On November 17 2011, then US President Barack Obama stood at the podium in the Australian parliament to deliver what was regarded then as the most-significant foreign policy statement of his presidency.
That he chose Australian soil from which to set out American priorities in the Asia-Pacific was both a testament to the value the United States placed on its relationship with Australia and Obama’s own appreciation of history and geography.
"For the moment the Obama pivot’ has been overtaken by a ragged American sideways shuffle.”
After a preamble in which he noted the “United States has been and always will be, a Pacific nation,’’ Obama said this:
“As President, I have, therefore, made a deliberate and strategic decision – as a Pacific nation the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future, by upholding core principles and in close partnership with our allies and friends.”
Thus was articulated what became known as an American ‘pivot’ to Asia, as Obama characterised his intentions, or a ‘re-balance’ as more-cautious White House officials described it. Either way, this was to be a significant moment in what was to be known as the ‘Pacific Century’ in which America would lead.
This was Obama’s Monroe doctrine (James Monroe being the American president who decreed his country’s foreign policy interests would reside in its immediate neighborhood).
Getting on for a decade later, the question for America’s allies in the region, including particularly Australia, is whatever happened to the ‘pivot’? What concrete steps have been taken to put into effect an American commitment to a ‘Pacific Century’?
This is beyond a US decision to rotate 2,500 Marines through Darwin as a down-payment on a broadening of its security engagement in the region.
Flesh on the bones
The answer to the above question is Obama himself failed in his last term to put much flesh on the bones of his Asia-Pacific “pivot’’. His successor has, if anything, thrown the process into reverse.
In fairness to Obama, he did try with his efforts to promote a multilateral trading agreement, known as the Trans Pacific Partnership. Perhaps he did not try hard enough.
Donald Trump’s decision to send his deputy - rather than attend himself – to the two most-important regional diplomatic gatherings is being read as a sign American interest in the region is receding.
Trump’s announcement he would not go to the East Asia Summit in Singapore in November followed by the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Papua New Guinea is being over-interpreted as a deliberate American snub but his absence does indicate the US president has other priorities.
November promises to be a difficult month for Trump with mid-term Congressional elections due on November 6 and prospects for significant Republican reverses, certainly in the House of Representatives. He is also due that month to go to Paris for the World War II Armistice commemoration and in the same month attend a G-20 summit.
All this aside, what is clear is a haphazard American approach to the Asia-Pacific means America’s friends in the region are facing some difficult choices.
America’s abandonment of the TPP set back a process of American-led regional economic engagement painstakingly constructed over many years - one which would have provided a useful framework for further integration and counterpoint to China’s rise.
The TPP is not dead but it has been robbed of its most significant player at a time when China’s rise is exerting enormous pressure on regional institutions. In all of this American leadership – except sporadically – is lacking.
No-one talks about an American ‘pivot’ anymore let alone a ‘rebalance’ or indeed gives much credence to a Pacific Century in which America leads.
Rather, the question has become to what extent China asserts its growing economic and military power. This comes at a time when an American president is embroiled in cascading domestic crises likely to become more – not less – severe, as investigations into foreign interference in the US presidential election of 2016 come to a head.
At the onset of the Trump administration it was anticipated once the dust settled the new president would pursue a reasonably traditional foreign policy approach.
That has not proved to be the case, as manifested in Trump’s TPP decision, his re-engineering of the North American Free Trade Agreement, his erratic approach to trade sanctions against China and others, his oddly deferential relationship with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, his insulting behavior towards European allies, and his mercurial dealings with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.
None of this engenders much confidence in American leadership in this latest phase as Washington’s friends and allies contemplate a world in which old certainties are being cast aside.
From Canberra’s foreign policy perspective the age of certainty is over, certainly for the time being and until there is a new occupant in the White House, whenever that might be.
What is clear is assumptions included in a Defence White Paper of 2016 and a Foreign Policy White Paper of 2017 will need re-visiting in light of the unsteadiness in America’s commitment to the region and America-First sentiments at home.
The following excerpt from the Foreign Policy White Paper might be regarded as an understatement.
“Powerful drivers are converging in a way that is reshaping the international order and challenging Australia’s interests,” the paper read. “The United States has been the dominant power in our region throughout Australia’s post-second world war history. Today, China is challenging America’s position,”
If this section were to be re-written today it might be said China is not simply ‘challenging’ America’s position, it is usurping it as the dominant force in a region in which the US has held sway since the Japanese surrender on the USS Missouri on September 2 1945.
Debate is now turning increasingly to remedies for an erosion in America’s ability to assert itself in what was once described as an American ‘lake’. Opinions range from those who believe there is no choice but to cling to the US alliance to others like Professor Hugh White at the Australian National University who argue China has won and Australia needs to accommodate itself to this new reality.
If there is a consensus view somewhere between these two positions, it is held by people like former foreign minister Gareth Evans who delivered the inaugural Australian Studies Institute Lecture at the ANU on July 10.
Evans makes the point that whether Trump proves to be aberration and normality resumes in 2020, “there is reason to believe irremediable damage has been done to the world as we have known it, for Australia to do some very hard thinking about how we respond’’.
In his talk Evans laid out what he described as “four key elements’’ of a new Australian foreign policy in acknowledgement of a world much changed. Put simply his formula is for “Less America. More Self-Reliance. More Asia. More Global Engagement.’’
“We need,’’ he said, “to prepare ourselves to live in Asia without America.’’
All this is a very long way from Obama’s stirring words in 2011 in which he reaffirmed America’s commitment to the Asia-Pacific, and said: “The currents of history may ebb and flow, but over time they move – decidedly, decisively - in a single direction.’’
This might prove to be the case but for the moment the Obama ‘pivot’ has been overtaken by a ragged American sideways shuffle.