'Pivot' Toward Beijing

11/21/2011 05:11 pm ET | Updated Jan 21, 2012
  • Michael Brenner Senior Fellow, the Center for Transatlantic Relations; Professor of International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh

Language is the first victim of muddled thinking. So it is with the Obama administration's groping for shibboleths to lend gravitas to its floundering foreign policy. First there was "leading from behind'; then "fight, talk, build" in Afghanistan. Now Hillary Clinton is 'pivoting' toward China and the Pacific. A fresh demonstration of what she has proclaimed since her confirmation hearings as "smart power" -- was that in contradistinction to its opposite, e.g. voting for the Iraq war resolution without having read the report supposedly justifying it?

A smart strategy would never have pivoted away from the rising power that is China and the rising region that is Asia. A smart strategy can keep its mind on China even when Uncle Sam is up to his neck in the badlands of Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and Somalia. Smart strategy does not skim along the surface of the world's seas on a Cook's tour of continents visited in turn. Smart strategy thinks integrally over multiple timeframes; it sees the intersection of security, economics, demographics. Smart strategy does not confuse incessant travel with meaningful action.

As to the deployment of Marines in Darwin, Australia (Camp Croc?), it is a small symbolic gesture. America reminds Beijing and its neighbors that the United States is not abandoning Asia and Australasia to Chinese designs -- whatever they might be. We may be sending CIA operatives along with squadrons of drones to chase banditos south of the border, but we are still a Pacific power. Nothing new or earth-shaking about that. The military significance of the move? Zero. Unless it is designed to forestall an assault by Imperial Japanese forces from Western New Guinea to relieve pressure on Eastern New Guinea exerted by MacArthur's offensive. We will have enough Marines left over for a landing at Tampico or to come to the rescue of the Ethiopians whom we're sending back into Mogadishu.

Smart power requires above all some reflective intelligence -- obviously in short supply in austerity crimped Washington.