Next Time Sidle, Don’t Pivot

If you’re going to shift your foreign policy focus, do it quietly.

By SHARE
U.S. President Barack Obama attends a bilateral meeting with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the G-20 Summit, Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013, in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Editor's not e: This blog entry was written before the administration announced that President Obama's trip to Asia was canceled, but the author stands by his analysis.

With the ongoing government shutdown and looming debt ceiling vote President Obama announced that he is cutting short the itinerary of his trip to Asia next week. Some see this as another bullet to the heart of the so-called "pivot to Asia." As Michael J. Green the senior vice president for Asia and the Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies told Stars & Stripes:

"The narrative is building pretty strongly that the pivot has lost its mojo because there is no champion," as there was with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, said Michael Green, a former director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council under George W. Bush and senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

He noted that Obama "barely mentioned Asia in passing" at the United Nations last week and that the situation with Syria has some in the region questioning "whether the U.S. has the willpower to honor its security commitments."

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has made three trips to the region, and though a cancellation would be seen as "undeniably negative," U.S. history shows that missteps can be rectified, Green said. He noted that President Bill Clinton skipped the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders meeting in 1995 as Republicans threatened a government shutdown but was able to mend fences during a trip to Japan and Korea in April 1996.

"These things can be quite consequential and have lasting strategic implications," Green said of missed meetings, noting that China could look to use the situation to raise doubts about U.S. staying power. "But it is also possible to recover, if the president is seen to come in swinging with some deliverables and rescheduled trips in the months ahead."

[ Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

Not to disagree with anything that Green says, but the bigger issue, it seems to me, was making the broad sweeping announcement of a pivot in the first place. Such pronouncements can have unintended consequences. In the Middle East for instance, while the desire to extricate ourselves seems obvious, the series of crises starting from Libya to Egypt to Syria all have a distinct " Godfather: Part III" feel to them. And when we get "pulled back in" then it causes some watchers in Asia to question the pivot.

So the next time a president wants to shift strategy perhaps they should consider sidling rather than pivoting. In other words, instead of declaring such a big shift in public pronouncements perhaps it is better to just do so quietly working with allies and slowly and gradually showing up. This would also be better public diplomacy vis-a-vis China by not explicitly shifting the crosshairs of such a strategy directly on them. The arrival of such forces will be noticed, it will send the same signal, but it will be more in the Teddy Roosevelt tradition of speaking softly and carrying a big stick. That certainly seems to be better policy prescription than doing the opposite.

Michael P. Noonan is the director of the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.