The Politics, Strategy, and Reality of US Rebalancing ── Implications for Taiwan

Stephen J. Yates

Former Deputy Assistant to the Vice President for National Security Affairs, currently CEO at DC International Advisory

My deepest gratitude to the leaders and supporters of the Taiwan National Security Institute for extending an invitation for me to return to Taipei and participate in this wonderful annual symposium. It is an honor to share the podium with distinguished speakers from Japan, Taiwan, and the United States who share common values and concern for the security and civil rights of the people of Taiwan.

Drawing upon years of experience at the highest levels of government, politics, and the media, this assessment aims to provide critical context and key lessons to be drawn from the origins and execution of Obama administration foreign policy, and its proposed “rebalancing” to Asia in particular.

Analysis of the politics of the pivot, the strategy behind rebalancing, and rebalancing meets reality is followed by implications for Taiwan and recommendations.

This assessment comes from a former senior White House national security official in the Bush administration. While not without bias, it is offered as a comprehensive, tough, but fair critique, accompanied by constructive recommendations. Provoking deeper thought, creative conversation, and better options is the intent. This paper is but one step, not an end, in that journey.


I. The Politics of the Pivot

While politics is often considered a dirty word when discussing foreign policy, any discussion of foreign policy that avoids recognition of the importance, even centrality, of politics is either inaccurate or insufficient.  It should come as no surprise that elected leaders in democratic societies are driven by the imperatives of politics, and seek to use them to their advantage.

And so, as we consider the origins and evolution of the Obama administration’s policy of “pivoting to Asia” and strategic rebalancing, it is only appropriate that we begin with an assessment of the politics that gave rise to this initiative and accompanying rhetoric.

2008 was the first presidential cycle in many years where foreign affairs and national security were seen as a Republican vulnerability.  Indeed, just four years earlier, the political contrast on national security issues likely tipped the balance in George W. Bush’s defeat of John Kerry.

The Obama administration came into office having campaigned on the premise that its predecessors erred in the prosecution of the war on terror and military engagements in the broader Middle East.  They asserted these misguided adventures not only harmed US interests in the Middle East, but also led to neglect of US interests in Asia.

There is no denying that the Bush ministration was indeed preoccupied with developments in the Middle East. This was to be expected given the shock of the events of September 11, 2001. The perpetrators of that terrible attack were from the Middle East, and the ideology that animated that network also had its origins and widest audience in the broader Middle East.

The risks associated with failed states, radical networks, and fragile states in the broader Middle East took on a new imperative, and appropriately so. The basic proposition put forward by President Bush — that we should take the fight to the enemy abroad before the enemy once again brings the fight to the US homeland –seemed reasonable to a majority of Americans in the aftermath of those terrible attacks.

But as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq dragged on, and as casualty figures rose, popular opinion turned against the wars and how they were being conducted. Media reports and political discourse rarely capture ground truth or complex considerations in a far away conflict. Weary troops, scandalous misconduct, and relentless reporting on the unpopularity of the war effort ultimately undermined President Bush’s authority and the legitimacy of the mission he set in motion.

As a freshman senator and up-and-coming challenger in the Democratic primary season of 2007-2008, Barack Obama availed himself of every opportunity to criticize unpopular Bush administration policies, first and foremost calling for an end to the war in Iraq, but also advocating major adjustments to the Bush administration’s prosecution of the war on terror. In addition to being what Barak Obama believed, it also was an effective way to remind Democratic primary voters that Hillary Clinton, like John Kerry in 2004, had voted in support of these measures before coming to oppose them years later.

In the context of the political campaign it was very effective to emphasize that the Bush administration had lost focus, had prosecuted the “wrong” war in Iraq, losing the initiative in the “right” war in Afghanistan. More broadly, the Obama campaign asserted that the Bush administration had focused so much on the Middle East that that the US was shortchanging its commitments to allies around the world, but especially in Asia.

Rather than prosecuting a global war on terror and two unpopular wars, Barak Obama suggested that the United States should focus instead on seeking accommodation in the Middle East and strategic cooperation with Russia, China, and others to tackle global issues like climate change, global health, and nuclear arms reductions. This new approach was meant to accommodate the winding down of wars, return of troops and resources to the US, and increased cooperation to contain (if not roll back) long-term intractable issues like the nuclear challenges of North Korea and Iran.

And so the simple rhetoric of a pivot to Asia became popular among the campaign staff in both the Obama and Clinton primary campaigns, and ultimately emerged as a key tenet of the Obama administration’s foreign policy. A useful division of labor emerged. President Obama would set a new tone in relations with the Muslim World, as Secretary Clinton announced the US was “back in Asia.”

Secretary Clinton emphasized that her first overseas visit as Secretary of State would be to East Asia, noting the importance of US interests in Asia to the future of the United States. Whereas the Bush administration failed to send top talent to occasional regional summits, like the ASEAN Regional Forum, the Obama administration would be sure to send its very popular Secretary of State to attend all regional summits of consequence, even adding new participation in the East Asia Summit.

The fact that US interests in Asia are significant and key to America’s future is not in dispute. And the fact that those interests are advanced by sustained senior US leadership engagement also is not in dispute. However, while showing up and speaking up counts for something, it does little to change the hard choices and tough challenges that the United States and its allies face in Asia.

Initially the fresh talking points of the Obama administration’s new approach to Asia were welcome. Political leaders the media and commentators were weary of the stale and divisive debates about the war and terrorism in the Middle East. It was a welcome change to talk about new opportunities, new solutions, and new approaches in East Asia.

As the White House struggled with a year-long review of policy towards Afghanistan and focused on economic issues at home, it was very useful to launch Secretary Clinton on effort to promote the administration’s new national security strategy, with emphasis on Asia.

But before long leaders in the United States and internationally began to wonder what proposed change really means. After all, the US does have significant national interests at stake in the Middle East. Could it really afford to turn away from those interests and instead pursue opportunities elsewhere? And leaders in Asia rightly could ask, despite the welcome focus on their region, what does the US have in mind to do to change the balance of power, regional priorities, or economic realities of this vital region?

As instability continued to spread across the broader Middle East, despite the winding down of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, many in Congress and abroad began to question the advisability of any notion of pivoting away from the Middle East.

It seems, many outside of the Obama administration took very seriously the notion that a pivot to Asia might really result in new hardware moving into Asia and away from needed commitments elsewhere. They worried aloud about who the pivot might embolden in the Middle East and provoke in Asia.

And so the term “pivot,” born out of opportunistic campaign rhetoric in 2008, was dropped in favor of a more neutral notion of “rebalancing.” The US, of course, would not be able to turn away from the Middle East and focus primarily on Asia. Instead it would look to rebalance its effort and attention in both of these vital regions.

As we near the end of the fifth year of Obama’s tenure as president, the political saliency of the whole notion of pivoting to Asia or rebalancing America’s strategic forces in the Middle East and Asia, has lost a great deal of steam and interest.

Most defense experts at home and abroad know that the announced reallocation of resources to Asia, while welcome, are not strategically significant, given the rise of strategic forces in China and other challenging geographies. And after the passage of so much time, the Obama administration still has offered very few specifics about the content of this new reinvigorated agenda in Asia, and what it expects of its partners and competitors in response.

Even the mention of Asia by president Obama is incidental at this point, usually timed to be relevant to upcoming meetings or visitors, not articulation of Presidential priorities or strategy. The White House itself now avoids altogether any mention of the word “pivot,” but does continue to proudly declare a new and comprehensive engagement with Asia. Despite that, however, the topic of an “Asia pivot” or “rebalancing to Asia” is largely irrelevant to current national politics the United States and remains little understood – in the US, Asia, and elsewhere.

As we approach the 2014 midterm election in the United States, for example, major parties are unlikely to emphasize or even mention the administration’s approach to Asia as they compete for advantage in the Congress. Much as many leaders might prefer otherwise, the fault lines between the two parties on national security remain in the Middle East and on homeland security, not Asia. National security is no longer a net negative for Republicans. The political value of the pivot has come and gone.


II. The Strategy Behind Rebalancing

While politics played an enormous role in defining what the Obama administration had in mind with regard to pivoting to Asia, there were of course important elements of foreign policy and national strategy at play.

The strategic and political image of the America in retreat is unattractive. While the Obama administration wanted very much to emphasize withdrawal from unpopular wars, it did not want to simultaneously signal retreat from engagement in the world. The best way to avoid this impression is to offer a positive alternative.

As the campaign transitioned to governance, the Obama White House began promoting elements of a new national security strategy. At its core, the new strategy deemphasized the military in favor of “civilian” capabilities. These would include new use of intelligence, diplomatic, aid, and other nonmilitary capabilities.

Terrorism, terrorists, and the nature of the threat would be discussed in entirely different terms. Emphasis would be placed on outreach to the Muslim world – the famous “unclenched fist” with regard to negotiations with Iran, for example. When plans for or acts of terrorism are found, “extremists” will be “brought to justice” by way of law enforcement and criminal trials. Deployment of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (a.k.a. drones) would take the place of human intelligence and troops. The definition of our enemy would be minimized to a single organization and a short list of leaders. No longer would the United States be engaged in unlimited war with a broadly defined enemy.

While minimizing the threat of terrorism, the new administration emphasized what it saw as a positive agenda to address global challenges – climate change, global health, and nuclear arms reductions. Energy invested in great power cooperation on these new strategic priorities would be a positive way to pivot away from war. And of the great powers, the Obama administration saw strategic cooperation with China as having great potential. But talk of China itself can be risky and controversial, and so the administration instead emphasized Asia rather than China in its pivot.

As the Obama administration rolled out its strategy, the new tone was clear: the threat of terrorism is diminishing and the means with which the US will respond is limited. Given that, the US will seek dialogue with the Muslim World, a “reset” in relations with Russia, and more active strategic cooperation with China.

Understated, but very real, the Obama strategy resulted in a significant shift in US policy with regard to democracy.  Thanks to the highly charged partisan discourse on terrorism, Iraq, and Afghanistan, by 2008 promotion of democracy became equated with invasion, nation building, and otherwise imposing values on others.

This was unfortunate and unwise.  Defense of “universal values” and support for those advancing democratic transitions had been broadly bipartisan since Woodrow Wilson, and certainly through much of the Cold War.  Bitterness and opportunism in the post-9/11 environment devalued and distorted democracy promotion as a key tenet of American foreign policy.  Thus as candidate and through the transition into office, President Obama and his national security team declared themselves to be foreign policy Realists.  Indeed, one of his more senior advisors boasted privately to me that they aimed to implement the most Realist US foreign policy since Nixon and Kissinger.

Turns out these were not simply campaign clichés.  As is well known, practitioners of Realist theory emphasize competition and cooperation among states.  States are more or less to be treated as equals.  The relevance of non-state actors, ideologies, and the nature of states are minimized.  Instead priority is placed on our national interest in shaping the external behavior of other states.  Domestic politics and governance is for them to sort out on their own.


III. Rebalancing Meets Reality

Any administration is likely to find definition and implementation of policy to be much more difficult than articulation of ideas. The Obama administration’s “pivot” or “rebalancing” was destined to face obstacles.  The domestic politics in favor of and opposed to the pivot were outlined earlier.  The greatest obstacle to the administration’s pivot is not politics, however, it is reality.

Reality #1: The US was not absent from Asia during the Bush administration.

President Bush did in fact invest in significant strategic enhancements to US relations with Japan, India, and Indonesia (among others). He also sustained an unprecedented pace of meetings and communications with China’s leaders – visiting China twice during his first 13 months in office, despite the EP-3 incident and 9/11, inviting Jiang Zemin to his ranch, inviting Hu Jintao to Washington in advance of the leadership succession, and so forth.

President Bush attended every APEC leaders summit, invested in enhancements to alliances and partnerships across Asia, treated India as a global and Asian power, and launched a new multilateral security forum to manage North Korean provocations.

There hadn’t really been a vacuum in Asia. Where the Bush administration went wrong in Asia had to do with the content and focus of its engagement, not its lack of engagement. American wasn’t “back in Asia” in 2009. It hadn’t left.

Reality #2: Deployed US capabilities in Asia may decline, not increase.

With the drawdown of forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, there would seem to be significant numbers of personnel and materiel available to relocate to Asia, as needed. Unfortunately there are many factors working against that reasonable proposition.

Reservists need to be returned to normal life from active duty. Active duty men and women, and the functions they serve, need to return to the geographies and responsibilities from which they were diverted for the war effort. Some of the men and women may choose to retire. Some of the weapons platforms may need to retire. A great deal of maintenance and replenishment is required after a decade of extraordinary deployments.

Beyond these natural post-war considerations, the greatest limitation on capabilities to “rebalance” to Asia, aside from ongoing instability in the Middle East, is the federal budget crisis.

On this day in 2008, the US national debt was under $10 trillion. Today it stands at $17 trillion. This explosion in debt was driven by massive increases in non-defense spending – intended as economic stimulus – that was not met with resulting increases in revenue or economic growth.  Winding down the wars did not make a meaningful dent in the annual budget deficit or the national debt.

Now with mandatory sequester cuts and continued debate over whether to increase the statutory national debt limit, expensive weapons platforms are likely to be delayed or decommissioned. For example, Secretary Hagel suggests the US Navy may go from 11 aircraft carriers to only 8.

A shrinking military leaves less to rebalance. Not only are capabilities unlikely to increase, prior pledges from the President of no cuts in the Pacific may not fit with reality.

Reality #3: The rise of Islamism, not US policy, is destabilizing the Middle East.

For much of the last decade it was accepted as received wisdom that much of the instability and violence in the Middle East was made worse by (if not caused by) the personality and policies of President Bush. The theory followed that with “different” leadership – one who didn’t look and talk like a born-again Christian from Texas – Arabs and Persians will have less cause for concern, and Al Qaida will have diminished ability to recruit and attack.

Unfortunately, despite demonstrated openness to direct dialogue with Iran, the Taliban, the Muslim Brotherhood, among others, and despite timelines for withdrawal in Iraq and Afghanistan, Al Qaida continues to recruit and attack. Pro-Islamist forces are seeking or exercising effective control over an expanding geography, destabilizing all who resist. We now have greater upheaval, carnage, and risk from Northern Africa to Afghanistan than at any time since 9/11/2001.

Islamists are the political force that gave rise to both the Iranian revolution and al Qaeda. The Obama administration does not even list countering Islamists as a stated objective (the Bush administration did not either), and is unlikely develop a strategy or operational plan to counter and ultimately defeat them. This ensures that the US will be preoccupied with turbulence in the greater Middle East for a while. American engagement is likely to increase, rather than pivot elsewhere.

Even when we are not fighting in the Middle East, crises in region occupy tremendous amounts of national security Cabinet time (the Principals Committee) and can lead to weak decision-making elsewhere. Some of the Bush administration’s most notable missteps in Asia occurred while Principals were preoccupied with crisis management in the Middle East.

Reality #4: Democracy and human rights suffer under Realist foreign policy.

The Obama administration’s adherence to Realist foreign policy appears to come from the President and his core White House advisors.  At times it has been at odds with Cabinet advisors and core Democratic Party constituencies.

Hillary Clinton found herself on both sides of this divide.  In 2009, during her first visit to China as Secretary of State she famously asserted that the Obama administration would not allow disagreement over human rights to stand in the way of progress on more strategic issues. Then, as Tehran cracked down on the Green Revolution, Clinton advocated early support for the opposition movement, despite administration interest in negotiations related to the regime’s nuclear programs.

Looking beyond intriguing divisions within the administration, the net effect of its policies is a clear impression that oppressive and Islamist regimes will be engaged, while democracy activists and opposition movements may be encouraged but not materially supported. Protesters in Iran, Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere have taken great risks believing the US would support their struggle and shared values, only to have lost everything, including trust in the US.

In Asia, the administration’s summitry and Strategic Dialogue with China is not matched by similar engagement (Presidential time, large Cabinet-level delegations) with Asian democracies. Quite the opposite, the administration goes out of its way to facilitate Chinese participation in any regional dialogue and observation of joint military exercises. No serious consideration is given to an exclusive gathering of democracies, or even inclusive gatherings focused on assessing and advancing democratic progress.

Reality #5: Alliances are less relevant in Obama’s new world order.

American presidents often grant ceremonial deference and kind words to US allies. For some it is a genuine sense of kinship or common cause in a great struggle. For others it is what tradition and protocol require. President Obama seems to fit more in the latter category.

When President Obama speaks of what he sees as the defining issues of our time – climate change, global health, and nuclear arms reductions – he does not turn to or primarily rely upon alliances to advance those objectives. He speaks of the need for great power cooperation.

As the administration pursued a new START treaty with Russia, it discarded missile defense commitments to East European allies with little notice or consideration.

While managing the drawdown of forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, little effort was made to nurture alliances, strategic partnerships, or even Status of Forces Agreements with either of the countries we helped liberate.

As chaos broke out in Egypt and mass protests called for Mubarak’s removal, his personal history and national alliance with the US seems to have earned him little consideration.

When North Korea kills South Koreans, a Chinese “fishing” vessel rams a Japanese coast guard vessel, or terrorists fire missiles into Israeli territory, the administration speaks as if on behalf of the UN secretary general rather than as an ally – calling for all sides to exercise restraint.

Despite a Falkland Island referendum overwhelmingly supporting continued affiliation with the United Kingdom, and our own alliance with the UK, the US State Department still called on the UK and Argentina to resolve their competing claims through negotiation (supporting Argentina’s position, not our ally).

Unfortunately, these are just a few examples of administration actions and inaction resulting in a failure to support allies. The pattern calls into question whether a “rebalancing” of administration attention and resources (if real) would reliably be of benefit to allies in Asia.


IV. Implications for Taiwan

While none of the preceding analysis of the politics, strategy, and reality of US rebalancing even mentioned Taiwan, several of the points are more relevant to Taiwan then they may at first appear.

Conclusion #1: “Rebalancing” is likely to bring less change than expected.

This is good news and bad news for Taiwan. On the one hand, anyone anticipating an increased security and diplomatic presence in Asia is likely to be disappointed. On the other hand, the level of US security and diplomatic engagement is likely to remain within range of what we have seen since the end of the Cold War – reassuring to some, disappointing to others.

Conclusion #2: If allies and alliances are marginalized, commitment to Taiwan is even more questionable.

Taiwan exists in a unique state of positive global engagement and negative diplomatic isolation. US commitments in the Taiwan Relations Act are compelling but also open to interpretation. Despite frequent verbal affirmations of the Act are offered by US officials, the Act is less than a treaty, the relationship is less than an alliance, and Taiwan is often treated as less than a nation-state. Thus it stands to reason that at a time when many US allies are anxious to the point of doubting the reliability of US commitments, leaders in Taiwan should have even greater concerns and need to be planning accordingly.

Conclusion #3: US failure to identify and counter the Islamist threat is matched by a similar weakness when it comes to the PRC.

In both instances, US officials and foreign policy elites warn against clear identification of the nature, scope, and origins of the threats we face. They argue in favor of nuance, blurring or avoiding the truth, lest we provoke aggression or create an enemy by way of our speech and actions. Islamist forces have killed American civilians, assassinated a US ambassador, and destabilized US allies.  And yet, we still avoid candor and detail in discussing this threat, much less countering it. In too many respects, we are in fact accommodating the threat. The same could be said with regard to the threat of Chinese aggression (political, military, economic, or cyber) under Communist Party leadership. Friends and allies should be concerned.

Conclusion #4: The US is likely to remain averse to intervention in overseas conflicts and continue to pursue strategic cooperation with Beijing.

A majority of Democrats and Republicans, for differing reasons, are cautious about or outright oppose any new “entanglements” after the experience with Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. There is a sense that even limited interventions could drag on, go badly, or both. And if loose networks of Islamists were able to resist, bloody, and in some ways defeat the US, wouldn’t it take an even greater commitment of forces and resources to stand up to China? And so a sense of “pre-emptive self-deterrence” in the US invites Chinese assertiveness, even as the US seeks strategic cooperation from Beijing. This delicate approach also makes US intervention on territorial disputes and cutting-edge arms sales to allies much less likely.


V. Recommendations

Despite the somewhat skeptical and cautionary nature of this assessment, friends who share our concern for the security and civil rights of the people of Taiwan should not despair.  Instead those committed to our common values need to be even more active in the following areas:

Recommendation #1: Make good relations and collaboration with US allies a priority.

US allies in Asia find themselves having to rely more on their own capabilities and initiative rather than depending on the US diplomacy or deterrence. They face challenges in dealing with China that Taiwan should understand and have strategic interests Taiwan should share. As allies like Japan (but not limited to Japan) need to act more independently on foreign policy, they are likely to be more open to constructive support and collaboration from Taiwan. At some point, these allies may even become significant sources of strategic support. Unfortunately, domestic politics and ideology occasionally seem to obstruct clear view of this strategic reality and opportunity, especially with regard to relations with Japan and the Philippines. Sustained effort is needed to avoid missing this opportunity.

Recommendation #2: Cultivate new friends in Washington and more broadly in the US.

Turnover in Washington is constant and significant, and yet some institutions, ideas, and individuals never change. It may be unwise to turn away from investment in long-term relationships in Washington, but it is equally unwise to be limited to those relationships. For Taiwan and Asian allied interests to be understood and appreciated, influential people beyond old friends and institutions need to be involved. Today, fewer and fewer people turn to established Washington institutions for ideas, activism, or even real time information. Increasingly, individuals and groups who are active at the intersection of politics, new media, and international affairs fill this void. Many of them operate outside of Washington, DC. Friends of Taiwan need to follow their lead, cultivate their interest, and reach new audiences. They are the only hope for honest assessment and discussion of China, capable of reorienting the US political and policy landscape. Established Washington institutions and personalities are lost.

Recommendation #3: Think beyond the “status quo” and US endorsement of your opponents.

The Obama administration is likely to continue to speak in favor of President Ma’s cross-Strait policies, and implicit (if not explicit) endorsement of a 2016 candidate committed to continuing those policies is near certain. The “pivot” or “rebalance” is empty rhetoric. The “one China” policy is outdated and detrimental to Taiwan’s security and self-determination. And the US is unlikely to authorize transfer of any new or significantly modernized weapons platforms in the near future.

This is the status quo. It has enjoyed bipartisan support in the US and is unlikely to change absent dramatic developments at home or abroad. Criticizing it, while appropriate, will not increase allied capabilities and deter China in the near term. We need to look beyond and work around the status quo.

Japan and Taiwan should not take US restrictions on advanced weapons transfers as the last word on their options to provide for the common defense of their citizens. Together or independently, both governments have an obligation to pursue domestic and international options to fill legitimate defense needs, if the US is unwilling to provide.

Beyond classical national defense needs, Japan and Taiwan should work together to develop and deploy a range of smart power capabilities – the tools with which to influence their security and negotiating positions between the softest of diplomacy and the blunt instruments of sanctions and military force.