Whatever happens, the United States is going to try to redeploy a large part of its armed forces, diplomatic attention, and (perhaps) development aid to East and Southeast Asia. That is now the official position of both US political parties and it’s strongly backed by the Pentagon.
The most famous historical example of this kind of pivot went in the opposite direction: the British Empire’s strategy in the 20 years before 1914 was to reduce commitments elsewhere in the world so as to concentrate them against threats in Europe. This was necessitated by the rise of new powers and the economic and military decline of Britain—though as with America today, the decline was relative.
This led Britain, in successive stages, first to recognise the impossibility of maintaining a security role in Latin America against the wishes of the US; then to an alliance with Japan that allowed Britain to transfer most of its naval forces in Eastern waters to Britain; then the “entente cordiale” with France that wound up colonial rivalry between them and committed Britain (albeit in an ambiguous and unclear way) to defend France against Germany. Finally, and most strikingly, in 1907, Britain signed an agreement with Russia that ended the “Great Game” in Central Asia and completed the allied bloc that was to fight the First World War against Germany from the summer of 1914 to Russia’s collapse in the autumn of 1917.
Can the United States do something like this today? The first point to note is that Britain was able to surrender many aspects of its global role to the US, an English-speaking power which—while by no means entirely sympathetic to the British Empire—would at least guarantee British investments and the rules of international capitalism. No such power is waiting in line to supplement the US today.
Secondly, before the First World War Britain possessed more cohesive foreign policy elites than the US today, and a much more powerful executive. Once a consensus had been reached in the British establishment, taking painful decisions was relatively easy. The US political establishment today is deeply fractured; the US Congress enjoys great power in foreign policy at the expense of the executive while not having to take actual responsibility for policy; and Congress (and US politics in general) is largely under the sway of lobbies determined to nail America to their own specific international interests.
This factor is most important in making it more difficult to reduce US commitments in the Middle East, but it is most striking in the case of Russia. Here, the Obama administration’s “reset” of relations is very much in the spirit of British strategy before 1914: to reach an accommodation with a former enemy, which now poses no threat to US vital interests, in order to concentrate resources and attention on a much greater threat elsewhere. In addition, since Russian victory in the war with Georgia in August 2008—when America did nothing to help its quasi-ally—it has been clear that further US-led NATO expansion in the former Soviet Union is dead as a door nail.
Obama’s reset might well therefore be described as being in accordance with Geopolitics 101. Yet it has met with ferocious condemnation from Republicans (and some Democrats), and during the presidential campaign Republican nominee Mitt Romney even declared Russia to be America’s “principal adversary”. There are powerful forces in Congress, the establishment, and ethnic groups in the country that simply cannot bear the idea of reconciliation with their old enemy.
If this is true of relations with Russia, the problems of reducing US commitments in the Middle East should be obvious. Of course, the US has withdrawn its army from Iraq and will withdraw ground troops (though not bases) from Afghanistan in the next two years. But as long as the US retains its determination to maintain hegemony in the region while backing Israel, a strong risk will remain of America being drawn into new conflicts, whether as a result of Israeli actions, revolutions on the ground, or battles between local states and local US allies. This in turn means that the US cannot reduce its forces in the region beyond a certain level.
Finally, over the past 20 years the US has already been guilty of very dangerous neglect of its own backyard of Central America, where the decay of states and societies is posing direct threats to American society itself.
Of course, this still leaves the United States with immense naval and air forces that it can deploy to the Asia-Pacific region. But it is vital to remember that geopolitical and military power is always and everywhere local and relative. That is to say, it is the amount of power that a given country is able to deploy and willing to use in a particular place or over a particular issue, relative to that which a rival power is willing and able to deploy. This fact was starkly demonstrated by the Russia–Georgia War of 2008, when the US, with its immensely superior military resources, backed off in the face of Russia’s determination to defend a local ally against a local enemy. In East Asia, the question will be not whether US global military resources will remain superior to China’s (they will) but whether the US will be able to deploy enough resources to deter China if an economically superior China chooses to commit all its military resources to dominate neighbouring waters and air space.
Like Britain in Europe before 1914, the US in East Asia has the immense advantage of local allies—ties which have been strengthened still further by China’s hysterical bullying stance over disputed island chains in recent months. Indeed, China’s approach in this regard is also beginning to have echoes of Wilhelmine Germany before 1914, and seems to be uniting much of the region against Beijing.
But allies often come with a price. For Britain, the price of alliance with Russia was to be compelled to fight a world war after pan-Slavic nationalism led Russia to support Serbia in its own conflict with Germany’s ally Austria. In East Asia, the ways in which American allies could draw the US into conflict with China are now obvious. The British Empire before 1914 was able to concentrate its forces so as to be able to—just barely—defeat Germany in the First World War. The result of that war, however, was both to lay the basis for the Second World War, and to so weaken the British Empire that it collapsed a generation later. However bad China’s behaviour is becoming, it will still be necessary to combine even a successful US pivot to Asia with the greatest possible caution and moderation. For, like Britain in the First World War, even a US victory over China would very likely come at a price that would make it hard to distinguish from defeat.