US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks in Munich on Feb. 1. Allies are questioning America's commitment to their regions in the wake of the Asia 'pivot.' (US Defense Department)
WARSAW — It has been more than two years since the Obama administration announced the US military would “pivot” — or as the Pentagon prefers, “rebalance” — to the Asia-Pacific region of the world.
Senior US officials have since logged tens of thousands of miles flying across the Pacific Ocean for bilateral meetings in more than a dozen countries, including Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, the Philippines and Cambodia.
Three of Chuck Hagel’s nine overseas trips as defense secretary have been to the Asia-Pacific. Still, he takes pains to say that he’s not neglecting other regions.
“[R]ebalancing for the United States to Asia-Pacific does not mean retreating from the rest of the world and especially not retreating from the continent of Europe,” Hagel said during a Jan. 30 event at the Polish Defense Ministry.
But despite this and many similar statements by Hagel and others, leaders in the Middle East, Africa and Europe still spend a lot of time worrying in public about the American commitment to their regions. The strategic shift receives frequent discussion in overseas news media, and foreign journalists often ask visiting US officials about it.
US allies began to voice their concerns soon after US President Barack Obama made an unprecedented trip across the Potomac River for a Pentagon briefing about the pivot.
Among the most vocal were Eastern European nations concerned about Russia’s intentions. Those concerns persist; the rebalance came up during recent meetings in Warsaw between top US and Polish officials. During the customary bilateral press conference, where the traveling and local press each get two questions, the pivot was the subject of the very first question.
“You said that the United States remains determined to support the engagement and continued engagement in Europe,” a Polish reporter asked. “In Poland, however, we speak quite much about the American pivot toward Asia. How would you comment on this?”
A senior US defense official said the Polish government understands and supports the increased US focus in the Pacific.
“All the West should in general be looking toward the Asia-Pacific just because that’s where so much of the world’s economy is and there is certainly enough going on there from a security perspective that we need to all pay attention to,” the senior defense official said. “We’re all connected.”
It was essentially the same message delivered nearly a year earlier by then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
“We also must broaden the scope of our alliance security discussions beyond Europe and beyond regional issues,” Panetta said in a January 2013 speech at Kings College in London. “In particular, I strongly believe that Europe should join the United States in increasing and deepening our defense engagement with the Asia-Pacific region.”
And earlier this month, Hagel took the same message to the Munich Security Conference, a who’s who of global foreign policy and defense leaders.
“I think our European allies know very well the importance of the Asia-Pacific and to a one they understand and are supportive of our very vocal desire to rebalance,” a senior defense official said. “But each will have to do it in their own way and invest in that to the degree they can.”
Some European countries are already planning for more military engagements in the Pacific. The French, for example, will for the first time send a warship to the US Navy’s annual RIMPAC exercise in the Pacific.
The first official announcement of the shift arrived in the January 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance: “[W]e will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region.”
Later, officials in and out of government began using the word “pivot,” much to the chagrin of Pentagon message-shapers. The problem with a pivot is that it turns your back to the old as it focuses on the new.
“The language even created some challenges,” Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said during a Jan. 27 US Global Leadership Coalition event in Richmond, Va. “We have some immediate work to do to communicate to our allies in the Middle East that we’re not going away from the region.”
Kaine said he has been “in some settings where they have really been banging on us about ... moving away from the region,” not just militarily, but officials talk about the US becoming energy independent. Middle Eastern nations, particularly Saudi Arabia, are major US suppliers of oil.
“I frankly wish the administration had not talked about a pivot or rebalancing to Asia, because there is an incredible need for our focus on Asia, but as soon as you say that, anybody who’s not in Asia says, ‘Oh, I guess we’re not as important anymore.’ ”
The same sentiment exists in the Middle East, where the US has largely drawn down its Iraq and Afghanistan involvements but continues to keep substantial forces. Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said that the Middle East is still an area of focus for the Pentagon and noted that a Navy aircraft carrier remains in the region.
And much of the same is true in Europe. The US military has provided intelligence, airlift and refueling support for NATO operations in Africa.
Moreover, Hagel and others have said budget pressures are motivating the US and its European allies to ensure that their warfighting capabilities complement each other’s.
“The United States will engage European allies to collaborate more closely, especially in helping build the capabilities of other global partners,” Hagel said Feb. 1 in Munich. “We’re developing strategies to address global threats as we build more joint capacity, joint capacity with European militaries.
“In the face of budget constraints here on this continent, as well as in the United States, we must all invest more strategically to protect military capability and readiness,” he said. ■