I’m sick of “pivoting” and tired of “resetting” and I bet you are too. As President Barack Obama does his diplomatic dance from Japan to the Philippines, the global punditry are once again digging up tired phrases of years past.
The US “pivot” with the Asia-Pacific region is all about reinforcing relationships and rebalancing priorities to the East. But that word: it’s ugly and utilitarian. And though Obama’s not to blame – “pivot” came from British academic HJ Mackinder in 1904 – The White House is responsible for the ill-fated “reset” with Russia and the somewhat accidentally coined “Leading from Behind”.
It’s all a part of the branding of foreign policy – the diplomatic equivalent of throwing a shiny logo on a strategy, shipping it out and calling it a day.
Take the Western fight against Islamic terrorism, where branding runs deep. Prior to George W Bush’s personal re-branding via oil and canvas paintings, he bequeathed the world a veritable dictionary of anti-terror buzzwords. He can’t be blamed for “War Against Terrorism” (that was Reagan) but "Global War on Terror" was all him, coined quickly after 9/11. Donald Rumsfeld then offered the unwieldy “Global Struggle Against Violent Exremism”, or GSAVE, but that was, of course, considered silly. Instead came the more refined "GWOT", which had none of the panache of the less frequently used “Long War”, which conjures vast medieval crusades or an intergalactic struggle in an Isaac Asimov story.
Obama came in and cranked up the consultant-speak, swiping the slate clean and calling it all “Overseas Contingency Operations”. At the time of writing, that too has been replaced with “Countering Violent Extremism”, or CVE. AK-toting Islamists must be shaking in their boots. Oh yes, and let’s not forget “Shock and Awe”.
Earlier generations dealt with the more sensible “Containment” and even earlier ones with “Appeasement”, which now gets a bad rap. And being a good American how can I forget “Manifest Destiny”?
The problem with foreign policy brands is that they do more harm than good. Simplifying complex ideas may be fine for school children but we’re all adults here so let’s talk in English, not in slogans. And of course, there’s the risk of muddling the overall message. When you’re pivoting to Asia, can you really reset with Russia while Countering Violent Extremism? You’re branding battles here, but what do you call the war?
Daniel Giacopelli is a producer at Monocle 24.