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December 09, 2011

We are not entering a Pacific Century, merely a Pacific Phase - argues Brendan Simms

Posted by Brendan Simms

Brendan Simms - Professor in the History of International Relations at the University of Cambridge - explains why Europe is still where the weather come from and why it will remain so.

During November the Obama administration announced its intention to engage more closely with the Asia-Pacific region. Unlike its initial turn to the East in 2009, however, when Mrs Clinton went to China in order to reassure Peking about the state of the US economy (and thus the trillions of US Treasury bonds held by the last major communist regime), the present initiative shows flashes of steel. The United States has stepped up military aid for countries which feel intimidated by the growth of Chinese power. The talk is now as much of containment as of cooperation; the Bush administration's policy of closer ties with India is being resumed. Above all, relations with China are to be given a greater priority than the current campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. For this reason, not only Mrs Clinton but many commentators are beginning to speak of a new Pacific century in American foreign policy.

Now where have we heard all this before? In 1993, the US State Department official Peter Tarnoff called upon the United States to reconsider its concentration on the old continent and to turn her attention to the rising powers of the east. His boss the Secretary of State Warren Christopher announced,

Western Europe is no longer the dominant area of the world. There is a lot of criticism coming from western Europe, but I don't see or hear that coming from Asia.
In part, the emphasis was on the commercial possibilities in the booming Tiger economies of Singapore, Malaysia and South Korea. In part, the concern was with the rising power of China and her ambitions in the South China Seas, as well as the perennial problem of Taiwan, over which the two giants nearly came to blows in 1996.

This was the time, after all, when such books as Ross Munro and Richard Bernstein's The Coming Conflict with China (1997) and Humphrey Hawksley and Simon Holberton's Dragonstrike (1999) were on the bestseller lists and widely discussed in the broadsheets and magazines by the commentariat. In good part, however, Tarnoff and Christopher's rhetoric also reflected the fact that the United States had emerged victorious from the Cold War, but was unable to persuade its allies to accept her leadership over Bosnia.

The similarities between the two cases are obvious. Today, Washington feels that her allies - with the exception of Britain - have not being doing enough in the common struggle against terrorism, especially in Afghanistan. As the outgoing Defence Secretary Robert Gates pointed out in a parting shot, the Europeans policy of running down military expenditure has rendered them largely incapable of effective action. Some US observers have asked, where have all the soldiers gone.

Above all, the United States is furious with the European Union for its failure to address the sovereign debt crisis, which is threatening to de-stabilise the whole global economy at a time when the United States and other countries may be seeing light at the end of the tunnel. In this context, the eastern turn reflects the hope that Washington will find better partners and investors in the Asian economies, who have so far weathered the storm in much better shape. It also reflects an expectation that the conflicts in the Middle East have been settled, or at least contained, allowing the United States to address new threats and opportunities on the horizon.

This strategy is based on two questionable assumptions, however. First, only a few years after Washington hailed the eastern Tiger economies, the entire region was wracked by the Asian economic crisis of 1997-1998. Who is to say that the Asian economies will not soon experience a similar meltdown? Indeed, recent reports from China increasingly suggest that all is not well.

Secondly, it must be remembered that the Clinton administration was soon forced to eat Christopher's words and take control of the Bosnian situation before it spiralled completely out of control due to European incompetence. By 1995, the administration's troubleshooter, Richard Holbrooke, was writing that

the United States in a European power.
Likewise it is entirely possible today that the Greater Middle East will erupt once more, in Iraq, Afghanistan after the US withdrawal and particularly in the Gulf, where the administration has yet to confront the Iranian nuclear weapons programme.

Moreover, the very extent of Europe's problems means that Washington will soon have to make the old continent its top priority, whether this be the economic and fiscal fallout from a eurozone collapse, or the attempts of Russia to move into the vacuum by putting pressure on the Baltic states or other parts of the old Soviet empire. Europe, as Winston Churchill said almost exactly 100 years ago, is still where "the weather comes from". All this suggests that time will show the current preoccupation with the East to have been not the start of a Pacific Century but a mere Pacific Phase.

The author thanks Mr Eddie Fishman of Cambridge University for advice in the drafting of this article.

Dr Brendan Simms is Professor in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.

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