclear. “Context matters” is of little use as a policy heuristic if nobody can agree on what the relevant context is—and such agreement is made all the more elusive by contested borders and shifting trade routes.
Indeed, China is developing a foreign policy aimed at transcending these artificial boundaries. The corridors composing the Belt and Road initiative stretch from the Atlantic to the South Pacific, with important stations in the Horn of Africa and the Arctic. The scope of this initiative allows Beijing to detect opportunities going much beyond existing realities. To give but two examples, the Belt and Road will attempt to move the center of gravity of European shipping from Northern to Southern Europe—the Chinese acquisition and expansion of the Port of Piraeus significantly cuts the shipping distance from Asia to Europe—and to build industrial value chains spanning from Congo to Shanghai by way of Kazakhstan.
The fatal flaw with the Pivot to Asia was not that it could be construed as a provocation to China, or even that it neglected opportunities and commitments in other regions. Rather, it was that it encouraged a way of looking at the world as divided between self-contained geographies. Obama may have kept his engagement in Syria at a minimum so that resources could be concentrated in Asia. In reality, though, his reluctance to act in Syria had a very detrimental impact in the South China Sea, where China felt increasingly comfortable to adopt a more aggressive posture. Europe, Middle East, South Asia, and Asia Pacific are concepts that today have a meaning only for historians, and even they are having second thoughts. Why would a global superpower voluntarily limit its sphere of action? If you read Campbell’s recent book, it is obvious that the motivating principle behind the Pivot is the gradual expansion of the Western world. The Middle East, once seen as a privileged area for Westernization, now appears difficult and recalcitrant. As Obama put it, it is a disappointing part of the world. It might have to be left to the end of the process, like those pockets of resistance you leave behind in order to win the battle as quickly as possible. But Campbell sees Asia as doting impatiently on the arc of the moral universe, bending it towards freedom—and by extension towards America.
Enter Trump. Now, when trying to make sense of what might be called the Trump doctrine, every commentator faces a very unsettling predicament. On the one hand, there is a strong unwillingness to identify any particular theory of international politics as the basis for Trump’s foreign policy because we all know that he does not do theory. Even his supporters will argue that he follows his instincts rather than a developed doctrine. On the other hand, can it seriously be argued that Trump is entirely beyond reason, that everything he does lacks strategy or sense? Moreover, even if Trump does in fact have no idea of what he is doing, it doesn’t follow that there is no underlying pattern to his decision-making.
I make these remarks more as a cautionary note than as a serious starting point. As a matter of fact, it seems clear to me that Trump and some of his advisors have voiced a number of coherent thoughts about the world order. More often than not, these are expressed as a rejection of existing ideas. The Trump Administration has argued, for example, that the world order is not and will never become a community of values. It has argued that the West will always remain confined to a particular geography, commanding no universal allegiance. It has argued that how countries act matters more than the way they are organized.
The point about the limited geographic expansion of the Western world is critical. Many liberals seem to think the whole world is in the process of becoming “like us,” and thus all countries must be treated as candidates for membership in the Western order. But for Trump and his advisors, the world remains an arena for action rather than an expanded home for a future global community.
The Trump Administration shares with its predecessor a healthy skepticism towards the old Cold War notion that Europe holds the key to the world order, but unlike Obama, it has not replaced that belief with a quixotic universalism. It looks at the world and sees a number of powerful players and privileged locations—actors and geographies where important resources have accumulated or where important questions about the global distribution of power will be decided. It does not draw deep divisions between the civilized and the uncivilized, since it lacks a strong idea of civilization, but it does draw distinctions between the powerful and the powerless. And much like a multinational company, the Trump Administration prioritizes certain geographic regions as the main prizes for state competition.
Outside the immediate neighborhood—Mexico and Canada have required sustained attention—the White House and the State Department under Secretary Pompeo have identified a number of zones of involvement and drawn increasingly defined links between them. The picture they have been developing bears a remarkable similarity to China’s Belt and Road initiative: on one end, the crisis point of North Korea, the relation with Japan, and the increasingly aggressive confrontation with China on trade; on the other end, the relations with Europe, which turned out to be a lot more eventful than anticipated—an incipient clash with Germany, a new relationship with post-Brexit Britain and doubts about NATO. The Middle East has not disappeared from the radar either, with an entente cordiale with Israel and Saudi Arabia opening the way for new hostilities with Iran, and with the old alliance with Turkey at a breaking point. But there is a new focus on the sea routes between Asia and Europe, the new strategic theater of the Indo-Pacific that Washington wants to build in close cooperation with Delhi. The U.S. military, for example, has just renamed its Pacific Command the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command—an attempt to counter Chinese political and economic power along the sea lanes holding the vast Eurasian supercontinent together.
If Obama pivoted to Asia, then, Trump has pivoted to Eurasia. That is hardly surprising: the supercontinent stretching from Lisbon to Jakarta is increasingly connected and interdependent, containing about two thirds of the world population and global economic output. Certain regions of the supercontinent are dense areas of technological innovation. Others are enormously rich in natural resources. More importantly, perhaps, it is here and only here that the United States finds state actors rivalling its own power and wealth: China, Russia, the European Union, perhaps India in the future, as well as smaller states it nonetheless regards as security threats. Even in the limit case of a world war, it is highly unlikely that a generalized conflict between, for example, China and the United States, could take place in the Pacific. It would be conducted where important allies and enemies can be regimented, where natural resources and large populations exist and where industry is concentrated.
Trump’s Pivot to Eurasia has two practical implications for American grand strategy. The first regards Russia’s role in American foreign policy. Traditionally, Washington strategists saw Russia as an external threat to be contained, perhaps eliminated at some point, or festively brought into the Western bloc—but always in reference to the borderlands separating it from Europe. The Pivot to Eurasia changes that by opening a second, eastern front where Russia appears less as a threat and more as an opportunity. Not by chance, public reports have informed us that Henry Kissinger has quietly suggested to Trump that the United States should work with Russia to contain a rising China. This strategy would use closer relations with Russia to limit China’s growing power and influence.
The second implication has to do with Europe. Just as Russia must be understood from both directions at once—west and east—so must Europe be placed in a larger Eurasian framework going beyond its Atlantic ties. Trump’s effort here is not only to get European NATO countries to take up their defense against the Russian threat, but also to temper the growing economic links between the European Union and China and, if possible, reorient Europe back towards the United States. These figures may come as a surprise to some, but the transatlantic alliance is increasingly peripheral in economic terms. In 2017 the European Union imported 375 billion euros in goods from China, corresponding to 20 percent of total imports. The volume imported from the United States was only 256 billion. To flip this around is the core of Trump’s Europe strategy.
In his review of my new book, Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times argued that the biggest strategic question facing a rising China is not the development of the Eurasian landmass but instead the struggle for power in the seas and economies of the Pacific region, where China faces direct opposition from its great rival across the ocean. To this Philip Stephens, also of the Financial Times, responded that the Pacific is mostly water. American decision makers seem increasingly aware that the new center of gravity in world politics is not the Pacific and not the Atlantic, but the Old World between the two. Whether he knows it or not, Trump is pivoting to Eurasia.
This is the third piece in a series. Read Part 1 and Part 2 here.