SEC DEF Robert Gates and His Truth Tour – Asia 1, NATO 0

Stephen Walt, a professor at Harvard, an author, and a frequent blogger at Foreign Policy, is great to read. I don’t agree with all of his analysis (its a hard realism that I don’t necessarily ascribe to), but he finds that sweet spot between wonk and common man that makes for great reading. His most recent post was about the end of the “American Era.”

I’m no great decline guy, and generally like to poke holes in the overstatements organic to these arguments [Note: I like to refer to this hyperbole as “Peak Americana” and its China corollary as “888 Myopia,” as in “every day in China is as perfect as the Opening Ceremonies to the Beijing Games on August 8, 2008.”]. Anyhow, Walt writes convincingly that the “American Era,” in which the US could do whatever we liked is coming to an end. Not completely, we’ll still be very important, but, there is reason to believe that the relative level of power/influence is tipping away from the US. Above is a graphic from The Economist that helps to imagine this shift (economically). So, Walt argues:

What does this mean going forward? It means the United States is going to have set priorities, and write off some areas or regions where its vital interests are not engaged or where those interests are not threatened. In particular, the United States should focus on preserving a balance of power in the key industrial areas of Europe and Asia and in the oil-rich Persian Gulf, while maintaining its position as the only great power in the Western hemisphere. We will need to get our allies to do more, however, and as the Libyan intervention shows, the only way to do that is to do rather less ourselves. But we will have to forego the costly moral crusades that neoconservatives and liberal interventionists love to drag us into, and that also means staying out of the costly business of “nation-building” (which we are not very good at anyway).

 

In short, the United States will have to return to the strategy of “offshore balancing” that it followed for most of its history. In practice, this means drawing down our military presence in Europe (which is stable and democratic and faces no threats it can’t handle itself), getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan and moving our forces there back offshore and over-the-horizon, and shifting more of our strategic attention to Asia, where China’s rise is creating a number of new and potentially valuable partners. This is decidely not an “isolationist” strategy, insofar as the United States would remain diplomatically engaged around the globe and militarily committed in several key regions. But we would be much less inclined to intervention on other states’ internal affairs.

This, I think, is shrewd analysis that is shared by more than just Walt’s fellow academicians. In recent days, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has been on his last international tour in his position. This 11 day trip is taking him about 21,500 miles…and, an amazing trivia factoid…in his 4.5 years as SECDEF, he has traveled a cumulative 667,594 miles, “equivalent to traveling around the world 26 times at the Equator.”

Two of the stops were to speak to audiences very important to US security: the Asia-Pacific and NATO. He started with a speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, the most prestigious gathering of defense intellectuals and government officials in security positions in the region. Gates emphasized that the US is committed to engagement in the region, noting initiatives to increase ties with Singapore and Australia.

Second, Gates spoke to a NATO audience. He laid out some bare facts ~ that at the outset, the
US bore 50% of NATO’s financial costs, but now absorbs 75%. Only a handful of the 28 NATO member countries spend the suggested/agreed upon 2% of GDP on defense (as shown at right ~ although, I think Turkey and Albania are missing from this chart).

Gates warned of “a dim if not dismal future” and cautioned against potential “irrelevance.” One statement worth repeating was,

“The blunt reality,” Mr. Gates said, “is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress — and in the American body politic writ large — to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.”

Taken as a whole, one can see the beginnings of the shift that Walt counsels ~ generally, away from Europe, an emphasis on Asia without an increased commitment, and generally reducing global commitments wherever possible. Of course, these were just some words from a SECDEF on his way out the door, and it is going to take some time to truly effect any change toward these ends. That said, it is a start. It seems the lowest hanging fruit of these three will be to reduce the footprint in Europe (specifically forward stationed ground forces). Naval and air basing rights should be maintained, as well as strategic defense commitments (i.e. extended nuclear deterrence and air defense). But it shouldn’t be too hard to draw down the Army in Europe (even if it is unpopular with soldiers that love to live abroad).

The other aspects that Walt counsels ~ reducing global commitments while at the same time cultivating balance of power relationships in various regions (i.e. Iraq-Iran-Saudi Arabia, Russia-Europe, India-Pakistan) ~ these are very, very had to do right. I’m skeptical that we can convince any of our partners outside of Europe that they’re going to be OK with a reduced American commitment. Two noteworthy examples would be South Korea and Japan…there is almost no wiggle room with these two, especially considering the recent disaster in Japan.

In sum, the title says it all ~ Asia 1, NATO 0 ~ chalk this one up as a “win” for Asia.

Author: ML Cavanaugh

Unequal parts strategist, assistant professor, wordsmith, runner, wine-o, reader, philosopher of firepower, and hopeless lover of three ladies named Rachel, Grace, and Georgie.

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