Debate Magazine

America’s Strategic Re-Pivot to Europe and the Middle East

Posted on the 28 February 2013 by Shahalexander

It seems that the second Obama administration is making a strategic re-pivot to Europe. During the Munich Security Conference, Vice President Joseph Biden launched a new initiative to boost trans-Atlantic ties. Since the Obama administration articulated strategic rebalance to Asia, in view of withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, Biden’s speech surprised the media. Biden called for close trans-Atlantic partnership in Middle East security from Mali to Syria and Iran, and mentioned Europe the cornerstone of US foreign policy (“Biden calls Europe 'the cornerstone' of US foreign policy”; Stars and Stripes; February 2, 2012). In addition to security, Biden proposed a free trade deal with Europe. Since European is the largest economic zone in the world, the rise of Asian economies does not necessarily overshadow the Atlantic ties. Europeans welcome Biden’s Munich speech (“Opinion: US rediscovers Europe”; Deutsche Welle; 3 February, 2013).
Following the Munich speech, President Barack Obama expressed his support for formal talks for a free trade agreement with the European Union in the State of the Union speech (“Obama injects optimism into trade deal”; Financial Times; February 13, 2013). A US-EU FTA would represent more than 40% of world GDP and nearly 50% of world foreign direct investment, while a Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) represents “only” 26% of world GDP. The proposed trans-Atlantic FTA is beyond job creation for the United States. On the other side of the Atlantic, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron push for a trade pact with America. Both trade deals across the Atlantic and the Pacific are intended to promote liberal political values through economic activities (“EU-US Free Trade Agreement: End of the Asian Century?”; Diplomat; February 20, 2013).
As if showing America’s re-pivot, Secretary of State John Kerry is visiting Europe and the Middle East as the first trip abroad since his inauguration. Remember that his predecessor Hillary Clinton selected Asia for her first official visit (“Travel to Europe and the Middle East February 24, 2013 to March 6, 2013”; Department of State). In an interview of Andrea Mitchell Reports in NBC News on February 22, former Secretary of Defense William Cohen said that Kerry was expected to listen to requests by European and Middle Eastern allies on this trip. Currently, the United States faces common security challenges with them, notably, Syria and Iran. See the video below.
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Last June, NATO summit in Chicago impressed disunity of the alliance and the lack of US leadership. It remains to be seen whether the trans-Atlantic alliance will be re-invigorated by the Munich speech and Kerry’s first trip.
The most important thing for US strategy is not a pivot to a specific region but fulfillment of global security responsibility, that is, maintaining the two MRC (major regional conflict) standard. Daniel Goure, Vice President at the Lexington Institute, raises a concern, “The continuing decline in real defense spending posed a larger problem for defense planners seeking to maintain a credible two-MTW capability.” Quite ironically, investment decline in military modernization pushes up the cost of equipment maintenance, and lowers the capability of conducting simultaneous global operations. Goure points out that the Bush administration tried to overturn such a trend even before 9-11 terrorist attacks (“The Measure of a Superpower: A Two Major Regional Contingency Military for the 21st Century”; Special Report on National Security and Defense, Heritage Foundation; January 25, 2013). The Obama administration’s defense cut and withdrawal from the Middle East, notably Iraq and Afghanistan, raises critical concerns whether the United States is willing to fulfill the role of the superpower. More importantly, American defense against China has not been built up under the pivot to Asia, as McKenzie Eaglen, Resident Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, argues (“Nearing coffin corner: US air power on the edge”; AEI National Security Outlook; March 2012).
Re-pivot to Europe and the Middle East can be interpreted as reconsideration of such policy. Obama’s proposed cut of US troops in Afghanistan after complete transition of security responsibility in 2014 was bitterly criticized. Before the meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Washington, DC, the Obama administration even thought of stationing fewer troops in Afghanistan than Britain does (“Some in administration push for only a few thousand U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014”; Washington Post; January 8, 2013). Senator John McCain commented that drastic reduction of US troops in Afghanistan would be interpreted as American weakness in the War on Terror, in an interview with CBS News on January 13. Vali Nasr, Dean of the Paul Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, mentions more critically, “If you’re Karzai, you’re basically now facing the same calculation that Maliki did in Iraq. If you’re not willing to stay in large numbers, why do I need you? ” (“Priorities Are Far Apart as Karzai and Obama Meet”; New York Times; January 10, 2013) The Obama administration announced to maintain 32,000 troops until Afghan presidential election in April 2014, but Pentagon press secretary George Little announced, ”The administration "is still reviewing options and has not made a decision about the size of a possible U.S. presence after 2014", and said "We will continue to discuss with Allies and the Afghans how we can best carry out two basic missions: Targeting the remnants of [al Qaeda] and its affiliates, and training and equipping Afghan forces"  (“Panetta: Final 32,000 American troops out of Afghanistan after 2014 elections”; DEFCON Hill; February 22, 2013). Considering strategic sensitivity, Afghanistan will be a litmus test for the Obama administration’s engagement in the Middle East and vision of superpower role. TO BE CONTINUED.

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