Small pivots: should local struggles take on global significance?

While the US pivot to Asia under the Obama administration has gathered much attention, a number of conflicts around the world can be seen as ‘pivots’ in which the world tilts towards one geopolitical path and away from another. Syria, Iran and Burma all stand out at countries whose direction takes on symbolic significance beyond the day-to-day struggles of those living in those countries. For China, Russia and other states promoting an international order based upon the primacy of sovereign, independent states, Syria, Iran and Burma become instances pivotal to the realization of that order. The same is true for the US, EU and others promoting an international order based on the primacy of democracy and human rights over state sovereignty. These particular struggles get caught up in grander narratives. Their outcome can be read as signifying international order pivoting one way or the other. 

A meeting was held last week at the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna in which activists, journalists and scholars from these countries assessed the role their revolutions, conflicts and transitions play in the broader international order.  As someone writing about strategic narratives in international relations, I was happy to get involved. The organizers had us mull over a definition of particular kinds of pivots by Zbigniew Brzezinski:

"Geopolitical pivots are the states whose importance is derived not from their power and motivation but rather from their sensitive location and from the consequences of their potentially vulnerable condition for the behavior of geo-strategic players. Most often, geopolitical pivots are determined by their geography, which in some cases gives them a special role in either defining access to important areas or in denying resources to a significant player.”

These small pivots have a hoover effect, sucking in attention, energy and investment. Syria, Iran and Burma have received a high degree of media coverage in recent years. Through mainstream news, we all bear witness to what happens – and activists in those countries take great effort to distribute video footage so that world opinion can see and, they hope, care. A number of international actors get involved – NGOs, international organisations, big global media and small-fry lone reporters – and are seen to be involved. Generously, the activists we met said they did not care who took credit for change in their country, if it happens, as long as it happens.

What might be telling today is the incoherence of the narratives being projected onto pivots by the major powers. One participant noted that US leaders speak of Libya, Tunisia or Egypt, they speak of democracy, R2P and the sweeping away of corrupt autocracies. However, when they speak of Bahrain or Jordan, they speak of geopolitical stability and access to resources. Equally, China and Russia depict events in Tunisia and Egypt as legitimate uprisings, but switch to a narrative of sovereignty and countering imperialism when they speak of Libya and Syria. Does this incoherence imply that today’s great powers lack any clear understanding of their interests and lack any strategic narrative for the future direction of the international order?

The way in which a particular local struggle can become a ‘type’ or ‘script’ for other struggles was also a pressing concern. Journalists and diplomats use ‘Balkanization’ as a shorthand, as if it is taken for granted what the terms means and as if the term helps illuminate dynamics in other conflicts; will they soon use Syria-ization?

The role of small pivots presents a danger. If it is the case that leaders of great powers view particular struggles or small pivots as opportunities to enact and advance their grander strategic narratives, then have we returned to a world in which abstract processes ‘play out’ materially and locally in ways that leave those great powers untouched? In Vienna, one participant  raised the idea that these small pivots are evidence of a ‘limited Cold War’. This prompted furious debate. Are Syria, Iran or Burma proxies in broader political rivalries between East and West or Sunni and Shia, just as so many countries were in the Twentieth Century?

There is no doubt that small pivots do take on broader significance. The issue is how this is done, what conclusions are drawn from this, and how it affects countries who have no say in whether they become a small pivot or not. We know from the work of Ayse Zarakol the role of middle-sized powers like Turkey and Japan in stitching international orders together. These middle powers make a difference by choosing not to lead any challenge to the great powers of the day, their elites deciding to reproduce the order as a path of least risk. The case of small pivots is just as crucial to understanding how a range of actors are trying to shape the future of the international system and how the great powers try to tilt the world towards their preferred geopolitical order.



Thanks to Monroe Price and Amelia Arsenault for organizing the Milton Wolf Seminar 2013 and to the kind hosts at the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna.

Ben O’Loughlin is Professor of International Relations and Co-Director of the New Political Communication Unit at Royal Holloway, University of London. @ben_oloughlin


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