CFR Fellows' Book Launch Series: Lost Decade—The U.S. Pivot to Asia and the Rise of Chinese Power

Monday, June 17, 2024

Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy, Council on Foreign Relations; Coauthor, Lost Decade: The U.S. Pivot to Asia and the Rise of Chinese Power

Chief Executive Officer, Center for a New American Security; Coauthor, Lost Decade: The U.S. Pivot to Asia and the Rise of Chinese Power; CFR Member


Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair, Council on Foreign Relations; @JamesMLindsay

Lost Decade is an essential guide for understanding the historic shift to Asia-centric geopolitics and its implications for the United States’ present and future.

More than a decade on, Robert D. Blackwill and Richard Fontaine conclude that while the Pivot to Asia’s strategic logic is strong, Washington's failure to respond to China's rise represents one of the three greatest mistakes in U.S. foreign policy since WW II, along with the 1965 escalation in Vietnam and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. They examine the Pivot through various lenses: situating it historically in the context of U.S. global foreign policy, revealing the inside story of how it came about, assessing the effort thus far, identifying the ramifications in other regions (namely Europe and the Middle East), and proposing a path forward.

As the international order becomes more unstable, Blackwill and Fontaine argue that it is imperative that policymakers fully understand what the Pivot to Asia aimed to achieve—and where it fell short—in order to muster the resources, alliances, and resolve to preserve an open order in Asia and the world. Crafting an effective policy for the region, they contend, is crucial for preserving American security, prosperity, and democratic values.

LINDSAY: Good afternoon, everyone. I want to welcome you to today’s Council on Foreign Relations Book Launch Series meeting. I am Jim Lindsay, director of studies here at the Council. The topic of our discussion today is the new book by Ambassador Robert Blackwill and Richard Fontaine, titled Lost Decade: The U.S. Pivot to Asia and the Rise of Chinese Power. I’m delighted to say that, besides everyone in the room here in New York, we have another 230 Council members joining us online. So welcome to everybody who is joining us through the magic of the internet.  

It is my great pleasure and honor to introduce our two speakers for the event, Bob Blackwill and Richard Fontaine. 

Bob, who is to my immediate right—at least geographically; we won’t make it as a political commentary—(laughter)—is the Henry A. Kissinger senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy here at the Council. Before joining the Council, Bob had a distinguished career as a U.S. diplomat. His government positions include serving as U.S. ambassador to India and deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security advisor for strategic planning under President George W. Bush.  

Richard Fontaine is to my far right—again, just geographically; we’re not making a political statement here—is the chief executive officer of CNAS, the Center for a New American Security. He previously served as president of CNAS, and as a senior fellow there. Before joining CNAS in 2009, Richard was a foreign policy advisor to Senator John McCain. And he worked at the State Department, on the staff of the National Security Council at the White House, and on the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  

Let me begin first off by congratulating you, Bob and Richard, on the publication of Lost Decade. 

FONTAINE: Thank you. 

LINDSAY: And thank you very much for agreeing to be on the stage with me today.  

FONTAINE: Good to be here.  


LINDSAY: I may, Bob, I want to begin with you. And a good title for a book telegraphs the book’s argument. You have a good title. Tell me about the argument it’s designed to telegraph. 

BLACKWILL: Well, the lost decade, as we describe it in the book, is between 2011 and 2021. And it’s a lost decade because, although Hillary Clinton in the fall of 2011 announced a pivot to Asia—for the first time in American history it wouldn’t be Europe first. It would be Asia first, with respect to the time and attention and resources of the U.S. government. A grand strategic shift, and filled with aspirations and objectives, it never happened. There was no pivot to Asia in that decade, for a variety of reasons I’m sure we’ll get into, and at the same time one had the astonishing rise of Chinese power.  

And so while we were not pivoting, China was building up its military dramatically, was ever more powerful economically in Asia, and its diplomacy became ever more far reaching. So much so that by the end of the decade, the United States was in a substantially weaker position in Asia than when Hillary Clinton announced the pivot. And that lost decade we describe in the book as one of the three greatest mistakes made by American administrations since the end of the Second World War—along with Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 decision to escalate in Vietnam and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. So that’s the lost decade.  

LINDSAY: I want to get into why that strategy was never enacted and the consequences, but before we do that, Richard, maybe you can help remind us what it was that the pivot to Asia was supposed to do. We all know that in October of 2011 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote an article that appeared in Foreign Policy magazine laying out the pivot. What was the pivot intended to do or to achieve? And how was it supposed to achieve those objectives, at least in its first iteration? 

FONTAINE: Well, broadly speaking, there were two overall objectives of the pivot. One was to take advantage of Asia’s dynamism—especially its markets, its demographics—through trade agreements, closer economic collaboration with the countries there. And the other was to put U.S.-China relations on a more stable footing by increasing the U.S., military, diplomatic, and economic presence in the region, including with non-China countries. We were still in the—as a country—in the engage policy with China. So the notion was that a more balanced relationship in Asia would allow for more productive U.S.-China relations. So whether you wanted to pivot because you were interested in Asia’s promise or because you wanted fundamentally to balance growing Chinese power, it sort of pointed in the same direction. 

That was intended to mean things in the diplomatic, economic, and military sphere. In the diplomatic sphere, a number of attempts to step up diplomacy with Southeast Asia—the East Asia Summit and so forth. More trips, more engagement. On the economic side ultimately, TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, became the economic pillar. And on the military side the aim was more military resources—U.S. military resources for Asia. In part, the notion was that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were winding down and there would be more resources available, although, as we know, those wars went on for years after that. 

LINDSAY: Now, Bob, when the article came out and all of a sudden Washington was seized with the issue of a pivot to Asia, my recollection was that many of America’s friends, partners, and allies did not react particularly well to the notion that the United States was going to pivot away to make China or Asia the first priority in American foreign policy. A real sort of geopolitical shift, because previously the United States had always prioritized Europe and the transatlantic relationship. So tell me a little bit about the reaction to the article and why it was that, within a couple of weeks, we were no longer calling it the pivot but, I believe the term of art they had hoped would stick, is rebalancing. 

BLACKWILL: Right. Well, just on that, which is rather amusing, so “pivot,” the word, caused so much consternation globally that the administration a few months in tried to change it to “reorientation.” Kurt Campbell, our friend, once said that he was sent away for a month at a reeducation facility—(laughter)—so that he would never say pivot again. But pivot was such an incandescent word to describe it that it’s held on. Reorientation is only used by a few ideological clerics, but nobody else.  

So what about the period just before and after? Well, first, there was no consultation with any of these countries that were affected by the pivot—none. And all of you know American foreign policy, sadly, this is not unusual. One can think of many other instances. So their diplomats in Washington woke up one morning and there it was, 5,000-plus words on a pivot to Asia. And they did what ambassadors do, which is they ran into their best contacts around the administration and said: Tell us more.  

And they got a null set of responses, because the administration’s preoccupation with Asia was not widespread inside every agency. There were, of course, always—as always, there were sunk costs otherwise. But mostly there was a weak interagency process. So it was poorly planned. And we all know that the best of our foreign policy initiatives are thoroughly planned and discussed thoroughly with our allies. And this was—qualified on neither account. 

So it had negative effects everywhere. In the Middle East there was already a growing conviction that the Americans were going home. And this propelled that further. In Europe, it was: My God, the Americans may not live up to their Article Five responsibilities to defend Europe against attack. And in Asia, it was: Are these Americans going to try to force us to choose between China and the United States? So the buzzing went on, but with few answers to our friends and allies around the world that helped to clarify. 

Just one last point. As Richard and I were interviewing many of these people, we received answers to exactly the question Jim has asked, which is, well, what is the pivot? Nobody had the same answer. What are the objectives of the pivot? None of the principal policy makers had the same answer. So we got the worst of both worlds. We announced a pivot which discombobulated our closest friends and allies, and then it never happened. And the entity that knew best that it wasn’t happening was China.  

And it’s almost amusing that they launched a campaign against the pivot, which they knew was not happening, which went all the way through the 2010s. And meanwhile, as Harold Brown said once about the Soviet Union, during this period—Harold Brown said about the Soviet Union: When we build, they build. When we don’t build, they build. And that’s what happened during the 2010s, this enormous growth of Chinese military power which shifted the balance of military power especially near the Chinese coast, including Taiwan and the South China Sea.  

LINDSAY: Bob, I want to come back to the issue of what a pivot should seek to accomplish, what its goal should be, and how one would effectively execute it. Before we get there, I want to sort of drill down on your argument that we did not get a pivot over that lost decade. And so, Richard, as I look at that decade, what Bob has just laid out—the failure to build an interagency process to drill down and ask the tough questions and to get answers, or to bring in your friends, partners, and allies to try to work things through, that explains why the pivot got off to a rough start. But as you argue, it didn’t actually come to fruition between 2011 in 2021.  

And that’s striking, because one of the major trends in U.S. foreign policy over that decade was the growing bipartisan consensus that China should be foreign policy priority number one. We saw that in the Trump National Security Strategy in 2017, which in essence gave the back of the hand to the Obama approach and argued that we had to confront the fact that we are in an era of geopolitical competition. The Biden strategy in 2021 specifically said China is the challenge. So why is it that the pivot didn’t happen when so many people on both sides of the aisle kept saying that U.S. foreign policy needed to acknowledge and respond to the challenge posed by a rise in China.  

FONTAINE: Yeah, so this is a question that, on its face, was a bit perplexing, because none of the reasons why the pivot didn’t come to fruition were because people thought it was a bad idea. In fact, we think it’s a good idea. And when it was announced, everyone from Henry Kissinger to Democrats to Congress to—everyone seemed to think, yeah, that makes sense. As a strategic impulse identifying our strategic future in Asia and doing more in that region so as to balance Chinese power, more or less makes sense. And, of course, if you look at what the Trump administration said when they came in—they didn’t use the word “pivot.” They didn’t use those exact words, but it was pretty similar. And they multiple times not only had the sort of redefinition of the relationship with China that you described, but identified Asia as the priority theater, as they would call it, for U.S. foreign policy. And then, of course, same in the Biden administration.  

So if everybody sort of agreed on the fundamental shift that needed to happen, why didn’t it happen? And there’s a couple of reasons. One, if you look at the sort of three areas in which more was going to be done—military, diplomatic, and economic—if you look on the military side, the first sentence of Secretary Clinton’s article announcing the pivot says, “Now that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are winding down,” sort of dot, dot, dot. Well, they didn’t wind down. Afghanistan, we know, went on for another decade. Iraq—by the end of that year in 2011 all the U.S. troops had been pulled out of Iraq, but they went back in 2015 in even greater numbers to fight ISIS for five years in a very resource-intensive campaign.  

And so there wasn’t the peace dividend that one might have expected from the end of those wars. At the same time, you had the Budget Control Act and sequestration going into effect. So on top of that, you cut $500 billion out of the defense budget. So you had a shrinking pie of resources. So, for example, the Navy and then the Air Force said, henceforth, we will have 60 percent of all of our deployed vessels in the Indo-Pacific. That’s great, but the Navy was shrinking. And, of course, the Chinese navy was just absolutely taking off. So that’s in the military sphere.  

On the economic sphere, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, TPP, was the pillar of this. Ash Carter when he was secretary of defense sort of famously said that he’d rather have TPP approved than a new aircraft carrier, it’s that strategically important. But by leaving its approval in the Congress to the end of 2016, it got caught up in presidential politics. The two candidates on both sides—the two remaining candidates on both sides in the presidential election—all four came out against it, including candidate Hillary Clinton. And it couldn’t get through Congress. And then Trump, of course, pulled out.  

And then diplomatically, it was all over the place in terms of engagement in Asia, depending on which personalities were in key positions and what other events were going on. So you had, for example, Secretary Clinton, who really stepped up diplomacy in Asia. Secretary Kerry, her successor spent much more time in the first year, trying to get a Middle East peace agreement, and then an Iran nuclear deal, and some on a U.S.-Russia deal on Syria. And then, you know, the Trump administration had maximum pressure campaign and other things like that. So if you look at it, and we did, it’s kind of all over the place. When you put all these things together, that’s why it didn’t sort of come to fruition. 

LINDSAY: So it sort of sounds as if the urgent crowded out the important.  

FONTAINE: Well, it did. And so if you’re going to try to pivot for real, which is what we think you do, you have to have a strategy that takes into account the urgent. Because the urgent is not going away, right? If we just sort of wait until the rest of the world quiets down sufficiently to allow us to focus only on Asia, then we’ll all be dead. Or, if we imagine that we should only focus on Asia no matter what’s happening in Europe and the Middle East, because China and Asia are so important, that we’ll have turned this country into a regional power. And that has its own downsides. And so you have to have an approach that’s going to take into account the world as it is. 

BLACKWILL: Harold Macmillan in 1942, when he was the British adviser in North Africa, was once asked by a journalist, well, what causes governments to change policies? And he said: Events, dear boy, events. And so these events preoccupied—I have one more quote, which is Nietzsche. “Man’s most enduring stupidity is forgetting what he is trying to do.” (Laughter.) And these administrations, with these events, could not, did not—and then there were the structural issues that Richard mentioned—could not, did not concentrate sufficiently within and without to undertake the pivot.  

I think it’s also the moment to say the Biden team, led, as we know, with respect to Asia by our friend Kurt Campbell, did make a very significant attempt, and successful one, to return dynamism to Asian diplomacy with the AUKUS agreement, and the—and the Quad revitalization, and so forth. But then events, dear boy, events. The war in Ukraine and then the war in Gaza. And it’s just obviously very difficult for a president to keep saying—everything every morning overwhelming him—to say, today these events are occurring, but our number-one priority is Asia. To say it every time. Remember the Roman senator who ended every speech he gave in the Senate by saying—the last line was always, “Carthage must be destroyed,” because he didn’t want the overnight events to forget—to make them forget. Well, we just couldn’t have the discipline and strategic determination to keep at it. 

FONTAINE: I’m feeling out-quoted. But I’ll do my best to come up with some—you know, a Nietzsche, two Harolds, Madeleine, and a— 

LINDSAY: I’ll let you think. I’ll ask a question. You can think of who you— 

FONTAINE: OK. (Laughs.) 

BLACKWILL: Chubby Checker is always— 

FONTAINE: OK, yeah, yeah. 

LINDSAY: But Richard, if I may, I want to pivot. And I want to sort of look forward. I take it that your argument is that as a grand strategy a pivot to Asia makes sense. But it raises two questions. One—well, actually three questions. One, what is the goal? Can it be achieved at an affordable price? And, three, what exactly does it mean in terms of actual practical policy steps? Because you’ve laid out that it’s partly military, it is partly economic, it is partly diplomatic. But what’s the appropriate mix among those tools? 

FONTAINE: So I think the goal of the pivot stems from our overall goal with respect to Asia and China, which is to ensure that China is either unable or unwilling to overturn the international order. And certainly—as well as the regional order. And there’s various scenarios in which that could take place. China is unable to because the non-China countries are stronger and working together more effectively. Or China itself becomes weaker. Or Chinese leaders discern an interest of their own in some of the arrangements the way they are. But we want to preserve the regional order, economic and security.  

(Audio break)—but putting all of that together can start to turn the military balance back toward one that is more favorable to our position and less favorable to the would-be dominant power in Asia. 

On economics, we don’t have a trade policy now. Or, if we do, it’s just sort of a defensive, you know, negative trade policy. But in Asia it really matters. It matters sort of instrumentally, because China’s economic gravity has grown to such a great degree that it is now the number-one trade partner of almost every country in the region. But it also matters strategically and terms of signaling devices, signals American engagement. It matters more there than it does in a place like the Middle East. There are two pan-regional trade agreements, RCEP and CPTPP. China is party to one and has applied to join the other. The United States is party that neither, wishes to join neither, and is providing no alternative. And so we need to provide an alternative. Ultimately, CPTPP, or if that’s a political bridge too far, digital trade agreements or sectoral agreements either bilateral, regional, or so forth.  

And then, you know, in the other instruments of foreign policy that we have, whether it’s aid or things like that, you know, increasing the share for the Indo-Pacific. And, again, all of this is to rebalance the region and the power in the region in favor of those whose overall preferences we would like to see obtain, us and our allies, as opposed to China’s, whose we oppose. 

LINDSAY: Bob, I take the points that Richard just made, but if you look out at the American politic, the American public, we certainly see a fair amount of skepticism about American global leadership, skepticism about America’s engagement, in the world. And they would argue that, you know, there have been arguments for all this and they don’t see much of a return on the investment, looking particularly at Iraq, looking at Afghanistan. And many people believe that trade is responsible in good part for the decimation of manufacturing in the United States. So what is your argument to Americans that it is the right thing to do to go forward with a strategy of a pivot? 

BLACKWILL: Well, I’m not sure that the Council on Foreign Relations in New York is the best setting to give advice for what will be persuasive to ordinary Americans. But let me try anyway. So the formulators of the TPP, many of them now recognize that the core of their argument to the American people was misplaced. Because at that time the core argument was not the one that Richard started with, but it was the geopolitical advantage for the United States of this trade agreement with Asia, for all the reasons that are obvious. A much more weaker, more muted argument was this is good for the American worker, which I think all the data that’s available suggest was true. So it was not properly sold to the American people.  

And now, as you say, Jim, there is perhaps even a majority who believe that the United States is too engaged in the world in many ways. But I think the best argument is the twofold, the one that Richard began with, which is Asia is an enormous opportunity for the American economy and worker, given that it is such an engine of global growth. But, second, our record of standing aside from engagement in the world through the twentieth century did not turn out happily, did it? We waited through the 1910s as the crisis grew. The president at that time said, we’ll never involve ourselves in these catastrophic European quarrels. And we were in the war by 1916, and two million Americans went to Europe. And then a similar evolution in the 1930s. We know that eleven million under arms in the Second World War.  

So America standing aside does not have a good record. But we have to rely on presidential leadership. And no—I’ll end with this headline again—no American president has put his shoulder to the wheel in a consistent way to persuade the American people that the pivot is a good idea. And therefore, how many of them would have ever—would even know what a pivot was, and so forth? And American presidents just haven’t been willing to do that. And that will be required. If the prescriptions in our book, and there are ten of them or so, were actually to happen, the first component of such a strategy would be presidential leadership. And that hasn’t been true to this moment. 

LINDSAY: At this time, I would like to invite members to join our conversation with their questions. I want to remind everybody that this hybrid meeting is on the record. We’re going to take our first question from here in New York. And I’m going to recognize presidential prerogative and give the mic to Mike Froman. 

Q: (Off mic)—together in a bilateral dialog, a U.S.-ASEAN dialog, which has continued to this day. And that was a fundamental change of political engagement in the region. Militarily, I take Richard’s point that we did deploy troops to Darwin for the first time, as I recall, but in terms of reallocating significant forces there was probably more to be done. And then economically, of course, TPP was the pillar that was supposed to represent and draw on, as Richard said, the great preoccupation that the countries in the region have with trade.  

I have to disagree with you, Bob, on how TPP was sold because, in fact, there was schizophrenia in the administration about how much to—how much to position it as an anti-China effort. And, indeed, we did not make the geopolitical argument, for that reason. Instead, we talked about this being the fastest-growing region of the world, and how 95 percent of the consumers lived outside the United States, and how we had to be engaged there in order to support U.S. exports. The reality is the economic impact of it, given how big our economy is and how little dependency we have on trade, was probably pretty modest but positive. There was broader geopolitical benefit, but that was not something that was greatly—that was greatly emphasized.  

And my last point would be the Europeans in particular—the pivot was never away from Europe. It was always away from the Middle East. And Europeans, I think quite cynically, jumped on that because they have a rather large chip on their shoulder to say, oh, you don’t love us anymore. You need to do something to demonstrate that you love us. They knew darn well we were not pivoting away from Europe. We were trying to pivot away from Afghanistan and Iraq. And instead, they decided to use it as a way of saying, you need to demonstrate to us that you love us. And, hence, a number of things we had to do to reassure them—whether it was TTIP or, you know, other things with the alliance, or other political mechanisms to show them that we loved them.  

So just—I think—I think, at least in the trenches at the time, it certainly felt like the pivot was being executed on, imperfectly, and explained, perhaps imperfectly, but that it was more meaningful than I think you—at least, for the first part of that decade—than is laid out there. 

BLACKWILL: Well, let me jeopardize my continued employment at the Council on Foreign Relations—(laughter)—by saying, first—and agree with you, Mike, in this sense—the fact that we didn’t pivot did not mean we weren’t engaged in a diplomacy. We were. We were, but it was business as usual, primarily. And, again, that was understandable since the wars didn’t end and all the rest. But you give me the opportunity to make this point, and then I’ll turn it over to Richard how he wants to respond.  

But Mike Bloomberg’s philanthropic arm has the following mantra: In God we trust, everybody else bring data. This book has a thousand footnotes with multiple citations in each of them. And I think the data demonstrates there was no pivot. But you can have a look at it and see if you agree. And I think the most telling point is that we emerged from this decade so much weaker than we began it, with respect to the China challenge. And there is this point, which I’m sure the talented people who are at the top of this administration know well. Since we got so far behind, they had to go fast. And of course, going fast produced a view in China that we were being provocative, because it was one initiative, another initiative, after another initiative. I think they followed exactly the right policy, but it had that potential. And there were Asian nations, as you can see in the book, which were uncomfortable with how fast these things were being turned out.  

I want to say, just in concluding this, why did the pivot fail? And we’ve talked about that and talked about it. But our elite, on both sides of the aisle, have evolved from a consensus in 2011 that there was still the possibility of encouraging China to become a responsible stakeholder, to use Bob Zoellick’s phrase, in the international system. That was that consensus. Now we have a radically different consensus, which is it’s almost impossible to work with China, they’re the adversary, and so forth. And so we have the right rhetorical consensus, but we’re not doing the things necessary to rebalance Asia in the way that Richard described. And it does raise this fundamental question, how serious a country are we? How serious a country are we? With the book radiating the rise of Chinese military power, the current budget is less than last year’s. Well, how serious a country are we? 

FONTAINE: Maybe I can just add, Mike, I think on the diplomacy in Asia side, you’re right, especially in the first few years of the Obama administration, including the ones leading up to the announcement, and so forth, of the pivot in 2011. So you saw the signing of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation with ASEAN, the dispatch for the first time of a U.S. ambassador to ASEAN, the further normalization of ties with Vietnam. You know, there were a bunch of things in place. And, actually the thing that during the Obama administration that got virtually no attention, but was actually quite valuable, was what a few people called the pivot within the pivot, which is a greater focus on Southeast Asia as opposed to our traditional focus mostly on Northeast Asia. But I think that was genuine.  

On the military side, there were some moving things around so that, you know, it was great to put Marines in Darwin, but they also went down in number in Okinawa. So you didn’t have a net increase in the number of troops in the Indo-Pacific. And, again, this was over the decade where China was just exploding in terms of its military capability. And but I think there was much more sort of diplomatic initiative in the beginning of the Obama administration than there was in the second term of the Obama administration—with one big exception, which was TPP, if you want to put that in that—in that area. 

LINDSAY: Now, I think we’d like to take a question from one of our listeners, members, on virtual. 

OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Joseph Bower. 

Q: Thank you very much. It’s been interesting.  

I wanted to ask a sort of—a question that begins, in the fields where I work the notion of an explicit strategy—we would say an explicit strategy is a contradiction in terms because basically what it achieves is it mobilizes competitors, it mobilizes bureaucratic enemies, which you have described. That the government went on. And it was an explicit strategy in the context we had, of the 2008 financial crisis. In effect, what we have seen since that period—we manage the recovery, which began in 2009, so that most of that went to the top 1 percent of the income distribution in the United States. Which creates a politics that’s very difficult in which to suddenly lead the country in a different direction. I don’t— 

LINDSAY: Can I get you to pose a question?  

Q: The question is, really, is the pivot a strategy or is it just a siren call—look out, they’re going to take our resources away? 

LINDSAY: Richard, do you want to take the question? 

FONTAINE: Well, I mean, I think, as we’ve tried to describe, at the very beginning when it was announced it was not intended to mark some huge, new, grand strategic shift, although it was seen that way. You know, the folks in the Obama administration who laid it out said that they were trying to summarize the things that they had done in Asia and the way they saw its interaction with Europe and the Middle East. And then they sort of joke that the article in Foreign Policy that Secretary Clinton wrote was soon being looked at with this sort of scriptural exegesis to try to figure out why did they use this term and, you know, all these other things. And sort of look—if you look at it hard enough, you can find all of the clues as to all of this.  

But over time, it did become a strategy, an approach, a grand strategic approach, whatever you want to call it, where it had the explicit prioritization of one particular region of the world. It had a view of sort of holding resources and engagement in Europe at least steady, and drawing them down in the Middle East, so that you could allocate more in Asia. And there were very specific ways in which they sought to do that. So, you know, 60 percent of the Navy being in the Indo-Pacific means that less of it is in other places, and things like that. So to that degree, it was a strategy. I mean, I guess if the alternative to an explicit strategy is no strategy, I prefer the explicit version. 

LINDSAY: I’ll come back here. And if you could give us your name and affiliation and put it in the form of a question, I’d much appreciate it.  

Q: I’m Robyn Meredith, author of The Elephant and the Dragon: The Rise of India and China. 

As I recall this era, the real shift, panic almost, that produced this pivot was, you know, military, and particularly China’s buildup in the South China Sea. And, you know, you’ve got Hillary in an aircraft carrier in the Philippines, et cetera. First of all, what’s the—what is the realpolitik now of South China Sea? Is there any going back? Can we only slow China’s influence there? Is that a done—is it a done deal to try to win that territory?  

BLACKWILL: It’s a done deal. It’s a done deal. And one—it permits a point, which is that during this period—and we try to do this in great detail in the book, this was not a period of exemplary American diplomacy and resolve, to put it mildly. And so, first, China began to build these artificial islands. Then, against the solemn word of the Chinese president to the American president, they militarized them. And we did nothing. We did nothing. Well, what do we think that does to deterrence? So and the examples, we had two presidents who drew red lines in the Middle East—one with Syria’s use of chemical weapons against its own citizens, the other on Iran attacking Saudi oil facilities. 

LINDSAY: This being President Obama and President Trump. 

BLACKWILL: Yeah. American presidents drew red lines, and then didn’t react when they were crossed. Well, imagine what that does to deterrence, and so forth. So one of the things we stress in the book is that the pivot, even if everything else happens, can be undermined by U.S. policies which weaken our national prestige and resolve. We put forth the—in some circles—the radical notion that the United States is not genetically incompetent. It’s just the people who make the decisions. And our diplomacy, if we do undertake the pivot, is going to be quite complex and require quality diplomacy. But we’ve done that in the past. And there’s, as I say, no permanent reason why we can’t do it in the future. 

LINDSAY: Let me come down to the front. 

Q: Michelle Caruso-Cabrera. Longtime journalist. 

So what is the counterfactual if we had done the pivot, particularly when it comes to the military? Is it that their military wouldn’t be as big, because we had talked them out of it? (Laughs.) Or is it that our military would be much larger, and we would be in a much more comfortable position now vis-à-vis the competitive nature of the relationship? Can you guess what would have happened?  

FONTAINE: Yeah, I think it’s the latter. I don’t think that—the Chinese buildup, if you look at, is pretty much straight line, up and to the right. So that was going to happen whether or not we pivoted, however you want to define what the military pivot would be or not. But if you look at the balance—which, of course, is the Chinese and what they are able to do militarily on one side, and U.S. and its allies on the other side—that balance would be—not be so one-sided as it is today. China has the advantage of geography, some other things that are always going to have to be taken into account. But the shrinking size of the Navy in a theater that is fundamentally maritime and air makes a difference.  

You know, the deployment of military assets—in particular, key capabilities, missile defense and things like that—in one part of the world is not the Indo-Pacific means that it does not play a deterrent role in the Indo-Pacific. So I think you would have had the Chinese military doing what the Chinese military was doing, but you would have had a more capable U.S. and set of allied militaries. And that is essentially what we’ve tried to do over the past few years, not only with the size of the defense budget, but trying to reorient the U.S. military from a focus on large-scale nation building and stabilization operations in the Middle East, to a focus on the Indo-Pacific and deterring war with China, and defeating it if necessary. And so—you know, but that that is—it’s been a slow sort of move in that direction. 

LINDSAY: Richard, given that assessment, is it too late for the United States to catch up? 

FONTAINE: No. I mean, this is—when we start to talk about, you know, you had this political, you know, obstacle to TPP, and then you had this other thing for the defense side. And you have events in the world that are not going away. You could conclude from that, wow, this is too damn hard. Let’s not do any of it. Which is not our view. One, I think already you see things that were not politically possible a few years ago now are, right? So you have Republicans and Democrats on the Hill that have come around Development Finance Corporation, for example, or the CHIPS Act, which is sort of explicitly designed, or at least marketed, to say we need to do this to compete more effectively with China, to strengthen our own hand, and $50 billion, and things like that.  

Those are not the hardest things politically. That’s not trade policy yet. But even on trade policy, I mean, it was 2015 when Trade Promotion Authority passed the U.S. Congress. It was only 2016 with TPP failed. And then USMCA passed even during the Trump administration. So, you know, I think as the more acute awareness of the China challenge sort of sinks into our political leaders, that will allow more things to be possible politically, domestically, in terms of some of the obstacles that previously been the case on sequestration, military spending, eventually maybe on trade policy, and things like that.  

And then I think, you know, in terms of events in the world, I think the current administration, yes, there’s been a lot of diplomacy in Europe and in the Middle East, for very obvious reasons, but it’s done a good—I mean, it’s preserved its force structure in Asia, despite two wars in Europe and the Middle East. So some of these things can be done. We just have to decide whether we’re going to do them. 

LINDSAY: Come here to the front. 

Q: Lyndsay Howard, Bloomberg. 

So could we return to pivot consternation in the Middle East? Could you both comment on, after all this research and your personal experiences with leaders from the Middle East, to what extent did the pivot or non-pivot perceptions and realities on the ground impact U.S.-Middle East relations? And how is—how did that play out over the last three administrations? And to what extent does it hinder and hamper our efforts now on a continuing basis? Thank you—or, have we healed some of the misperceptions? Thank you. 

FONTAINE: Yeah. So one of the most kind of frustrating things over the years has been to go to the Middle East and meet with officials, and they say America is getting out of the Middle East. You’re going home. And you look around and you’re, like, but the base is right there, and the Fifth Fleet’s still in Bahrain, and we’ve got troops in Kuwait still. And, you know, what is this “go home”? And they say, well, you’re pivoting to Asia, either because you said you’re pivoting to Asia or they’re trying to read the geopolitical tea leaves. And they say, clearly, if we were you, we’d care a lot about China and Asia.  

But, of course, if you actually look at the numbers—the numbers of stuff, military, diplomacy—we didn’t—we have not withdrawn from the Middle East. And our presence there is from—is far greater than any other external power, far greater than Russia and China. But what they seem really to mean is, we’re afraid you’re going to leave the Middle East. Or, at least, that you’re not going to fulfill the commitments that we believe you should be fulfilling to us. It’s much less about the scale of American presence. It’s about the scope of American performance.  

And there, you could have lots of resources tied up in the Middle East, but if you don’t use them effectively—and certainly a bunch of the countries in the Middle East think the United States has not—then it almost doesn’t matter how much stuff you have on the ground. Alternatively, you know, even if you have a more modest level of military resources, diplomatic engagement, if you’re using it effectively to stand by the commitments that we have in the Middle East, and to deal with things that you said should not happen, and things like that, then you’re going to be able to get more out of that.  

And I think the fact that that we have not been perceived to do that has continued to feed this perception that we’re, quote, dragged back into the Middle East, which is a region that no president, certainly, and the American people in general, want to be engaged. And that, of course, leads leaders in the region to hedge, or to make alternative arrangements in the event that that comes true. 

BLACKWILL: The book has a chapter on the Middle East in which it catalogs how each of the countries of the Middle East—our friends, our adversaries, Israel, all of them—began to hedge their policies as our ineffective diplomacy continued throughout the 2010s. And it’s filled with data and detail about how each country, perceiving that the United States was unreliable and often lacked resolve, they began to change their policies. And you can see that not in theory, but in action.  

And a dramatic example we all know is the attempted opening by Saudi Arabia of its relationship with Iran. It’s a direct consequence of what we’ve been talking about. And every country—from adversary to Turkey to the Gulf—every country’s policy has evolved in that negative way. And we are weaker today—substantially weaker today—in power and influence in the Middle East than we were in 2011, even though our force posture’s unchanged. And many analysts concentrate on the force posture.  

And the corollary then becomes, we can withdraw air and naval assets from the Middle East if our diplomatic competence is sufficient. And if we have a crisis, as in Gaza, we can surge to the Middle East, as we did, you’ll remember. Two carrier battle groups in the period immediately after the war began to produce a deterrent for Iranian involvement. So we think we can both pivot and protect our vital national interests in Europe and in the Middle East. And we think those who wake up every morning and before their first cup of coffee say, China, China, China, that’s our principal adversary and whatever happens in Ukraine is up to the Ukrainians and so forth, are deeply mistaken because these regions are all interconnected, and they notice what happens elsewhere.  

If I could just go on—just one example. One example, which is the call for us to stop our assistance to Ukraine and concentrate those resources instead in Asia. If you were the Japanese defense minister and the Americans, after saying for now two years what matters to the United States is the future of Ukraine and the fact that Putin doesn’t overrun this country, what if we now say, well, that was our view for a couple of years, but now we’re kind of tired so we should shift to Asia. What would that do to the Japanese defense minister’s view of the consistency of our power, and resolve, and competence? 

And these—the Asians notice the quality of our competence in the Middle East. They don’t just notice it next door, and so forth. So and in Europe we don’t think that—as we say in the book—we don’t think that Russia, Putin, is going to invade NATO territory. This would invoke an Article Five commitment and the possibility of nuclear war. So we understand why the Baltic states are so nervous about that, but we don’t think—we think the likelihood is very small that a weakened Russian army—this is not the Red Army that the Ukrainians are courageously fighting. So we think we can maintain our defense commitments to Europe, and—and—move air and sea assets to Asia. We have more forces in Europe today than we had in 2011, today.  

LINDSAY: Let me go to the back of the room for the last question. 

Q: (Coughs.) Excuse me. Jeff Hogan from Wells Fargo. 

I just want to pick up on that point. Is it possible that the whole concept of pivot was the wrong concept in the first place? That this is a “yes, and” world, not an “or” world? And that if you are right that we need to focus on Putin, we need to focus on the Middle East, and we need to focus on Asia, I guess then the question is, does America have the power to be what Richard, I think, you said earlier, a true global power? And are we committed to fighting on or positioning against three different fronts simultaneously? Isn’t it an “and” question, not a “pivot” question? 

LINDSAY: Richard, you want to take that?  

FONTAINE: Sure. Well, you have to set priorities, because if you live in a world with constrained resources—which is a say, all the time—and then you have to have priorities. And so China is the greatest long-term challenge to the United States. Russia is a challenge. Iran is a challenge. North Korea is a challenge. We can pick other challenges. But China is the number-one challenge because it has the power to upend the international order that has been so good for the United States and, frankly, for other countries, including China. And the will to do it. There’s no other country in the world that has it.  

China’s influence is all over the world. It’s global. But, for example, Chinese military power is most acutely felt in the Western Pacific, and then becomes more attenuated the further from there you get. Its economic gravity is greatest in Asia, although it’s very significant in other regions, and so forth. And ultimately, this is not China on one side that’s sort of, you know, trying to dominate Asia and the U.S., which is trying to stop them but also we have Europe and the Middle East to contend with. This is the United States and all of its allies and partners. And so that’s where the diplomacy comes in, and the strengthening our allies in different parts of the world but especially in Asia.  

So it is neither right to just say, well, we’re going to be a regional power. All we really care about is China. Let the friendly locals in Europe and the Middle East figure stuff out. I’m sure it’ll be fine. Or if it’s not, we can ignore it. Nor is it the case to say, well, everything is equally important, that we have to sort of do everything, everywhere, all at once. And that we have to try to conjure the resources and bandwidth be able to do that, because that is an impossible task. So the notion of pivoting to Asia is the right one, because it sets a clear priority. It sets a clear priority that stems from our long-term, number-one strategic challenge. But it does not abandon commitments and vital interests that we have in other regions, particularly in Europe and the Middle East.  

LINDSAY: Richard, you framed that as challenges are mounting with China, with Russia, Iran, North Korea—which treats them as sort of distinct things. Are you worried about them coalescing and forming what’s called the axis of the agreed, and ending up in situation in which the threat is greater than the sum of the parts? 

FONTAINE: I’m concerned about them forming the axis of upheaval, because that’s the title of the Foreign Affairs article that I wrote in the current edition, with my colleague Andrea Kendall-Taylor. But I think there’s probably twenty or thirty good candidates for that—for that grouping of four countries. They are absolutely working together more closely than they ever have before. Much of this was catalyzed—not all of it—but much of it was catalyzed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. So now Russia shoots Iranian drones and North Korean ammunition and artillery using Chinese parts at Ukrainians, right? That was not happening before.  

The glue that holds these four very different countries together is a shared opposition to what they see is unfairly anachronistic Western-dominated international order, that does not accord for them the space, the sphere of influence, the status, the weight that they believe that they deserve, because of history or whatever. And what it does is make each of those more dangerous than they would be otherwise. I mean, Russia is more dangerous to Ukrainians and, therefore, to some degree, to us because of that cooperation. North Korea will be more dangerous because of what Russia provides.  

And it also makes some things unthinkable, right? So you had the P5+1 not that many years ago, getting around talking about how do we constrain Iran with sanctions so they come back to the negotiating table? Unthinkable now, right? If you go back further, we had the Six Party Talks that talk about how are we going to solve the North Korean nuclear problem together. Now, they didn’t, but that’s unthinkable now, that you could get that. So it makes them better able to provide alternatives to countries that would sort of like to defect from the status quo international system that we’re trying to preserve. 

BLACKWILL: If you—can I just say one last thing, Jim? 

LINDSAY: Very quickly. 

BLACKWILL: If your appetite is not exhausted by reading our book and you’re interested in this subject, Richard and I are writing a report on the China-Russia relationship, which will be published by the Council in the early fall. 

LINDSAY: I want to thank my two co-panelists, one for making an excellent presentation but also being on-brand and promoting Council products. (Laughter.) So thank you very much. I want to thank everybody here in the room and everyone joining us through the miracle of the internet for being with us today for this conversation. And I’m supposed to let everybody know that a video and transcript of our conversation will shortly be published on the Council’s website, But I want to ask everybody here in the room to join me in congratulating Bob and Richard on the book.  

FONTAINE: Thank you. 


This is an uncorrected transcript. 

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