President Barack Obama, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey released an unclassified version of the United States’ defence strategic guidance at a Pentagon press conference on 5 January 2012.
Open Briefing analysis
The new US defence strategic guidance has two main drivers, the significance of which are important to understand.
Firstly, the fiscal problems the country is experiencing are forcing cutbacks in government spending, including in defence. White House and Pentagon planners will use the strategy to shape the budget Obama will submit to Congress in February. It will see defence spending reduced by more than $450 billion from planned levels over the next 10 years (this means the growth in the defence budget will slow, but it will still grow from present levels). This will likely result in the US military steadily reducing the size of the Army and Marine Corps (understandable post-Iraq and -Afghanistan), reducing forces in Europe and making further cuts to their nuclear arsenal (both understandable post-Cold War). Instead, the Pentagon will invest more heavily in special operations forces, drone aircraft and cybersecurity.
This means that while the United States will still have a massive defence budget it may be forced to depend more and more on coalitions with allies and will have to avoid counterinsurgency and nation-building operations on the scale of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A potentially more restrained US military in this sense will likely be a positive outcome for international peace and security.
Secondly, the United States is attempting a strategic 'pivot' away from the Middle East and towards the Asia-Pacific. The successes against the al-Qaeda leadership (including killing Osama bin Laden), the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and the beginning of the handover of areas in Afghanistan to Afghan control allow for US forces to begin to be reconfigured for the next decade of challenges. The White House clearly sees these new challenges as likely emerging from the Asia Pacific, and are particularly concerned by China’s rising influence and North Korea’s unpredictability.
However, America's Asia Pacific strategy will have little success if it is premised primarily on building relations with allied countries in order to contain China and disrupt its rise. China is the regional power and Washington will have to develop its relationship with Beijing too if it wants to complete its 'pivot' successfully. Careful diplomacy will therefore be needed in order to mitigate the risk of increased tensions with China that the US strategy could provoke.