Obama's Pivot toward Asia: Implications, Repercussions, Complications

Donald K. Emmerson, Director, Southeast Asia Forum,Stanford University

RSVP required by 5PM April 30

So much has been written and said about the Obama administration’s “pivot” toward Asia that one might think diplomacy has become ballet. More than three years have passed since February 2009 when Hillary Clinton broke a 48-year-old precedent at the State Department by choosing Asia as the destination for her first trip abroad as secretary of state. “As the war in Iraq winds down and America begins to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan,” she wrote in November in Foreign Affairs, “the United States stands at a pivot point.” A skeptic might have stressed the negative: a pivot away from failure in the Middle East. She preferred the positive: a pivot towards greater “investment—diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise—in the Asia-Pacific region,” itself the designated pivot of “America’s Pacific century.” 

How much of this pivot talk is hype, and how much is real? How have Asians responded to this apparent turn toward them? What global and regional scenarios and strategies could it imply? Will future historians remember the pivot as the start of a Sino-American cold war, or the requisite of a realistic entente? Does the pivot illustrate renewed American leadership in foreign affairs, or belated American acquiescence in a multi-polar world? Is Washington being implicated in conflict over the South China Sea? Even if Obama is re-elected this November, will Clinton’s replacement continue to pivot? Or is it time for the pivot’s critics to do some pivoting of their own—to stop worrying about the downside, start acknowledging the upside, and help make the ballet a constructive performance for all concerned?

Donald K. Emmerson has discussed the pivot recently with analysts in Asia, Canada, and the United States. “America Pivots toward ASEAN” and “US, China Role Play for ASEAN,” datelined November 2011 in Asia Times Online, reflect his impressions of the East Asia Summit that President Obama and Secretary Clinton attended that month in Bali. Forthcoming work includes an essay on Southeast Asia in the Journal of Democracy and a chapter in Indonesia Rising: The Repositioning of Asia’s Third Giant.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012 | 12:00 pm — 1:30 pm
Okimoto Conference Room, Encina Hall East, 3rd Floor