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Considering America on Independence Day

7 MINS READJul 4, 2019 | 10:00 GMT
A painting of the Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull (1756-1843).

The Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull (1756-1843). John Trumbull's painting shows the five-man drafting committee of the Declaration of Independence presenting their work to the Congress. The original hangs in the U.S. Capitol rotunda.

(Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The Geopolitics of the United States, Part 1: The Inevitable Empire

July 4, 2016: The American geography is an impressive one. The Greater Mississippi Basin together with the Intracoastal Waterway has more kilometers of navigable internal waterways than the rest of the world combined. The American Midwest is both overlaid by this waterway and is the world's largest contiguous piece of farmland. The U.S. Atlantic Coast possesses more major ports than the rest of the Western Hemisphere combined. Two vast oceans insulated the United States from Asian and European powers, deserts separate the United States from Mexico to the south, while lakes and forests separate the population centers in Canada from those in the United States. The United States has capital, food surpluses and physical insulation in excess of every other country in the world by an exceedingly large margin. So like the Turks, the Americans are not important because of who they are, but because of where they live.

 

The Greater Mississippi Basin is the continent's core, and whoever controls that core not only is certain to dominate the East Coast and Great Lakes regions but will also have the agricultural, transport, trade and political unification capacity to be a world power — even without having to interact with the rest of the global system.

Listening to the Echoes of the American Revolution

July 4, 2016: "The struggle had opened in a grey dawn at Lexington; its last shot was fired eight years later on the other side of the world outside a dusty town in southern India."

So ends Piers Mackesy's 1964 book, "The War for America; 1775-1783." Mackesy helps us see beyond the story of a scrappy band of rebels cleverly hiding behind trees and using backwoods marksmanship to defeat an outdated rank-and-file military organization, an image still pervasive in Americana today. Instead, what emerges is a cautionary tale of just what it means to be an empire with global interests and relations. Writ large are the choices and responsibilities that ultimately limit possibilities, require prioritization and can lead to unexpected catastrophic results.

The world is a complicated, interconnected and volatile place. No country has the singular power to intervene for national, economic or even moral reasons everywhere. For Britain, a small rebellion, driven by distance, fiscal policy and changing culture, escalated from a localized police action to a global crisis that dragged on for nearly a decade. In the process, old foes were reawaked and unforeseen challenges to British forces at the far reaches of the empire emerged. On America's Independence Day (a day marking more the start than conclusion of hostilities with the mother country), it is worthwhile reflecting on the ideas and complexities of global capabilities and responsibilities as well as considering the nature of independence and freedom.

At the outbreak of the American Revolution, Britain was, at least briefly, the undisputed global hegemon ... In reality, the British were stretched thin, facing political turmoil at home and transitioning from a high-intensity wartime military and economy to a post-crisis structure.

Coming to Terms With the American Empire

April 14, 2015: The geography of the American empire was built partly on military relations but heavily on economic relations. At first these economic relations were fairly trivial to American business. But as the system matured, the value of investments soared along with the importance of imports, exports and labor markets. As in any genuinely successful empire, it did not begin with a grand design or even a dream of one. Strategic necessity created an economic reality in country after country until certain major industries became dependent on at least some countries. The obvious examples were Saudi Arabia or Venezuela, whose oil fueled American oil companies, and which therefore — quite apart from conventional strategic importance — became economically important. This eventually made them strategically important.

As an empire matures, its economic value increases, particularly when it is not coercing others. Coercion is expensive and undermines the worth of an empire. The ideal colony is one that is not at all a colony, but a nation that benefits from economic relations with both the imperial power and the rest of the empire. The primary military relationship ought to be either mutual dependence or, barring that, dependence of the vulnerable client state on the imperial power.

This is how the United States slipped into empire. First, it was overwhelmingly wealthy and powerful. Second, it faced a potential adversary capable of challenging it globally, in a large number of countries. Third, it used its economic advantage to induce at least some of these countries into economic, and therefore political and military, relationships. Fourth, these countries became significantly important to various sectors of the American economy.

The U.S. military is built around force multipliers, weapons that can destroy the enemy before the enemy destroys the relatively small force deployed. Sometimes this strategy works. Over the long run, it cannot.

The Geopolitics of the United States, Part 2: American Identity and the Threats of Tomorrow

Aug. 25, 2011: What happens when something goes wrong, when the rest of the world reaches out and touches the Americans on something other than America's terms? When one is convinced that things can, will and should continually improve, the shock of negative developments or foreign interaction is palpable. Mania becomes depression and arrogance turns into panic.

An excellent example is the Japanese attack on American forces at Pearl Harbor. Seventy years on, Americans still think of the event as a massive betrayal underlining the barbaric nature of the Japanese that justified the launching of a total war and the incineration of major cities. This despite the fact that the Americans had systemically shut off East Asia from Japanese traders, complete with a de facto energy embargo, and that the American mainland — much less its core — was never threatened.

Such panic and overreaction is a wellspring of modern American power. The United States is a large, physically secure, economically diverse and vibrant entity. When it acts, it can alter developments on a global scale fairly easily. But when it panics, it throws all of its ample strength at the problem at hand, and in doing so reshapes the world.

A map showing the United States' expansion over time.

How the Plight of a Heartland Could Upset America's Balance

Societal, economic or cultural change is not always immediately reflected in the halls of Washington, D.C. Some of the change at the political level can be delayed due to the fundamentals of the U.S. political system. Changes in population due to the rise and fall of local state economies will only result in changes in representation every decade and even then, they will be gradual. After each census, the House of Representatives recalculates the number of seats allocated to each state proportionally, meaning that the population declines in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, West Virginia and Michigan that have occurred over the past decade will have a delayed effect on overall political power within the House. In the meantime, traditionally powerful states that see waning power and influence ahead will seek to hold onto influence in other ways and in other branches of the government. See the 2016 presidential elections, when many states that have been facing long-term economic decline gravitated to the candidate who promised a return to former glory. However, the growth of urban areas as economic hubs could slowly change the social and political profiles of the states that host them. Ultimately, the lag between demographic and economic changes and its formal reflection at the level of political representation leaves the U.S. political system in a state of limbo.

Against this backdrop, the United States is witnessing the growth of ideological divides stemming from generational shifts, urbanization, internal migration and economic inequalities. Without a unifying culture, economy and geography knitting the core together, the new ecumene — fiscally robust as it may be — will not help an already fraying populace mend itself. After all, many of the cultural concerns and economic priorities of Los Angeles still have little in common with those in Raleigh. Instead, we are more likely to witness states push more heavily for their own regional, rather than national, interests as a result of the lag of national representation behind economic realities.

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