Sectors:  Security                                          Importance:  *****

Level:  Supranational                                    Scope: USA only

Period:  Middle run                                        Process:  Policy politics

MAIN TOPIC:  Defense                                  Treatment:  Background.








This past week was a slow one for American domestic politics but American foreign policy is beginning to speed up. So this POST turns abroad. (This is an update of an essay posted earlier on another site.)


The first half of the post raises some general issues of American GRAND STRATEGY, first in terms of Americans’ (incorrect) recollections of the Cuban Missile Crisis, then in terms of current global geopolitics. These sections begin to provide some FRAMEWORK for this and later posts on American foreign policy. A general theme is more versus less ambitious approaches to American grand strategy, often referred to as hardliners versus softliners. Both here and in the sections on regions, we also note likely future interactions between American domestic politics and American strategy.

(On the domestic politics of American grand strategy, we draw implicitly on Peter Trubowitz 2011 Politics and strategy: Partisan ambition and American statecraft. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 200 pages. For application of classic geopolitics to current American grand strategy, we explicitly note a still more recent book, by a conservative commentator: Robert Kaplan 2012 The revenge of geography: What the map tells us about coming conflicts and the battle against fate. New York: Random House, 403 pages.)

The second half of the post then turns to current crises in CRITICAL REGIONS.  First we note American media commentary on two regions that WERE in the news (Eastern Asia and the Middle East). After the late 2012 domestic election, Obama immediately returned his attention to the foreign project that evidently he most WANTS to pursue, namely coping with China by cooperating with China’s neighbors. At the same time, Obama had to cope with foreign policy problems that he must wish would go away: the usual concatenation of crises in the Middle East  Finally we note the lack of commentary on a region that was NOT in the news (North America). Understandably, just beginning his second term, Obama has not yet done anything (that we know about) to cope with what eventually may turn out to be a more immediate threat to the USA: the possible disintegration of  Mexico. These three regions – Eastern Asia, the Middle East, and North America – are not just any three regions: they are the three that pose America’s “primary geopolitical dilemmas.”  Tradeoffs between them require downplaying the Middle East in favor of Eastern Asia and North America (Kaplan 2012, page 326).

(In this post, “eastern” Asia runs from Northeast Asia through East Asia to Southeast Asia. The Middle East is the historical Greater Middle East from Morocco to Afghanistan. North America includes, besides Canada and the USA, Mexico and Central America.)


To sound the general theme of hardliners versus softliners in American grand strategy, we begin with a thoughtful commentary on the fiftieth anniversary of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis by a longterm Washington foreign policy insider. (Leslie Gelb 1211 “The myth that screwed up 50 years of U.S. foreign policy” at foreignpolicy.com/articles.)

The mainstream American recollection of the Cuban Missile Crisis is that it was a showdown between the United States and Soviet Union in which the US forced the SU to back down, without making any concessions. To hardliners who claim to be “realistic” about geopolitics, the implication is that, in the early 21st century , a similarly firm stance would  be a good way for America to deal with major adversaries – China, for example.

Gelb’s point is that that is NOT what happened in October 1962, as American academic scholarship has long shown. Instead, in exchange for the USSR removing its missiles from Cuba, the USA promised to remove its own missiles from Turkey, which it did. To avoid making the USA appear weak, the USSR promised to keep that concession secret – which, surprisingly, it did. Consequently most Americans STILL don’t know the true story and have drawn the wrong lesson. The right lesson would be that, in the early 21st century, some compromise will be a MORE realistic way to deal with other major powers, including China.     

Here we will raise a further question about the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis: what kind of grand strategy did it represent?. Kennedy rejected the most hardline option recommended by some of his generals, a ground invasion of Cuba. One can regard that recommendation as an expression of a CONTINENTAL DOMINANCE grand strategy that intervenes in trouble spots with troops-on-the-ground. Kennedy adopted one of the more softline options available, namely intercepting Russian missile-transporting vessels far at sea through a naval blockade. One can regard that option as expressing a MARITIME BALANCING grand strategy that intervenes only selectively “from a distance.” (Kennedy’s resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis did not actually mobilize other powers to “balance” the Soviet Union, but his strategy did minimize the use of force and did appeal to world public opinion.)

In such matters, a difficulty concerns how to get the domestic American political system to endorse a less rather than more ambitious foreign grand strategy. Americans do not like to be told that there is anything they can’t do, particularly “stand up” to possible threats to their security from other countries. Nevertheless, historically, Republicans have had a stronger preference for spending on foreign defense, Democrats for spending on domestic welfare. The question for the immediate future is whether Republicans, who LOST the late 2012 presidential and Senate elections, can prevent Democrats, who WON those elections, from further cutting defense spending. That issue will be joined in the continuing debate over what to do about the sharp cuts in government spending that occurred automatically on 1 March. Those cuts fell particularly heavily on defense spending, something that SOME Republicans want to reverse. However, one reason the cuts could happen is a surprising development on the Republican side: OTHER Republicans are now happy to cut defense spending.


Americans badly need to discuss their global grand strategy, so any intelligent contribution to such a discussion is welcome, even if one cannot entirely accept its analysis. Here particularly welcome is Robert Kaplan’s reassertion of the relevance to current strategy of classic geopolitics (Mackinder on the heartland of the Eurasian continent, Mahan on its maritime surroundings, and Spykman on the littoral “rimland” between them). Kaplan has gone to unusual lengths to visit the regions he discusses (Europe, Russia, China, India, Greater Iran, Greater Turkey, and Greater Mexico). Moreover, Kaplan attempts to elucidate the impact of the specific geographies of each of these country-regions on their particular geopolitical histories and strategic cultures – not merely from the point of view of current American interests, but from the historical points of view of the regions themselves, presented in full historical depth. One regrets that too often the result is to overwhelm the reader with too-long sentences too filled with obscure classical allusions, standard historical knowledge, and unique personal experiences. Many of Kaplan’s specific assertions about the effects of particular geographies require much further analysis.

Nevertheless, Kaplan forces one to think about major issues. The “revenge” in the subtitle is that of geography against American idealists who, after the end of the Cold War, thought they could reshape the world in America’s image. Kaplan somewhat refurbishes classic geopolitical concepts concerning interactions between the Eurasian heartland, Eurasian rimlands, and surrounding oceans. In classic theory (around 1900) those interactions were buffered by distance and segmented into regions. Kaplan emphasizes the “collapse of distance” that (by around 2000) intensified the interactions and unified them across regions. (Here Kaplan follows Paul Bracken 1999Fire in the East: The rise of Asian military power and the second nuclear age. New York: HarperCollins.)

Kagan stresses the constraints that geopolitics place on grand strategies. He claims not to be deterministic about this: geography does NOT completely determine outcomes. To some extent grand strategy can try to overcome limits and reshape options (the “battle against fate” in his subtitle). However, Kaplan recommends that statesmen avoid strategies that their geopolitics makes costly and concentrate instead on improving outcomes within the range of strategies that are geopolitically more feasible for them.

Like most analysts, Kaplan considers the USA fortunate in its domination of a temperate-climate continent, in its distance from foreign powers, and in its east-west maritime opportunities. Moreover, unlike any other country in the world, the USA is naturally positioned to dominate an entire hemisphere from north to south. On the east-west dimension, evidently Kaplan is moving away from domination strategies and toward balancing strategies (despite his earlier advocacy of American intervention in Iraq). On the north-south dimension, Kaplan urgently recommends more American attention to its hemispheric position, particularly in North America, particularly in relation to its immediate neighbor Mexico (and Central America).

Incidentally, Kaplan considers China, like America, to be geopolitically fortunate. China too is a major continental power in a temperate zone adjacent to globally strategic lines of communication. Moreover, China, like America, has the option of becoming also a major maritime power, because of its long coast and good harbors. Because the PRC is now vigorously pursing that option, the PRC is likely to increase its influence over the First Island Chain (Japan, Taiwan, Philippines). Accordingly, Kaplan anticipates the USA gradually shifting its line of naval defense back into the Pacific Ocean to the east of that chain (instead of continuing to try to maintain the capability to intervene to the west of that chain, between the chain and the Asian continent). 


It is noteworthy that president Obama, the busiest man in the world, at the end of 2012, for the second year in a row, personally journeyed to Southeast Asia (1) announcing the trip immediately after the 6 November election, (2) while the domestic fiscal crisis remained unresolved, and (3) when other American foreign policy officials could have gone in his stead. Whatever the real objective of the trip, evidently Obama considered it to be of the highest importance. Media commentary on the real purpose of the trip ranged from credulity to cynicism.

The more credulous accepted the administration’s claim that the trip was really about Southeast Asia: PROMOTING democracy and development there, along with foreign trade that might grow jobs in the US. (Most NPR commentary, for example.) Others believed that the trip did do that but noted that it also helped counterbalance China. (For example, most New York Times reporting, starting from Peter Baker 121108 “Obama to visit Myanmar as part of first postelection overseas trip to Asia” at nytimes.com.) The more cynical argued that the trip might actually have RETARDED the development of democracy in Myanmar/Burma, but opined that the trip did further its real goal, which was to further counterbalance China. (Michael Hirsh 121119 “Obama’s China encirclement policy: Why it’s likely to work” at nationaljournal.com.)

It would seem churlish to deny that, on balance, the trip DID promote Southeast Asian internal development, even though it may have been a little premature in terms of Myanmar/Burma’s democratization. Nevertheless, the trip ALSO promoted the external defense of both Southeast Asia and the United States, against growing Chinese influence. As such, like it or not, the trip was part of an astute balancing strategy by the USA for coping with the PRC in the 21st century.


No sooner had Obama committed himself to a trip to Southeast Asia than Israel launched a massive air assault on its Palestinians in the enclave of Gaza. As a result, Obama had to dispatch Secretary of State Clinton directly from Southeast Asia to the Middle East, to negotiate a ceasefire, which she did, with much help from Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi. This was another concrete illustration of how, even as America is trying to withdraw its troops from on the ground in the Middle East in order to “pivot” to balancing in Eastern Asia, the Middle East keeps demanding American attention. (For background to that particular crisis, see “Gaza Strip” under Times Topics at nytimes.com.)

The risk to Obama’s efforts to shift toward balancing strategies is that the Middle East will demand not only attention but also “unbalanced” support for one side or another, and might even tempt the USA into again deploying troops-on-the-ground. Evidently Obama remains careful not to become any more involved in Middle East affairs than is absolutely unavoidable to protect essential American interests. Fortunately, as the USA moves towards “energy independence,” the Middle East becomes somewhat less essential to the USA’s economic viability. Unfortunately, the strength of support for Israel in American domestic politics prevents Obama from becoming truly “balanced” in the Middle East. But probably he will restrict America’s involvement to diplomacy, except POSSIBLY against Iran.    

The transition from the first to second Obama administration involved furors over former CIA direct General Petraeus and current Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice. There was no policy substance to the Petraeus case, but it is worth noting that his departure may have represented some departure from American preoccupation with the Middle East (Iraq, Afghanistan). There was no policy substance to the Rice case either, since all she did was to announce what American intelligence had told her to say, about the fatal attack by “terrorists” on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Arguably it shows how desperate Republicans are for issues that they have continued to insist – and have taken every opportunity to dramatize – that this somehow represented a failure and cover-up on the part of the Obama administration.


The late 2012 election highlighted the growing role of Hispanics in American politics. That is the main way in which Mexico usually comes up in American politics, as a source of unwanted migrants, an issue largely of economics and identities. However, Kagan concludes his book by sharply criticizing American grand strategists for paying little attention to the dangers that Mexico’s possible collapse poses to American SECURITY. The problem is that Mexico, proximate and populous, may also be a disintegrating narco-state. One might dismiss this as hardliner alarmism, except that Kaplan credits the concern to one of the USA’s most perceptive softliners (the also conservative Andrew Bacevich). Unfortunately, for the moment, all one can do is to note some of the questions that this problem poses. 

How might  rising Hispanic influence in American politics interact with Americans’ addressing the possible impact on American security of possible instability in Mexico? Would concern about Mexican stability harden or soften American conservatives’ concern about Mexican immigrants? Might concern about American security give Obama some leverage in trying to negotiate comprehensive immigration reform? Can American domestic politics even process the Mexican problem effectively, given that it is American demand for illegal drugs and supply of illegal weapons that has produced the rise of armed drug cartels within Mexico? And given that, so far,  American politics has been unable to solve these AMERICAN problems, or even to address them? How would northern Mexicans on both sides of the border react to different American approaches to bolstering Mexico’s stability? What circumstances might intensify the growing identification of nortenos in Mexico with nortenos in the USA? What circumstances might revive the identification of nortenos in the USA with nortenos in Mexico, or with Mexico as a whole? 

(For warnings by other conservatives about potential dangers from Mexican instability, see various interviews by Ted Galen Carpenter at cato.org, such as 121031 “Why is Mexico drug war being ignored?” For background, see “Mexican drug trafficking (Mexico's drug war)” within “Mexico” under Times Topics at nytimes.com. For his acerbic evaluation of American strategy in the Middle East, see Andrew Bacevich 120220 “Scoring the global War on Terror” at huffingtonpost.com. On erroneous conclusions that Americans have drawn from 20th century wars, see Andrew Bacevich 120705 “Interview with historian Andrew J. Bacevich” at historynet.com, a lecture originally delivered to the American Historical Association and originally published in Military History.)

Kaplan argues that regional urban agglomerations do a better job than whole nation-states of coordinating activities and that in the 21st century such subnational units are likely to increase in importance. So here are some data on the ten largest metropolitan areas in North America (from Wikipedia). The largest “metro” is in Mexico! Three of the eight largest metros in the USA are in the Southwest, increasingly oriented toward Mexico! (And that doesn’t even include other almost equally populous southern metros such as Miami, Phoenix, and San Diego.)

METRO                      POPULATION              AREA (km2)           COUNTRY

Mexico City               21,163,226 1             7,346                     Mexico

New York                     18,897,109               17,405                     USA

Los Angeles               12,828,837              12,562                     USA

Chicago                        9,461,105                24,814                    USA

Dallas-Fort Worth       6,371,773               24,059                     USA

Toronto                         6,054,191                7,124                   Canada

Delaware Valley             5,965,343               13,256                     USA

Houston                        5,946,800              26,061                    USA

Washington, D.C.           5,582,170              14,412                    USA




Importance of Post: ***** Big development. **** Small development. *** Continuing trend.

Scope of  Post:  USA only. USA-PRC. USA-other.

Type of Process:  Elite power struggle. Elite policy politics. Mass participation.

Type of Treatment:  Current commentary. Comprehensive background. Academic analysis.


Policy  Sectors:  Security. Economy. Identity

Spatial  Levels:  Supranational. National. Subnational

Temporal  Periods:  Shortrun. Midrun. Longrun






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LONGRUN (History, evolution)

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