PARIS -- When the Barack Obama administration announced that American foreign policy would "pivot" from Europe and the Middle East to Asia, some European commentators interpreted the announcement as a return to that isolationism which characterized the United States from its foundation to the two world wars. This interpretation made little sense. If anything, the decision was the result of the notion that China was America's new rival, and even might become an enemy in the future.
Why this should be so is rarely explained other than by China's efforts to provide itself with military measures enabling it to project power in a perimeter that includes Guam, an American possession and base, and to a number of countries which are allied, or of interest, to the United States. But China's rearmament would appear to be elementary prudence -- as well as prideful display.
China certainly is no military threat to the continental United States, or to its security, economy or major national interests. The principal relationship between the two countries is that China is the largest foreign holder of the United States' external debt. As is well known, for China to call in that debt would hurt China more than it would the U.S. China's disputes with neighboring states in the South China Sea do not directly concern the U.S., although Washington has a general interest in the preservation of peaceful relationships throughout the region.
The significance of the shift of Washington's attention from Europe to the Pacific is overrated, since Europe is much richer and more important to the American economy than is China or any other Far Eastern nation, Japan probably excepted. America and Europe are united by civilization -- a civilization that also extends to the Islamic countries. Abraham is the common ancestor of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
The United States could in fact do well with a movement in the direction of isolationism. It was a happier and better country when it gave its primary attention to its own affairs. The belief in the exceptional nature and destiny of the United States, of religious origin in the country's first 13 colonies, held it aloof for many years from what Woodrow Wilson would in 1916 call the "jealousies and rivalries of the complicated politics of Europe." Today it is immersed in the jealousies and rivalries -- and conflicts and blood-lettings -- of the Middle East, with, on the whole, little that is constructive to show for it, and much death and horror for which it is responsible.
But Obama's May 23 address to the National Defense University in Washington demonstrated that the American commitment to Middle East intervention, and the perpetuation of what by now seems unhappily well established as the perpetual war on terror, has not been shaken.
And what are the Europeans afraid of that they should bemoan Washington's turn of attention to Asia? Twice the United States went to Europe to intervene in world wars, but today the Europeans are under no serious threat from anyone except the fanatics in their midst -- and those you have always with you, as we Americans know all too well, being heavily armed ourselves against the threat of neighbors gone nuts.
Europeans have preferred spending money on welfare instead of arms since the Cold War ended. It has been a reasonable choice. And they can always change their minds. The Russians may seem an uncomfortable neighbor from time to time but are not a military threat to any one other than those Chechen nationalists and Georgian irredentist fanatics who have been so unwise as to attack Russia. (A choice which the late British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery warned his fellow soldiers against in triplicate: Don't invade Russia. Don't invade Russia. Don't invade Russia. "The first three rules of warfare.")
The particular threat to West Europeans and Americans these days, given the attacks Westerners have suffered in recent weeks, is the revenge of the Muslim enemies they have made in the wars in Muslim countries. They joined together to wreck Iraq, suspected wrongly of having nuclear weapons; Afghanistan for having harbored freelance terrorists who attacked New York for blasphemous conduct in Saudi Arabia; and Moammar Gadhafi for general outrageousness. Syria and Iran are seemingly yet to come.
The lesson to Europeans and Americans should be that it would be better to not make enemies. This generation of Europeans has learned that. Americans have not -- yet, at least.
(Visit William Pfaff's Web site for more on his latest book, "The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America's Foreign Policy" (Walker & Co., $25), at http://www.williampfaff.com.)Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun