WASHINGTON — The Obama administration’s “pivot to Pacific,” a strategy now rebranded with the more neutral-sounding “rebalance,” was in the crosshairs Thursday of scholars and strategists who think the United States should keep its foreign policy center of gravity firmly in Europe.
The Atlantic Council, a NATO-oriented Washington think tank, hosted a daylong conference on the future of U.S. European Command and broader U.S.-European defense ties in an age of tightening budgets and war-weary publics on both continents.
“I hope we’re not here for a wake,” said Charles L. Barry, a NATO expert and senior research fellow at the National Defense University in Washington.
But some of the commentary from participants made it sound that way.
“The U.S. pivot to Asia ... is really breaking apart the fundamental transatlantic partnership,” said Robert E. Hunter, a former U.S. Ambassador to NATO deeply involved in European and Middle Eastern security issues in the administrations of several presidents.
Focusing too heavily in the Far East makes little sense, Hunter said, because the United States and China would have to be “chuckleheads” to get into a war there. Meanwhile multiple conflicts are brewing now on the peripheries of EUCOM as Middle Eastern regimes crack and fall, and Iran and Israel remain squared off.
A functioning NATO alliance will be badly needed in any such conflict, the scholars agreed, but the high-profile downgrading of Europe, including the announcement this year of the removal of two heavy combat brigades, raises European doubts and hurts the United States’ ability to lead the necessary coalition.
“The case has to be made that Europe is absolutely vital,” Barry said, because EUCOM “is our link to where we have all our allies.”
So how bad an idea was the pivot?
“The strategic pivot to Asia was foolish times 10,” said Harlan Ullman, senior advisor at the Atlantic Council, who led a recent study examining the role of EUCOM.
Or maybe not. The United States and Europe don’t call all the shots like they used to, another expert said — but this time it was an expert on South Asia.
“The center of gravity on decision making in the world is shifting,” said Shuja Nawaz, the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center director.
Sooner or later, he said, the Atlantic alliance will simply have to adjust.