George W. Bush left office with his activist foreign policy in disrepute. Fast-forward six years: President Barack Obama has pursued, in some respects, the opposite approach, and yet he has reached an even lower foreign-policy approval rating — around 32 percent — than his harried predecessor, and presides over a new crisis of confidence in American power. It turns out, as Robert Kagan has noted, that while the president delivered exactly the foreign policy the American people wanted when they elected him twice, they don’t like it very much.
One of the reasons the United States swings back and forth between policy approaches — too hawkish or too dovish — is that we tend to root our foreign policy in political philosophy. As one might expect, the four or five dominant American foreign-policy schools of thought have wildly different assumptions about human behavior, human nature, the forces of history, the purposes and uses of power, the role of America, and just about everything else that goes into one’s worldview.
If the central organizing principle for the foreign policy of a great power is based on a political philosophy or worldview that is coherent but not widely held over the long term by a vast majority of the body politic, it will falter with time — especially if it requires sacrifices and offers only a long-term payoff. And yet if a great power has no real organizing principle or worldview, it bounces from one exigency to the next, always responding to events and never shaping them.
Especially in a diverse representative democracy, we should be skeptical of the staying power of any ideological or philosophical basis for such an organizing principle, yet remain mindful of the need for one. So where can we turn?
The answer should be the map — literally, the physical map, and more broadly, geopolitics classically defined, which of course has political geography at its root. A geopolitical analysis of the United States and the rest of the world offers better guidance for a consistent, smartly managed, prudent, and unapologetic exertion of American power and leadership than any particular political philosophy or perspective on human nature. Of course, the map doesn’t spit out easy answers or perfect policies, but geopolitical realities — many of which move as little as the mountains of the Hindu Kush have moved in the past several thousand years — can point one in a very sound direction.
“Geopolitics” was once a well-understood term, but it is now largely lost in a world where more research is dedicated to gender politics than geopolitics. Sir Halford Mackinder is its patron saint. His most outstanding contribution to the field was, at its root, an understanding of the interplay of physical geography and power. But Mackinder also considered the whole of political geography, and therefore talked and wrote often of how a nation’s fate could depend in part on the “ethical condition of her people, on their energy, knowledge, honesty, and faith.” He spoke of “human initiative,” “organization,” and “virility and imagination.” He knew that it was not simply naval technology or prevailing trade winds that allowed, some 175 years ago, HMS Nemesis to sail up the Yangtze and humble the great Middle Kingdom, rather than a Chinese junk to go up the Thames and stun England.
When we look at geopolitics through this lens, we see the need for a sober and sophisticated measurement of and calculation about power. The geopolitician must consider not only geography and natural resources, but also demographics, education, technology, culture, leadership, economics, and other elements of the competitive landscape.
Let’s start with the United States. Our territory itself remains, as it has been for hundreds of years, an extraordinary source of enduring competitive strength and strategic advantage. Even in these days, when everything from capital flows to cyberattacks knows and respects no borders, all of America’s geographic advantages still matter.
We shouldn’t be in a lather about relative decline: Built into the very fabric of American foreign policy since World War II is the concept that our policies should support the rise of all other powers plugged into the global system that U.S. policies protect and underpin. We have purposefully enabled our vanquished foes and our future adversaries to rise in economic and political power because we believe that this dynamic ultimately benefits us as well.
Rather, Americans should be interested in absolute advancement and avoiding absolute decline. Relative decline — decline in relation to the rise of either trading partners (such as China) or strategic foes (again, such as China) — is part of our formula. The important thing is managing the effects, not bemoaning their existence.
And the U.S. continues to enjoy enormous advantages in addition to our unmatched geographic position and resources. Our economy still surges ahead in absolute terms as the global colossus, although this will no longer remain true if we cannot find the political courage to fix our tax and entitlement systems. Our military is unmatched in key capabilities and has an unrivaled infrastructure for global power projection. Our systems of financing, laws, markets, and technology continue to make the U.S. the home of world-changing technological innovation. Our infrastructure needs much work in some places but is sound and advanced in others. Our universities are still the envy of the world — one recent study from Shanghai listing the top 20 world universities named 17 in the U.S. — despite ongoing challenges in U.S. education. Our energy revolution is already utterly transformative, and we have yet to begin tapping its full potential. Legal immigration remains a source of strength for America, a place that one-quarter of the world’s hopeful émigrés list as their ideal destination — more than three times the share who name Canada. And our demographics are encouraging: We remain a youngish, energetic, and relatively unpopulated country and do not face looming demographic challenges of the sorts that will confront Europe, Japan, and the developing world.
#page#So if that geopolitical America looks out at the world, what does it see? And what policies should it adopt in accord with that vision? The United States’ geopolitical strategy should start and end not, as in the past, with Europe, but with Asia and, specifically, with China. We know, of course, that the U.S. and China will continue to be both economically interdependent trading partners and — as they seek influence in Asia, the Pacific, and the world more broadly — geopolitical foes.
As a well-positioned Chinese colleague told me recently, China ultimately will not attempt to be a “responsible stakeholder” (an appeal we made to them in the Bush administration) of a global system it had no hand in constructing, even if it has mightily profited from that system. Right now, all our policies toward China assume that it will make its strategic choices within this system. We would do better to assume that China sees its strategic freedom of maneuver ultimately best expressed in a global system at least partially of its making. What are the forums for international cooperation in such an order? What are its economic norms and conventions? What are its political expressions? Its alliance structures? Its spheres of influence? The U.S. should support China’s decisions on these questions when it is in our interest to do so, and oppose or thwart them when it is not. But we will need to be closely engaged with China to shape the path and know the difference.
U.S. strategy in Asia should continue to be based on being a great-power “frenemy” of China while being the best friend of all other Asian powers — specifically, Japan, South Korea, India, and Indonesia. They all, to one degree or another, risk falling under some form of Chinese suzerainty over the coming centuries. To preserve the freedom of strategic maneuver of these powers, as well as our own, the U.S. must pull them closer while maintaining a cooperative relationship with China. China intends to express its strategy slowly but inexorably, in a muscular way that will inevitably provoke hot and cold conflict in the region. Managing this eventuality will be the greatest challenge to U.S. strategy for the foreseeable future.
In this task and in some others in Asia and the Middle East, European and American interests diverge — not so much in principle as in practice. This stems largely from the fact that while Europe will remain an economic force for the foreseeable future, it is becoming a museum militarily. Europe’s usable military power and political will are quite small, especially when it comes to projecting power outside of its own unthreatened borders. The Atlantic Alliance, for the past 70 years the main military pillar not simply of European security but of the global order, will now have a smaller and smaller regional application. And even that is in question.
NATO played, for example, no useful role in stemming Russia’s perfectly predictable reassembly of its near-abroad sphere of influence. At a recent international conference in Europe, I watched, somewhat dismayed, as Europeans scrambled to accommodate the recent Russian moves in Ukraine without ever questioning not “the thing” — as Churchill put it in responding to the Italian invasion of Ethiopia — but “the nature of the thing.” Finlandized by Russian moxie and their own energy dependency, Europe and even the Atlantic Alliance have no real rejoinder to what Mackinder would have recognized as increasing Russian control of Eurasia (which he called the “World Island”).
America’s inability to shape and deter Putin’s moves in advance, respond effectively to them at the moment they were happening, or develop a coherent policy to reverse Russian intimidation and bullying in its neighborhood highlights the conceit built into having a foreign policy based on a particular political philosophy — in this case, liberal or progressive internationalism. One can imagine how laughable the Kremlin found President Obama’s exasperated response to its aggression in Crimea and Ukraine when Obama said that Russia was “on the wrong side of history.”
“Whose history?” Putin and his circle probably thought. “Not ours! Our history shows that access to warm-water ports, control of key industrial areas, and a buffer zone of vassal or controllable states are all fundamental tenets of Russian geopolitics — then, now, and into the future. Didn’t you pick up the signal when we invaded Georgia in 2008?”
There is a fatal conceit buried in all foreign policies born of a strong philosophical worldview — be it isolationism (on the left or the right), liberal progressivism, or neoconservatism. Ideologues cannot understand why everyone is not getting with the program — their program. You could say that a purely geopolitical viewpoint has its own conceit, wrapped up as it is in the cold calculations of political geography and perhaps holding out no hope of progress or change in the way we manage our affairs as human beings. The successful 20th-century pacification of the bellicose powers of Europe is proof of the limits of this viewpoint, according to critics. But those of a geopolitical mindset don’t deny the reality of change. They are simply far more likely to relate policymaking to enduring truths as others see them, not just as we’d like to see them.
All American administrations fall prey to an ideologically driven conceit in foreign policy at times. Recall the hope between 2003 and 2008 that American military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan would deliver democratic stability to the Middle East. Our slogan was that for 50 years America had pursued stability at the expense of democracy and had gotten neither; so we tilted hard toward the pole of democracy. The Obama administration has swung back and forth between these poles, and, with its unique brand of non-commitment to either, has arrived at new lows of both.
But as much as Rand Paul and others may sincerely want the region to go away and trouble us no more, the U.S. must recognize and respond to the geopolitical realities of the Middle East. We are, of course, party to and witnessing a civil conflict within Islam, exacerbated by exported Sunni terrorism and Iranian ambition. There are many geopolitical realities in this complex region that should frame the policies of any American president.
#page#First, there will always be in the region some flavor of radical Muslim fundamentalism manifested as terrorism — be it in the form of ISIS, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, or some other force — so long as the states of the region fail to deliver stability, opportunity, and representation to their people. Almost none of them do a good job, and therefore they cannot be truly durable political entities. There is only so much the outside community can do here, and we face a long slog in helping them. But U.S. policy must stay engaged, and policymakers must constantly help the public take the long view and see the need for occasional assertive action. If we do not somehow help create durable states in the Middle East — perhaps worrying less than we do now about their political character — it will hardly matter what we or they do militarily in the region. The inconsistency of our engagement in the region has left us with a situation in which, as a recent U.S. National Defense Panel put it, al-Qaeda is stronger and more capable than it was on 9/11 and ISIS is closer to being a terrorist state than a terrorist cell. Episodic engagement is probably the least effective of all the policy choices we could make.
Second, even if the U.S. (and the rest of the world) truly taps into the possibilities of its energy revolution, the geopolitical criticality of the Middle East as a center of energy production and therefore as an influence on the world economy will not diminish for at least half a century. It is highly unlikely that the world’s fastest-growing energy consumers, in Asia, which are also soon to be the world’s largest, can ever subsist without heavy reliance on Middle East oil. While we can all recognize that the Middle East is the geopolitical burr under the world’s saddle, and we can blame the intervention of the West (as Edward Said did) or the peculiar self-imposed problems of the region itself (as Bernard Lewis does), it will nonetheless remain geopolitically crucial, and therefore ripe for active engagement on the part of countries outside the region.
In the Western Hemisphere, meanwhile, the enduring geopolitical importance for the U.S. of the Monroe Doctrine remains and in some ways is reinforced by North America’s economic and energy surge. Specifically, Mexico, the habitual “bad son,” will soon surpass Brazil, the habitual “good son,” in GDP, economic growth, credit ratings, and other metrics. Mexico has its issues, but three huge, surging, and energy-driven stable economies in North America make the North very much the center of the Western Hemisphere.
Where does all of this leave the U.S. as it tries to reboot its foreign policy? A geopolitical outlook on the world, and an analysis of how best to advance and protect American interests given geopolitical realities, is not meant to simplify policy choices, but rather to clarify them. First, it encourages policymakers to avoid the seduction of trendy conceptions (“the end of history,” “the world is flat,” etc.) and yet fully appreciate the shifts in world geopolitics that are constantly reshaping opportunities and challenges. Second, it forces policymakers who are susceptible to the conceit that the other parts of the world must be viewing things as we view them to see issues through the eyes of others — as these others look at their immutable political geography. Third, it offers hope for some consistency in strategy and national purpose, rather than a whipsawing back and forth between various philosophical views of how the world “should” work.
Finally, a sober geopolitical perspective allows for management of the world’s toughest policy problems in digestible pieces. As Sir Hew Strachan has pointed out, universalist language and approaches tend to globalize conflicts and make goals so large that they are almost unachievable; think of “wars for democracy.” In contrast, many policy challenges — think, for example, of seeking stability and progress toward broadly representative governments in the Middle East — show their many facets in a way that permits them to be contained and dealt with separately, even if they are connected. Such appreciation of complexity is an aid to strategic flexibility.
This may seem too cold and calculating to modern observers used to thinking about how they should “feel” about an issue rather than what they can usefully do about it. But this viewpoint takes into account and allows for the discussion of values and not just national interests. If culture is implicit in political geography, as Mackinder reminds us, and culture itself is often defined as values, systems of belief, and patterns of behavior, then values unquestionably have a seat at the geopolitical table. The values-versus-interests debate is a false one; both are implicit in every American policy.
For America to have a healthy geopolitical future, it must look through this lens upon itself and others. Our own geopolitical realities show that we must restore economic vitality by addressing the looming fiscal train wreck, that we must dramatically accelerate the early brilliant returns from our energy revolution, and that we must reform our tax code, immigration laws, and incentive structure to remain the world’s preferred locus for entrepreneurial endeavors. All of this will, among many other benefits, allow the U.S. to keep and maintain its qualitative and quantitative edge in projectable military power.
In its approach to the world, the U.S. must have an unapologetic and muscular posture, but one that attracts and inspires followers and delivers results. American leadership may grate on many, even among its manifest beneficiaries, but current events show that a world without global American leadership is more unstable and dangerous than any alternative. The American people recoiled a few years ago from an interventionist foreign policy that seemed to have bogged us down, but six years of a timid and hesitant presidency has not brought renewed confidence. It is theoretically possible, even with a fickle public and in an uncertain world, to get our policies right. A geopolitical approach can help us do it.
– Mr. Hillen is the chairman of National Review and a former assistant secretary of state. This article is adapted from an address he delivered to the American Society for Competitiveness.