U.S. Needs Not 'Pacific' President, But an American One

By Kenneth Weisbrode

'Geopolitics' is a strange word. In fusing geography with politics, it flips the academic term—political geography—on its head. It defines the political manipulation of territory more than the influence of political factors upon geography per se. Its import and orientation have accordingly been more normative and ideological than empirical.

Among the more notable founders of modern geopolitics were Germans—Friedrich Ratzel, Karl Haushofer—and a few of their ideas—namely, Lebensraum, or living space—were once sought eagerly and eastwardly by Nazis. For this reason geopolitics has had a checkered reputation. Although some concepts are well known—Russia with its 'Near Abroad'; Pakistan and 'Strategic Depth'—geopolitics tends to be a favorite of armchair (and some real) generals and journalists; many geographers do not regard it seriously.

In America especially, the geopolitical mind tends to be taken for granted. For many years American schoolchildren learned that their country had only two borders and that both are undisputed and largely peaceful. That was not always the case and life is messier on the ground, to be sure. But mental maps are aspirational. They also can be conspiratorial. They reveal the ways we like to see ourselves, as well as our fears. Thus maps with a polar projection appeared frequently during the Cold War: suddenly the Soviet Union was not on the other side of the world from most of us, but was there, on the map, right next door.

'Grand strategy,' it has been said, is the foible of generals with maps of too small a scale. The same might be said of geopolitics. But this would be unfortunate. Mental maps condition the thinking of our leaders, and translate their priorities and policies into everyday language. Take, for example, the Obama administration’s rising interest in Asia. Barack Obama has called himself the first 'Pacific president.' Hillary Clinton has announced the dawn of a new 'Pacific Century' and the need to bolster America’s presence there. Their recent trip to Asia appeared something like a self-coronation. The Old World of Europe now really does seem decrepit, and 'Eurocentrism' an unfashionable relic of the twentieth century. The future is to be 'won' elsewhere.

This is not new. The 'Richer by Asia' mantra is resurrected with frequency, especially by American presidents, and it goes back to the beginning of the history of U.S. foreign relations. George Washington’s Farewell Address warned against becoming too tied to Europe, especially European conflicts, but did not proscribe Asia: some of the greatest American fortunes were to be made there. The 'China market' fed the American geopolitical (and commercial) imagination throughout the nineteenth century. Asia, in the words of Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state William Seward, was nothing less than 'the chief theatre of events in the world's great hereafter.' America’s school of geopolitics, such that it existed, emphasized isolation from European conflicts but hegemony in the Western hemisphere and a balance of power in Asia underpinned by the so-called Open Door. 'Isolationism' (which in effect resembled more Senator Arthur Vandenberg’s name for it: 'insulationism') applied mainly to Europe, less so to Asia. America is, and more or less always has been, an Asian power. President Obama has never hesitated to acknowledge it.

By the mid-twentieth century, however, such longitudinal distinctions became tough to sustain in practice. For all that Franklin Roosevelt’s military advisers debated the priorities of the European and the Pacific theaters, everyone knew that the war had to be won in both places and that the United States was by then a world power. This continued throughout the Cold War and beyond to what some people like to call the era of globalization. So, why resurrect the distinctions now?

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Kenneth Weisbrode is the Vincent Wright Fellow in History at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies of the European University Institute, as well as the founder and managing editor of the journal New Global Studies. He is the author of "The Atlantic Century: Four Generations of Extraordinary Diplomats who Forged America's Vital Alliance with Europe."

This article was originally published on the History News Network and is republished here with permission.

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