The Pacific President

In his second term, Obama is taking a decisive turn away from Europe — and Britain

19 January 2013

9:00 AM

19 January 2013

9:00 AM

On Monday, as Barack Obama is sworn in again as President, his allies in the West will ask themselves the same nervous question they posed four years ago: how much does he care about us?

The British, in particular, are worried. War looms in Mali, yet Washington seems happy to let the French take charge, showing even less interest than it did in Libya two years ago. Cheerleaders for the ‘special relationship’ accuse Obama of taking a back seat, of failing to show leadership and even of betraying his country’s oldest friends. They look back to that much-discussed episode when the new President removed a bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office and point out that he has steadily sought to disentangle America from its strategic partnerships with Europe ever since. Now, the man who once committed 30,000 more troops to the allied fight against the Taleban is planning to withdraw almost all American troops from Afghanistan before the end of next year. Is the President an isolationist? Is he anti-West?

The truth is more hurtful. Obama isn’t against us; he just isn’t that into us. He recognises that Europe is no longer the cockpit of world affairs, that our concerns are no longer all-important, and that the Atlanticist idea of West vs East has become utterly redundant.

Rather than retreat from foreign commitments, Obama is simply reorientating them to face up to the rise of the Far East. This so-called ‘Asian pivot’ is the most important strategic shift since the Cold War. It is perhaps no surprise that it took a president with a Kenyan father, born in Hawaii and brought up in Indonesia from the age of six until he was ten, to redirect America’s attention.

Obama makes no secret of his outlook. ‘The United States has been, and always will be, a Pacific nation,’ he told the Australian parliament just over a year ago. ‘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.’ In case anyone didn’t get the point, he repeated: ‘The United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay.’ It was not empty rhetoric. Obama also announced that 2,500 Marines would be sent to what is, in effect, a new US military base in Darwin, northern Australia.

Add to that the huge, ongoing transfer of naval hardware towards the Asian side of the Pacific — towards Singapore, the Philippines and possibly Thailand — and you see a pattern emerging. In June last year, Leon Panetta, the American secretary of defence, made a historic promise that, by 2020, the US navy would ‘reposture its forces from today’s roughly 50/50 split between the Pacific and Atlantic to about a 60/40 split. That will include six aircraft carriers, a majority of our cruisers, destroyers … and submarines.’ The deadliest force the world has ever seen is becoming a primarily Pacific-based operation.


This has been accompanied by a sea change in America’s diplomatic focus. Obama’s first trips as President were to Canada, Britain, France and Germany, in that order. (British diplomats were very proud that, after the fairly routine pitstop in Canada, he had chosen London as his first major port of call.) But last November, just days after winning re-election, Obama went to Thailand. He then became the first serving US president to visit Burma and Cambodia. All this only a few months after a similar tour by Hillary Clinton, his secretary of state, who took with her the largest delegation of American businessmen ever to visit Southeast Asia.

Obama has also twice been to Japan and Indonesia, and three times to South Korea. You don’t have to be a paranoid Beijing official to see that he is strengthening America’s military and trade ties to Asia in order to counter the potential threat of China. At the same time, however, Obama and Mrs Clinton have taken pains to make cordial-sounding overtures to Beijing. As Obama himself put it, ‘All of our nations have a profound interest in the rise of a peaceful and prosperous China.’

What does all this mean for Britain? Perhaps just that we must acclimatise to a world in which the US is increasingly indifferent to us. When an Obama official suggested last week that Britain would be better off staying in the European Union, it was not intended as a slight. It’s simply easier, in bureaucratic terms, for Washington to think of Britain as wrapped up in Europe. We have proven a willing ally, but not a very effective one — as demonstrated by what American generals regard as our failures in Basra. Nor, despite the best efforts of our soldiers, was Britain able to pacify Helmand by itself: we couldn’t afford the helicopters or commit enough troops. The idea of America and Britain as the world’s greatest dictator-toppling alliance now seems just nostalgic. They don’t need us.

Obama’s second-term cabinet seems to have been selected specially to accelerate the shift towards the Pacific, and discreetly weaken America’s ties to Europe. Obama’s new secretaries of state and defence, John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, are both Vietnam veterans with a keen eye on the rising East. Kerry, a failed presidential candidate, is recognised as a key figure in the rapprochement between America and Vietnam in recent years. He has  been a strong supporter of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a new free trade bloc that could soon be more powerful than the European Union. Its membership gives an idea of the emerging economic axis: the US, Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam, Mexico and Canada. While the European Union still struggles for proper free trade within its own borders, the US is busily working on its Pacific future.

With the appointments of Hagel and Kerry, Obama now has a foreign policy team less preoccupied with the Middle East than many predecessors, less inclined to divide the world into good and bad, and less likely to dream about fostering a global democratic revolution through force.

Under Obama, the Global War on Terror has already been downgraded from an all-out assault against ‘Islamism’ to a more discreet (not to mention cheaper) campaign of remote-controlled drone strikes, usually carried out by the CIA with White House involvement. And to the frustration of the neocon hawks in Washington and London, Obama and his new advisers have shown little willingness to rattle sabres at Iran.

Until recently, such a doveish approach to the Arab world would have been dismissed as wildly naive, given America’s gargantuan appetite for foreign oil and gas. But all that is now changing, thanks in large part to discovery of vast quantities of shale gas in the US. This has sent American fuel prices tumbling, and now the International Energy Authority estimates that the US will be almost ‘energy self-sufficient’ by 2035. The petro-autocracies of the Arab world and Russia begin to matter less. That cheerful prospect means that America will inevitably begin to reconsider the monstrous sums it spends protecting its interests in the Persian Gulf. The vast US Fifth Fleet, which is almost entirely responsible for patrolling the key shipping channels of the Middle East, costs the US taxpayer up to $80 billion dollars a year. But why should it? Most of the oil doesn’t even go to America. T. Boone Pickens, the well-known energy tycoon and lobbyist, says it is ‘insane’ for the US to continue forking out ‘to protect oil that ends up in China and Europe’, and it’s easy to see his point.

So the strategic tilt towards the Pacific is not really about Obama — it is about economic common sense. Whereas many of America’s old Nato allies have spent decades shrinking their military budgets and expecting the US to pick up the bill for the protection of the free world, the rising economies of the Pacific are investing more in their defences. It is hardly surprising that Obama prefers to work with the latter. In the last decade, Indonesia has trebled its military spending. Thailand has increased theirs by two thirds, and Australia and South Korea by almost half.

It may be sad for the British to think that our great ally is turning its gaze away from the Atlantic. Ever since America’s intervention in the second world war, we have to come to expect that Uncle Sam has our back. But the world has moved on. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, the last decade showed ‘the fastest rate of change in global economic balance in history’. It calculates that the planet’s ‘economic centre of gravity’ has been moving eastwards at a rate of about 140 kilometres a year. America is still easily more powerful than China — militarily and economically — but the gap is vanishing. China’s economy is expected to overtake America’s within three years.

Moreover, America is changing from within. Its culture is less and less informed by Anglo-Saxon and European values. Barack Obama is not just a global figure in his own right, he was elected and re-elected in large part by a hodgepodge coalition of minority groups — Latin American, Asian, even Muslim — that form an ever-growing percentage of the US population. American politics has never been less European. Little wonder that the President is increasingly unconcerned by what is said in Paris, Berlin, and London. In strategic terms, the Obama administration seems to regard Europe as a singular and increasingly unimportant bloc. Maybe it’s time we did the same.

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Show comments
  • http://twitter.com/metabourke Martin Scott

    The real issue is not the changing nature of our relationship with the US, but the UK’s failure to do as the US are doing and focus on building relationships and trade with Asia. The UK seems to be well behind the Germans in this respect.

    Its easier for the Germans as all the capital spending in Asia creates a demand for the types of engineering products at which the Germans excel. There is currently less Asian demand for the services that dominate UK exports. The sale of services tends to require stronger, deeper, relationships than trade in goods and the UK government and business needs to be working even harder in Asia to develop those relationships. The government also needs to look at visa rules for the Chinese – we are currently projecting at much less friendly approach than most of the rest of Europe, and that won’t be quickly forgotten by the Chinese.

    The low numbers of Chinese visiting the UK also means its harder for BA to sustain direct flights to China compared to Lufthansa and Air France/KLM. That further limits UK presence in China.

    So much political energy is expended on our relationship with recession-hit Europe compared to that expended on future opportunity rich China, India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Myanmar and others. UK politicians are spending more time in Asia than was the case 10 or 20 years ago, but a lot more needs to be done. Cuts to the World Service and the British Council certainly don’t help – this expenditure should be seen as a vital part of the UK’s soft power arsenal.

  • http://twitter.com/Waltroon Walter Ellis

    Freddy: a masterly analysis. I agree with every word – except for the last sentence. The idea that Britain, on which, as you say, America is turning its back, should regard Europe as “unimportant” is a nonsense. Are you suggesting that the UK, too, should embrace its future as a Pacific power? How exactly would it do that? When I last checked, the Pacific was 10,000 miles from British shores, whereas the EU (ourselves excluded – naturally) can be reached by train in 20 minutes.

    You point out in your piece that Britain on its own can’t afford the kind of military spending that might make a difference across the world. This is, of course, true. While our aircraft carrier fiasco is the most obvious example of our increasingly embarrassing weakness, there are many others. The RAF is down to 33,000 men and women in uniform; the Navy will soon have no more than 30 surface ships, none of them large; the Army is reducing in size to the extent that the BEF in 1940 will shortly appear extravagant. Yet, while we continue to suck up (uselessly) to the Americans, we refuse to adopt the role that history surely bequeathed to us, to push for a credible European defence force that can hold its own in world conflict.

    David Cameron is about to make his Big Speech on Europe. So far as I know, he will not be suggesting that Britain join the emerging Trans-Pacific Partnership – which, I suppose, is something. Instead, he will maunder on about getting us out of Europe while somehow remaining inside it, reaping the benefits without taking any responsibility for the outcomes. I regard such thinking as absurd and dangerous to British interests. But at least it addresses the European question rather than, as you suggest, regarding it as “unimportant”.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001983497922 Steve Rodriguez

    agree with everything and it is a masterly effort – except for US voting patterns. While changing, they are still predominantly European whites who make up the electorate, and who voted for a man who has European social democracy as his ideology, so very European indeed. Don’t be surprised if the pendulum switches back in a few years.

  • donqpublic

    Well, that’s nice to know that Obama is really a twenty-first century version of Teddy, getting the great white fleet out there in the Pacific while rationalizing the welfare state on Bismark’s greater Germany model. Too bad the math just doesn’t work out.

  • MacTurk

    Obama is neither an isolationist, nor anti-West. He is just pursuing America’s interests. Those interests, economically and strategically, seem to lie in the Pacific, which is where you will find Japan, China, and the east coast of India……

    With regard to the situation in Mali, the US wants to hear about no more interventions for the time being. They are intervened-out. Not to mention being close to bankruptcy, as a result of all those Bush2 interventions….

    The Americans are going to watch the pennies, and look after their knitting, and if Europe does not like it, tough toasties….

    Meanwhile, the British continue to cling to their role of the flea on the tip of the tail of the American dog, it seems. Best of luck with that.

    • SirMortimerPosh

      I don’t think ‘the British’ cling to their role of flea on the American dog’s tail at all – some of the chattering classes and politicos do, but the British people in general want none of it. America has always only helped out when it suited America to do so. That is to be expected and is not a criticism. However, Americans are all too willing to shout about saving us all from speaking German….. The USA entered WW2 only when it was itself attacked by Japan and had war declared upon it by Germany. WW2 had been in progress for two years and tens of thousands of UK citizens were already dead because of German bombing. Anyone who thinks that the USA is our special friend has forgotten Suez and The Falklands. They are our friends when it suits and when it doesn’t, they are happy to knife us in the back.

      • Christopher Standard

        what absolute tosh. Americans and the American military has spent blood and treasure to help Brits, Europe and the rest of the world. ingrate. The American military has been in countless times supporting relief for natural disasters- you’re ignorant and vile. The only reason the UK prevailed in the Falklands was through US support. You lot could not even stop genocide in your own backyard. The Yanks had to come in and put a stop to it. Yes, you don’t heil Hitler thanks to the US and you don’t kiss Lenin’s ass also thanks to the US.

        • SirMortimerPosh

          You’re a propagandised fool. You soaked up all the national bullsh|t your people love so much. You aren’t even worth talking too so I won’t say more. @rsehole!

      • MacTurk

        The fact is that the Wehrmacht was smashed on the anvil of Russia by the hammer of the Red Army. Of every 10 German soldiers killed, 9 were killed on the Eastern Front(according to Max Hastings).

        Britain’s independent satellite launching capability, Black Arrow, was cancelled after NASA promised to put British payloads into orbit for free. The commitment was withdrawn after the project was scrapped, for some strange reason…..

        How long will you keep thanking them for the heat as they piss on you?

        • SirMortimerPosh

          You didn’t read my post did you? If you did, you must be too stupid to understand it, since I made it perfectly clear that I don;t consider being America’s pet dog a good option.

          • MacTurk

            I should have made it clear that “you” referred to the UK, and NOT to your good self. I read your post, and agree with it.

            The problem is the delusional majority of Empire-nostalgists who post here….

          • SirMortimerPosh

            Thanks for the clarification. In retrospect, my response was cantankerous. I’m sure you weren’t too offended by it. :))

    • Christopher Standard

      Sorry but we’re almost bankrupt because of Obama and Democrat spending which they seem hell bent to continue. We were not bankrupt when Bush was in office despite fighting two wars. Get your facts straight

      • MacTurk

        Horse manure.

        “The Congressional Budget Office reported budget surpluses of $69 billion in 1998, $126 billion in 1999, and $236 billion in 2000”. This was due to greater tax revenues, higher taxation, and reduced military expenditure.

        The arrival of Bush jnr, with his tax cuts, and his “War on Terrorism”, blew the budget surplus away. The net public debt of the USA went from $3.339 trillion in September 2001 to $6.369 trillion by the end of 2008. which is close to a doubling. Macho war making is a very expensive idea, especially when you do it on credit.

    • Daniel Maris

      Your geography’s a bit out there! East coast of India on the Pacific! LOL

      • MacTurk

        Thank you for the correction. I should have written “The Indian Ocean”.

        Again, thank you for noticing.

  • Daniel Maris

    There was a moment of opportunity under Bush Junior’s presidency to establish a World Democratic Alliance on a formal footing. There was some talk about that at the time.

    It would have been a major advance if such a body had been set up in parallel to the UN and create a real force for co-operation and development, plus democratic solidarity. It should of course have been a military alliance as well.

    The moment has gone and the democratic world is very divided.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Matthew-W-Hall/1723611491 Matthew W. Hall

    America’s current interests may diverging more and more from Europe, but societies defining ideologies don’t change. The unifying American principles of enumerated and divided powers, and a multi-layered pragmatism borne of its (old)british origins haven’t changed. Britain isn’t standing still either. The common origins of both in renaissance England remain. Nations aren’t empty vessels into which anything can be poured. Nations are sponges that direct and hold whatever liquid they absord in the same way.America’s organizing principles aren’t changing, they are just being redirected to the part of the world that is most hostile to them (china, Iran, Russia). America isn’t losing its British roots, its just deploying them in new ways and with new groups.

  • http://twitter.com/btt1943 Boon Tee Tan

    Not that the president wants to ditch Europe, just that he has been completely bogged down by endless unsolvable issues at home. He is quite lost. (vzc1943)

  • ShoeOnHead

    this is a very important piece freddy.

    obama doesn’t have a doctrine. the only doctrine he does have is TPP (transpacific trade). the 2008 financial crash was the creative destructive moment in the geopolitical environment. the last time it happened was in Second World War.

    all obama is concerned about is economic statecraft and the PIVOT to asia.

    the structural losers of this new geopolitical order are the JIBs (japan, israel and britain).

    (shoe on head)

  • Anthony Makara

    The West must set clear lines in the pacific region and bloc Chinese hegemony which will be the logical consequence of China’s rapid increase in military spending over recent years. If Muslims in North Africa and the Middle East wish to live by their particular religious code we in the West should let them and not waste our resources on trying to impose market-friendly democracy. Instead we must turn our attention to China.This is going to be the greatest challenge to the West since the Soviet era and Mr Obama has shown good sense in trying to beef up western influence in the Pacific region. Such influence should be aimed at containing Beijing, relations will fare better if China is allowed a certain sphere of influence, so long as that does not interfere with the strategic and energy interests of the West.

    • MacTurk

      “The West must set clear lines in the pacific region and bloc Chinese hegemony…” Must we? Who the hell says so?

      First, there is no point in trying to implement such a stupid fantasy. No-one, unless they are prepared to use hydrogen bombs by the score, is going to stop China, whether it be on a peaceful rise, or whether it seeks hegemony.

      Second, if any nation was so stupid as to try to implement this delusional nonsense, who would pay for it? You may not have noticed, but the western nations are still dealing with what they call “the world financial crisis” and are all cutting back on government spending…….

      And how many mothers’ sons and daughters are you willing to sacrifice on the altar of your delusions?

      Will you be volunteering? No, I didn’t think so…..

      • Anthony Makara

        We stop China developing ambitions by a show of force and resolve. If this isn’t done over the next few years then we will indeed be forced to face China down with more than just gestures. China’s vast population is growing in wealth and its demands for access to resources will have to be met if the Chinese government wants to maintain its hold over its people. We in the West have to ensure that China’s interests do not undermine our own. Of course diplomacy is the key but JawJaw won’t work without force to back it up.

        • MacTurk

          China already HAS ambitions, and no “… show of force and resolve” will change that.

          A China which is wealthy, will probably not be inclined to be a hegemonic power, which it never was historically. The Chinese population, as a result of its “One Child policy, is due to shrink by at least 25% in the next 30 years. There are at least 40 million Chinese men who will NEVER marry, because there are no women for them TO marry.

          We in the West have to ensure that China’s interests can rub along with ours. Not a great problem, really. And we have no choice about this, because there is no option to put China back in the bottle. Like gays in San Francisco, it is out and proud.

          They are not planning to invade California, or even a Pearl Harbour Mk 2.

          And one of the axiomatic rules of warfare is not to get involved in a war with China. Along with “Don’t invade Russia” and “Stay out of Afghanistan”…..

  • http://pokerknave.com PokerKnave

    An interesting piece, especially the argument about financial services as a export item.

  • Roy

    For too long the assembly of socialist states we call the EU have seen fit to mollify their population with more and better welfare spending and subsidies for their highly spoilt citizenry. Defense has had little impact on the allocation of funds, leaving this to the Americans, of whom it was thought, like this sort of thing. The US Only too keen to stand up for the ones being oppressed in many different ways in the world at large. Often denigrated for this by the Europeans, whom often defend the oppressors.
    Now America, sorely stretched on matters monetary, along with its new attitude to western civilization by its new brood of ruling socialists, starts to look more critical toward its dozing partners in Europe. Meanwhile the old masters of subterfuge, criminal savagery, and sweeping terrorist action toward world domination, have been inching their wily way on a broad front.

  • Mr.D.Advocate

    It does make one wonder, what would would happen were Russia to once again decide it wants to rule Europe by force. Would the Americans intervene? Or would it be like pre-world war II where quite frankly they couldn’t give a toss about us.

  • Rick

    We helped the Euro’s for 80 years and what did it get us (U.S.)? Widespread hatred from their citizens. The U.S. allows the Europeans to provide their citizens with huge welfare benefits by defending their countries and as a result, virtually all Europeans hate America and Americans. Good Riddance Europe..especially France. You’ll find out very soon what it is like to try and maintain and enforce your own foreign policy.

  • Ganpati23

    While I dispute the term great ally, this is a very intelligent article. cf that muppet from Tory Home writing in The Times today saying we needed the US back as the world policeman and that Dave was the man with the influence to talk him round.

    How did someone so idiotically naive get a column in both The Times and The Guardian on the same day?

    I totally agree with this analysis.

    Though I believe that our only future is within Europe.

    France has been our only true ally (other than the commonwealth) for the last century and a half. We fought the Crimean War together and planned and fought both World Wars together.

    And as Yougov said today:

    In less than two months, a 21-point lead for leaving the EU has been replaced by a six-point lead for remaining a member.

    So the nutter fringe will hopefully accept that their dreams of turning back the clock 50 years are over. As Kellner says, our default position to the EU is between sceptic and hostile, but when we actually have to think about leaving a strong majority always grudgingly accepts that it’s in our interests to remain.

    So why don’t the Europhobes accept that they will never win and actually start trying to use the EU to our advantage. A military alliance with France would be a start. It’s a great pity we didn’t start this before we ordered our aircraft carriers or those useless JSF F35bs.

    The yanks don’t need us. If we worked with the French, we would be stronger together, and given the French ability to play the EU system (something we should learn to copy imo), they’d probably get the EU to stump up some of the cash.

    A common defence policy or something. Those that want to avoid a certain level of commitment subsidise those countries (i.e. GB and FR) that are prepared to supply more.

    As long as both GB and FR have the ability to use all each nation’s forces without EU consent, and that we can both work together without EU consent, what’s the problem?

    • politics=rubbish

      There already is a joining of French and British forces of a sorts – they have started to have regular military exercises together.
      And with all the cuts in the British armed forces, expect these to become a regular occurrence as we fill the gaps in capabilities with joint operations.
      Don’t be surprised if you see British soldiers helping the French in Mali in a joint ground offensive over the next few weeks/months!

  • http://www.facebook.com/terence.sommer Terence Sommer

    In certain ways the article makes sense, but it saddens me. I prefer we have the ties to old Europe.

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