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.