WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama laid out a sweeping vision for U.S. foreign policy on Wednesday but made no mention of what has been a signature tune of his administration’s diplomacy: the “pivot” to Asia.
The concept was that by winding down U.S. involvement in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, American military and diplomatic resources would be freed up to focus on the Asia-Pacific regions after a decade of relative neglect.
Yet in Obama’s speech, delivered a day after he outlined plans to pull U.S. forces out of Afghanistan by the end of 2016, there was not a single reference to that touted shift in regional focus. That was partly due to the purpose of the address — to push back against critics who contend that Obama’s approach to global crises, such as in Ukraine and Syria, has been too cautious and has emboldened adversaries.
He offered a broader perspective on the role that the United States should play in international affairs, still leading on the world stage and eschewing isolationism, but less ready to embark on military adventures.
Yet Obama made clear that the threat of terrorism that has preoccupied Washington since the 9/11 attacks remains an abiding concern. He said as the U.S. reduces its Afghan presence, it can do more to address emerging threats in the Middle East and North Africa.
It is a far cry from the tone Obama struck in another keynote foreign policy speech he delivered in Australia in November 2011, when he declared that in the Asia-Pacific of the 21st century, “the United States of America is all in.”
Despite his administration’s intent to devote more attention to Asia, this rebalance has struggled for airtime. The civil war in Syria, escalating violence in Iraq, nuclear negotiations with Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the Ukraine crisis all compete for Washington’s attention.
Asia was not entirely neglected in Wednesday’s speech, which Obama delivered to graduating officers at the elite U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. Allies in the region may draw some comfort from Obama’s pointed references to China’s economic rise and military reach, and its conduct in maritime territorial disputes.
“Regional aggression that goes unchecked — in southern Ukraine, the South China Sea, or anywhere else in the world — will ultimately impact our allies and could draw in our military,” Obama warned.
Though stressing the importance of coalition-building before the U.S. intervenes overseas, Obama did express a willingness to use military force when necessary if the security of U.S. allies is in danger, comments that could reassure security partners like Japan and the Philippines.
Obama also reiterated Washington’s backing for Southeast Asian nations as they try to negotiate a code of conduct with China to help resolve disputes in the South China Sea, which is riven by competing territorial claims. His comments come as dozens of Chinese and Vietnamese vessels are engaged in a standoff around a Chinese offshore oil rig.
But U.S. support for such a code of conduct since 2010 hasn’t helped much. Negotiations have moved slowly, and they could become tougher as disputes multiply and tensions escalate. Seeking to maintain its leverage, China remains reluctant to negotiate with a regional coalition instead of individual nations.
Obama even conceded Wednesday that Washington “can’t try” to resolve problems in the South China Sea when the U.S. Senate has not ratified the U.N. Law of the Sea Convention, which defines the rights and responsibilities of nations on the high seas.