Rebranding the Pacific Command represents an effort to recast how military folk assigned to the command regard their theater and how to manage it.
The Pentagon amended its “mental map” of the world last week at Pearl Harbor, when Adm. Harry Harris handed over the keys to the U.S. Pacific Command to Adm. Phil Davidson. Admiral Harris relinquished the Pacific Command; Admiral Davidson took charge of the Indo-Pacific Command. What’s in a name? For one thing, this was more than mere bureaucratic tinkering. Human beings reason from assumptions. Geopolitics is power politics that unfolds amid distinct geographic features. Assumptions about geography shape how we interpret the setting and our place in it. Changing the name of a geographically-oriented institution, like a regional combatant command, can modify assumptions about that institution, and shape expectations about its future behavior for strategic and political gain. Foes can be cowed, allies and friends comforted, U.S. armed services and nonmilitary agencies rallied behind common endeavors.
So names do matter. Rebranding the Pacific Command represents an effort to recast how military folk assigned to the command regard their theater and how to manage it. It will widen their view to encompass South as well as East Asia. Changing the name can also help Washington reshape assumptions among officialdom, and even among ordinary Americans. And if Pentagon messaging resonates, it will revise the worldviews of prospective foes like China—as well as allies, friends and bystanders—to the strategic competition now roiling the Western Pacific. Allies throughout the Indo-Pacific theater will know that America will be there when the chips are down. China will know that as well, and may refrain from challenging the allies.
Mental maps are malleable, subject to distortion, and hierarchical. Emeritus professor Alan Henrikson of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy defines a mental map as “an ordered but continually adapting structure of the mind—alternatively conceivable as a process—by reference to which a person acquires, codes, stores, recalls, reorganizes, and applies, in thought or action, information about his or her large-scale geographical environment, in part or in its entirety.” Mental maps, he says, are “triggered” when “a person makes a spatial decision, that is, when the individual confronts a problem that obliges him or her to choose among alternative movements in space.”