Posts Tagged ‘leon panetta’
All eyes were on US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at this weekend’s Shangri-La Dialogue. Panetta was expected to announce more specifics on the Obama administration’s greater focus on Asia, which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton outlined last October in a Foreign Policy article which said Washington “stands at a pivot point”.
Since that article, nearly every single conference or event I’ve attended on Asia, whether in the US or in the region, has started with some sort of complaint about the word ‘pivot’. One former senior US official said that the term ‘pivot’, which means a point on the end of which something rests and turns, can turn either way and suggests that the US may one day pivot away from Asia. Another Asian scholar opined that it suggested that America was somehow not actively involved previously in the region.
These criticisms had one thing in common: the term ‘pivot’ did not accurately convey the continuity of US engagement in the Asia-Pacific and the bipartisanship that underpinned this longstanding commitment. And I agreed with them.
The administration has since backpedaled and increasingly dropped the word when describing its new focus on Asia, using a couple of different terms including “refocus” and “rebalancing”. But a clear example of this shift was the title of Panetta’s speech to the Shangri-La Dialogue this year: “The US Rebalance Towards the Asia-Pacific”. No mention of the word pivot there or in the speech itself.
“Rebalancing” may not sound as good or grab as many headlines, but it more accurately reflects what is going on. The increasing focus on Asia reflects rebalancing in several ways — a change in the balance of US concentration from the Middle East to Asia after the ebbing of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a change in the balance of its forces within Asia from a Northeast Asia-focus to a broader reach emphasizing more flexible deployments, rotations, and operations, and a change in the balance in the tools of diplomacy used, placing more weight on non-military means of power like multilateralism.
So, on balance (pun intended), this shift in word choice is a good thing. Words matter in international relations, and this is a case where this was clearly demonstrated.
Picture: US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta speaks at the Shangri-La Dialogue 2012. Picture from Secretary of Defense feed on Flickr.