America’s Strategy in World Politics

The Biden administration confronts potential enemies in Europe, the Indo-Pacific, and the Middle East -- the key power centers of the Eurasian landmass. Yet, its recent National Security Strategy emphasizes climate change as the world’s greatest existential threat.

The last time the United States was engaged in a war being fought in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and the world’s oceans, a relatively unknown professor at Yale University named Nicholas Spykman wrote a book that addressed the fundamental geopolitical factors that underpinned America’s strategy in world politics. Someone in the Biden administration should read it.

America’s Strategy in World Politics: The United States and the Balance of Power, was written 80 years ago as the United States was in the first full year of the Second World War. America’s global enemies were on the move in Western Europe, Eastern Europe, North Africa, and East Asia and the western Pacific. Germany, Italy, and Japan were allied but they did not coordinate their war strategies. But the geopolitical reach of their aggression threatened to consolidate huge parts of the Eurasian landmass as a resource-rich base from which to strike at the Americas.

Spykman at the time was professor of International Relations at Yale. Before the war, he had written articles in the American Political Science Review that discussed the importance of geographic factors to national security policy. He told a colleague at Yale in the late 1930s that the Roosevelt administration was ignoring the security threat posed by the separate aggressive expansionist policies of Germany and Japan. And he wrote America’s Strategy in World Politics to combat the idea that the United States could safely retreat behind a sturdy Western Hemispheric defense. (Full disclosure: I porvided the indtroduction to the 2007 reprint edition.)

Spykman wrote that “the debate on intervention versus isolation” was “the oldest issue in American foreign policy.” President George Washington’s policy of neutrality in the war between France and Great Britain was opposed by Thomas Jefferson and his followers who pressed for U.S. intervention on France’s side. In the lead-up to the War of 1812, many in Congress opposed President James Madison’s call for war against the British. The Monroe Doctrine was the country’s first expression of “hemispheric defense.” It warned the nations and empires of the Old World to refrain from any further attempts to colonize territories in the New World.

The outcome of the Spanish-American War again brought the issue to the surface in a debate over whether to assume control of the Philippines and Guam. Since then, the debate has seesawed between international engagement and an emphasis on hemispheric defense.

Spykman wrote that during the interwar years of the 1920s and 1930s, America forgot that throughout its history the balance of power in the Old World affected its national security interests. And the industrial revolution meant that the world was effectively becoming smaller. The oceans were less of a geographic barrier for us than ever before. The balance of power in Europe and Asia was more important than ever to America’s security.

In America’s Strategy in World Politics, Spykman traced the evolution of U.S. foreign policy in terms of geographical position and power politics. He drew on the geopolitical ideas and concepts of Alfred Thayer Mahan and Halford Mackinder, and anticipated the realist analysis of global politics by Hans Morgethau in Politics Among Nations. For Spykman, justice, fairness, and morality took a back seat to the struggle for power among nations. The struggle for power is eternal. There is no end to history. The best outcome of U.S. strategy is a balance of power that favors our security interests. And this means paying careful attention to geography and other power factors.

In World War II, America faced the prospect of a Eurasian landmass dominated by a hostile alliance of powers (Germany, Japan, and to a lesser extent Italy). We were fortunate that Hitler broke the Nazi-Soviet Pact and invaded Soviet Russia, and that Russia did not withdraw from the war (as it had in World War I at Brest-Litovsk). We won the war in North Africa, Europe, and the Pacific. But Spykman in 1942 knew that after the war, the power struggle would continue and that American statesmen would need to continue to pay attention to -- and, if possible, shape -- the postwar balance of power. He predicted that both the Soviet Union and China would challenge the balance of power after the war.

Spykman suffered an untimely death in 1943 at the age of 49. The next year, his research assistant Helen Nicholl edited Spykman’s notes and research to publish The Geography of the Peace, a geopolitical sequel to America’s Strategy in World Politics. Spykman’s ideas in both books helped shape American postwar policy, but they gradually faded from view until Colin S. Gray brought them back to scholarly and policy-making circles in 1977 with his short monograph The Geopolitics of the Nuclear Era. Gray showed at the height of the Vietnam Syndrome when America was retreating under the failed leadership of Jimmy Carter, that Spykman’s ideas still resonated; that geopolitics still mattered.

Eighty years after the publication of Spykman’s masterpiece, we desperately need a Spykman-like assessment of America’s strategy in world politics for the 21st century -- a strategy based on geography and power politics instead of climate change, human rights, and the promotion of democracy. We face potential enemies in Europe, the Far East/Pacific, and the Middle East, just as we did in World War II. China, allied with Russia, Iran, and North Korea, potentially poses a greater threat to U.S. security today than Nazi Germany or Japan did in World War II. And we are led by an administration that makes Jimmy Carter look good by comparison.

Geopolitical equilibrium in the form of a politically-divided Eurasian landmass remains essential to American security. Spykman would not have understood an American foreign policy that for two decades engaged and in some instances fueled a rising and expansionist China while simultaneously and unnecessarily antagonized Russia, leading to the re-formation of the post-World War II Sino-Russian bloc that cost America so much blood and treasure.

Spykman concluded America’s Strategy in World Politics with a reminder to American statesmen that a balance of power in Europe and Asia “is an absolute prerequisite for the independence of the New World and the preservation of the power position of the United States. There is no safe defensive position on this side of the oceans. Hemispheric defense is no defense at all.” 

Image: Routledge

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