Is America ‘fated to lead’?

Financial Times | January 26, 2017

America’s East Coast establishment has only one Robert Kaplan, someone as fluently knowledgeable about the Balkans, Iraq, Central Asia and West Africa as he is about Ohio and Wyoming. That is because to know a country is in large part to know its geography, the prism through which Kaplan has viewed the world since his earliest forays in the Horn of Africa and Afghanistan. More expansively, Kaplan elevated the nascent field of “sociography”, pointing to the importance of integrating sociology and economics into one’s analysis. But geography is foundational: it explains these other disciplines much more than the reverse.

In Earning the Rockies, Kaplan returns to a subject he treated over a decade ago in An Empire Wilderness: Travels into America’s Future. Before America could bestride the globe, it needed to control a continent. This is “America first”, literally. But Kaplan’s is no ordinary road trip. Anyone familiar with his work knows that riding shotgun with him from Massachusetts to San Diego will include detours to ancient Athens and into the works of Eurasian geopolitical strategists such as Halford Mackinder.

The journey begins, though, with Kaplan’s touching reflections on childhood visits to the estate of America’s last frontier president, James Buchanan, as well as to Valley Forge and Washington, DC. His father drove trucks day and night, but still sacrificed weekends and holidays to drive his sons on trips to learn American history hands-on. In his intervening career as a foreign correspondent, Kaplan honed his observational skills and historical knowledge, the potent combination that makes him a sui generis writer.

For each leg of the journey westward Kaplan summons now obscure literary guides who chronicled America’s great expansion such as Bernard DeVoto (The Course of Empire), Walter Prescott Webb (The Great Plains) and Wallace Stegner (Beyond the Hundredth Meridian). But eavesdropping also informs his analysis: listening without asking is how one learns people’s true opinions. Away from the New England bubble, in the Jacksonian heartland, lies a society for which isolationism is a venerable American tradition, a populace not ashamed to have voted for Donald Trump.

Kaplan respects this inwardness for it is a product of America’s incredible geographic depth. American geography naturally works better than that of other continental-scale powers such as Russia, whose vertical rivers divide the country rather than uniting it. America also has demographic and social depth, a “deep bench” of talent of the sort Kaplan admires on the campus of Indiana University, home to scholars as great as the Ivy League but without the ego.

Amid the economic Darwinism of small-town collapse in West Virginia, the detritus of once large industrial centres, and the evisceration of the middle class, Kaplan still finds greatness in the new ethnic and cultural diversity of cities such as Pittsburgh and Columbus. He also praises Mexico as a modernising state offering new markets of opportunity, while Canada is effectively the geographically largest well-managed country on Earth. America’s rivals would be lucky to have such neighbours.

As Kaplan crosses the Illinois prairies, he reminds us that America’s success as a continental and thus global empire hinged on the ability of the pioneers to adapt to the Great Plains. Union Pacific trains and the Hoover Dam embody the topographical engineering that made the awe-inspiring west habitable. But whereas in the eastern half of the country Kaplan expresses concerns over rising inequality, in the west he worries about ecological sustainability, and especially overconsumption of water.

Reaching the Pacific, Kaplan reiterates a theme from several of his recent books such as Asia’s Cauldron, namely the importance of the US Navy. It was Teddy Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet that simultaneously embodied both American liberty and empire. Across the Pacific today lie both America’s largest military commitments as well as commercial priorities.

How capable is America of shaping Asia? Kaplan warns that a world patrolled by a US Navy of only 200 ships will look very different from the robust deployments 300 ships have enabled. He could have added that America’s leverage over Asia will diminish now that President Trump has withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. Such moves, together with Trump’s strong ties with Russia and Japan, and his phone call with Taiwan’s president that roiled cross-Straits relations, indicate a near-term that will be shaped more by haphazard tit-for-tat measures than cautious strategy.

Does it matter? On the one hand, the enormous resources of the “Lower 48” — to say nothing of the power projection capability provided by Alaska and Hawaii — give America overwhelming advantages over its rivals in achieving a virtuous autarky, spared the worst of global turbulence. But Kaplan appreciates that North America is merely a satellite compared with the Eurasian landmass. If America’s internal consolidation through railways and highways was the handmaiden of its power, the same process is under way in hyperdrive as Europe’s eastward and China’s westward mega-infrastructure projects meet in the middle, logistically unifying the planet’s supercontinent. Kaplan writes: “We are dealing here with forces too large for the United States to control.”

Kaplan believes America is “fated to lead”. I lean more in the direction of “fated to influence, but not to drive”. The world’s growth regions want American energy — China has just begun importing American oil — as well as its technology and capital, and to some degree its security umbrella. These are the four pillars of a constructive grand strategy. But they are also functional services — America as an offshore utility. As for American ideas and ideals, there is much less interest.

His advice to East Coast “universalists” — now outsiders in Washington — is to spend more time in their own heartland. But America’s elites should also visit Eurasia’s thriving urban centres to learn how to plan and build for the future. After all, far-flung geographies will continue to matter to the US even though America’s is the most blessed.

Earning the Rockies: How Geography Shapes America’s Role in the World, by Robert Kaplan, Random House, RRP$27, 224 pages
 

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