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Foreign Policy

America Pivots Away from Its Allies

Oct 26, 2021
  • Jin Liangxiang

    Senior Research Fellow, Shanghai Institute of Int'l Studies

In recent months, the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has accelerated its efforts to contain China by organizing AUKUS — an alliance of Australia, the United Kingdom and United States — and the QUAD. The implications for China-U.S. relations and Asia-Pacific security are often discussed, but the long-term strategic implications for other regions are not addressed sufficiently.

In truth, the U.S. pivot to the Asia-Pacific could result in the weakening the European Union’s strategic autonomy, turning away from its allies in the Middle East and lowering the status of the U.S. in the global arena.

The U.S. in the last two decades has been calculating its relations with China through the lens of geopolitics and disregarding the general trend of globalization. Its decision-making regarding China’s emergence has been strongly influenced, if not dominated, by a Cold War mentality.

Early in 2001, George W. Bush and his team defined China as a “strategic competitor” and enhanced military surveillance in areas close to China’s southeastern border. This has created tensions between China and the United States. While Barack Obama as much as proclaimed himself president of the Asia-Pacific, his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, said that global affairs would be decided in the region. She then formally initiated the Asia pivot policy. Donald Trump intensified military operations in the Asia-Pacific, and changed the Asia-Pacific Command in Hawaii to the Indo-Pacific Command.

Biden’s policy in this regard continues that of his predecessors. Biden called a QUAD summit online in March, shortly after taking office, followed by a more formal summit in September. AUKUS was organized a few days later with the obvious intention of containing China.

The U.S. is still the single most important power in the world, at least in its own eyes. It has been called a hegemony or superpower in other parts of the world. The changing strategy of the U.S. will certainly have profound implications for international politics across the world, while rendering relations with China more confrontational. Now there are efforts by America's European and Middle Eastern allies to pivoting away from the U.S. while adopting more self-reliant security strategies.

Though European countries have been dependent on the U.S. for security since the end of World War II (or the beginning of the Cold War), dissatisfaction with the U.S. had always been present. European countries doubt the U.S. could really protect them. In fact, in recent years the voice of doubt has become louder as the U.S. shifts strategic resources to the Asia-Pacific and fails to listen to the security concerns of Europe.

Josep Borrell, the high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs and security policy and vice president of the European Commission — in a December article titled “Why European strategic autonomy matters” — argues that strategic autonomy would ensure that Europeans increasingly take charge of themselves and rely on themselves to guarantee their future.

The most recent expression of strategic autonomy is the EU foreign policy chief’s comments about the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Borrell in his blog commented: “Afghanistan has shown that the deficiency in our strategic autonomy comes with a price.” His words reflected the frustration of EU elites with the U.S. unwillingness to take care of EU interests, as well as the EU’s aspirations for strategic autonomy.

The Middle East is another region with numerous countries that are heavily dependent on U.S. security protection. They will be affected by the U.S. policy pivot to the Asia-Pacific. Although the role of the U.S. in the region had been destructive rather than constructive over the last two decades, Arab countries in the Gulf and other sub-regions cherish the illusion of U.S. protection despite their dissatisfaction.

Recent years, however, have seen such illusions about the U.S. broken. Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries in the Gulf region found that they cannot depend on the U.S., as various American administrations failed to protect them from Iranian attacks. Their suspicions are not only about U.S. capability in shaping the regional geopolitical landscape but also about the will of the U.S. to provide security protection within the context of its pivot to the Asia-Pacific.

The recent U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan has in particular elicited concerns among Arab countries that the U.S. could abandon them at any moment. While the U.S. did try to assure its Arab allies of its presence through the recent visits of the U.S. secretaries of state and defense and its national security adviser, Arab countries are talking about a more self-reliant approach to security.

This year in particular has witnessed frequent interactions between major Middle East regional actors, including Saudi-Iranian negotiation in Iraq and a dialogue between Turkey and a number of Arab countries. These interactions are actually reflections of the attempts of Middle Eastern countries to achieve security objectives by way of regional cooperation and coordination instead of confrontation, which could be regarded as the emergence of regionalism in the security arena.

All in all, America’s pivot to the Asia-Pacific will result in European and Middle Eastern countries favoring self-reliance as they look to protect their own security. While European countries will speed up their efforts to make strategic autonomy a reality, Middle Eastern countries will have to achieve security via coordination, thus pivoting away from the U.S.

The most profound implication, however, might involve the status of the U.S. itself. As its major allies and proteges pivot away from the U.S., and as the U.S. concentrates its strategic resources in the Asia-Pacific, the U.S. bond with Europe and the Middle East will also be weakened. The U.S. might be able to shake off a significant part of its strategic burden, but it will also gradually and finally lose its leadership in both the Middle East and Europe. That is to say, ironically, that the U.S. pivot to Asia-Pacific could finally lead to a loss of America’s global leadership.

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