What does the US “pivot” to Asia mean for the Middle East?

Author: Timur Akhmetov, Graduate at Sakarya University


Barack Obama's presidency was marked by two important events that are relevant to the Middle East: the end of the military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan and the announcement of the "Pivot to Asia". Being closely interrelated with each other, these events are part of a more general process of reformulating of priorities in the American foreign policy. The important point is to understand the consequences of this trend for the political situation in the Middle East. This article aims to show that the pivot to Asia is of principal importance for the Middle East. It seems that the development of the region will take place at the expense of intra-regional dynamics within the framework facilitated by global players. The main lines of development of regional crises appear to be along the reformatting of state institutions, national boundaries and existing ideologies.

US pivots to Asia

At the end of the first decade of the 21st century it became an apparent fact that Asia has come to play an important role in international relations and global economy. The importance of Asian countries to the United States, in particular, has been recognized on the official level during the presidency of Barack Obama. Increasingly US officials began to sound calls to reformulate the principles of U.S. relations with Asian countries. The term "pivot" was first used by State Department head Hillary Clinton in 2011 in her article in Foreign Policy journal "American Pacific Century"[1]. Main rational for rebalancing towards Asia had been a set of problems ranging from dependence on Asian markets, investment and trade, ending with the objective necessity to establish a functional system of regional security between countries and promoting human rights and democratic norms in Asia.

An important aspect of the concept was a system of bilateral agreements with Asian countries for effective containment of China, which with its rapidly growing economy also increased its capability to project military power. Idea of so called containment "lite" should be conceived, according to the American strategists, as an attempt to make China give up aggressive activities in the region, while the inclusion of Beijing into regional economic projects, again under strict supervision of Washington, is designed to stimulate cooperation[2]. The assessment of the objective need to turn to Asia is shared by both political parties, thus the trend is bound to have a steady progress in the long run[3].

At the same time, the views of observers are directed at the Middle East, which until recently has enjoyed a priority for the United States due to historical ties and economic dependence of the parties. Economic problems of the early 21st century and financial constraints forced American leaders to reconsider the foundations and methods of interaction with the region. It is clear that the U.S. under the Obama administration is trying to reduce its dependence on political processes in the region to ensure the redistribution of available national resources for the successful implementation of the turn to Asia in the coming decades[4].

The dependence of the U.S. on the region for many decades has been based primarily on oil trade. Successful reduction of dependence became possible with the discovery of new methods in the development of shale gas in North America and diversification in supplies from other regions of the world[5]. In addition, important changes took place in a political context. As a result of the failed military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan political planning was focused on the elaborating of such a political line that could bring benefits with lesser military and political risk[6]. There was a noticeable shift in the ideological thinking as well. Launched by George W.Bush War on terror and naive attempts of the West to build a democratic society in Iraq from the outside not only failed, but also caused considerable damage to America's image in the region[7].

It would be erroneously, however, to believe that the United States intends to become a passive observer in the region. The total indifference of Washington toward political process in the Middle East is not only possible, but can also pose a threat to its national interests[8]. The underlying format of U.S. foreign policy at the moment is carried out according to the formula “to try as hard as possible to do as little as possible"[9]. This is evident not only in the actions of the American government in dealing with Syrian regime[10], but also in the fight against "Islamic state." The lack of a clear vision of the future of the Middle East after the alleged "pivot"[11] is combined with Washington's futile attempts to create a semblance of stability between Iran and the Gulf monarchies[12], as well as building a new concept of relations with Israel[13].

Powers and Middle East

Acknowledgement that the current American administration proposed "rebalancing" of national foreign resources in favor of Asia may entail instability in the short term and regional power vacuum in the long run[14]. This contributes to the fact that Washington is trying to attract a number of global players in controlling the situation in the Middle East, primarily within the so-called the strategy of «global engagement»[15]. But the problem is that the existing world powers have neither aspiration to take the place of the United States in the region nor the opportunity to do so. Regional players are also looking for a new "center of gravity" and trying to work out new approaches to the Middle East politics in the light of reduction of the U.S. involvement.

China's increasing demand for energy for its booming economy means that the country will not only be interested in the security of trade routes from the Persian Gulf, but also in political stability in the whole region[16]. One can judge about the possible involvement of China in the matters of the Middle East by the fact that Beijing already undertakes considerable measures in Pakistan and Afghanistan to stabilize and protect trade routes and to provide the safety of its economic projects[17]. However, it is worth noting that, unlike the U.S., China separates military and political cooperation from the ideological component, thereby focusing only on security issues and not interfering in the internal affairs of the partner countries and therefore not imposing standards of behaviour.

This circumstance makes China a welcome trading partner for the oil-rich Gulf countries, which are making desperate attempts to diversify its foreign relations with non-Western countries[18]. The absence of poor democratic credentials of these regimes makes them a target for criticism from Western partners, creating obstacles to trade and political cooperation. But in spite of the internal request for more Chinese involvement in the region, Beijing is actively adheres to extremely cautious policy of passive participation in the political process in the Middle East, it is not intending to replace the U.S. as the determining force, and thereby seeks to avoid strategic miscalculations made by Washington[19].

Countries of the region look at another traditional global power - Europe. The European powers recognized the dependence of their national economies on the supplies of Middle Eastern oil and gas, and thus its interest in stability, but so far, as many analysts state, the EU has not formed a unified position on the Middle East[20]. Value based foreign policy sometimes hinders Europe form developing deeper ties with the countries in the Middle East. Another important point is the humanitarian crisis in the region, which has a direct connection with the stability of the European countries, especially in the context of migration chaos of the last 5 years[21]. Despite the desire to be a decisive actor, Europe is all the same does not have sufficient resources, especially due to the current budget crisis and problems in the functioning of the pan-European institutions.

It is worth to consider the role of regional players in the Middle East. Until recently it was well accepted fact that the region has not witnessed the emergence of a recognized regional leader[22]. Nowadays states are trying to use the emerging opportunity to expand influence in the region. The military intervention in Yemen in 2015 in response to the seizure of power by the Huthi movement shows, in particular, that one of the potential candidates for regional leadership, Saudi Arabia, intends to use multilateral coalition of countries as a tool to respond to emerging crises on its borders[23]. Other countries, like Turkey, are in the process of developing alternative mechanisms for cooperation[24]. All this shows that the United States prefers, on the one hand, that countries took all the risks in conducting regional policy, but on the other hand is interested in the balance of power between the players to provide some level of stability[25].

Security issues and internal political dynamics

Security issues in the Middle East will continue to be a priority in the foreign policy planning in Washington[26]. The participation of the U.S. in the next few years is based on the existing alliance commitments to the partner states. The revised approach to the framework conditions of regional security will be combined with the involvement of regional players and assignment of more space for the development of the domestic political dynamics in the Middle East[27].

Considerable changes seem to be expected in the ideological dimension. It is necessary to note that Washington will further apply adaptive approach to the democracy promotion in the region. If until recently the United States put development of democracy in the Middle East at the forefront[28], it eventually came to comprehension that working democracy can not be imposed from the outside and be rooted in conditions of political crisis[29]. In practical terms, these changes became evident in the US position on the protest movement in Bahrain, civil war in Syria and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict[30] and recognition of the Islamists as a potential partner in the development of democracy in the Middle East[31].

In this case, countries of the region, where working democracy has not been yet established, are likely to face a more acute problem of having to reformat state institutions[32]. The collapse of a state, which has historically been the scourge of the modern Middle East, will be accompanied by the growing role of non-state actors, which will increasingly defy central authorities, present an alternative ideology and national identity[33]. The latter fact is particularly important since the existing problems are rooted in lack of legitimacy of political regimes among the population[34] and politically active citizens striving for more democracy[35].

Authoritarian regimes, which are face to face with the instability on the national borders and challenges within society, will be ready to use ideological elements of religious identity for the consolidation and legitimization of power under conditions of complete uncertainty. Sectarianism as a political tool may be used by regimes determined to stifle democratic initiatives and to suppress political opposition[36]. In addition, religious narratives may be employed in the foreign policy of countries as a way to influence the weaker countries in the fight for the right to direct the development of the Middle East[37]. In this regard, there is a risk that the sectarian conflicts that were in the past a mere extension of political conflicts can turn into a full-fledged religious wars. It will not be about political goals, but about values ​​that automatically makes any possible conflict in the region virtually unsolvable[38].


Taking this in consideration, we can conclude that the change in the priorities of the US foreign policy, which is based on the desire of Washington to effectively respond on the emerging threats to its national interests, has significant long-term implications for the Middle East. Reduction of US involvement in regional political processes not only invites other global players, but also creates the conditions for engagement of the regional powers. The coming change will create conditions under which the internal political dynamics can be a determining factor in the development of the whole region. The United States will continue to contribute to the Middle Eastern security, keeping a relatively leading position, but more and more initiatives will be coming from the countries. In these circumstances, the need for reform of the existing government institutions, search for new ideologies and adaptation of old ones, formation of alternative modes of cooperation will become more apparent than ever before.

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