An expert's point of view on a current event.

Chuck Hagel’s Biggest Task

Obama's new defense secretary will first and foremost need to get the Asia pivot right.


Chuck Hagel may be a former grunt, but his most important task as America's next secretary of defense -- should his nomination pass the Senate -- could be a trying job for a landlubber: executing the military component of the Obama administration's pivot to Asia. It's a mission that will require an appreciation for the finer points of maritime strategy, a deft diplomatic touch, and an expansive worldview.

Chuck Hagel may be a former grunt, but his most important task as America’s next secretary of defense — should his nomination pass the Senate — could be a trying job for a landlubber: executing the military component of the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia. It’s a mission that will require an appreciation for the finer points of maritime strategy, a deft diplomatic touch, and an expansive worldview.

But first, Hagel must understand what the pivot is, while viewing it against the grand sweep of U.S. diplomatic history. A historically and geostrategically minded secretary will stand a good chance of configuring the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard prudently — and of arranging sea-service forces on the map to accomplish America’s goals.

What is a foreign-policy pivot? Metaphors have their uses, but they can distort meaning if deployed cavalierly. A pivot is a central shaft, axle, or pin around which machinery rotates. The engineering metaphor encourages practitioners and commentators to interpret the administration’s initiative in physical, geospatial terms. In these literal terms, Washington, D.C. is presumably the axle around which U.S. foreign policy revolves. Hence many observers’ lament that the United States is turning its back on perennial theaters like the Atlantic community to oversee events in East and South Asia. There’s a degree of truth to this, but applying the pivot metaphor implies an about-face. Seldom are things that pat. 

I define a pivot as a foreign-policy enterprise that combines elements of geography, strategy, and diplomacy to mount a sustained presence in some distant and potentially contested overseas theater. In military terms, pivoting means building up preponderant armed might in East and South Asia in concert with friends and allies to accomplish strategic and political goals. Pivoting is a matter of strategic mass, strategic maneuver, and alliance relations. It also means setting priorities. American leaders must be prepared to relegate secondary theaters to secondary status, lest they scatter finite resources hither and yon. Dispersal thins out military power at any spot on the map, perhaps leaving U.S. commanders at a local disadvantage against weaker foes. Armed forces that try to do everything, everywhere, at the same time end up doing little anywhere.

While the term "pivot" may be novel, its substance is anything but. Indeed, U.S. diplomatic history can be interpreted as a series of pivots. Writing in the 1940s, Yale professor Nicholas Spykman — arguably the foremost geopolitical thinker of his day — recalled that the New World had been an object of struggle for the Old World since Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue. In those early centuries, influence radiated across the Atlantic and Pacific toward American shores. Eurasian empires fought for supremacy and prosperity in the Americas. They sustained their efforts largely through overseas commerce, their newfound territorial holdings, and great merchant and naval fleets — the sinews of sea power according to U.S. Navy Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, a fin-de-siècle pundit who knew a thing or two about the subject. 

The United States first pivoted from North America to the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico, turning its eyes from the continental interior to the maritime near abroad. Let’s call this turnabout Pivot 1.0. This was the age of the Monroe Doctrine (1823), when Washington appointed itself the protector of American republics’ independence of European imperial rule. In principle, the republic forbade Europeans to expand their holdings anywhere in the Western Hemisphere. In practice, U.S. leaders confined their energies to the Caribbean basin. They were thinking geostrategically, and they set priorities. Once dug, a canal across the Isthmus of Panama would shorten sea voyages between Atlantic and Pacific by thousands of miles, sparing mariners the journey around Tierra del Fuego — the odyssey the Pacific-based battleship USS Oregon underwent to get into the fight off Cuba in 1898.

America executed its first seaward pivot on the cheap. Erstwhile foe Great Britain ruled the waves, and it had reasons of its own for wanting to keep rival empires out of the Americas. Owing to this confluence of interests, Britain’s Royal Navy was a silent partner in the Monroe Doctrine. British, not American seafarers enforced the hands-off policy for most of the 19th century. Washington achieved its geopolitical aims while freeriding on the preeminent fleet of the day. Why invest in an expensive U.S. Navy when powerful outsiders would do the navy’s work for it? Except for a brief buildup for Civil War blockade duty, the U.S. Navy remained a backwater until the 1880s. Only then did the United States lay the keels for its first armored, steam-driven battle fleet — amassing the wherewithal to put steel behind its pivot to the sea. No longer would Washington entrust the doctrine to external guardians whose goodwill could prove fleeting.

In Spykman’s words, U.S. leaders fixed their strategic gaze on "America’s Mediterranean" to the south. They set ambitious goals, such as preserving Latin American republics’ independence while keeping stronger imperial powers at bay. And expediency determined the implements they used to attain those goals. Having an external benefactor like the Royal Navy appeared providential during the founding decades, when the United States was subduing a continent and pursuing internal improvements. By the 1880s, however, the Industrial Revolution had delivered such material abundance that Washington could take charge of North America’s environs. The United States started accumulating strategic mass, manifest in a strong navy. Victory over Spain in 1898 furnished strategic mobility in the form of an island base network to support naval operations in the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico.

Policy energy, strategic mass, strategic maneuver — these were the struts supporting America’s first foreign-policy pivot. But if Pivot 1.0 swiveled U.S. attention to the Caribbean, it also ushered in Pivot 1.5. Adm. George Dewey’s Asiatic Squadron crushed the Spanish fleet at Manila Bay during the Spanish-American War, handing the United States an offshore outpost in the Far East. Washington scooped up islands such as Hawaii and Guam — islands suitable for naval stations — in the aftermath of war. America had established a bridgehead off the China coast, complete with island stepping-stones to reach it. It just needed a Central American canal to expedite access from the North American east coast to the Pacific Ocean, and thence to the riches of Asia.

America’s Pacific strategy remained in limbo until the Panama Canal opened in late 1914, completing the arc of Pivot 2.0. In an arresting turn of a phrase, Spykman vouchsafed that the transoceanic waterway in effect lifted the United States and turned it 90 degrees southward on its axis — rotating the republic’s strategic gaze wholesale toward the isthmus and the broad Pacific. In reality the canal split U.S. foreign policy. The republic’s leaders surveyed events not just along the traditional eastward vector toward Western Europe, but also along a new westward vector pointing toward Asia.

With the opening of the canal, the strategic-maneuver component of the Pacific pivot thus fell into place alongside strategic mass. As the United States continued its ascent to great power, consequently, the longstanding pattern — in which the Old World was the arbiter of events in the New — reversed itself. Having won grudging European acquiescence in the Monroe Doctrine, the United States cast eyes on the western and eastern rimlands of Eurasia. Statesmen like Theodore Roosevelt had long considered it dangerous to allow a single great power or hostile coalition to wrest away control of Western Europe, East Asia, or both — gaining sufficient military resources and a geographic platform from which to menace the Americas. Hardscrabble logic like TR’s summoned the United States to Eurasia for two world wars and a Cold War.

The logic of Pivot 2.0 persisted through the Cold War, although the nature of East-West strategic competition drew U.S. strategists’ attention further into the Eurasian heartland occupied by the Soviet Union than during the days when Imperial Germany and the Axis were on the march. Samuel P. Huntington, the great political scientist, contended that U.S. maritime strategy entered a "transoceanic" phase following World War II, fixing American attentions on events deep within Eurasia while empowering U.S. forces to act from forward bases scattered around the rimlands. Call Huntington’s transoceanic strategy Pivot 2.5 if you like. But it was another variation on the same theme.

The difference between the Cold War and the world wars, then, was in emphasis more than substance. The Cold War threw the contest between land and sea power into stark relief. Moscow operated mainly within the bounds of Eurasia, projecting power outward from the heartland along railways, roads, and other land lines of communication. Seagoing Western forces ranged around the circumference, transmitting power inward from the sea. But despite the change of adversary, from the rimland alliances of the world wars to a central Eurasian power, Washington’s determination to prevent a hegemon from ruling the eastern and western rimlands endured.

As in Pivots 1.0 and 1.5, the elements of Pivot 2.0 were policy focus, strategic mass, and maneuver. But two additional elements injected themselves this time. Alliance politics granted the U.S. military access to the Eurasian rimlands, helping forces overcome the tyranny of distance. At the same time, Eurasian opponents boasted growing capacity to dispute entry into their backyards. These elements persist to this day. No pivot can succeed without access to the theater.

Viewed against the backdrop of history, the Obama administration’s maneuver qualifies as Pivot 3.0. How does it differ from its predecessors? First, in effect the administration has pivoted from Western Europe to the greater Indian Ocean, shifting America’s gaze from the western to the southern rimland for the first time. That imparts a north-south character to U.S. policy toward Eurasia, modifying its historically east-west, horizontal alignment. The vertical dimension will become even more pronounced should climate change open the Arctic Ocean — and thus the polar rimland of Eurasia — to shipping more often and more reliably in the coming decades.

But it overstates matters to fret, as worried Europe-first commentators often do, that the pivot presages American neglect of the Atlantic theater. Unless the United States rearranges its basing structure in the critical theaters — say, by basing heavy U.S. Navy forces in western Australia, thereby shifting the navy’s center of gravity to the region — it will keep dispatching expeditionary forces from east-coast seaports like Norfolk and Groton to the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf. They’re the closest North American naval stations to the western reaches of the greater Indian Ocean.

For the foreseeable future, then, Washington will continue to depend on the Atlantic Ocean, Mediterranean Sea, and Red Sea as a thoroughfare for U.S. naval forces. The pivot has deflected the administration’s policy attention to the south by a few compass points, from Europe to South Asia, while Washington has come to regard Europe less as an object of U.S. foreign policy in its own right than as an enabler for U.S. policy in Asia. But Europe has been a platform for U.S. warmaking in the Middle East and Indian Ocean region for more than two decades now. Does looking past Europe mark that radical a break with history, and is the shift that worrisome so long as the Atlantic Ocean and Western Europe face no real threat? I can’t see why.

Second, the South Asian rimland is inaccessible relative to the eastern and western rimlands, theaters reachable from North America by way of direct if long sea and air routes. Look at the map. U.S. forces bound for the Indian Ocean from the Atlantic must transit narrow seas like the Strait of Gibraltar, Suez Canal, and Bab el-Mandeb Strait. Units coming from the Pacific must traverse the Malacca, Lombok, or Sunda straits. If denied passage through these chokepoints, mariners must undertake arduous voyages around the Cape of Good Hope, at Africa’s southern tip, or around the southern rim of the South China Sea, scudding between Indonesia and Australia. In extreme circumstances, U.S. Pacific Fleet units might find themselves forced to detour around the southern Australian coast. Strategists must not blithely discount hard geographic realities — realities compounded by the lethal, long-range, precision weaponry increasingly found in hostile hands. 

Third, the United States shouldered an increasing share of the resource burden in its early pivots. It could afford to. But an increasingly cash-strapped Washington would now like to offload some of the burden onto friends and allies. Indeed, the 2007 U.S. Maritime Strategy, which foreshadowed Pivot 3.0, instructs U.S. officials and commanders to seek out alliances, coalitions, and partnerships to help share the load. That makes Pivot 3.0 a stiffer diplomatic challenge than its forebears. It’s one thing for allies to grant access to their soil or conduct combined exercises or operations with U.S. forces. The American taxpayer foots most of the bill for such enterprises; what’s not to like? It’s quite another for allies to agree to help fund a made-in-Washington strategy out of their own taxpayers’ pockets. Deft diplomacy will be a must as the strategic pirouette proceeds.

Here’s hoping America’s next secretary of defense, whether it’s Hagel or somebody else, will see U.S. diplomatic history for what it is — a handy yardstick for today’s endeavors.

James R. Holmes is the J.C. Wylie chair of maritime strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and co-author of Red Star Over the Pacific: China's Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy. The views voiced here are his alone.

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