The “Pivot” Invites the Perception of Retreat

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Several of our Strategika commentators correctly make the point that as the global enforcer of order, the United States cannot afford to shift attention and resources from one region of the world to another, but must maintain a stabilizing and deterrent presence pretty much everywhere. To speak of a “pivot” toward the Far East suggests something different: that we have decided Europe and the Mediterranean do not need as much of our foreign policy attention, which in turn creates the perception of retreat from those regions. And our rivals may see such withdrawal as creating a vacuum they are all too eager to fill.

Recent events in Ukraine, on top of the on-going crisis in Syria and the Iranian push for nuclear weapons, confirm that we still have national interests in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and that perceptions of our weakness can provoke aggression. Nor are things helped by the Secretary of Defense’s recent announcement of military cuts that will compromise our global deterrence capabilities. Saying we will no longer be capable of waging two major wars simultaneously, but fighting only one while conducting a holding action in the other, can also be interpreted as a pullback from our global responsibilities. We may think these sorts of subjective or even irrational perceptions belong to our benighted past and are silly for us rational moderns—to paraphrase our Secretary of State, a 19th-century mindset in a 21st-century world—but our enemies and rivals still make foreign policy calculations based on what they think our behavior means. And even if such calculations are incorrect, they still can motivate action, as when Hitler declared war on the United States in part because of his erroneous perceptions of us as mongrel cowboys, based on stale anti-American clichés and his childhood reading of Karl May novels.

Vergil said, “Possunt quia videntur posse”—“They have power because they seem to have power.” It works the other way too. Seeming powerless can make one powerless.