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.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 19 January 2013