Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 15 February 2022

  ‘Asia First’ Misses the Point

The U.S. needs a coherent strategy for both security and economic policy.


It was a frustrating week for Asia-first, proponents who hope the Biden administration can execute the “pivot to Asia” that President Obama so disappointingly muffed. As Secretary of State Antony Blinken met in Melbourne with his Quad counterparts from Australia, India and Japan, the attention of the world was riveted on . . . Ukraine. As Mr. Blinken flew from Australia to Fiji to reassure regional leaders of American focus and attention, the headlines announced an airlift of thousands of American troops to . . . Europe. And even as the Quad’s leaders issued their statement on a common vision for the Indo-Pacific region, the American foreign-policy community was obsessed with a debate about . . . the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Opinion: Potomac Watch

WSJ Opinion Potomac Watch

For Asia hands, this was the worst kind of déjà vu. After Pearl Harbor, much to a nervous Winston Churchill’s relief, President Franklin D. Roosevelt made “Germany first” the guiding principle for American war strategy. As the Cold War intensified, similar sentiments led Secretaries of State Dean Acheson and George Marshall to prioritize Europe over Asia as the arena in which the U.S. would work to block the expansion of communist power. The 9/11 attacks saw East Asia again sink into the background of American foreign policy as the Bush administration focused on the Middle East.

After a generation of watching Washington’s successive failures to come to grips with a rising and increasingly assertive China—even as Asia became the most important economic region on the planet—Asia experts understandably are concerned that, yet again, the reflexive Atlanticism of the foreign-policy and media establishments will prevent an essential pivot.

This is a legitimate concern. But the chief danger facing American foreign policy today is not that an excessively muscular response to Russian revisionism in Europe will absorb the resources and attention that the greater threat of Chinese revisionism in Asia requires. It is the fateful combination of inadequacies in American national strategy that date back to the end of the Cold War and the doubts on Wall Street and elsewhere about the economic consequences of decoupling from China that constrain America’s Asia policy today.


The central feature of successful American foreign policy for more than 200 years has been a synthesis of domestic and international economic policy. For most of that time, the model of statecraft developed by Alexander Hamilton and promoted by leaders like Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt combined protectionist policies to shelter American industry from foreign competitors with pro-business regulation at home and vigorous promotion of American exports abroad.

This stance depended on British world power. On the one hand, as Adam Smith’s free-trade ideas gained greater acceptance in British political circles, Britain remained committed to a free-trade agenda even in the face of foreign protectionism. On the other, British naval and economic power maintained a favorable security and legal environment that allowed Americans to trade globally with only limited military and political commitments.

With the effective collapse of British power after World War II, Americans retooled the old Hamiltonian policy for a new era of American power. The U.S. would take on Britain’s global role as the champion of free trade and the guardian of world order. During the Cold War, two things made this policy politically sustainable: Fear of the Soviet Union kept the U.S. committed to its expansive global security policy, while for many years the relative weakness of foreign competitors only slowly recovering from the devastation of World War II limited domestic opposition to free trade.

The end of the Cold War saw both pillars of the new strategy come increasingly under strain. Over the long term, the collapse of the Soviet Union led to declining American support for global military engagement, and while 9/11 led to a temporary reversal in the trend, American defense spending as a share of gross domestic product remained well below Cold War levels. And on the trade front, new competition not only from Europe and Japan but increasingly from developing countries and above all from China saw American political support for free trade decline.

Concern about China and now Russia will likely renew support for defense spending over time, but the development of an effective economic agenda that can command support at home while attracting allies and partners overseas remains an elusive goal. The problem is bigger than trade. For Wall Street, Hollywood and other important American players, cutting the U.S. off from the world’s second-largest economy looks like an extreme act of self-harm. Meanwhile, the overuse of sanctions and erratic Trump- and Biden-era trade policy has reduced foreign confidence in America’s economic leadership.

In the short term, an underprepared America faces serious security challenges in both Asia and Europe. To succeed over the long run, Americans will need to address the national-strategy deficit that currently undermines our position around the world.

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