Geography, Unity, and the Power of a Continent

For my inaugural blog post, I will crosspost my latest contribution to RealClearWorld, the website I edit.

Over the last few weeks, we have run a series on the U.S. role in the world. We have sought to cover the enduring aspects of foreign policy, and the exigencies and opportunities American leadership faces right now, if it cares to engage them.

George Friedman laid out the coherence of President Donald Trump’s worldview, and we have seen the president act in dramatic fashion in line with that view. Robert Kaplan reminded us of the powerful and peacable role played by the U.S. Navy, while Charles Lister lacerated the failings of Middle East policy. Ana Quintana reminded us of the vitality of a relationship with an ally next door, Jeremy Shapiro described the plight of nations caught between dyspeptic powers, and former ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder bluntly stated that the moment of U.S. dominance has come to an end.

At a time of heightened emotion and of shock politics aimed at short-term wins, I recommend in the strongest terms reading the individual entries to this series to retain a sense of perspective.

And perspective is the issue. As Alexander Cooley lays out in his contribution to the series, the United States 25 years ago “had assumed the leadership of a proclaimed new world order, and liberal democratic capitalism no longer had a viable global challenger. The expectations these changes heralded now appear unfulfilled.”

The United States carried a seemingly inexhaustible reserve of geopolitical capital when it became the sole global hegemon. It has taken quite some doing to spend it so quickly. The many complicit mistakes have peppered the analyses linked at RealClearWorld over the last couple of years, so there is little need to list them here exhaustively. But from the unwise expansion of NATO and superficial support of color revolutions, to George W. Bush’s disastrous and expensive Middle East adventurism, to Barack Obama’s equally thoughtless retrenchment, soaring speeches, and empty threats, there has been throughout a failure of knowing what exactly America wants. There has been an equal failure to understand the basics of power -- that effective foreign policy rests on logistics, not ideas. The shapers of policy seemingly set aside the basic flow chart wherein resources are developed into capabilities that are then operationalized along a spectrum from soft to hard power -- and forgot that each use of every tool along that spectrum impacts the efficacy of the rest.

For this generation of American leadership, the unipolar moment of American power, which already was destined to be an interregnum, has proved far too much to handle. And the capstone on the edifice of that generation’s leadership, President Trump, has now entered office seemingly intent on adding almost daily to the disarray.

America will lead

The United States has no choice but to be deeply involved in the world. Our history from its very dawn teaches us that. Not only were the French key to U.S. independence in the late 18th century, but it was the Seven Years’ War, a conflict between the European powers that was global in scope, that according to historian Paul Kennedy set the conditions for the North American colonies to stage a successful revolt. We never face the world alone -- the once we did, the British burned the White House in 1814. Later, the Royal Navy enforced the Monroe Doctrine. Global cooperation, leadership, and innovation is in the United States’ DNA. And in the visions of past presidents such as Woodrow Wilson, that genetic code was woven into all of the global institutions that have of late brought to the world an era of unprecedented peace and growing prosperity.

We can debate whether the proper model of global interaction is globalization, the deepening of all bonds social, economic, and political across borders, or an internationalization where those relentlessly growing interactions are controlled more strictly by nation-states. Not up for debate is the fact that those connections will only grow. All politics is global now, and with its size, geography, and economic and military preponderance, the United States will play a leading role, and for better or worse will feel the consequences of its actions. Retrenchment is dead letter.

American power starts at home

As part of this series, we spoke to Kaplan about his latest book, “Earning the Rockies.” In that book, the author reminds us what is the source of American strength: a unified polity spread across a powerful geography built for the projection of strength and tailor-made to sustain an imperfect but dynamic democracy. The cornerstone of U.S. power in the world is political unity at home, and it will not be controversial to write that this unity is at an ebb. That is the ultimate failure of this generation of leadership -- a failure to address growing conflicts and hostility in an always-competitive domestic polity, which in turn is scrambling the signals we send to the world.

There is plenty of blame to go around. The political left, as it tends to its wounds, must reflect on its detachment from the concerns of voters who felt that an all-out cultural assault was being waged against them. Political progress for any side cannot include an imperious, self-satisfied censorship that ignores and mocks the concerns of others.

Nor will it do for those currently in power to pick fights with all of the institutions that make this country great -- attacking a free and critical press, undermining the intelligence services, and indulging a bizarre quest to delegitimize the electorate. It speaks for itself that this is not the way a president should behave.

It is unlikely that President Trump will deviate from this course, and the habits of this generation of American leadership seem pretty well baked in. They are habits that are transforming American politics, from a cycling of shifting coalitions built around compromise into a fight between opposing fan bases fueled by obstruction and a toxic need for dominance. The resulting polity is an increasingly dysfunctional arena where politics becomes identity and “the struggle” cannot be set down even for a minute. It is, in a word, quite European.

If the next generation of American leaders, watching now and absorbing the mistakes of this one, is to mend the damage, it must resist the tempting allure of identity politics. It must remember that America is a nation that unlike any other is bound by its ideas -- that citizens are formed here more so than they are born. To subvert a phrase, it should learn to make our dialogue great again. An apt metaphor, one cited often by historians and urban planners, sits in the streets of American cities themselves. "Democracy" is plenty synonymous with "Understanding," and Manhattan's city grid, with its numbered streets and avenues, was built to be understood. Wave after immigrant wave could easily grasp how to move from 2nd and 10th to 14th between 8th and 9th. The same is true of Washington’s letter-and-number grid, with radials named after the states offering quicker routes.

This is a visual, mathematical, democratic approach. It invites the participation of all, much as the discourse in a democracy is meant to invite limitless participants, but all of them moving within the parameters of a concrete, established vision, even when our aims are on different points of the grid.

The roots of American power are in that dialogue, and that dialogue needs renewal. From that renewal must spring tempered choices aimed at the health of the country in future generations. And wise or unwise, our choices more than those of any other country shape the globe. The world reacts to them and inevitably feeds the consequences back to us. For better or worse, our involvement in the world is inescapable. To renew America’s role in the world, we must first restore the shared idea of America.