On Ukraine, Obama’s not weak; he’s just pivoting

U.S. President Barack Obama is fond of saying he does not bluff. His doubters doubt him. So when Obama emphasizes the American pivot to Asia, analysts brush him aside, contenting themselves with the conventional wisdom that the United States will always need to focus on Europe and the Middle East. With every momentary crisis from the European time zones, pundits pronounce the pivot a false promise.

The Ukraine crisis, once again, proves them wrong: When Obama says the United States is pivoting toward Asia, he means it. Beyond his rhetoric, Obama has taken geopolitical risks to position the United States to contain China. He downgrades the American role in the Middle East.  He does not assume the centrality of Europe. Asia is his central theater. Belatedly, the Israeli establishment must recognize this reality, not deny it.

Many have ignored the pivot as a potential driving force in U.S. policy toward Ukraine. Instead, they have diagnosed Obama as weak. As host David Gregory put it to a Sunday roundtable on American television (similar to the panels on Israel’s Friday night newscasts), “This is a conversation about Obama’s leadership, pure and simple. This is a major test for whether the rest of the world, particularly bad actors, take him seriously when he says to not do something.”

Maybe not. The relatively modest American response to the Ukraine crisis may not be evidence of weakness. Instead of weakness, it may show the Obama administration executing a strategic plan in a disciplined way—even if the principals involved themselves do not realize it.

If China had invaded Vietnam, the Obama administration would not have been ho-hum. The U.S. defense establishment would have viewed the move as a signal test of American will in the Asia-Pacific and pressed for a rapid response. The silence from the U.S. defense and intelligence circles on the Ukraine crisis would have been replaced with determined explanations to the American public of the imperative of strong action. The Ukraine crisis is not a good test case for the hypothesis that Obama is weak because it does not exclude the alternative hypothesis that Obama is strong-willed but has other priorities.

In fact, Russia’s move into Ukraine actually strengthens the case for the pivot.  It demonstrates that a great power can move rapidly against neighbors, even if its move runs against assumed norms. But in Eastern Europe, the great power’s potential targets have shrinking populations and stagnant consumer markets. Their defense might not be an American priority. Even Russia itself is a long-term basket case, with a shrinking population and an economy dependent on fossil fuel income that may fall victim to the shale revolution.

East Asia has different fundamentals: robust economies whose markets are central to American exports and the U.S. economy. As early as 2020, Asia is expected to have nearly half of global middle class consumption—a far larger share than Europe. From Silicon Valley to Wall Street, American business will care much more about whether Vietnam falls into China’s sphere of influence than whether Ukraine falls into Russia’s.

The Ukraine crisis may one day be seen as part of the larger pattern of shifts in America’s traditional alliances. Europeans have the most to lose from this trend; bafflingly, they seem to greet it with blissful ignorance. Here in the Middle East, observers from Riyadh to Jerusalem react differently, with a confused, contradictory mix of messages:  denying the U.S. pivot, whining about American abandonment of traditional allies, and making fun of Obama’s wimpiness.

On Ukraine as on so much else, Obama’s moves may not signal weakness. They may signal discipline and prioritization, even if Obama himself is not conscious of it.

For Israel, the U.S. pivot poses challenges that have few easy answers. U.S. diplomatic and intelligence agencies may invest less in influencing and confronting the region’s hostile actors. Key regional players may rely less on Washington and so have less incentive for a benign posture toward Israel. Most of all, a lower U.S. profile may entice other great powers—such as Russia or China—to step into the void and upgrade their alliances in the Middle East.

Israel can find ways to meet all these challenges. But doing so requires a mental shift.  If the Israeli establishment continues to deny the reality of the pivot, Israel will not take the steps needed to adjust to it. Even outside Israel, analysts of the Ukraine crisis have ignored the pivot as a driving force. Here in Israel, we must not make that mistake. The relationship with the United States is a core element of our national security strategy. If U.S. strategy changes, we must take notice. The Ukraine crisis should convince us that the pivot is real. Let’s admit it and start thinking about how to adjust.

About the Author
Owen Alterman is a researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies affiliated with Tel Aviv University. He made aliyah in 2010 and lives in Tel Aviv.