America Is Fated to Lead

Culture and geography really do matter. Great statesmen may attempt to rebel against these limits, but their skillful diplomacy constitutes an implicit acceptance that they exist.

January-February 2015

Because what drove Kissinger was the amoral pursuit of the national interest, he is respected without being loved. Holbrooke, on the other hand, is beloved by those who put moral humanitarian goals above amoral national interest. Kissinger was interested in the survival of his country in an anarchic world that lacks a night watchman to keep the peace; Holbrooke took such survival for granted and, by doing so, was able to pursue universalism. And because intellectuals and liberal journalists are generally universalist rather than nationalist in spirit, Holbrooke became their romantic avatar. Kissinger rearranged the chess pieces on a global scale; Holbrooke brought peace and ended genocide in one country of some—but not overwhelming—importance to the United States. But that was more than enough in the eyes of his followers.

Kissinger, a Holocaust refugee, knew that American foreign policy could not simply be a branch of Holocaust studies, while Holbrooke, also the descendant of Jewish refugees, demonstrated that Holocaust studies were indeed central to American foreign policy.

But where both men are alike is that neither was a fatalist. And unlike Christopher and Kerry, Kissinger and Holbrooke, as they say, got things done, which very few people in Washington (or in the foreign-policy community at large) are capable of.

SO, IS President Barack Obama a fatalist? Or, rather, since strategy is the principal means to conquer fate, does he have a strategy? Let me answer this in a provocative way, by outlining what I think fate holds in store for the United States in the early twenty-first century. Let me be a soft determinist, in other words.

While geography is not where analysis ends, it is where all serious analysis begins. For geopolitics is the struggle of states against the backdrop of geography. America’s geography is the most favored in the world. The United States is not only protected by two oceans and the Canadian Arctic, but it also, as the geopolitical forecasting firm Stratfor notes, has the advantage of more miles of navigable inland waterways than much of the rest of the world combined. The Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Arkansas and Tennessee River systems flow diagonally across the continent, thereby uniting the temperate zone of North America, which happens to be overwhelmingly occupied by the United States. Further enhancing the economic power of these river systems is the abundance of barrier islands and deepwater ports along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. The commerce that feeds down to the mouth of the great Mississippi is what originally made the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea central to American power and prosperity. The result has been both a country and a continental empire.

It is also a hemispheric empire. The great Dutch American strategist Nicholas Spykman explained that by gaining effective control of the Greater Caribbean at the turn of the twentieth century, the United States came to dominate the Western Hemisphere, and with that had resources to spare to affect the balance of power in the Eastern Hemisphere. That proved to be the essential geopolitical dynamic of the twentieth century, as the United States tipped the balance of forces in its favor in two world wars and the Cold War that followed. This all had to do with many factors, obviously, but without geography they would have been inoperable.

Of course, history did not stop with the end of the Cold War. The Soviet Union may have collapsed, and China may have adopted a form of capitalism, but both Russia and China are vast, illiberal and multiethnic empires that have the capacity to together dominate the Eastern Hemisphere. This means the United States has equities of some value in such far-flung places as Ukraine and Afghanistan. Furthermore, because technology has mitigated the protective wall of two oceans—as 9/11 demonstrated—Islamic extremism must also (to say the least) be balanced against, if not contained or defeated outright. What all of this amounts to is something stark: America is fated to lead. That is the judgment of geography.

And there is something else. In the course of being fated to lead for many unceasing decades, the United States has incurred, like it or not, other obligations. For example, there is the delicate point of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The fact that this museum constitutes both a monument and a historical repository is actually less significant than (as others have noted) the undeniable reality of its location, adjacent to the National Mall in Washington, within sight of the Jefferson Memorial. In short, the Holocaust—which happened in Europe—has, nevertheless, been officially granted entry into the American historical experience, so that whenever large-scale atrocities happen anywhere, America must at the very least take notice, if not lead some sort of a response. No, America is not a normal country, as the late conservative luminary Jeane J. Kirkpatrick recommended that it become at the end of the Cold War. A normal country would not have such a museum as part of its pantheon. America, rather, has empire-like obligations: just look at the size of its navy and air force, and how they are dispersed around the globe!