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reflections

Jul 2, 2009 | 01:45 GMT

7 mins read

Geopolitical Diary: America's Indivisible Imperatives

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

Americans will celebrate the Fourth of July holiday on Saturday. For STRATFOR, this is a time to reflect on just how the world came to look the way it does today. In the late 18th century, Britain was the most powerful country in the world for two reasons: first, it was an island, and second, the height of human technology at the time was deepwater navigation. Combining advancements in naval operations with the protection of the English Channel, Britain could focus all of its efforts on maritime-based imperial expansion, while its European peers were forced to fight for dominance on land. The result was a far-flung and remarkably lucrative empire with which no one could compete.

Eventually, Britain's American colonies grew too large in land area, wealth and population to control from afar, and a revolution wrested them from the Crown's control. Since that development, five core rules — what we call "geopolitical imperatives" — have determined the behavior of the colonies that became the United States. The first imperative was to secure strategic depth for the new nation. One of the most successful tactics employed by the British during the American Revolutionary War was the coastal raid. Britain's superior navy proved able not only to blockade the fledgling country's coast, but also to move men and materiel up and down the coast much faster than the Americans could over land. That combination of economic and military disadvantages almost cost the nascent United States the revolution — and gravely threatened it again in the War of 1812, when the new country lost its capital for a short time. Thus, in its early years, the United States aggressively pushed inland to establish economic centers that were less exposed to naval power. By moving across the Appalachians, the United States opened up vast tracts of territory to absorb all the immigrants that Europe could supply.

The second U.S. imperative was to secure North America. Depth — particularly that acquired in the Louisiana Purchase — gave the United States insulation from the sea, but it also put the country into direct contact with land-based powers. This was partially resolved immediately after the War of 1812, when the United States and Canada forged agreements that would gradually loosen Canada's ties to mother Britain. But the much larger event was settled in Texas.

During Texas's battle for independence, the forces of Mexican general Santa Ana crossed north of the Chihuahuan Desert and sacked the Alamo. From there, they marched east to pursue retreating Texican forces in a series of battles that, at the time, the Mexicans seemed fated to win. Had Santa Ana succeeded in subduing the Texas rebellion, he would have been within reach of the very lightly defended New Orleans. (And after the agony of crossing the deserts and mountains of Chihuahua, this would have been a cakewalk.) Santa Ana's intent is lost to history, but if he had chosen to seize New Orleans, history would have turned out very differently. The Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Red and Tennessee River basins — all the territory of the Louisiana Purchase, in addition to that ceded by Britain to the United States at the end of the Revolutionary War — would have been held hostage by Mexican forces, which would have controlled the only point of sea access.

As fate had it, Santa Ana did not make it that far; Texican forces defeated his army at the Battle of San Jacinto in 1836, achieving independence for Texas and pushing Mexican forces back through the desert. The United States quickly annexed Texas in the aftermath (1845), largely to secure New Orleans, and a mere year later prosecuted a war with Mexico to underscore the point. North America — or at least the really useful bits — belonged to the United States. With North America largely secure from land invasion and coastal raiding, the third step for the United States was to gain control of the ocean approaches. This was accomplished in two phases.

First, the United States took over the Sandwich Islands (aka Hawaii), the only territory in the Pacific that lay within an easy sail of the West Coast, in 1898. That pretty much sealed up the Pacific. The Atlantic — which contained European assets in the Bahamas, the Caribbean, Canada and South America — was more complicated. The United States seized Puerto Rico and Cuba from Spain in 1898. But the breaking point here did not occur until the early days of World War II, when the United States allowed the United Kingdom to borrow some mothballed destroyers in exchange for almost every naval base the British owned in the Western Hemisphere. What had been the world's largest navy for three centuries was suddenly a nonpower in half the globe.

Once a nation controls its approaches, the next logical step — the fourth imperative — is to reach farther and control the oceans themselves. In this endeavor, the battles of World War II proved pivotal. The United States seized direct control of places like Micronesia in the Pacific, and the Azores and Iceland in the Atlantic. At the war's conclusion, the United States' containment strategy first and foremost included courting island and naval powers. Some, like Australia and Norway, proved to be new friends. The United Kingdom and Japan, onetime rivals, became regional lynchpins. But there was a deep commonality among these powers: They all controlled maritime chokepoints and were situated at or near the world's major shipping lanes. Leveraged by U.S. naval power, their strategic locations ensured American dominance of the waves.

In the years since, alliances with states like Singapore, Denmark and Taiwan have sealed the United States' maritime dominance. The only way to challenge a country that controls a continent-sized mass is to control an even bigger one. To prevent that from happening, the United States works to keep Eurasia divided. World Wars I and II both were fought in large part to prevent a single power from rising to dominance. After these wars, the United States developed a much more nuanced approach to its fifth imperative; rather than fighting battles directly, the Americans assisted states that were in a position to — and wanted to — resist local hegemons. The strategy most famous in this regard was containment of the Soviet Union — ringing a hostile power with a necklace of willing allies that feared the Soviets every bit as much as the Americans did. That strategy has been repeated with other powers ever since — backing Taiwan against China, Yugoslavia against the Soviet Union, Pakistan against India, Iraq against Iran, and more recently, Kuwait against Iraq.

These five strategic imperatives are not found anywhere in the Constitution or laws of the United States. But every one of the country's 44 presidents, regardless of intention, has conformed to them, compelled by the inexorable logic of geography. In yesterday's wars, under George W. Bush, U.S. forces stormed into Afghanistan and Iraq to preclude the formation of a unified, jihadist-inspired Muslim empire. In preparation for tomorrow's conflict with a resurgent Russia, Barack Obama is attempting to recruit Poland and Turkey as active checks on Russian power. And the same geopolitical imperatives that drove these actions will shape American efforts into the future — just as they have since 1776.

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