Pivots Instead of Policies in International Affairs

Recently, we see the “pivot” as a mechanism of foreign policy that is growing in significance. The pivot has become the swift adjustment of foreign policy priorities and alignments by individual countries within the context of the dominant multilateral approach of the post-WWII world. Pivots are not intended to be changes in foreign policy per se, but “on the ground” shifts that are merely adjustments to certain changes in circumstances. It seems that they are part of an ever-growing repertoire of intrigue and duplicity being used by world powers.

We have seen a tsunami of pivots during recent years. The U.S. pivoted towards Bashar Assad by accepting a Russian-brokered deal involving Assad’s chemical weapons. Nonetheless, our policy remains anti-Assad. Sometime later, we pivoted towards our longtime foe, Iran, by hammering out an agreement with the ayatollahs allowing the removal of commercial and financial sanctions against Iran, the restoration of $150 billion in Iranian funds without any quid pro quo by the Iranians, and the continued operation of Iranian nuclear reactors. Despite the agreement, we continued to claim that our deal with Iran was only a pivot, and did not represent a change in policy towards Israel which strongly objected to the deal. To our administration, the Israelis mistook a pivot for a change in policy.

The pivot has thus become the hallmark of flexibility in international relations. How did we get to this point? International relations have evolved through three stages: (1) the 19th century/pre-WWI alliance system based on political and military commitments between and among two or more nation-states; (2) the post-WWI and post-WWII dependence upon multilateral global and regional economic, legal, and political decision-making to promote prosperity and avert war; and (3) the increasing use of the pivot to make adjustments away from policy commitments towards practical, cooperative survival strategies.

The 19th century – as a post-Napoleonic phenomenon -- saw configurations of nation-state alliances being developed to counter the growing power of other nation-state alliances. The alliances were relatively stable. There were behind the scenes deceptions and betrayals, but no pivoting. The head of one state in an alliance would not suddenly make an open agreement with the head of another state in a different alliance. Pivoting was weakness; commitment was strength. Those alliances were structural contributors to World War I where we see the Allies (Britain, France, and the U.S. eventually) against the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire). Who knows? If Great Britain had pivoted towards Germany instead of defending the territorial integrity of Belgium against Germany’s crossing of Belgian territory, WWI might have been avoided. But commitment required that Great Britain enter the war against Germany for violating Belgium’s neutrality.

After WWI, we see the first attempts at multilateralism as a way of solving problems. The Washington Naval Conference reached an agreement about naval growth that was international in scope involving the WWI allies as well as Japan. However, Japan was a rogue nation in the 1920s just as North Korea and Iran are today. They went ahead building as many naval warships as they pleased, and simply ignored the agreement reached at the conference. And of course, the other major attempt at multilateral problem solving was Woodrow Wilson’s wet dream, the League of Nations, although it came into existence without U.S. membership. Further, as events heated up on the world stage, Germany, Japan, and Italy eventually resigned from the League. So, it may be fair to say that these early excursions into multilateralism were pathetic failures.

Then, after WWII, the globalists, who undoubtedly fancied themselves as visionaries of a “new world order” imagined that war and poverty could be eliminated by further reining in nation-state sovereignty and putting more teeth and more commitment into the multilateral concept. The United Nations was established. Unlike with the League of Nations, the most militarily powerful countries each had veto power in the Security Council, and the UN had the authority to send in an international force to enforce its judgment that this or that country had aggressed on another country. North Korea’s aggression against So. Korea was one such action, and, since the USSR was not seated at the time of the vote, the UN sent in an international force (mostly U.S. servicemen) under the leadership of Gen. Douglas MacArthur to drive the North Koreans out of South Korea.

In today’s world, multilateralism rules as a world network of trade regulations controls the details of international commerce to an incredible degree through the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the World Trade Organization (WTO). These have been supplemented by other regional trade policies such as those of the European Union (EU) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Although our new president is quite offended about the lack of fairness to U.S. interests in these agreements, they have grown over many decades and untying the Gordian Knot that they represent is considerably more complex than untying a shoelace on a large L.L. Bean boot. Militarily, the U.S. is deeply tied into United Nations commitments and into NATO, typically looking for multilateral support before taking military action.

This brings us to the third and latest phase in international strategies, the pivot. It remains to be seen if Donald Trump will pivot away from the Barack Obama pivot towards Iran. This would, of course, put Trump foursquare on the side of the Middle Eastern Sunni Arab potentates such as the royal familes that run Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Dubai, and the UAE, who are concerned about Iranian (read, Shi’ite) political and economic domination in the Middle East. Yet, president-elect Trump says his policy will be even greater support for Israel than his predecessor, even to the point of moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, thereby recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Such an action is likely to be quite upsetting to both Shi’ites and Sunnis. At that point, pivot would come into direct conflict with policy. Let’s wait and see. It could get ugly. 

Recently, we see the “pivot” as a mechanism of foreign policy that is growing in significance. The pivot has become the swift adjustment of foreign policy priorities and alignments by individual countries within the context of the dominant multilateral approach of the post-WWII world. Pivots are not intended to be changes in foreign policy per se, but “on the ground” shifts that are merely adjustments to certain changes in circumstances. It seems that they are part of an ever-growing repertoire of intrigue and duplicity being used by world powers.

We have seen a tsunami of pivots during recent years. The U.S. pivoted towards Bashar Assad by accepting a Russian-brokered deal involving Assad’s chemical weapons. Nonetheless, our policy remains anti-Assad. Sometime later, we pivoted towards our longtime foe, Iran, by hammering out an agreement with the ayatollahs allowing the removal of commercial and financial sanctions against Iran, the restoration of $150 billion in Iranian funds without any quid pro quo by the Iranians, and the continued operation of Iranian nuclear reactors. Despite the agreement, we continued to claim that our deal with Iran was only a pivot, and did not represent a change in policy towards Israel which strongly objected to the deal. To our administration, the Israelis mistook a pivot for a change in policy.

The pivot has thus become the hallmark of flexibility in international relations. How did we get to this point? International relations have evolved through three stages: (1) the 19th century/pre-WWI alliance system based on political and military commitments between and among two or more nation-states; (2) the post-WWI and post-WWII dependence upon multilateral global and regional economic, legal, and political decision-making to promote prosperity and avert war; and (3) the increasing use of the pivot to make adjustments away from policy commitments towards practical, cooperative survival strategies.

The 19th century – as a post-Napoleonic phenomenon -- saw configurations of nation-state alliances being developed to counter the growing power of other nation-state alliances. The alliances were relatively stable. There were behind the scenes deceptions and betrayals, but no pivoting. The head of one state in an alliance would not suddenly make an open agreement with the head of another state in a different alliance. Pivoting was weakness; commitment was strength. Those alliances were structural contributors to World War I where we see the Allies (Britain, France, and the U.S. eventually) against the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire). Who knows? If Great Britain had pivoted towards Germany instead of defending the territorial integrity of Belgium against Germany’s crossing of Belgian territory, WWI might have been avoided. But commitment required that Great Britain enter the war against Germany for violating Belgium’s neutrality.

After WWI, we see the first attempts at multilateralism as a way of solving problems. The Washington Naval Conference reached an agreement about naval growth that was international in scope involving the WWI allies as well as Japan. However, Japan was a rogue nation in the 1920s just as North Korea and Iran are today. They went ahead building as many naval warships as they pleased, and simply ignored the agreement reached at the conference. And of course, the other major attempt at multilateral problem solving was Woodrow Wilson’s wet dream, the League of Nations, although it came into existence without U.S. membership. Further, as events heated up on the world stage, Germany, Japan, and Italy eventually resigned from the League. So, it may be fair to say that these early excursions into multilateralism were pathetic failures.

Then, after WWII, the globalists, who undoubtedly fancied themselves as visionaries of a “new world order” imagined that war and poverty could be eliminated by further reining in nation-state sovereignty and putting more teeth and more commitment into the multilateral concept. The United Nations was established. Unlike with the League of Nations, the most militarily powerful countries each had veto power in the Security Council, and the UN had the authority to send in an international force to enforce its judgment that this or that country had aggressed on another country. North Korea’s aggression against So. Korea was one such action, and, since the USSR was not seated at the time of the vote, the UN sent in an international force (mostly U.S. servicemen) under the leadership of Gen. Douglas MacArthur to drive the North Koreans out of South Korea.

In today’s world, multilateralism rules as a world network of trade regulations controls the details of international commerce to an incredible degree through the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the World Trade Organization (WTO). These have been supplemented by other regional trade policies such as those of the European Union (EU) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Although our new president is quite offended about the lack of fairness to U.S. interests in these agreements, they have grown over many decades and untying the Gordian Knot that they represent is considerably more complex than untying a shoelace on a large L.L. Bean boot. Militarily, the U.S. is deeply tied into United Nations commitments and into NATO, typically looking for multilateral support before taking military action.

This brings us to the third and latest phase in international strategies, the pivot. It remains to be seen if Donald Trump will pivot away from the Barack Obama pivot towards Iran. This would, of course, put Trump foursquare on the side of the Middle Eastern Sunni Arab potentates such as the royal familes that run Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Dubai, and the UAE, who are concerned about Iranian (read, Shi’ite) political and economic domination in the Middle East. Yet, president-elect Trump says his policy will be even greater support for Israel than his predecessor, even to the point of moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, thereby recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Such an action is likely to be quite upsetting to both Shi’ites and Sunnis. At that point, pivot would come into direct conflict with policy. Let’s wait and see. It could get ugly. 

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