Three Reasons Why Ukraine Matters for the U.S. Pivot to Asia

By Erik Brattberg

As with any presidency, Barack Obama's agenda has been heavily driven by external events. His landmark foreign policy initiative (if one doesn't count ending the two wars in the Middle East) was supposed to be the so-called pivot to Asia. Instead, events at home -- such as the government shutdown -- and abroad have repeatedly hijacked the White House's foreign policy agenda. But rather than bemoaning this, the president should now prioritize the Ukraine crisis in order to also rescue the Asia pivot.

This, of course, is a tough message for Obama to deliver to America's allies in Asia when he arrives in the region this week. Countries such as Japan and South Korea, who originally welcomed the pivot to Asia with open arms, have lately grown wearier about Washington's follow-through. They want to see a stronger security and political commitment from the United States.

These Asian allies may now worry that the Ukraine crisis will further jeopardize the U.S. role in the Asia-Pacific by consuming valuable time, energy and resources. Obama must therefore use some of his face time with Asian leaders to explain to them why they too have an interest in Washington focusing on Europe at the moment. In fact, there are several good reasons why doing so could be a good thing for the Asia pivot. Let's consider three of them.

First, and perhaps most obvious, the situation in Ukraine is still very tense and can easily take a turn for the worse. The most serious crisis since the Cold War, Ukraine illustrates that Europe is still far from "whole and free." Countries such as Moldova and Georgia or the Western Balkans may well be next in line for Putin. Unless the United States steps up its efforts, it could risk getting bogged down in potential future crises in the region. Asian allies should therefore welcome efforts to complete the European project once and for all.

Second, Washington must be deeply engaged politically on the other side of the Atlantic today to reassure NATO allies, as well as putting pressure on them to step up their own defense efforts. Allies such as Poland and the Baltic states are feeling particularly vulnerable at the moment. High level visits by top U.S. leaders and concrete steps to reinforce the American military presence there are already in play, and more may still come. How Washington responds to its allies in Europe could be seen as a litmus test for how it would support Asia-Pacific allies in need. Regional allies concerned with whether the U.S. still remains fully engaged to its alliance commitments should therefore favor strong U.S. reassurance measures in Europe. But they should also know that such efforts are not likely to significantly alter the overall trend toward downsizing the U.S. military footprint on the European continent -- something that is also reaffirmed by the new Quadrennial Defense Review.

At the same time, it's in the long-term interest of both the United States and its Asian allies to get capable European countries to assume more responsibility for their own neighborhood. Such a "new transatlantic bargain" would allow America to focus its attention elsewhere in the world. Conversely, Europe should support America's growing role in the Asia-Pacific even if this means less American troops in Europe in the future. In no way does the pivot to Asia mean Washington is pulling back from its commitments to European security.

Third, what is happening in Ukraine also has serious global implications, including in the Asia-Pacific. Putin's behavior in Ukraine, if left unpunished, will have an eroding impact on the international norms of state sovereignty and territorial integrity. In the worst case it could even create a dangerous precedent, allowing other states to resort to similar justifications for invading its neighbors. Beijing is closely watching how the Ukraine crisis will unfold. If China concludes that the American response to Putin's aggression is too weak, it may well seek to test the U.S. resolve in Asia. For neighbors of China, this ought to be a worrisome prospect. It is therefore crucial that the United States is serious about applying real "costs" to Russian behavior. This also requires building a strong coalition of likeminded states to send a strong political message that Russia's behavior in Ukraine is unacceptable.

Although managing a rising China is more strategically important for America in the long term, coping with a declining Russia should, for the time being, be its number one priority. Still, this is not to suggest (as some Europeans have) that the U.S. should pivot back to Europe. Nor is it to suggest that Washington should abandon the pivot to Asia. Precisely because Asian allies don't want to see Washington bogged down in other crises in Europe, failing on its alliance commitments or letting Russia set a dangerous precedent for China, they should favor forceful U.S. engagement in Europe right now. This must be the subject of the conversation between President Obama and his Asian counterparts when they meet this week.

Erik Brattberg is a Senior Fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC.

(AP Photo)

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