As is typical of his policies, Obama was in complete lockstep with academic consensus when he announced his “pivot” away from the Middle East, and towards East Asia. The Middle East is a strategic backwater, it was argued, while the future lies in containing in containing China. But today we should perhaps ask whether Obama’s “pivot” can already be considered a failure.
The central issue here revolves around the role played by Russia.
On the one hand, in the Middle East Obama’s pivot has opened up a power vacuum which the Russians are currently happy to exploit. Meanwhile, previous U.S. commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan are quickly disintegrating to the point of once again demanding U.S. attention, just as traditional U.S. allies like Israel and the Gulf States are feeling increasingly anxious about Obama’s lowering of their priority status.
But the deeper problem may be in Asia. The U.S. has traditionally been helped by difficult relations between Russia and China. As is now being reported, however, Obama’s pivot has had the effect of driving the old foes together. In particular, Russia has recently signed a deal to deliver 24 Sukhoi Su-35 fourth-generation stealth fighters to China, as well as four Lada-class diesel submarines. Of course by themselves these weapons will not profoundly alter the military balance in Asia; but closer cooperation, including military cooperation, between Russia and China can certainly not be a good strategic development for the U.S., and will be hard to offset by the alliance of peripheral East Asian nations that the U.S. is attempting to put together.
In all, there seem to be two salient conclusions from these developments First, just as in the Middle East, Obama’s faith in the neo-realist consensus of America’s pre-eminent academic minds does not always seem to be producing good policy. Second, Putin is slowly building his reputation as a foreign-policy mastermind, reasserting from the rubble of the 90’s a dominant Russian position in global politics, not merely in the Middle East, but in Asia as well.