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Does America Do Geopolitics?

August 25, 2010

For varying motives, realists, liberal internationalists, and neoconservatives alike often point out the lack of realist or classical geopolitical thinking in American politics. Michael Lind noted that many realist geopolitical thinkers – Spykman, Strausz-Hupe, Kissinger, Brzezinski, Gray – are Europeans born in a Europe which had yet to forget or escape the turbulence of power politics.

Lind, like Robert Kagan, seeks to ground his preferred international relations tradition with historical and American roots. In this case, the tradition is not identified with either the British or German schools of geopolitical thought, but “republican security theory,” from Daniel Deudney. The argument comes from the Federalist No. 8, in which Hamilton argues that the union will prevent the anarchic political situation which prevailed in Europe from leading independent states or smaller confederations into war. Militarizing inter-state relations in North America would only erode republican liberty and likely invite conquest or a return to European dominance.

Hamilton and the other writers are explicit about advantages of the union for a form of security conducive to liberty. Hamilton and Jay rightly noted that a union would be better able to field a navy, and thus better able to defend the states from foreign invasion. A navy was also vital to the commercial way of life the states pursued in their foreign relations. There was little cause to dispute the necessity of a navy, for navies are rarely a threat to individual liberties (except in the taxes required to field them). The controversy over a standing army was better founded – indeed, Hamilton did emphasize (to some discomfort from Madison later) the need for a strong army to stamp out civil insurrection and rebellion. While 1798 and the Alien & Sedition Acts proved valid Madison and Jefferson’s concerns about how far the central government would go in the pursuit of security, European maneuvering during the Civil War proved Hamilton’s concern about wars between the states leading to a European-style balance of power and situation hostile to liberty were equally well founded. Geography’s relevance was not lost on Publius, either. Distance from Europe mattered in military, not just philosophical terms, and Hamilton explicitly posits geographic insularity as an important conditions for the development of the English liberties the colonists originally rose up to claim. Jay also expounds on America’s geographic blessings.

It is also worth remembering that there is little Kantian about these founders’ vision. Publius explicitly rejects democratic peace theory, or else there would be no need for a United States, so long as these states were democratic. Of course, that Publius is pessimistic about the prospects of representative governments cooperating in anarchy should come as no surprise, for Publius rejects a democratic form of government, explicitly arguing for a republic. It is always worth remembering that Rome, Carthage, Sparta, and the Achaean and Lycian leagues were worthy of praise from Publius. Kant shares this skeptical take on democracy, and his Perpetual Peace also favors republics. Nevertheless, for a pacific federation of republics to emerge, Publius argues for a common authority with the civil and military institutions to compel – Publius believes independent republics are still subject to the Hobbesian state of nature, and that without the geographic insularity and common authority offered by the combined union, the vicissitudes of power politics and what we today recognize as the security dilemma will create increasingly militarized, war-torn and despotic states, if not the return of European colonialism.

Of course, geopolitical thinking was not just a pastime for Publius. The Monroe Doctrine was a clear expression of geographically bounded power politics. Though the United States could not apply the Doctrine against its early enforcers, the British, decrying this as hypocrisy ignores the Doctrine’s real purpose. The Monroe Doctrine was not a statement of collective security – Polk explicitly affirmed the right of all American nations to make war and conclude peace, presumably against each other as well as against Europeans. The Monroe Doctrine is better understood as a realist bid to achieve regional hegemony. It was not an ideological endorsement of self-determination, or even an ideological rejection of the balance of power. Indeed, the US conducted its own power balancing against Mexico and Britain. The goal was always to protect the United States and to prevent the European powers from neutralizing the insularity which afforded the Union security. As European navies rose and began to challenge Britain’s naval dominance, the capability of foreign powers to overcome American insularity rose too – which played no small part in the increasing American fervor to secure the Caribbean and Latin America. The ideological content and commercial interests were secondary in importance to these power political concerns.

The geopolitical theories of Alfred Thayer Mahan are well-known, and intelligible in light of the development of the classical geopolitical theories of Mackinder and others. Nevertheless, coining of the actual term “geopolitics” and its association with imperialism tainted the concept, and so it has fallen to Europeans to re-introduce geopolitical thinking to the United States. Consequently, American rhetoric often rejects realist geopolitical thinking as a “foreign body” in American political thought, an outmoded way of thinking from a Europe which no longer exists. In this, classical geopolitical thought shares something in common with neoconservatism, which opponents often reduce to a pure product of Zionist and Trotskyist thought, ignoring older antecedents in early American expansion. Unfortunately, the rejection of realist geopolitics as “un-American” leads to empower two unsustainable trends. Firstly, it fuels overreaching universalism, which rejects spheres of influence, but inevitably requires America to establish a global one or an elusive governing concert of liberal and liberalizing powers. The second problem is isolationism, which can present a logical interpretation of America’s early foreign policy if it is drained of geopolitical context and realist thinking. The point here is not to argue from historical right that realist geopolitical thought must be the one true path – only to recognize that this mode of thought is not contrary to American values, but intertwined with their development.

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