In 2010, the Obama Administration announced what would be come to known as the "Asia Pivot." The Pivot was to be a new direction for American foreign policy, diverting America's attention away from Europe and the Middle East and toward countries in Asia and the Pacific Rim.
The Pivot was to recognize the shift of geopolitical power eastward. It would address the region's growing political, economic, and military power, particularly that of China. The U.S. would strength alliances with existing allies, seek better ties with others, beef up the Hawaii-based Pacific Command, and engage China more frequently.
Four years later, the Pivot is in many ways still an idea. A seemingly endless series of crises in the Middle East and North Africa have instead demanded — and received — American attention. The Asian Pivot is in danger of being lost in the din of calls for action, even as the rationale for the shift is more compelling than ever.
Asia is very much on the the move. The region is, with a few exceptions, politically stable. Prosperity has followed, and as a result nine of the top 20 economies in the world are in the Asia-Pacific. By 2050, Asia is expected to account for half of the world's GDP, the total value of goods and services produced by a country or region.
As Asia becomes more prosperous, its integration with the American economy has increased dramatically. According to U.S. Census data, three of America's top six trading partners are in Asia, and another two border the Pacific Ocean.
Asia is also a serious security concern for Washington. Six of the nine known nuclear powers are in Asia and two, Pakistan and North Korea, are considered rogue or unstable states. The United States and North Korea are still technically at war.
Although generally peaceful, tensions have ratcheted up in recent years. In 2010, China began advancing long-standing territorial grievances against its neighbors, a list including Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Brunei.
The prospect of a regional war, possibly including China and Japan, is suddenly a real possibility.
The economic and military implications of such a war — which could involve the United States — would be serious and far-reaching. American casualties in such a war could within weeks dwarf that of 14 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.
From the start, the Pivot has had to fight for attention. The Arab Spring, which triggered the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Libyan leader Muammar Khadaffi, kept American attention on Middle East for much of 2011 and 2012.
At the same time, a civil war in Syria has raged since 2011, which although has little to no practical impact on the U.S. has prompted calls for military intervention. The rise of the Islamic State in 2013 and the destabilization of Iraq has opened yet another front demanding attention. Last but not least is the Arab-Israeli dispute, with brief wars fought in Gaza in 2012 and 2014.
The presence of oil integrates the Middle East into the global economic system far beyond its actual value. America's commitment to Israel as a nation state keeps it regularly in focus. And the linkage of virtually everything to an often nebulous threat of terrorism has inflated the region's importance to American security.
When events in a tiny country of six million people with little strategic value to the United States dominate the headlines and draw attention away from a region of three billion, American strategic interests — and by extension the American people — are not being served.
The Middle East is a volatile region that can be counted on to generate new crises — complete with new, shocking, morally compelling atrocities — on a regular basis. Yet the Middle East cannot militarily threaten the United States the way Chinese nuclear weapons can, or damage the American economy the way an Asian economic collapse surely could.
The Middle East is a basket case that threatens to regularly steal America's attention from other, more important issues. There is no turning away from the region completely, nor is there any likelihood this will change any time soon.
America must learn, however, how to take these inevitable crises in stride and give them an appropriate level of attention — while attending to other, more important matters.
Wayne Gretzky famously said, "I skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been." The Obama Administration has rightly judged the puck is speeding towards Asia. Whether or not it and the puck meet at the same place remains to be seen.