Geopolitics never went away for the United States

For the United States, geopolitics has always been about national identity, even in an era of globalisation. Perhaps it always will be.
The Marine Corps War Memorial, also known as Iwo Jima Memorial.
The Marine Corps War Memorial, also known as Iwo Jima Memorial. Credit: DeAgostini/Getty Images
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The forces of geography, it is now commonly said, have returned to the modern world and, with them, the importance of geopolitics. This is perhaps a surprising turn for a globalising world society, in which the information revolution and advances in transportation seemed to make borders (political or natural) obsolete. But what if geography had never gone away for the United States, the biggest and most powerful state in the international system and the main driver of globalisation? What if geopolitics has always mattered to Americans?

For the United States, geopolitics has not ‘returned’ because it never went away. Throughout American history, from the time before there was even a United States right up until the present, policymakers and foreign policy analysts have consistently identified geography as one of the most important considerations in the practice of statecraft and the pursuit of security. For the United States, geography, and therefore geopolitics, has always been paramount – not only in the formulation and execution of its foreign policy but also, in earlier eras, in the formation and development of the American nation state itself. Geopolitics, in other words, has always been a critical component of the American worldview because it is hard-wired into the national genetic code. Geopolitics isn’t just about foreign policy or strategy, but also domestic politics and political culture. For the United States, geopolitics has always been about national destiny, even in an era of globalisation. Perhaps it always will be.

This was true from the outset. The founders of the American republic based the creation and early growth of the United States on geopolitical considerations. Indeed, this is true for the entire late colonial and early national periods, which were defined by Americans’ place in the world and how they were situated, as one historian has put it, ‘among the powers of the earth’. The colonial wars between Great Britain and France, which defined the international system of the 18th century, were essentially one long existential crisis for the American colonists.

The Seven Years’ War – which actually began in America in 1754, when an impatient and ambitious young major in the British Army, none other than George Washington, skirmished with French forces in the Ohio Valley – presented the direst threat, but also the most enticing opportunity. It was understandable that the colonists were more aggressive than their British rulers, for the fate of the colonies lay not only in protection from the French and their Indian allies (hence the American name for the Seven Years’ War was ‘the French and Indian War’) but also in expansion to the west, where France and the Iroquois confederation already claimed title.

The British colonists in what is now the United States were an aspirational, relentlessly commercial people who saw territorial expansion as a necessity, but they felt penned in by the Atlantic Ocean to the east, New France to the north, New Spain to the south and the Appalachian mountains to the west. The Seven Years’ War thus provided an unparalleled opportunity for them to push westward, beginning in the Ohio Valley. In turn, colonial geopolitics helped fuse a nascent national sentiment among the colonists, exemplified by the convening of the Albany Congress to debate Benjamin Franklin’s warning that security lay in unity and that the colonies must ‘join, or die’.

The war resulted in a resounding British victory and France’s permanent expulsion from North America, yet in order to assuage the indigenous peoples, who stood in the path of colonial expansion, London issued the Proclamation Line of 1763, which prohibited British settlement west of the Appalachians. The colonists were infuriated that their primary war aim was sacrificed in the name of frontier tranquillity and British diplomacy. Though it would take another dozen years to culminate, the Proclamation of 1763 marked the beginning of the anti-British movement in the Thirteen Colonies. The origins of the United States, then, had geopolitical roots.

The struggle for American independence was simultaneously an anti-colonial rebellion, a political revolution, a civil war, and a great power conflict. Collectively, the Thirteen Colonies were of supreme strategic importance for Britain, not just economically, but also geopolitically. With the colonies, which were populated and prosperous, Britain held a major advantage over its imperial rivals France, Spain and Russia. The economic power of the colonies also gave Britain a major advantage in the intra-European struggle for supremacy on the continent. But without the Thirteen Colonies, Britain would be severely weakened and the British Isles themselves possibly exposed to attack. When the Patriot rebels reached out to the French and proposed an anti-British alliance in 1778, France responded enthusiastically; Spain joined a year later. French aid was critical to the American revolution effort, both militarily and economically, and without it the British probably would have quelled the rebellion. Yet France’s victory was short-lived: the money spent funding the campaign in North America led in large part to the economic crisis that precipitated France’s own revolution in 1789, while the Americans proved to be unreliable allies.

If geopolitical conditions helped create the conditions for the American Revolution and spurred the formation of international alliances required to defeat the world’s preeminent military power, they also gave shape to the polity the new republic formed. In 1781, two years before the war ended, the revolutionaries drafted the Articles of Confederation; they became operative when the United States came into being in 1783. The Articles were a poor basis for government because they created a federation of only a very loose coalition of states; the US Congress didn’t even have the power to tax the American people. The result was both domestic chaos and international insecurity and, in only a few years, America’s leaders agreed they needed a new political foundation.

When the Founders met in Philadelphia, in 1787, to redraft the structures of American governance in a document that eventually became the Constitution, they were informed by major currents in European political thought, primarily the liberalism of John Locke and the republicanism of Baron de Montesquieu. The problem before them was a weak, decentralised government presiding over a collection of small states. Yet if the problems that followed were obvious, the solutions were not. A closely held article of faith was Montesquieu’s dictum that republics had to be small in order to survive; otherwise, they would grow too large and fractious and survive as a state only by becoming something other than a republic, such as an autocracy, or an empire. If Montesquieu was correct, the United States had to stay small and decentralised. But staying small and decentralised would keep it weak and at the mercy of more powerful states in a turbulent and violent world system.

The person to square this circle was James Madison, probably the most intelligent and original of the Founders. He basically turned Montesquieu’s dictum on its head: a republic, Madison argued, had to be large in order to provide room for its inevitably squabbling factions. In fact, in political thought, these factions were not only inevitable, but necessary, for only the presence of competing factions would prevent a single faction from gaining strength and concentrating power. The ramifications of this idea for American foreign relations – indeed, for world history – were profound, for they essentially mandated territorial expansion as a matter of national survival. Madison’s ideas gained wide favour, not least with Thomas Jefferson. As the architect of America’s two most important expansionist blueprints – the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 – Jefferson provided the architecture necessary for an expansionist programme that was, in theory, limited only by the nation’s ambitions and the shores of the Pacific.

Over the next century, Americans expressed this geopolitical vision, in which territorial expansion was the driver of domestic development and the protector of security from external threats, in a variety of ways. Jefferson himself famously called it America’s ‘empire of liberty’. A few decades later, in 1845, the New York writer and ardent expansionist John L O’Sullivan labelled it ‘manifest destiny’. The United States, O’Sullivan claimed, had a God-given right to expand across the continent. But with that right came responsibility: Americans must civilise and develop any land they absorbed. This was a providential pact in which the future of the United States depended on its march westward. North American geography created insecurity for the United States and so Americans must dominate the continent.

American war and diplomacy in the 19th century strengthened the blending of political ideology with expansionist imperative. The war of 1812 with Britain saw the repulsion of the US invasion of Canada and the sacking of Washington DC by the same British redcoats who had been defeated a half-century earlier in the Revolutionary War. In 1819, after orchestrating the forced expulsion of the Spanish from Florida, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams negotiated the Transcontinental Treaty, by which Spain recognised the US right to expand all the way to the Pacific. The Monroe Doctrine of 1823, also penned by Adams, divided the world in half, between an autocratic and monarchical Europe and the republican Americas. Europe, Adams warned, must keep its hands off North and South America.

The war with Mexico (1846–48) ended with US soldiers unceremoniously occupying Mexico City. The resounding victory reinforced Americans’ sense of superiority and led to the transfer of nearly half of Mexico’s territory – including the present-day states of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico; Mexico also agreed to recognise the US annexation of Texas, another former Mexican territory that broke away in 1836 and was absorbed into the United States in 1845. In 1845, the United States also settled competing claims to the Oregon Country with Britain. By 1848, then, the United States had become a transcontinental nation state, controlling territory acquired by purchase or force of arms that stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific and the Rio Grande to the St Lawrence.

The irony of the Mexican War is that the territorial gains Americans celebrated in 1848 turned out to be the causes of unparalleled domestic strife over slavery. As the United States expanded west, the question emerged of whether the institution of slavery would follow. By 1860, this question had taken on existential proportions: Southerners and Northerners alike saw it as a test of their very national survival. The Civil War, which erupted in 1861, was contested over two questions, discrete but also related, especially as the war went on: first, whether the United States would remain as one country, or split into two; and two, whether slavery would continue. Most Northerners’ preference was to settle the first question in favour of a perpetual Union; this included President Abraham Lincoln. But most Northerners – again, including Lincoln – also came to see emancipation as inseparable from winning the war and preserving the Union. For Lincoln, this was as much a geopolitical – or, rather, geo-ideological – concern as it was a domestic one. The United States, in whatever ultimate form, could not survive in isolation. Together, it would be stronger; broken apart, it would have to fend for itself on a continent of several rival powers.

Not only would Americans be more insecure, so too would the rest of the world, for the fate of liberalism everywhere rested with the survival of the United States. Without a truly united United States, liberalism and democracy would suffer and decline – and with them, the hopes of international peace would weaken too. ‘We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth,’ Lincoln explained to Congress in 1862. ‘Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just – a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud and God must forever bless.’ Or as he put it a year later in the Gettysburg Address, the Civil War was a struggle so that ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth’. Madison, Jefferson, Adams and Lincoln differed on much, but they all agreed that, given prevailing international conditions, Americans must expand their territorial holdings and political institutions simultaneously. This notion, a kind of liberal imperialism, had geopolitical roots: if the United States wanted to be a free and independent republic, it must expand. The salience of geopolitics was thus inherent in American political thought and domestic political institutions and the very existence of the United States as a sovereign state was conceived, from the beginning and continuing on through the Civil War, in the broadest possible geographical terms.

To some extent, then, American politics was synonymous with geopolitics. This was a critical development, for it meant that Americans have always assumed that geopolitics was inherently ideological and not simply realist. This led to an unusual, if not unique, perception of the world, once globalisation accelerated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. From Woodrow Wilson to Franklin D Roosevelt, American statesmen developed a view of geopolitics that became, in its way, highly moralistic and deliberately normative. In an increasingly interdependent world, territorial adversaries and ideological adversaries merged into one. American geopolitics, in other words, was not necessarily rooted in the classic terms of realpolitik. This geo-ideological vision helped Wilson and FDR identify threats to US security, even if it was highly unlikely, or at times totally implausible, that those threats could ever physically harm the continental United States.

Germany certainly fitted this description – aside from some pinpricks along the Atlantic coastline, it was inconceivable that Germany posed a military risk to the United States during the First World War. While it is true that the German navy preyed on US shipping in the Atlantic, it is also true that Wilson insisted on the right of neutrals, including the American merchant marine, to continue trading with Britain and France – a right that Germany could hardly respect and still hope to win the war. And while costly, German attacks on US shipping did not present a direct threat to the United States itself. Thus when Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war in April 1917, he portrayed Germany as a menace to international society. ‘It is a war against all nations,’ Wilson said of the German submarine campaign on the high seas. ‘The challenge is to all mankind. Each nation must decide for itself how it will meet it.’ This threat to a liberal world order, as opposed to American physical security itself, became the basis for Wilsonianism, the liberal internationalist ideology that has motivated US foreign policy ever since.

Franklin Roosevelt revived and then apotheosised the Wilsonian vision during the world crisis of the late 1930s. Neither Germany nor Japan posed a direct threat to the United States, something FDR implicitly acknowledged, even as he tried to urge Americans to take a greater role in resisting the fascist threat. ‘There comes a time in the affairs of men’, he intoned in his 1939 State of the Union address, ‘when they must prepare to defend not their homes alone but the tenets of faith and humanity on which their churches, their governments and their very civilisation are founded.’

Roosevelt later explained that the world was shrinking, due to transportation and communications technology, and that rival political systems would choke the liberal-democratic United States off from that world. While the oceans once afforded a measure of safety from European and Asian threats, it was a ‘delusion’, FDR declared in the summer of 1940, shortly after the fall of France, that ‘we of the United States can safely permit the United States to become a lone island, a lone island in a world dominated by the philosophy of force’. Roosevelt did more than any American statesman since Madison, Jefferson and Adams to fuse the link between ideology and territory in US foreign policy. In December, 1941, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour completed the process.

The Second World War and the Cold War that followed were global conflicts that made US security and international security one and the same thing. After 1941, it became axiomatic that the safety, even the very survival, of the United States depended on meeting distant threats that could be either military or ideological (or both) – even if those threats did not pose a clear and present danger to the continental United States. It was natural, then, for expressions of American statecraft, particularly when couched in the highly ideological terms of anti-fascism or anti-communism, to be grounded in a very old-fashioned sense of geography. George F Kennan’s framing of containment in 1946–47, first in his ‘Long Telegram’ from Moscow to the State Department and then in an article for Foreign Affairs, conceived of the world as divided into two distinct power blocs separated by ideology. An avid reader of geopolitical strategists, such as Halford Mackinder and Nicholas Spykman, Kennan argued that the United States had to contain Soviet communism and prevent its expansion further across the Eurasian heartland. It was imperative, Kennan believed, for the United States to control the industrial production centres of Germany and Japan. Where communism threatened to gain new territory, especially in central areas of vital concern, US forces must stand their ground. Just as important was a sense that distant threats could have a chain-reaction effect and reach American shores, if not stopped at their source.

It was this worldview which led President Harry Truman and his secretary of state, Dean Acheson, to build the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation in 1949 and intervene in the civil war brewing on the Korean peninsula in 1950. Without America’s ideological interpretation of geopolitics, the intervention in Korea, a country of otherwise no importance to the United States, made little sense. Dwight D Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles, who succeeded Truman and Acheson, continued along these lines by contrasting additional multilateral alliances around the world (Seato, Cento and a bilateral defence alliance with Japan) and declaring that no state could remain neutral in the Cold War.

Eisenhower gave the perfect name to this worldview when explaining the significance to the United States of Vietnam, a nation of even less obvious importance than Korea. In response to a reporter’s puzzlement about ‘the strategic importance of Indochina to the free world’, Eisenhower memorably responded: ‘You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. So you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences.’ First Vietnam would fall to communism, then Cambodia, Laos and Thailand; then, if that happened, Japan and India could follow suit. Where would the dominoes stop toppling? Eisenhower’s answer was simultaneously reassuring and frightening: wherever the United States exercised its power. The limits to America’s commitments now knew no bounds. There was a contradiction, or perhaps simply a paradox, that sat at the heart of containment: while American statesmen thought in geographical terms, US power in the Cold War was primarily extra-territorial, rooted not in control of particular plots of land, but as a trendsetter in the establishment of global norms in economics, politics and culture.

Liberal internationalism was underpinned and often enforced by US military power, of course, but the ultimate source of that power had little to do with geography. Why American officials were so preoccupied with geography says much about the long geo-ideological tradition from which they emerged. America’s geographical attention shifted from Europe in the 1940s and 1950s to east and southeast Asia in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, to the Middle East from 1979 until the present day, but the underlying principles have remained the same. If anything, the turn to the Middle East from 1979 to 2009 accentuated the importance of geography in the American worldview. The reason was simple: oil. This isn’t to say that US foreign policy has been driven by the narrow commercial interests of oil companies, or the profiteering of American officials. Instead, because oil is by far the most important strategic resource in the world and because most of the world’s oil was produced in the highly unstable Middle East at a time when America’s own domestic oil production declined dramatically, and because so many key US allies were heavily dependent on Middle Eastern oil (including, until a decade or so ago, with the sudden advent of domestic fracking and the boom in Albertan oil sands, the United States itself), control of the Middle Eastern territory became a vital strategic concern. Jimmy Carter expressed it in his eponymous doctrine of January 1980, following the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that seemed to threaten US access to the Persian Gulf, as have presidents ever since, right up through the so-called ‘war on terror’.

Thus the return of geopolitics is something of a misnomer when it comes to US foreign policy. Instead, what we see today is a slightly revamped version of a very old idea that stretches back to the founding of the republic itself. Globalisation has made little imprint upon American geopolitics. So what does this tell us not only about international security, but about globalisation itself? As the American case shows, geography has always mattered. Globalisation can be felt in any number of ways in our daily lives, but ultimately the forces of nature – on the ground, in the air and under water – cannot be overturned. American strategists have never forgotten this basic fact. Perhaps this is because, as a bicoastal, continental republic in which geography has shaped political culture as well as foreign policy, they are literally surrounded by it.

This essay originally appeared under the title ‘American geopolitics: Anatomy of a tradition’ in ‘The return of geopolitics: Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar’, Bokförlaget Stolpe, in collaboration with the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, 2021.

Andrew Preston

Andrew Preston is Professor of American History and a Fellow of Clare College at Cambridge University, and the 2021 President of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR). He is the author or editor of nine books, and is currently writing a book on the idea of national security in American history as well as editing Volume 2 of The Cambridge History of the Vietnam War.

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