Ankit Panda, thediplomat.com
Thornston image from article
Don’t hold your breath for the language of the ‘pivot’ or ‘rebalance’ to make a return anytime soon.
In a press conference on Monday discussing U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s inaugural trip to Asia, Susan Thornton, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, had this to say about the Obama administration’s “pivot” or “rebalance” to Asia:
On the issue of pivot, rebalance, et cetera, that was a word that was used to describe the Asia policy in the last administration. I think you can probably expect that this administration will have its own formulation and it hasn’t actually, we haven’t seen in detail what the formulation will be or if there even will be a formulation. ...
What’s most telling is that Thornton implicitly referred to the pivot and rebalance as a “bumper sticker,” adding that it’s “early to say” if the Trump administration will decide to adopt something of its own for its Asia policy. This gets to one of the more nuanced critiques of the Obama administration’s rebalance; namely, while it was a well-conceived articulation of U.S. economic, security, and normative interests in Asia, the pivot branding was an unnecessarily restrictive rhetorical construct, forcing suboptimal public diplomacy by the previous administration. ...
Meanwhile, with the permanent bureaucracy of the U.S. State Department showing signs of irrelevance, assurances that long-institutionalized relationships at the bilateral level would keep running despite a new administration in town appear to be less convincing every day. Despite this gloomy picture, the Obama administration’s serious diplomatic and military efforts in the region leave behind a tall legacy, providing a helpful foundation for constructive growth should the Trump administration decide to pursue a more traditional approach to the region in line with older U.S. strategic priorities.
So, in summation, the pivot and rebalance, as conceived by the Obama administration, are unlikely to reappear anytime soon. This administration, in its early days, has shown a propensity for a piecemeal approach to Asia, treating bilateral relationships as its primary unit of analysis. If there is a “bumper sticker” for this era of U.S. policy in Asia, it may as well be “America First.”
Bonus: My colleague Prashanth Parameswaran and I discussed the legacy of the Obama administration’s Asia policy over a series of four podcasts. See “Obama’s Asia-Pacific Legacy: Assessing Policy Toward Maritime Challenges and the North Korea Threat,” “8 Years Later: Understanding the Obama Administration’s Asia-Pacific Legacy,” “US Defense Diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific: What Obama and Carter Will Leave Trump and Mattis,” and “The ‘Pivot’ Gets Trumped: The Asia-Pacific Under President Trump.”