What is the United States in functional, geopolitical terms?
In the words of the great British geographer of a century ago, Halford Mackinder, the temperate zone of North America is the greatest of the island-satellites of the Afro-Eurasian land mass, able to deeply affect the Old World while protected from its daily political eruptions at the same time. World War II damaged or decimated the infrastructure of every great power—except that of the United States.
Moreover, bordering not one ocean but two, the United States since its emergence on the world stage in the Spanish-American War of 1898 has been a naval power. Because of the moral taboo against the use of nuclear weapons, the Navy has always been America’s principal strategic instrument. One cannot deploy tens of thousands of American soldiers or marines overseas without a great public debate, but aircraft carrier strike groups—with their colossal firepower and thousands of sailors—move regularly from one geographic theater to another with barely any media notice. The deadliest navy in history aligned with a unique, resource-rich geography has made America a natural leader. After all, naval power by itself indicates a certain security on land, allowing for the luxury of liberal ideals in the first place.
For decades, the United States Navy has in large measure protected the sea lines of communications and maritime choke points, encouraging a free world trading order and universal access to hydrocarbons. Indeed, without the services of the U.S. Navy, globalization as we know it would be impossible to imagine. Historically, sea powers have fostered liberalism more than land powers. There are no places on earth more conducive to cosmopolitan values than ports and harbors. The empires of Venice and Great Britain, with all of their faults, are examples of this. “Without the Athenian navy,” writes Cambridge-educated historian John R. Hale, “there would have been no Parthenon, no tragedies of Sophocles or Euripides, no Republic of Plato or Politics of Aristotle.”
Free trade, liberalism, and, in our era, democracy and civil society are natural adjuncts to United States naval power. This has been a happy formula since 1945, culminating with President Richard Nixon’s trip to China in 1972, which formally completed the process of making the Pacific an American naval lake; and with the end of the Cold War in 1991, when the North Atlantic ceased being contested by American and Soviet submarines.
Now this formula is under great threat, mainly from the United States itself. President Donald Trump’s nationalist, protectionist, “America First” strategy fundamentally undermines Washington’s historic championing of free trade, human rights, and democracy: policies which are baked into the American brand, itself a consequence not only of America’s revolutionary ideals but of its very geography and maritime situation, which provide a deterministic basis for those ideals.
The United States may have overextended itself in Vietnam and Iraq. It may have practiced cynical power politics in support of authoritarian regimes during the Cold War. And it may not have always practiced free trade, as the Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930 most famously demonstrates. But directionally, over the long term, it aspired to lofty values. Now there is an abrupt, directional reverse, with a President who doesn’t even rhetorically support the higher ideals that are the very complements of naval power.
Of course, Mr. Trump supports a much larger navy, up to 355 ships from under 300. But to what purpose? Navies historically work hand in hand with diplomats, since the relatively slow speed of warships permits negotiators time to alleviate crises. Navies function best under a higher purpose. But Mr. Trump has robbed American power of any such thing. To wit, the Administration’s initial withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership has drastically reduced the American vision in Asia from a liberal, free-trading order to a matter of better bilateral economic deals with China and South Korea, and the denuclearization of North Korea. Beating down TPP may be the single greatest self-inflicted American error in the Western Pacific since the Vietnam War.
This all occurs while great cultural, economic, and geographic processes are afoot in Eurasia. China’s Belt and Road Initiative seeks to recreate the medieval trade routes of the Yuan Dynasty extending Chinese power through Central Asia and Iran to the heart of Europe, and from the South China Sea to the Eastern Mediterranean. Meanwhile, Russia is recreating a traditional zone of imperial-like influence in Central and Eastern Europe through the quiet subversion of democratic regimes from the Baltics to the Balkans. The most effective way the United States can impact and thwart these near-term trends is by promoting its own brand of free trade merged with individual rights, which are the bases of interconnected civil societies.
Instead, we are witness to the slow, corrosive destruction of the American brand, ongoing daily behind the breathless headlines, but geopolitically more consequential than anything in the headlines. For the first time in decades, America is consciously squandering the gifts of its geography, which is what has provided it with such advantages over China and Russia in the first place.