Yes, all this is determinism of a sort. It is also common sense.
In sum, foreign policy cannot function properly without a reasonable level of determinism. Determinism constitutes an awareness of limits: limits to what the United States can and cannot do in the world. This is a searing reality. And because it is so, whether we know it or not, we define great statesmen as those who work near the edges of those limits, near the edges of what is possible. Great statesmen rebel against limits, they rebel against determinism, even as their very skillful diplomacy constitutes an implicit acceptance that such limits exist.
OF COURSE, many will try to break through these limits, in statesmanship and in other pursuits. President Theodore Roosevelt’s famous “man in the arena” speech was in a larger sense a tribute to all those who have fought the good fight, even if they failed. But not many take heed of that worthy sentiment. For example, one of Bill Clinton’s secretaries of state, Warren Christopher, made more than twenty trips to the Middle East in search of a deal between Israel and Syria that proved just out of reach. His efforts have been completely forgotten, as Secretary of State John Kerry’s failed attempt to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians will be. In those cases, determinism appears to have ruled.
Henry Kissinger, on the other hand, demonstrated that what was first seen as merely a vague possibility could actually be done. Kissinger became legendary because he succeeded against fate. Strategy, ground down to its essentials, is merely a road map for overcoming fate. Kissinger saw the opportunity created by the Sino-Soviet split and negotiated an understanding with China that balanced against the Soviet Union, even as he used détente with the Soviets to keep both the Chinese and America’s Western European allies honest. By granting China implicit protection against both the Soviet Union and an economically rising Japan, and by conceding that there was only one China (and it wasn’t Taiwan), the actions of the Nixon administration provided the basis for China, in this new and more secure environment, to focus internally rather than externally. That would enable Deng Xiaoping to introduce a form of capitalism to the most populous country on earth, something that would lift a billion or so people out of poverty throughout Asia. For the Asian economic miracle of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries is impossible to even imagine without President Richard Nixon’s 1972 trip to China. Thus does an amoral strategy, in the service of a naked national interest, have a moral result.
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!
THIS IS the material at hand. Faced with such objective truths, the debate between realists and idealists is at once unnecessarily Manichaean and a mere row over tactics. Realism wasn’t the evil invention of Henry Kissinger, but an American tradition going back to George Washington, John Quincy Adams, and wise men like George F. Kennan and Dean Acheson. Idealism, for its part, is so deeply rooted in the American tradition that Wilsonianism lives on long after the passing of America’s twenty-eighth president, no matter how often it is shown to be flawed. Neither unremitting humanitarianism (because it is unsustainable) nor neoisolationism (because it fails to accept America’s fate as a world leader) can be the basis of any responsible foreign policy.
Here I must bring in my personal hero, a once-celebrated literary figure now forgotten, Bernard DeVoto. An environmentalist and fierce defender of civil liberties, DeVoto spent a lifetime as a continentalist dedicated to one subject: that of the American West, so much so that he never once set foot outside North American soil. Yet this intellectual, who wrote so obsessively and sensuously about the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains, the way that Patrick Leigh Fermor wrote about the Balkans and Central Europe, and whom you would expect to have been an isolationist in the years prior to World War II, traveled throughout the interior of the United States in 1940, passionately arguing in local community gatherings for America to enter the war against Nazi Germany. DeVoto loved the continent that he called both a republic and an empire. There was just so much going on inside it that the world beyond was never quite real. Thus, he saw the good in Manifest Destiny before generations of academics would see nothing but evil in it. Yet he also understood—perhaps at a more profound level than anyone else, before or since—that the blessings of geographical fate had freighted America with global responsibilities.