Chuck Hagel’s Shangri La La?

Chuck Hagel Shangri La speech

In James Hilton’s fictional 1937 novel Lost Horizons, Shangri-La is a heaven on earth, a happy island of peace, permanently isolated from the outside world (no, not Britain).  For the High Lama (a sort of David Cameron) harmony, “is the entire meaning and purpose of Shangri-La.  It came to me as a vision long, long ago.  I saw all the nations strengthening, not in wisdom, but in the vulgar passions and the will to destroy.”

  Reading US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s 1 June speech on the “US Approach to Regional Security” at the IISS 2013 Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, I am reminded of the High Lama. 

Viewed from Washington, much of Asia-Pacific is fast-tracking into an arms race fuelled by nationalist tensions, competition over growth-fuelling resources, and the ‘prestige’ muscle-flexing favored by all adolescent powers.  Even the shortest survey of Asia-Pacific’s strategic horizon reveals the dangers that abound.  China’s regional-strategic and resource ambitions come up hard against Indian, Indonesian, Japanese, Malaysian, Philippines, and Vietnamese interests.  Some Chinese interpretations of its Exclusive Economic Zone have the boundary bordering the territorial waters of Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.  The recent Chinese-Japanese spat over the Daioyu/Senkaku islands highlights the sensitivities of an overly sensitized region.  And then there is North Korea.

Hagel’s speech is for me déja vu all over again.  Indeed, I am struck by the similarities between America’s stabilizing mission in Asia-Pacific in the first decades of the twenty first century and Britain’s similar mission in the last decades of the nineteenth century.  Both America and Britain had passed the zenith of their global influence but were by no means in decline.  Both faced the emergence of a peer competitor and both faced financial shocks at home which undermined their respective capacities to project stabilizing influence world-wide.

One has only to read the long shopping-list of security challenges Hagel outlines in his speech to realize the difficulty America faces. The great panda in the room is of course China.  It is clearly up to China whether the US ‘re-balancing’  turns into a full-scale containment strategy.  

What Hagel is offering is insurance. The United States will for the foreseeable future represent forty per cent of global defense expenditure.  In that light shifting sixty per cent of US naval and air forces to Asia-Pacific makes perfect strategic sense given that Asia, not Europe, is the world’s strategic epicenter.   The Hagel speech is simply strategic common sense.  It is precisely that common sense that is missing in Europe.  Indeed, it is Europe not America that is retreating into a fictional Shangri-La.  Even the once sturdily imperial British have become so strategically myopic and short-termist that they are about to make another defense cut to follow the ravaging of the British armed forces that took place in 2010.  If the British have lost the strategic influence plot then the rest of Europe has become a kind of strategic Rip Van Winkel (to mix my fictional metaphors).

The danger is this; America is still the world’s pre-dominant power but it is no longer the dominant power. Equally, America’s global stabilizing strategy only makes credible sense if the European allies can look beyond the pit of their own self-induced despair and develop a regional-strategic security strategy worthy of the name. That means Europeans collectively considering in all seriousness their grand strategic role beyond cloudily pointless efforts to create Shangri-La.  That means NATO.

NATO was not mentioned by Hagel in his speech, although he did say that the “rebalancing should not be misinterpreted.  The US has allies, interests, and responsibilities across the world.  The Asia-Pacific rebalance is not a retreat from other regions of the world.” Here I beg to differ, Mr. Secretary.  If the European allies continue to avoid the big world picture (as opposed to Planet Europe) Asia-Pacific powers will progressively tip the balance of power away from the West.  Sooner or later an over-stretched America will be forced to make the most profound of strategic choices.  This is just what Britain did when it effectively abandoned its Asian empire to cope with the growing challenge of Germany.  NATO’s job is to keep America engaged in Europe by keeping America strong in Asia-Pacific. Get it?

History is full of ironies. The USS Freedom is sitting alongside the quay at the Singapore Naval Base.  It was not the Singaporeans that built that base, but the nineteenth century British.  At some point one hundred years or so ago an HMS Freedom (or its equivalent) was doing exactly the same.  Now, whatever happened to that empire?

Julian Lindley-French is a member of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Advisory Group. This essay first appeared on his personal blog, Lindley-French’s Blog Blast.

Photo credit: Department of Defense / Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo

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