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Slouching Towards Grand Strategy (III)

April 10, 2011

Part III in a continuing series.


So long as the United States maintains naval dominance, its national security interests in most of the Western Hemisphere (excluding, perhaps, the Arctic) will remain relatively undemanding in their specific regional requirements. The greatest threats to US security in the hemisphere include instability in Mexico, disasters and humanitarian catastrophes in the immediate neighborhood, and the prevention of narcoterrorist or terrorist organizations from harming the United States. This requires a relatively low political footprint from the United States south of its border.

This is a noted contrast to earlier periods in United States history. When the US navy was not predominant and did not enjoy unipolarity, the US had to leverage the advantages of its geographic proximity and local political influence to exclude foreign powers from its hemisphere. When the US could not challenge European navies, it had to rely far more on coups, interventions, and intimidation to get its way in Latin America – when it was not simply interested in outright continental conquest, as it was in Mexico. Despite the declaration of the Monroe Doctrine, the US could not truly secure the Americas on its own; it relied on the British navy to keep the Holy Alliance and succeeding European powers out. Similarly, a lack of naval predominance meant that the US had relatively less political influence the further away from North America. In Brazil and the Southern Cone, European naval advantages rendered these areas to European, rather than North American, political influence. Indeed, before the naval buildup at the end of the 19th century, Brazil and Chile maintained stronger fleets than did the United States.

The Roosevelt Corollary and US interventions in Latin America which followed cannot be understood apart from fears of European penetration of the Caribbean. While the financial motives are certainly relevant, militarized debt collection meant that foreign disorganization could invite external powers into areas such as the Caribbean. To Mahan and other Americans, “disordered states,” should the US not exert control over them, would just fall to another rapacious great power, who could then use its new client to threaten the United States. The presence of an exterior enemy played no small role in motivating US military interventions. In the Cold War, where the US navy was the most powerful, the US still had an enemy with enough resources and power to fund and support foreign revolutions. Despite the Bay of Pigs, US coups in Guatemala, Chile and support for dictators elsewhere, the US tended to prefer indirect to direct military action, and it reserved the direct deployment of troops, as usual, to the Caribbean.

The economic development and political reform of Latin American states, combined with the lack of external benefactors for revolutionary or autocratic regimes, has led to a moderation of Latin American politics. Hugo Chavez relies on oil revenue, FARC on either the Venezuelans or the drug trade, and the Mexican and Central American drug cartels on drug revenue. The degree of violence in Mexico, on the American border, is particularly troubling. However, Mexico’s central government is not about to plunge into the hands of a foreign power, and is still intact enough to function as a partner for US policy purposes. Absent a major geopolitical rival, the kind of imperialistic, heavy-handed foreign policy the US pursued in the Cold War was simply no longer necessary in Latin America – and most of them, by the Cold War, were hardly still necessary at all.

One important note is that humanitarian intervention is more geopolitically sensible in the immediate American neighborhood than it would be in other regions (at least, of course, for the United States). The US does have a large amount of leverage over many Latin American states, and does, because of the problems of having a failed state next door, have a strong interest in maintaining stability and social order. Instability in the American neighborhood can lead to population displacements, organized crime, drug trade, and other potential problems for US security. Despite the rosy picture here, there are doubtless many aspects of US policy towards Latin America that could bear some improvement – notably US drug, trade, and immigration policies. However, modern US policy in Latin America, while not perfect, is not very costly for its errors. Of course, the US cannot simply be satisfied with hemispheric security, as geopolitical theorists since Spykman have pointed out. The most intense geopolitical competition, that which will involve the greatest amounts of people, territory, wealth, and power, remains in the Eurasian supercontinent and its immediate vicinity.


Atlantic Europe is no longer America’s prime security concern, nor itself under serious threat from either without or within. Britain, France, Italy, and Germany still, however, have security concerns. But they are no longer of an existential nature, nor do they overlap as much with those of the United States, or even with each other. The collapse of the common Soviet enemy has meant that Western European foreign policy can, once again, turn outward – assuming they do not turn on each other. However, because no European power maintains a significant degree of military strength vis-à-vis any other European power it could realistically strike, intra-European security competition is likely to remain dull. British and French nuclear deterrence and geopolitical security, however, mean something of a return to an imperial foreign policy, in the sense that their primary security concerns now lie outside of Western Europe itself.

This argument, which I began sketching out before the Libyan intervention, has since been confirmed, at least in French policy, by its active leadership in the Libyan crisis, its activity and Cote d’Ivoire, and its sustained involvement in Afghanistan. Britain, for its part, has also played a significant role in Libya and Afghanistan, though it seems less eager than France to carve out a sphere of influence or activity independent from the United States. While America’s global hegemonic posture remains in the aftermath of the Soviet Union and the specter of international communism, America’s desire to pursue anti-colonial ideals has lost much of its strategic relevance in the absence of a rival to exploit the inequities of European imperialism.

This is not to say the modern pursuit of extra-continental European interests is imperialism, but it is to say that most of the American fears and rationales for opposing Europeans exerting their influence further abroad, and without the direct leadership of the US have faded. To the extent that European countries become more invested in providing for their own security, the United States can benefit enormously. The United States has far less of a stake in operations in Africa and the Balkans than European states do, and the expansion of European capabilities to operate in these areas will not challenge US interests or those of its allies in other regions.

However, there remains a significant gap between Europe’s external interests, which European can now pursue, and its actual capabilities to pursue them independently. James Rogers does an excellent job of conceptualizing and mapping out Europe’s “Grand Area.” Yet as the crisis in Libya, and the continued preponderance of US power in the Middle East, the Indian Ocean, and other regions demonstrates, Europe is still highly reliant on US military power for its power projection. While Western Europe was able to cut down significantly on its conventional land combat forces during and after the Cold War, it did not correspondingly build up other capabilities. As a result, Europe still needed the US military to help it pursue primarily European interests in the Balkans and North Africa. Indeed, those European countries cutting their power projection capabilities for financial reasons while refusing to accept a retrenchment of their foreign policy objectives threaten to expand US burdens, as American policymakers assume that helping their militarily-constrained allies will engender some reciprocal cooperation on other important issues. Unfortunately, however, a lack of capabilities means that whatever obligation US aid incurs to its European beneficiaries, these states will not be able to contribute as much in return as if they had the capabilities to pursue their own overseas interests in the first place.

The issue of US-European-Russian dynamics will be covered later, but even aside from hedging against Russian resurgence, there is still some geopolitical logic in US involvement in Europe. Western European allies still have some effective military forces which can supplement America’s, and Europeans and Americans do have overlapping security interests in a variety of regions. Certainly, the European states have some capacity to field effective militaries for overseas expeditions if an emphasis on foreign policy expenditures was their preference. In practice, however, Western European states do not seem interested much longer in supporting US adventurism. Despite the success of NATO and its enabling of civilian European integration, Afghanistan and Libya raise serious questions of the alliance as a means for burden-sharing outside of NATO’s immediate area of interest. Each demonstrates the widening gap between US and European areas of interest where direct military force is concerned. Thus, both a divergence of interests and capabilities contributes to the diminishing returns of transatlantic security cooperation, although the latter is probably a more serious problem than the former.

The suppression of Western Europe’s capabilities for independent foreign policy is partly due to US design. Organizational and institutional factors, not simply pure military capabilities, matter for the exercise of European foreign policy, particularly as European states seek to uphold and expand the capacity of the European Union. During the Cold War and 1990s, the US has repeatedly undercut European efforts to establish their own foreign policies through insistence on NATO taking the lead in European affairs. However, due to NATO’s indecision at its role in the post-Soviet era, America has essentially invited Europe to reap the peace dividends while relying on the US to ensure much of Europe’s extra-regional security. Part of the consequence of these efforts has been an undermining of the ability of European states to create a broad consensus on international security. With the United States responsible for and capable of dealing with Europe’s vital security interests, the smaller European states are free to use what military power they have to pursue their individual objectives. This diminishes the prospects for a pan-European security policy, because all subjects of common agreement are essentially the purview of NATO. The “leftover” security concerns of European states vary far more from country to country, as the bickering between Britain, France, Italy, and Germany over the NATO role in a non-vital security issue such as Libya demonstrates.

The United States should encourage the development of an independent pole of European power if it hopes to gradually relieve itself of this free-riding. The US cannot expect European states to agree with it on every issue while simultaneously complaining of its over-reliance on the US for military capabilities. Similarly, so long as Americans see their security role in Europe as one of hegemonic stability, empire by invitation, or as a partner equal to the entire European continent, the US will prevent the coalescence of a genuinely European foreign policy – one that is of Europe, by Europe, and for Europe. While NATO might be preserved in the long term, because of the obvious benefits of its command structure, logistical standardization, and ability to enhance the capacity of Atlantic states for security cooperation, it may need to cede some influence to the EU on extra-European security concern. While previous iterations of American grand strategy have feared such a development, this fear is without rational basis. In an era when the emergence of an independent Europe threatened to severely complicate US calculations vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, a strong, independent pole of European power would have upended the geopolitical game. Today, there is no existential enemy for a decoupled Europe to join or fall prey to. In an era when Europe’s primary security interests lie outside its own borders, a more robust European foreign policy will allow the US recalibrate foreign policy for a post-European age, and relieve it of becoming entangled in extra-European interests in whose role the interests of NATO are unclear.


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