“Agile, flexible and ready for the full range of contingencies and threats,” is how US President Barack Obama envisions the US military in the announcement of a new strategy that realigns the focus of a military force winding down a decade of overseas fighting. The strategic shift is raising significant questions on various issues, from how budgetary cuts will impact the US industrial base to the ramifications for global security. To learn more about the latter, we speak to David Dewitt, vice president of programs at CIGI and global security expert.

CIGI: In the past three months, the United States has put considerable focus on the Asia-Pacific region — first with the Trans-Pacific Partnership and now through this new military strategy. How do you foresee Asia-Pacific allies and foes of the United States reacting to this attention?

David Dewitt: American interest in the Asia-Pacific is not a new phenomenon. Over the last century, there has been a waxing and waning of US presence in the Asia-Pacific region. US interests there have been driven by economic and exploitation opportunities, and, especially in the second half of the twentieth century, involved protecting the interests of the United States or its allies through the forward deployment and application of military force. These considerable investments and interests by American administrations are material, ideological, ideational and historical; and, because of the mixture of ideology and demography of the United States’ citizenry, these actions also are domestically driven.

The reinvigorated efforts to address trade opportunities are something that has been evolving over the last two decades. There has been an increasing awareness of the attractiveness of longer term investment in the Asia-Pacific world — the establishment of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum and the Pacific Economic Cooperation Council were initial indicators of that. There has been sustained population growth in China, India and Indonesia, most dramatically in the emerging middle class, so these countries are increasingly attractive as both producers and consumers of wealth and complex manufactured goods. Asian expertise in re-engineering, coupled with their abilities — albeit now under stress — at containing labour costs, have allowed a number of countries in East Asia to reproduce sophisticated products at a lower cost, which is making Asia more competitive in a global and interdependent world.

The most recent statements coming from US President Barack Obama, with some clarification from Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, should also not be seen as having disturbed the perceptions of East Asia states. The Chinese would not be terribly surprised; they might be concerned, but I think there’s been worry for some time about how to better manage what they understand will be some real challenges in Chinese-American relations. The Koreans and the Japanese, if anything, have been concerned that the United States turned their attention away from East Asia. In the decade following the end of the Cold War, there was initial enthusiasm for how the removal of the Soviet and US architecture might create all kinds of new opportunities. What emerged very quickly were real fears among some Asian countries that US involvement was going to be drawn down just as China was rising and expanding throughout the region. The vulnerabilities that might accompany such realignments became increasingly problematic, so the modest and considered re-engagement by this American administration in East Asia and the Pacific likely is welcomed, even if quietly.

The broad strategic environment — including the instruments of policy, such as finance, economic regulation, trade agreements, migration and labour, as well as military — towards and within Asia is certainly going to be increasingly affected by and sensitive to the interests of China and India. The United States provides a possible “balancer” to an overly aggressive or overly intrusive presence by either of those principal countries, not just in terms of military presence, but also in terms of their growing intrusion into local economies, which, if unchecked, could be problematic in the long run.

CIGI: Perhaps it’s the harsh reality of new economic times and the need for austerity, changed perceptions on the source of US national security threats, or both. What do you think is at the root of this new strategy for a leaner US military?

Dewitt: I do think that there has been pressure on the Obama administration and the Democratic Party to even more clearly differentiate themselves from the Republicans, in terms of defining the United States’ role and commitment to international peace and security, and of course the management of the global economy. They have to do it in a way that shows that the United States is going to retain its muscle and capacity, but they want to be seen very much as the party and the government that uses resources more efficiently, effectively and responsibly, and they want to be able to show that time and time again it was the Republican administration that put America in debt through ill-considered overseas military engagements along with the mismanagement of the domestic economy and trade relations. On the one hand, the Obama administration does not want to be seen as isolationist. They want America to remain the leader of the liberal democratic world; therefore, it has to have a robust and flexible multi-purpose military, and doing that in a more cost-effective way means greater reliance on highly specialized capabilities, which also means being on the cutting edge of technology. I think this last point remains important because the extent to which the United States keep an edge over an emerging China or resurgent Russia depends not on the number of boots on the ground but on the quality of technology that comes with those boots. 

This administration also has been pursuing new overseas trading relations as a parallel initiative to what they would argue is a more responsible re-engagement in the global economy and especially in Asia-Pacific relations, to the mutual benefit of all parties. In this sense, “national security” is not only a military issue; it involves a more complex set of interstate relationships.

CIGI: What does a leaner military mean for global security burden sharing? How should US allies, in Europe, for example, react to this leaner military and the shrinking focus on traditional areas of interest (such as Europe)?

Dewitt: What burden sharing means from an American perspective, in a post–Cold War and 9/11 world, is an interesting question that hasn’t been resolved and deserves more consideration. Obama’s proposal is one effort that puts allies on notice that accountability, responsibility and an obligation to participate in the burden sharing of global security are needed because it is more than any one country can politically, never mind economically, afford to take on without allies.

I would hope that in some ways the Europeans would be very concerned, and would start asking, what do we need to do to keep America engaged? They have to recognize that they have been irresponsible in the post–Cold War world. But I expect that most of them won’t be concerned or they’ll only be so pro forma. They won’t look at how to become more effective, within their budgetary means, to deal with challenges of integration and interoperability, force management, overseas deployments, and so forth, and to be prepared to act with NATO or provide the “pointy end” of what’s needed through the UN Security Council.

On the concern of the United States being able to fight on two fronts, I don’t want to be too cavalier about this, but with the way the American military is likely to get restructured and considering US global interests, being available to engage in a second or third front is more often than not likely to be a political issue for any serving president.

The Chinese would not be terribly surprised; they might be concerned, but I think there’s been worry for some time about how to better manage what they understand will be some real challenges in Chinese-American relations.
The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.