American Geopolitics: The Origins

World mapAmong the great powers of history, the USA is unique insofar as it is separated from other land masses by the two greatest concentrations of water on earth, the Atlantic Ocean to the east, 41 million square miles and 20% of the earth’s surface, and the Pacific Ocean to the west, 63 million square miles and 33% of the earth, respectively. Unlike nations in the rest of the world, which are bound to one another by endless borders and border wars, the US had no natural enemies east or west, and only native tribal clans on its western extensions. Neither Canada nor Mexico represented existential threats north or south, leaving the US, so to speak, “alone” to seek its “manifest” destiny as it saw fit. Even England, in its history of “splendid isolation” from Europe, was separated from the continent by only 26 miles of channel waters.

These simple facts, like the Swiss Alps, go a long way to discerning the direction and fate of history’s foreign policies and destinies. Having no serious border challenges, for example, left the US free to develop naval power as opposed to standing armies, a critical fact in the pursuit of liberty and democracy. The country’s first (and maybe only) geopolitician, Captain Alfred T. Mahan, wrote the classic The Influence of Sea Power upon History (1890).

Such geopolitical realities allowed the first president to lay down the marker for American foreign policies from the late eighteenth century to the mid twentieth, a fact that encouraged the phenomenal growth over time to “superpower” status. In his Farewell Address, Washington urged that America was to “steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world,” a policy that remained a cornerstone of American political direction (with notable exceptions before World Wars I and II) until the beginnings of the Cold War in 1945. Geopolitics, thus, steered US foreign policies to such a point that Washington’s advice grew into an article of faith until Europe finally exhausted itself in World War II. By that time, isolation was no longer an option.

But the vast majority of American history religiously adhered to this principle, based largely on the country’s location. These policies, over time, were almost exclusively defensive, avoiding any form of offensive assertion, especially involving European powers. Both world wars, for example, began without US participation, and this country did very little to shape the nature of Europe’s political formations prior to each conflict and, indeed, throughout the nineteenth century entirely.

The United States, however, was anything but pacifist and sent its military (mostly naval, marine) forces overseas on over 100 expeditions prior to World War I. Sometimes they would stay overnight, sometimes for years, but almost always removed from European involvement. These were undertaken within the confines of Washington’s message of 1796 and scrupulously avoided the country being drawn into the incessant intermural rivalries of the “Old World.”

The logical extension of America’s geopolitical interests for most of history was the Western Hemisphere, and it was here, until only recently, that American overseas interests became assertive. This began in 1823 with the announcement of the Monroe Doctrine “that the American continents … are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.” Although this was largely a paper doctrine, the influence of the British navy prevented the return of Spain and Portugal to their Latin American colonies. The US had the purpose but lacked the power to enforce its geopolitical ambitions, but this would change in the twentieth century and would control US peacetime foreign policies until replaced by the Cold War in the 1940s.

The Spanish-American War (1898) and the completion of the Panama Canal (1914) inaugurated a quasi-imperial American domination of the hemisphere that, less intrusively, continues to this day. This geopolitical imperative was best expressed in 1927 by an Assistant Secretary of State who articulated the Monroe Doctrine in classic geopolitical expressions:

“Geographical facts cannot be ignored. The Central American area down to and including the Isthmus of Panama constitutes a legitimate sphere of influence for the United States; if we are to have due regard for our safety and protection. Call it a sphere of influence … we do control the destinies of Central America, and we do it for the simple reason that the national interest absolutely dictates such a course.”

In subsequent years this “national interest” was extended throughout the hemisphere. In 1938, President Roosevelt publically promised to defend Canada against German aggression, and in 1941, the US occupied both Iceland and Greenland. By the end of the war, the US had established bases in sixteen Latin American countries and had bilateral lend-lease agreements with nineteen. By war’s end, even pro-German Argentina was forced to declare war against the Axis.

Thus, the consolidation of the Western Hemisphere as an American geopolitical zone was complete, finalized by the establishment of the Organization of American States in 1948. But by then, US geopolitical interests had expanded to Western Europe and, subsequently, Asia and other far distant parts of the globe.

This global explosion of geopolitical interests will be taken up in subsequent essays.