The Region That's Really Driving Obama's Foreign Policy

It’s not the Middle East, according to Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes.

Chinese soldiers in Beijing (Jason Lee / Reuters)

“Here’s … the Obama Doctrine and our whole foreign policy: We have to position the U.S. to be able to lead in this century,” Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said on Monday. A desire to shift the focus of America’s commitments toward Asia, Rhodes emphasized, had driven the administration’s foreign-policy choices from its first day in office.

“We came in with a completely unsustainable resource allocation in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Rhodes explained, citing the 180,000 troops deployed to those two countries in 2008. Those, he said, are “two countries which frankly aren’t going to be shaping the 21st century.” And so in those countries and elsewhere, the administration’s policies have been shaped by a commitment to reorienting its foreign policy away from what it sees as the challenges of the 20th century, and toward what it has identified as the greatest challenge of the 21st.

Rhodes’s remarks were a pointed response to a growing chorus of critics who charge that the administration has become distracted from Asia by emerging crises elsewhere in the world, has been forced into a reactive posture, and so has failed to follow through on its promised “pivot” to the region. “Whatever happened to the Pivot to Asia?” the foreign-affairs columnist Fareed Zakaria recently asked. “Since 2013, there have been little more than assertions that the pivot was still pivoting,” Foreign Policy’s David Rothkopf complained in April.

But, Rhodes explained on Monday, the desire to pivot to Asia has, in fact, been driving the administration’s approach to other issues all along.

Rhodes made the remarks in an interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg at the Aspen Ideas Festival. The comments helped pull together the disparate set of issues Rhodes addressed, offering a common lens for interpreting the administration’s actions on a range of controversial issues.

With Burma, Cuba, and now Iran, the Obama administration has sought to put old fights behind it, freeing the U.S. government to focus on emerging challenges in Asia and the rise of China. And Rhodes resisted suggestions that these nations continue to pose challenges to vital U.S. interests in ways that merit continued focus. Asked, for example, about Burma’s “genocide against its Muslim minority,” he shot back, “I wouldn’t use that term.” Instead, he framed the slaughter of the Rohingya as more of an internal challenge, with the U.S. role restricted to finding “constituencies in Burma who recognize that it affects the entire country when there are local actors who are exploiting intolerance.”

Similarly, Rhodes, who led the secret negotiations that have opened the way for normalizing U.S. ties with Cuba, explained that one breakthrough involved convincing the Cubans that the United States was interested in “sending a message to the world that we’re willing to leave the past behind.” Normalization, he said, was a means of defusing a relationship that had left the United States isolated in its own hemisphere. The challenge, in fact, was persuading the Cubans to put the conflict behind them. “The idea of reestablishing diplomatic relations was not something that was immediately attractive to them,” he said. “They are very comfortable being in an adversarial position to the United States.”

And now, the effort to withdraw resources from the Middle East, and to avoid committing more, is shaping the Obama administration’s responses to Iran’s nuclear program, the collapse of Syria, and the rise of the Islamic State. For example, that effort guided the administration’s emphasis on using negotiations, and not military force, to resolve an international dispute over Iran’s nuclear program. “We don’t have to accept another pull into another war in the Middle East if we can resolve this issue diplomatically,” Rhodes said.

He resisted a suggestion that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps poses a direct threat to Americans. ISIS, he conceded, does pose a “constant threat” as “an organization that has as one of its objectives killing Americans wherever they are.” But Rhodes emphasized the need for “partners on the ground fighting,” suggesting that the success or failure of ISIS on any particular front is, as much as anything, a function of local commitment. And America will continue “to degrade ISIL significantly” in support of those partners, he said, using another acronym for the Islamic State.

The overarching aim, though, remains a shift toward Asia. “We want a rules-based order in Asia-Pacific like we have had in the Atlantic,” Rhodes explained. And, he continued, “that’s not just something we can do bilaterally with the Chinese.” He sketched a role for the United States in creating regional consensus. “We see China in the Asian context,” he said, and orchestrating the emergence of workable system for resolving tensions in the region is “part of how we address this environment of the next hundred years.”

That, Rhodes argued, is what continues to set the United States apart on the international stage. “There’s this constant narrative of anxieties: Is the U.S. in decline? Is China rising? People other country is trying to play the role we play,” he said. “They’re not signing up to be responsible for security in the Middle East, responsible for the global economy, responsible for enforcing international norms.”

Rhodes’s emphasis on Asia may please those critics of the administration who have worried that the “pivot” has been eclipsed by other crises. But if, as Rhodes suggests, the United States is uniquely capable of establishing and enforcing international norms, its desire to consign 20th-century conflicts to the past amounts to a gamble that those conflicts will not come to define the 21st century as well.