We Don't Need a "Pacific" President—We Need an American One
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."
“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?
In a global era borders are presumed to disappear, or at least to become more fungible, like geopolitics itself. For example, Japan has been regarded as part of “the West” at least since the 1970s, whereas that notion would have seemed very strange a few decades earlier during Japan’s promotion of the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.” But, as we’re seeing, globalization entails different borders, not an end to them. New borders are drawn; some old ones are fortified. Among them are the mental borders that further what has been called the myth of the continents. They are difficult to resist because of their cultural, emotional and even spiritual connotations. And they demand mutual exclusivity. Our geopolitical minds simplify and exaggerate. They yearn for seductive trends and against ambivalence.
Yet if it amounts to anything, the Atlantic/Pacific distinction is an ambivalent one. The United States wouldn’t be the only power to succumb to its flaws. The Russian Empire, for example, regularly shifted its attention from Europe to Asia during the latter nineteenth century and into the early twentieth when, one could argue, its diplomatic priorities were badly reversed. When its leaders should have been worrying about their country’s interests in the Balkans, they were obsessed with Japan and Korea; and vice versa.
Why must we draw a border between Europe and Asia? Why must they be ranked at one another’s expense, or portrayed in dialectic? For all that “leading from behind” has been denounced by the White House as constituting any kind of official position, it is difficult to draw any other implication from the Obama administration’s public stance toward Europe and, for that matter, transatlantic interests, particularly with regard to the dramatic changes underway in the Middle East and North Africa. Helping those who help themselves is a nice idea and it may make sense in some cases; but adhering to it as a general principle or doctrine carries a big risk and no more so when applied in blanket fashion to the majority of America’s closest allies, or to a bevy of potential new allies in a most volatile part of the world.
There is a fine line, in other words, between a form of diplomatic deism and mere diffidence. The latter perception has already taken hold about America in many places; not least in East Asia, which now has its own multiplying relationships with Europe, the Middle East and important countries in other regions, notably Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa. Thus elements of the policy of the Pacific Century may become worthy parts of a broader hedging strategy but they suffer from being sold differently to various audiences and, as several commentators have recently pointed out, lack the material wherewithal for implementation. To some they may represent reassurance but to others they amount to mere jawboning, even grandstanding, and recall Dean Acheson’s line about a former empire in search of a role. The benefits of the policy are not self-evident, at least not yet. And like Henry Kissinger’s tactic of pre-emptive concession, it smells of being a premature negotiation with oneself. This is the time to reinforce commitments and to promote common interests in the places that need it most, not to limit liability behind the mask of grand strategic wisdom.
As any American politician knows, it is important to find ways to keep voters interested in, and willing to pay for, foreign policy. If you can’t scare them, you must tempt them. Americans are weary of being scared by the Middle East, no matter how critical, consequential and precarious much of it remains, or how badly its people need moral and material support. There seems little to tempt Americans, apart from a potentially stronger dollar, in Europe. Thus the legendary China market has been rehabilitated as the “Asia-Pacific region,” the new promised land of jobs and other opportunities as against the potential menace of a newly militarized co-prosperity sphere. Nonetheless, there comes a point at which rhetoric dictates action, or inaction, as the case may be. As the Obama administration has already discovered, keeping a rhetorical distance from Europe, its difficulties and its extended neighborhood carries a cost. Drawing new geopolitical borders always does.
No power can be present everywhere at once and all nations must set priorities. The administration’s efforts to fertilize formerly Atlanticist, now global (and someday universal), concepts—collective security, regional integration, free trade, human rights, and so forth—in Asian soil is also laudable. But all of this will fail if portrayed deliberately or even inadvertently in zero-sum terms. Equating a shift toward Asia with a larger force or trend, or worse, with a special historical pattern of evolution and a preferred cultural disposition, may not necessarily be wrong to do for historians looking back, but it usually is for politicians looking ahead. Doubling over past biases doesn’t make it right. The sun may rise in the East and set in the West, but the earth is round and Americans would be much better off with a global president, or just an American president, than with a self-appointed “Pacific” one. For mental borders have a tendency to take on real world lives of their own. And no geopolitical vision, however elegant or appealing, can correct an ambivalent policy.
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