The United States “Pivot to Asia”: It’s NATO way or the highway

Logo for the Chicago 2012 NATO Summit

By Stefano Santamato, Center for Transatlantic Security Studies

The closer we get to the NATO Summit in Chicago, next May 20 and 21, the more European Allies and Atlanticists become worried about the United States “pivot to Asia.”  This is producing a degree of questioning in Europe about US steadfastness that has few if any precedents.

Every speech, every statement, every policy memo by U.S. government officials is finely combed in search of references to NATO or to Europe. As regularly happens on the eve of every major NATO event, the “relevance” debate is dusted off the shelves of transatlantic opinion makers and think tanks. Word counts are run to calculate how many times the Alliance or the Old Continent are mentioned in US official documents and in the US media as if the sheer articulation of these names would equal interest, regard or significance. In doing so, however, we confuse relevance with visibility, substance with narrative, demonstrating an Atlanto-centric vision of the strategic environment that is no more.

To begin with, let us be clear on the difference between policy and slogans. While “pivot to Asia” is an effective and evocative catchphrase, it is not accurate in describing the evolution of the United States defense policy. The Strategic Guidance Review unveiled last January specifically refers to the necessity to “re-balance” towards the Asia-Pacific region. Webster dictionary’s definition of (re)balance is to “arrange so that one set of elements equals another”. Equals, not overtakes or replaces. Coincidentally, NATO is also the only alliance mentioned in a document that refers heavily to working with partners and allies. Hardly a verdict of irrelevance.

Truth to be told, many European Allies are more concerned about the risk of reduced U.S. leadership in NATO than of a reduced U.S. military presence on the Continent, itself now underway. After all, when it comes to wider security issues, the United States still remains the glue that keeps Europeans together. And make no mistake: the President of the United States is doubtless well aware of this fact, and in Chicago he will surely reiterate the U.S. commitment to Europe and the importance of NATO in substantive and no uncertain terms.

But Europeans should also realize that what the “pivot to Asia” may mean in terms of Europe’s lost geographical prominence could be more than compensated of in terms of relative weigh in the transatlantic relationship. There are at least four reasons why the United States’ increasing focus on the Asia-Pacific region is an opportunity for Europe to redefine the North Atlantic Alliance on the basis of shared missions and shared responsibilities, without renouncing the transatlantic security bond.

First, between failed North Korean missiles launches and the long-term military growth of China, most of the immediate geo-strategic challenges to the United States are still well-anchored to the arch spanning East Africa through the Middle-East to Central Asia. The only way that the United States can afford to pivot to Asia is to make sure that its European allies remain closer and more engaged than ever in these areas that remain of critical importance to the U.S.

Second, coalition operations in the past twenty years, from Desert Storm to Operation Unified Protector in Libya, demonstrate that the only way the United States and its partners – including from the Middle East and Asia – can operate together, is by following NATO doctrines, procedures, and standards. To move away from this template would be like trying to switch from digital to analog communications. It is always a feasible alternative, but at what cost in terms of efficiency and effectiveness?

Third, in an age of fiscal austerity, NATO’s education, training and exercise facilities and programs have the unique potential for maintaining, improving, and expanding allies’ and partners’ ability to work together, while minimizing or even zeroing new investment costs.

Fourth and possibly most important, Afghanistan teaches us that NATO is the only alliance in modern history that has demonstrated the capability for enduring over ten years of military conflict without falling apart politically – indeed, while and even attracting new partners.

For these and other reasons, NATO and its European members should not worry overmuch about the narrative of the United States’ pivot to Asia. Rather, they should welcome the substance of a strategic shift that will guarantee NATO’s continued relevance for years to come, not because of its geography or its place in the pecking order of U.S. priorities, but because of its ultimate proven value. After all, unless the United States adopts a doctrine of strict isolationism and military unilateralism, meeting its strategic needs indeed means the “NATO way or the highway;” — never mind if the Alliance is not a big topic in speeches or the media. Maybe, in fact, this quiet reality of its critical importance to the United States is exactly what NATO needs.

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Filed under NATO, Regional Studies, South Asia, Strategic Studies

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