The United States has a geography problem. Fortunate enough to be “bordered to the north and south by weak neighbors, and to the east and west by fish,” as Otto Von Bismarck quipped, contemporary American leaders have forgotten the foundational emphasis on geography espoused by the founders and frontiersmen responsible for the nation’s success. This negligence has closed off a crucial branch of American statesmanship while Russian and Chinese intellectuals draw from Western geostrategic thought to justify the creation of a new world order. Without an attention to geography, the United States will be limited in its ability to develop a strategic response to military and energy-based threats.
Even before the Declaration of Independence was signed, colonists understood the importance of securing arable land before Spanish, British, and French settlers did. The founders remained deliberately vague about the nation’s frontiers as they established institutions easily transferable to new states joining the union. Indeed, when Gouverneur Morris was asked in 1803 to “recollect with precision all that passed in the Convention” to confirm whether the Louisiana Purchase was constitutional, he wrote back that he had not inserted a territorial limitation clause because “all North America must at length be annexed to us.”
The source of America’s thalassocratic power was a desire to defend its ports, rivers and trading posts from outside powers. In Federalist 11, Alexander Hamilton skillfully articulated the necessity of an indivisible union for the creation of a navy. To resist Spain’s penetration into the Mississippi and France and Britain’s interest in American fisheries, Hamilton argued, state navies would be insufficient. Each geographic region of the United States is endowed with its own resources and population: “Some of the Southern and…the Middle States yield a greater plenty of iron, and of better quality. Seamen must chiefly be drawn from the Northern hive.” When fused together, Hamilton predicted, a “great American system” would be born.
A rich topography would also be a curse for the United States. An often overlooked part of George Washington’s Farewell Address is his prescient concern for the union’s durability rooted in individuals’ tendency to embrace a geographic rather than a common American identity. Foremost among “the causes which may disturb our union,” Washington explained, is the danger of “geographical discriminations—Northern and Southern, Atlantic and Western—whence designing men may endeavor to excite a belief that there is a real difference of local interests and views.” Washington’s enumeration of the agricultural, navigational, and commercial differences between the United States’ four geographic poles would come back to haunt the nation during the Civil War.
Americans discovered more about the vast continent which lay to their west through the Lewis and Clark expeditions, independent explorers, and land-hungry settlers. Although the spiritual concept of manifest destiny justified their westward push, resources and territory were at the heart of the movement. Westward expansion was precisely a recognition that the country’s future would be rooted in the territorial gains made by those who inherited the country’s unparalleled geographic fortune. Frederick Jackson Turner, a prominent historian at the end of the 19th century, cited the origins of American identity in this malleable, continually westward moving frontier. “American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier,” he wrote. “This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character.”
The early republic’s domestic and international pre-eminence thus became inextricable from geographic considerations. The United States further took advantage of its distance from the reigning European powers of the time with the Monroe Doctrine. The policy ejected Europe from the Western Hemisphere and established Washington as a guarantor of Latin American security despite its relative military weakness compared to Britain, France, and Spain. The doctrine granted the United States a special role over the Americas based primarily on its geographic proximity, stating that “we are of necessity more immediately connected” to what happens in the Western Hemisphere. Washington sustained this ascension throughout the 19th century by deploying a North Atlantic Squadron responsible for facilitating trade, deterring piracy, discovering new canals, and intervening in Latin American wars that risked destabilizing the continent.
The founders’ acute attention to the United States’ geographic advantages did not translate to the development of a body of geopolitical thought as occurred in Europe. Americans had little motivation to introduce the Earth’s natural features to their political education. Even though geography had been the source of the United States’ prosperity, for the Atlantic Ocean and the sparsely populated regions to the north and south enabled the union to mature industrially and economically without interruption, American political thinkers understandably focused more on the exceptional political institutions that had emerged from the founding period. Geography is predestined, while the Declaration of Independence is a historical outlier.
There are several notable exceptions, however, which can guide the United States back to a more holistic approach toward military strategy and global affairs. One is Alfred Thayer Mahan. Among the six prerequisites for achieving naval influence in The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, three of them are inherently limited by the territory that a country occupies: geographic position, physical conformation, and the extent of one’s territory. There is little a country can do to influence these elements beyond undertaking wars of conquest and purchasing land, both of which have become less relevant in a world where every corner of the Earth has been settled. The other half of Mahan’s conditions are, upon scrutiny, also intimately related to a country’s geography. For example, the size of one’s population depends on available land. Moreover, what Mahan calls the “character of the people” is also strongly shaped by the three geographic factors outlined above. A quasi land-locked country such as Germany is less likely to show interest in China’s naval activities in the Indo-Pacific than France or Britain, both of which have outward-facing navies that have dictated their navigation for centuries.
Read the full article at RealClear Defense.
Axel de Vernou is a research assistant at Yorktown Institute.