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  • The Pivot: The Future of American Statecraft in Asia by Kurt M. Campbell
  • Simon Long (bio)
The Pivot: The Future of American Statecraft in Asia. By Kurt M. Campbell. New York and Boston: Twelve, 2016. Hardcover: 399 pp.

American foreign policy has always come in numerous editions. The first unfolds in the press as its practitioners try to shape the world to America’s liking. Subsequent ones come out in book form, as they later seek to justify the wisdom of their policies. The Asian adventures of the first Obama administration (2009–12) are no exception. James Steinberg, a former Deputy Secretary of State, has co-authored (with Michael O’Hanlon) a book on “strategic reassurance” in US–China relations. Jeffrey Bader, who was on the National Security Council at the time, has written “an insider’s account of America’s Asia strategy”. And the former Secretary of State herself, Hillary Clinton, has published a volume of memoirs covering the period.

The commander-in-chief’s contribution presumably still awaits a book deal. But, with The Pivot, Kurt Campbell, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs from 2009–13, enters an already crowded field. It is to his credit that his book still has something to add to the debate, and is written in an engaging, readable style. It is a mixture familiar to aficionados of the genre: part personal anecdote (enough to give the reader the sense that he is being offered a truly “insider’s” account, but not so much as to risk any security clearances); part appreciation of the famous politicians he has served (favourable enough not to jeopardize relations or career opportunities but not so starry-eyed as to sink into sycophancy); part self-justifying exposition (striking a delicate balance between claiming credit for a policy he clearly believes in without diminishing the role played by his political bosses).

Of all the members of the administration, Campbell was perhaps most closely associated with the policy that gives his book its title [End Page 523] and the Obama administration its foreign-policy legacy in Asia: the “pivot” or “rebalance” of American diplomatic, political and military assets towards Asia. Campbell’s book is an extended defence of the pivot. He has, he writes, two main arguments to advance in the book (p. 7). The first is that “Asia has often — if not always — played a secondary role behind more pressing regional concerns in Europe during the cold war and the Middle East during the war on terror. It is time to revisit these global rankings and to finally elevate Asia to a new prominence in the councils of American policymaking.” The second is to advocate a strategy to achieve this, with the aim of “fulfilling its traditional post-World War II role in the region, keeping credible its alliance commitments, and sustaining Asia’s ‘operating system’ (the complex legal, security and practical arrangements that have underscored four decades of prosperity and security).”

The months since The Pivot was published have not been kind to the pivot itself. China’s continued assertiveness in the South China Sea and its bare-faced refusal to accept the judgement of the Arbitral Tribunal’s ruling on its claims there suggest that Asia’s “operating system” is at serious risk. America’s opposition to China’s actions is shared by most of the region. But that is not affecting the new facts appearing in the water. The death in October of Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej makes it even more unlikely that the military will cede political control, continuing to complicate America’s relations with an important ally that is drawing closer to China. Worse, the free-trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), whose importance Mr Campbell says is “difficult to overstate”, being “the true sine qua non of the pivot” (p. 266), is in deep trouble. The two candidates for the American presidency competed with each other to condemn it, and it now seems unlikely that it will be ratified by a lame duck Congress.

Campbell offers a pre-emptive defence against criticism of the pivot. He points out that the pivot is accused of doing...


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pp. 523-525
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