The G8 Summit: What Happened to Obama’s Pivot From Europe to Asia?

The president talked of shifting from Europe to Asia. But that idea has faded as the G8 and NATO meetings loomed. Good riddance, says Leslie H. Gelb.

Nicholas Kamm / AFP-Getty Images

There is a foreign-policy god. And it is she who must deserve thanks for halting the Obama administration’s incantations about “pivoting” from Europe to Asia. The recent silence on this shift came about not just because the G8 meeting of major economic powers was scheduled for last week at Camp David, and that most of the eight were European. It wasn’t that the NATO summit was set for Chicago for Saturday and Sunday, and that most alliance members were also European. Nor has the Obama team altered its plans to move some U.S. security resources from an unthreatened Europe to an uncertain Asia; of course that has to be done.

Enlightenment was advanced when administration leaders realized they had gratuitously offended European allies and gratuitously provided Beijing’s hawks with ammunition to argue that America was formally and openly instituting a policy of containing China. The Obama team’s minds were surely jolted when so many privately expressed unhappiness about the provocative public pivot. Beyond all these considerations, I’d like to believe there was a deeper reason for silencing the idea. I’d like to believe that the recently and now oft proclaimed geniuses of administration foreign policy saw the light: Europe Plus, i.e., Europe along with Japan, Australia, Canada, and Israel, should—on the merits—remain the rock of U.S. national-security strategy.

To me, it is plain common sense to see that Europe Plus (the bulk of G8 and NATO members) is the group of nations that most closely share U.S. values and interests. It doesn’t take a genius to see that these values and interests are not widely shared elsewhere—or at least that other nations are not nearly as ready as the Europe Plus group to act on those interests and values. If the United States were to be in trouble or require help, it is unimaginable that India, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Turkey, or whatever country would actively back Washington with money and arms. The U.S. can count on only the Europe Plus group. When America needs military help abroad, it comes essentially from European NATO countries, Canada, and Australia. When it comes to providing economic aid to poor and needy nations, Europeans and Japan almost always are our principal partners.

Never to be forgotten: the great bulk of U.S. trade and investments comes to and from Europe and Canada, to say nothing of Japan. For all the economic difficulties of Europe and Japan, America’s economic fate over the next decade and beyond is still tied more with these nations than to China or the other emerging powers like India, Brazil, and Turkey.

My concern here is not really with the future of the G8. That group and its larger G20 brother will survive one way or another. The members find it convenient to use these forums to talk economic policy. And at Camp David, they also mused about energy and food aid. To be sure, they also discussed economic sanctions against Iran, but this matter really belongs to a much smaller group of permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany.

It is NATO’s future that is a worry. Most Americans will barely take notice of or care about the NATO meeting underway in the Windy City. It’s even hard for most Americans to remember why the NATO thing was created in the first place. Oh, yes, to deter and defeat an attack by the Soviet Union on Western Europe. But that effort was launched more than 60 years ago, and the Soviet Union no longer exists. And only those on political meds like Mitt Romney worry about Russia as a threat to the United States in today’s world. (He called it America’s No. 1 geopolitical foe.) So, NATO members and a large gaggle of other nations now gathered in Chicago will be discussing a war many of them have been fighting for 10 years in Afghanistan, a war that virtually all the attendees would prefer to escape as soon as possible or sooner, a war they are fighting out of loyalty to America.

And in Chicago, the attendees will listen to President Obama, the alliance’s leader, implore them to keep their troops in Afghanistan and fighting until the end of 2014. The new French president has now reiterated his campaign pledge to clear out this December. And America’s allies will find themselves under relentless pressure from Obama to contribute vast sums they can ill afford to keep the Afghan government and security forces afloat. Washington estimates the bill will total $4.1 billion a year for three years after NATO combat forces depart in 2014. The United States is expected to cover about two thirds of the $4.1 billion and is urging NATO partners to contribute $1.3 billion a year after 2014. In the days leading up to the Chicago summit, the only nations that pledged were Germany at $193 million a year, Britain at $110 million a year, and non-NATO member Australia at $100 million a year. India, Japan, Russia, and the Gulf states have yet to offer any funding. Nor has China offered a penny, despite its already considerable and mounting economic interests in Afghanistan’s oil and copper industries.

The U.S. contingent in Chicago will also be imploring NATO partners to join in “smart defense,” meaning getting them to spend more on their armed forces. Washington’s share of the joint defense burden has increased from 50 percent to more than 75 percent over the last decade. That ratio is unsustainable, but it’s not likely to change much. Also look for the U.S. contingent in Chicago to argue for new “global partnerships” to fight new threats.

The sense of common security interests remains in NATO and Europe Plus. They still see threats in similar ways. They still all realize that either they act together or no one acts. But almost all are falling and failing economically. The risk is beyond argument: no money, no security. Where are the buglers to sound the direction and call for the sacrifices?