Lost at Sea: America in Search of a Strategy

By: Kyle River

On February 12th, the Alexander Hamilton Society hosted an event entitled ‘Adrift in the Pacific: America in the Sea of Great Power Competition.’ Headlined by an expert panel, including the Honorable Randall Schriver, former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Affairs, and Dr. Andrew Kydd, a renowned Political Science professor at UW-Madison, the two offered their insights on the increasingly strategic Indo-Pacific region.

Stretching from California to Kilimanjaro and from North Korea to Australia, the Indo-Pacific theater encompasses 50 percent of the world’s population, over 60 percent of global GDP, and over two thirds of global GDP growth. Yet, the region’s rising preeminence is due to a resurgent China. Within the past decade, China commandeered the South China Sea by constructing scores of militarized artificial island outposts to project power and dominant vital commercial sea lanes. Further, China’s land and sea-based Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) pumped massive, often opaque loans into countries spanning continental Asia, Africa, and South America. U.S. policymakers are flummoxed by China’s meteoric global-influencing campaign; however, they’ve concocted, at best, a developing strategy for this emergent geopolitical landscape.

Any strategy is dependent upon the interplay between domestic and foreign policy. While changes in foreign governments’ leadership change, for better or worse, their relationship with the U.S., America is undergoing a radical departure from long-held foreign policy norms. President Trump’s ‘America First’ policy entails tariffs on goods from allies to adversaries alike, an uncanny respect for political strongmen, and a questioning of the need for a litany of global institutions. As the U.S. pursues a quasi-isolationist strategy, American allies and partners are increasingly questioning the reliability of the United States.

Take, for instance, President Duterte’s recent decision to abrogate its Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States, which allows for the presence of U.S. troops in a foreign country. His calculus, informed in part by a personal animus to the United States, seeks to place the Philippines squarely under China’s security umbrella by his term’s end in 2022. More fundamentally, America’s Indo-Pacific strategic policy is a house divided against itself: the promulgation of increasing U.S. attention to the Indo-Pacific, involving closer security, economic, and diplomatic ties with regional actors, is poorly buttressed by an America in retreat.

Government officials remain generally optimistic about achieving strategic objectives, even with an uncharacteristic president. Regardless of the commander-in-chief, defense officials and civil servants must optimize U.S. foreign policy with those political actors present. Rising U.S. partnerships with developing countries still continue their upward trajectories. President Trump’s recent visit to India illustrated strengthening ties in the U.S.-India relationship, as they inked a $3 billion defense deal involving purchases of SeaHawk helicopters and hellfire missiles. Military interoperability between India and the U.S. continues its long march forward.

Yet, there may be reason to adopt a more measured assessment of U.S. foreign policy in the near future. President Trump correctly struck an isolationist tone shared by many in a war-fatigued public who prefer to limit U.S. involvement in the world. His rhetoric vis-à-vis traditional alliance partners South Korea and Japan insinuate a declining American interest. Despite meeting with Kim Jong Un, U.S.-North Korean relations have improved marginally, but no tangible progress on denuclearization of the peninsula has since followed. Moreover, the President’s noticeable ease with dictators raises questions about America’s commitment to liberal values, a concerning development for a country with institutionalized obligations to uphold human rights.

U.S. foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific remains in a chaotic, seemingly unsolvable state. The impetus for change is present, and even widely felt, but sustained progress on the litany of security, diplomatic, and economic issues is undeveloped. Conflict in the Middle East looms large and everlasting on the military front, rationing little resources to the Indo-Pacific. The bureaucratic state, always weary of change, is slowly implementing policies geared for great power competition, but China, however, is well on its way toward depleting American power in the Indo-Pacific. The U.S. can only hope to catch up.

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