This morning's announcement of Chuck Hagel as President Obama's nominee for Secretary of Defense elicited predictable outrage over Hagel's judgment on Israel. Congressional majority leader Eric Cantor issued a statement concluding, 'Senator Chuck Hagel is the wrong man for the job at such a pivotal time'.
While Hagel's views on Middle East security issues will be dissected in Senate confirmation hearings, those of us interested in pivots have little with which to gauge Hagel's views on Asia. There are few references to Asian strategic matters in Hagel's 2008 book America: Our Next Chapter (Australia and Indonesia get one mention apiece). Most of Hagel's analysis on Asia is concerned with China as a trade rather than security competitor.
Importantly, Hagel is engaged with global issues. At school he was teased for subscribing to TIME magazine so he could read world news. As a Senator, he was on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and part of the Executive Committee concerned with relations with China.
He seems keen to learn more, calling for a deeper contextual understanding of foreign policy ('America will require a wider lens view of how the world sees us, so that we can better understand the world, and our role in it.') and better education for Americans on international issues ('Americans must be educated about the realities of the global economy and the commitments of global leadership. Our education policies should emphasize foreign languages, culture, and history, and create more incentives and programs for study abroad.')
Hagel's views on strategic competition with China are moderate. This may give succour to Australian defence leaders (including the Minister and the CDF, General Hurley) concerned that US rhetoric on China has been overblown.
Hagel called US rhetoric on China 'overheated' eight years ago and though he's no stranger to standing up to bullies, he has called for a more nuanced approach to China which de-emphasises military competition: 'We are far more likely to live peacefully and influence China if we are bound by strong economic ties and mutual geopolitical interests'.
Hagel's combat experience in Vietnam and his status as the first enlisted soldier to be Secretary of Defense will reassure a US military soon to go through morale-sapping austerity measures and a transition from Afghanistan. Military service is becomingly increasingly rare in US political life. Just 19% of the 113th Congress are veterans, the lowest percentage since the end of World War II. Hagel has spoken often on misunderstanding the threat of war ('Very few people know much about war, very few are touched by it') and his views on the limitations of military force are widely known.
Hagel is likely to enthusiastically pursue burden sharing in Asia with allies that have mutual security goals. He has emphasised 'development of seamless networks of intelligence gathering and sharing, and strengthening alliances, diplomatic cooperation, trade and development'. That puts him broadly in sync with Obama's plans for the US pivot to Asia. What is uncertain is just how tough Hagel might be on allies who don't pull their weight in burden-sharing arrangements.
In his role as Atlantic Council chairman, Hagel often spoke glowingly of the values-based alliances forged between the US and allied powers during and after World War II. This might make him partial to an expansion of ANZUS, based as it is on common values and shared history.
Though Hagel might be enthusiastic about engaging with the new world, for now at least his thinking will remain firmly rooted in the old. He'll spend the coming weeks thinking about the challenges of US policy in the Middle East and revisiting his views on Iraq and Afghanistan. The challenges of operationalising the US re-balance in Asia will have to wait.
Photo by Flickr user Secretary of Defense.