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Asia is much more important to U.S. interests than the Middle East
We need to prioritize, and our priorities should be clear.
“Some damn fool thing in the Balkans” — Otto von Bismarck
In this world of proliferating conflicts, the United States no longer has the power or the money to handle everything at once. We are no longer a hyperpower or a global hegemon. But retreating into a shell of isolationism and letting the world burn, as the MAGA faction of the Republican Party would have us do, is also not an option. The U.S. economy depends critically on other nations’ products, and this will always be true; but even if it weren’t the case, abandoning the world to a bloc of totalitarian powers would ultimately put the U.S. itself in grave danger. This was the basic point made in the Roosevelt Administration’s Why We Fight film series, and it remains true today. Oceans are not an insurmountable barrier; a Eurasia dominated by China, Russia, and Iran would eventually force the U.S. to its knees through a combination of economic sanctions and military threats.
Because the U.S. is no longer a hyperpower and can no longer do everything everywhere all at once, though, we have to prioritize where to send our money, weapons, and — perhaps most importantly — our diplomatic attention. Right now, the two regions with active conflicts are Europe and the Middle East, and so our resources are going there instead of to Asia. In fact, Biden has been taking a softer approach toward China in 2023 than in the first two years of his presidency; part of this is probably because China’s economic woes make it seem like less of an imminent threat, but part of it is must be due to the fact that the wars in Ukraine and now Israel are absorbing U.S. attention and effort.
But whether or not that tentative detente is a good idea or a mistake, an overall shift in focus away from Asia would definitely be a miscalculation. Regardless of how hawkish the U.S. wants to be toward China, it makes sense to be investing more diplomatic energy and military preparation into the region. In particular, the urge to plunge back into Middle Eastern conflict should be strongly resisted. This is both because Asia is a more strategically important region, and because American power is more suited to producing a more positive outcome in Asia than in the Middle East.
Asia is worth protecting
As regular readers of this blog know, I lived in Japan for several years, and I’ve had a chance to travel to much of the rest of East Asia. It is among the most astounding pinnacles of civilization ever created by humankind. East Asian cities like Tokyo, Seoul, Singapore, and until recently, Hong Kong are arguably the world’s most magnificent — hyper-dense and efficient and bustling with life and creativity and personal freedom, but also extremely safe. East Asia is a wealthy region with high quality of life across the board, rivaled only by North Europe and parts of the Anglosphere. Maciej Cegłowski called them “Zeroth World”, and I think that is an apt description.
Meanwhile, South and Southeast Asia are now the world’s great growth center. These countries are heaving two billion people out of poverty in an episode of industrialization exceeded only by China’s recent accomplishments.
Both the spectacular achievements of East Asia and the inspiring development of South and Southeast Asia are, however, under threat. China, flush with power from its recent industrialization and ruled by the dictatorial and increasingly aggressive Xi Jinping, is continuously and vocally threatening to plunge Asia into war — over Taiwan, over its territorial claims in the South China Sea, and so on.
Those threats may never materialize. Xi may decide he’s content with saber-rattling, until he’s replaced in a decade by someone more reasonable. Detente may prevail, and war may be averted for a generation. But if war does break out, China’s sheer power — which utterly dwarfs anything Russia or Iran can bring to bear — will rain destruction on much of the region.
Asian countries don’t want that, of course. But they also don’t want to submit to a future of CCP hegemony. 2019 gave the world a taste of what that would look like. After Xi decided to do away with key elements of the “One country, two systems” policy that had given Hong Kong substantial personal freedoms, there was a massive wave of protests, which at its peak drew 2 out of every 7 Hong Kong residents into the streets.
I saw a few of those protests with my own eyes, and I strongly recommend the documentary “Revolution of Our Times” if you want to know what it was like. China used a draconian new security law to crush the protest movement in 2020, eliminating much of the unique culture, vitality, and freedom that had made the city one of the world’s greatest. One example is Hong Kong’s unique film industry, which inspired and entertained the world, but which China is now censoring heavily. That’s just one tiny piece of a more general destruction of civil society, individual expression, the Cantonese language, etc.
The crushing of Hong Kong didn’t involve mass death, but it proved to the rest of Asia that China was not a status quo power. Opinions of China in the region began to plummet, while opinion of the U.S. remained robustly positive. Countries from India to the Philippines to Vietnam began to deepen their alliances, quasi-alliances, and “strategic partnerships” with the U.S. They also began to form balancing coalitions with each other, but these wouldn’t be sufficient to resist Chinese power without the U.S. in the mix, and everyone knows it.
Note that this is different from Europe. The EU and the UK together have more than enough people, industrial capacity, and technology to defend against Russian aggression indefinitely with minimal American assistance, should they choose to do so. The only reason the U.S. remains key to Ukraine’s war effort is that Europe has been reluctant to step fully into that role. Over time, that will hopefully change. But in Asia, China is so strong that U.S. power is indispensable.
In sum, Asia wants and needs the U.S. to protect it. It needs U.S. military power and economic engagement, not to crush China, but to preserve the status quo that has worked so well. Developed Asian countries want to keep being rich and free, and developing Asian countries want to keep getting rich on their own, and to do this they need the U.S. to deter Xi Jinping from trying to upend the modern world’s greatest success story.
The Middle East is in basically the exact opposite situation.
The Middle East needs to reform itself
In the old days, Muslim scholars used to refer to the world outside Islam’s control as “dar al-harb”, meaning “house of war”. Today, that term might accurately describe the Middle East. The Israel war, brutal as it is, is likely to be smaller in scale than other monster-sized wars that have shaken the region in recent decades. The Iraq War killed over half a million. The Syria war killed over half a million. The war in Yemen has killed almost 400,000. The war against ISIS killed almost 200,000. And those are on top of various smaller conflicts like the war in Libya.
There are legitimate fears that the Israel war will lead to the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians — or that in the longer term, Palestinians will ethnically cleanse the Israelis. Such fears are well-founded; mass expulsion and brutalization along ethnic and religious lines has been commonplace in the Middle East for many decades now. Israel itself is largely populated not with the descendants of European refugees from the Holocaust, but by the descendants of Middle Eastern Jews who fled campaigns of violence in Muslim countries in the mid-20th century. Syria’s government was so brutal in part because the ruling Alawite minority fears a genocide if it loses power. The Yazidis were massacred and enslaved by ISIS. Much of the Iraq War was actually just Iraqi Sunni and Shia ethnically cleansing each other from various regions and neighborhoods of the country. Saddam Hussein famously brutalized the Kurds. And so on, and so on.
There’s nothing inherent in the genetics or the culture of the Middle East that make it destined to be more warlike and chaotic than Asia; indeed, up through World War 2 that relationship was largely reversed. Why the Middle East has become a land of war is a complex story. The meddling of outside powers like the U.S. and Russia certainly exacerbated things. The curse of oil, which gave some Middle Eastern countries money to fight with without being forced to develop strong institutions, has a lot to do with it. And of course religion is a factor.
But the point is that the Middle East has been trapped in a bad equilibrium for many years now, where rulers live in the lap of luxury while the impoverished masses focus on sectarian conflict and vengeance. Except for Israel and Turkey, the economies of the region are generally stagnant.
In other words, unlike in Asia, the Middle East doesn’t really have much of a status quo worth protecting. This is a region that deeply needs reform, on pretty much every level of society — economic, political, religious, and cultural. That reform cannot be accomplished by application of U.S. power. The Iraq War, which was the most prominent and failed attempt to do so, ended up poisoning local attitudes toward America for a generation.
In other words, Middle Easterners, unlike Asians, do not want American power in their region. Nor is there much that American power can accomplish.
The U.S. economy depends on Asia, not on the Middle East
Of course, so far I’ve mostly talked about the benefits of American power for other countries, and what other countries want the U.S. to do. But the U.S. is not a purely altruistic entity; our own interests always have to figure prominently in our decisions. These interests, too, suggest a focus on Asia instead of the Middle East.
U.S. trade is dominated by our neighbors, Canada and Mexico. But Asia is by far more important to both our imports and exports than the Middle East.
And thanks to the rapid growth in South and Southeast Asia, the region’s importance to the U.S. economy is only set to grow — even if we keep decoupling from China.
The Middle East, meanwhile, is absolutely tiny as a trading partner. In particular, the U.S. isn’t dependent on Mideast oil at all. Thanks to fracking, we are a net exporter of crude. Saudi Arabia and UAE and Kuwait could get eaten by Godzilla and our oil refineries would just keep humming. (By the way, U.S. oil production just hit a new record under Biden.)
Now, it’s true that some of our allies, like Japan and South Korea, do still buy quite a bit of Middle Eastern oil. And if there were big disruptions to Middle Eastern oil supply, global prices would rise a lot, causing a windfall for U.S. oil producers but hurting other types of U.S. business. But thanks to the rise of electric vehicles, oil is becoming less important to the global economy by the day. Total oil consumption is forecast to flatline soon.
Mideast conflicts that raise the price of oil relative to electric vehicles and other substitutes will only accelerate this trend.
The Middle East is therefore rapidly diminishing in economic importance to the U.S., even as Asia continues to become more crucial. Cutting the U.S. off from the Asian economic supercluster would deeply wound our nation’s prosperity, while there’s really not a lot we need from the Middle East anymore.
The U.S. should therefore continue to maintain as light a presence in the Middle East as possible. This doesn’t mean we should withdraw completely. There are extreme cases where judicious, targeted applications of American power can prevent some of the catastrophes that regularly plague the region — protecting the Syrian Kurds from genocide, restraining Israel’s brutality toward the Palestinians, or helping Israel protect itself from wholesale destruction by Iran and its proxies. But these should always be done with a minimum of force and money and attention, and always with an eye toward withdrawing again.
In Asia, meanwhile, the U.S. should be beefing up both our defensive power and our engagement with other countries. We need to accelerate the supply of defensive weapons to Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam, India, and the Philippines, and to keep building and strengthening and expanding multilateral organizations like the Quad. We need to re-engage economically by re-joining the modified TPP, and by creating a dense network of other economic agreements in Asia. And in general, we just need to pay a lot of attention to the region, making sure our allies and quasi-allies and potential allies know we’re there for the long haul, and won’t suddenly withdraw to go plunge into some foolish conflict in the Middle East.
It will take a lot of discipline and a lot of explanation from the Biden administration and its successors to keep pivoting to Asia even in the face of the Israel-Gaza war and other divisive, emotional, headline-grabbing conflicts. But we have to do it anyway.