On Monday, as Barack Obama is sworn in again as President, his allies in the West will ask themselves the same nervous question they posed four years ago: how much does he care about us? War looms in Mali, yet Washington seems happy to let the French take charge, showing even less interest than it did in Libya two years ago… Obama isn’t against us; he just isn’t that into us. He recognises that Europe is no longer the cockpit of world affairs, that our concerns are no longer all-important, and that the Atlanticist idea of West vs East has become utterly redundant. Rather than retreat from foreign commitments, Obama is simply reorientating them to face up to the rise of the Far East. [...]
Under Obama, the Global War on Terror has already been downgraded from an all-out assault against ‘Islamism’ to a more discreet (not to mention cheaper) campaign of remote-controlled drone strikes, usually carried out by the CIA with White House involvement. And to the frustration of the neocon hawks in Washington and London, Obama and his new advisers have shown little willingness to rattle sabres at Iran.
Until recently, such a doveish approach to the Arab world would have been dismissed as wildly naive, given America’s gargantuan appetite for foreign oil and gas. But all that is now changing, thanks in large part to discovery of vast quantities of shale gas in the US. This has sent American fuel prices tumbling, and now the International Energy Authority estimates that the US will be almost ‘energy self-sufficient’ by 2035. The petro-autocracies of the Arab world and Russia begin to matter less. That cheerful prospect means that America will inevitably begin to reconsider the monstrous sums it spends protecting its interests in the Persian Gulf. The vast US Fifth Fleet, which is almost entirely responsible for patrolling the key shipping channels of the Middle East, costs the US taxpayer up to $80 billion dollars a year. But why should it? Most of the oil doesn’t even go to America. T. Boone Pickens, the well-known energy tycoon and lobbyist, says it is ‘insane’ for the US to continue forking out ‘to protect oil that ends up in China and Europe’, and it’s easy to see his point.
So the strategic tilt towards the Pacific is not really about Obama — it is about economic common sense. Whereas many of America’s old Nato allies have spent decades shrinking their military budgets and expecting the US to pick up the bill for the protection of the free world, the rising economies of the Pacific are investing more in their defences. It is hardly surprising that Obama prefers to work with the latter. In the last decade, Indonesia has trebled its military spending. Thailand has increased theirs by two thirds, and Australia and South Korea by almost half.
It may be sad for the British to think that our great ally is turning its gaze away from the Atlantic. Ever since America’s intervention in the second world war, we have to come to expect that Uncle Sam has our back. But the world has moved on. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, the last decade showed ‘the fastest rate of change in global economic balance in history’. It calculates that the planet’s ‘economic centre of gravity’ has been moving eastwards at a rate of about 140 kilometres a year. America is still easily more powerful than China — militarily and economically — but the gap is vanishing. China’s economy is expected to overtake America’s within three years.