The Rhetoric of the Pivot Signals the Diminution of America’s Global Influence

Saturday, February 1, 2014

To the question: "Does a pivot from an underperforming Europe and chaotic Mediterranean to the Pacific make sense at this time?" Thomas Donnelly replies: "No—a global power that must pivot is no longer a global power." "No" would be correct, if we use as benchmark that old "two-and-a-half wars" strategy by which the U.S. faced a single superpower competitor challenging Washington all over the world. Correct, too, if we measure the "pivot" against the classic postwar model: a grand strategy based on forces in situ—ready to deter and to pounce.

But neither benchmark still holds. There is not now, nor will there be for quite a while, a power that can replicate the old Soviet threat. Above all, Europe is no longer the main theater of the global rivalry. The Warsaw Pact is no more, and neither are the million men it fielded east of the Elbe River. So, it makes sense to draw down from 300,000 U.S. troops at the peak of the Cold War to about 30,000 today.

It makes sense to shift to the Pacific, the current arena of the great-power competition with China. This is where, like the Soviet Union of yore, China is probing the U.S. periphery: challenging and wooing American allies, building an area-denial capability, and deploying projection forces reaching halfway across the Pacific.

By countering these moves, the U.S. is acting precisely as a global power—shifting to where the new threats are (though there may actually be more shifting within the theater than inserting new assets).

Yet the more significant shift pertains to grand strategy. The traditional American way relied on forward-based forces—on entanglement that spelled certain commitment. It was "bonding," rather than "balancing." Obama is returning to an even older tradition, which is over-the-horizon or offshore balancing. This echoes the British model of the 18th and 19th century: fleets, bases, and airborne platforms. Such a strategy does not necessarily betray America’s abdication as a global power; after all, Britain filled that role quite nicely in centuries past.

The problem is not in the geographical shifting, but in the rhetoric and behavior of the last 6 years. These indicate retraction as well as unwillingness to use force, except in microscopic doses (i.e., drones, special ops). It is, not to put too fine a point on it, the apparent transformation of the One and Only into an XXL medium power, like a very large France or Britain. The guiding quest is for "nation-building at home." Compared to these trends, "pivoting" and "rebalancing" are at best the icing. It is the shrinking cake—Obama’s words and deeds—that matters.