The United States is the leading power in today’s world, and arguably the only existing superpower. Currently no other country can match its economic, technological, political and military superiority; and even though challengers like China are gaining terrain, America still maintains its primacy. But what are the principles at the basis of its grand strategy?
In origin, what would become the US was just a group of thirteen British colonies located on the eastern coast of North America.
In 1776, they started an armed uprising against the British rule, ultimately gaining independence in 1783 under the name of United States of America.
Initially, the new state adopted an isolationist stance. Yet, this was not absolute: the US fought two wars with the Barbary states of North Africa between 1801 and 1815, and another war broke out with Great Britain in 1812.
The Monroe Doctrine, first proclaimed in 1823, stated that the US would oppose any new intromission by European powers in the Americas all while promising not to interfere in the affairs of existing colonies.
In the meanwhile, the US was expanding its territory towards the unexplored lands of the West; resulting in a war with Mexico in 1846-1848 and in numerous violent clashes with the natives. By the mid of the 19th century, the Pacific coast had been reached.
America’s population rapidly increased thanks to massive immigration from Europe, and it began a rapid industrialization which affected in particular the cities along the East Coast.
In 1861, a major political crisis degenerated into civil war when some southern states seceded from the US to form the Confederated States of America; but the rebellion was ultimately defeated four years later.
As economic development progressed, America turned into a major industrial power and its navy was becoming more and more powerful. At that time, the US started getting involved in the great power politics of the late 19th century.
It established bases in the Pacific Ocean and forced Japan to open itself to foreigners. It defeated Spain in a brief war in 1898 thus taking control of Guam, Puerto Rico and the Philippines plus obtaining a protectorate over Cuba, on which it maintained its influence for decades. In 1900, it took part in the repression of the Boxer rebellion in China alongside other colonial powers.
America remained neutral when WWI erupted in 1914, and only joined the conflict three years later.
President Wilson attempted to create a new international order based on liberal institutions, but the refusal of the US Congress to ratify America’s participation to the League of Nations condemned this project to failure.
After the shock of the Great Depression, US-Japanese tensions started mounting over the control of the Pacific; while in Europe emerged the Nazi threat.
America did not participate in the early stages of WWII, but once it joined the conflict in late 1941 it became the leader of the Allied coalition.
At the end of the war in 1945, the US was a superpower. It was the world’s industrial and financial centre, the inspirer of the post-war institutions and the leading military power; with bases all over the planet and the monopoly over nuclear weapons.
Yet, the Soviet Union had also emerged victorious from the conflict, and it represented a primary challenge to America’s supremacy.
The two became entangled in a long confrontation known as the Cold War, which ended in 1991 when the USSR collapsed.
This was probably the pinnacle of America’s power, with no country capable of countering it. The rise of new powers such as China is now putting America’s primacy under discussion, but for the time being the US still remains the world’s main power.
Ruling the seas
America’s grand strategy has been largely inspired by the theories of Alfred Mahan, a US-born strategist and historian who lived in the 19th century and whose legacy still continues today.
Mahan believed that developing a powerful Navy allows to control the oceans, and consequently global maritime trade. Thus, a naval power can boost its economic growth, but also project its power and increase its security: ruling the seas enables it to counter its rivals, notably the large continental powers, by keeping them far from its territory.
Politically, Mahan advocated for creating a coalition of naval powers, in the specific between the US and Great Britain, to offset Germany or Asian rising powers.
Mahan’s principles have been largely applied in the actual American geostrategy. During the course of its history, the US put a heavy emphasis on naval power and on the control of the oceans.
Even before Mahan, it is notable that America’s first war as an independent state was against the Barbary pirates who raided its merchant ships.
Then, the expansion of its influence across the Pacific during the 19th century corresponded to Mahan’s prescriptions, as in the case of the alliance with Great Britain, which was fundamental for the outcome of the two World Wars.
Without a powerful Navy, America’s victories in these two conflicts would have hardly been possible. After WWII, America established naval bases all over the globe, which allowed it to achieve three objectives: first, to control the vital sea lanes of communication to its benefit and that of its allies; second, to exert its power virtually anywhere in the world; third, to counter the influence of land-based power like the USSR. America’s control over the sea remains a pivotal aspect of its grand strategy and a fundamental basis of its power, and this also explains why the US was so concerned by Japan’s naval power in the 30s and why it worries about China’s today.
Countering the continental powers
During the Cold War, America’s main geopolitical objective was to counter the USSR, which was a continental power trying to expand its reach to the Oceans. As such, the US readapted the theories of a 19th-century British strategist named Halford Mackinder. He believed that the world’s geopolitical core resided in Eurasia, so in the territories then occupied by the Russian Empire; and that to keep Russia at bay Great Britain had to exert its influence on what he called the “Inner Crescent”, an area that roughly corresponds to Central Europe, the Middle East, South Asia and China.
This interpretation re-emerged in the US in the first-half of the 20th century with Nicholas Spykman. He also identified the world’s heartland in Eurasia, specifically in Russia; and believed that to avoid the emergence of a competing Eurasian power the US and its allies had to dominate a borderline zone that he called “Rimland”, which corresponded to Mackinder’s “Inner Crescent”. When the Cold War started, his ideas inspired the US containment policy and its security architecture. In Europe, this took the form of a US-led alliance, namely NATO. In the Asia-Pacific, the same was attempted with the creation of a short-lived alliance called SEATO; and ultimately resulted in the “hub-and-spoke” system, which refers to the series of bilateral defence agreements between the US and various countries like Japan, South Korea, Australia, and Thailand. In the Middle East, the US supported the Baghdad Pact, even though it was not a member; but the alliance was dismantled following the 1979 Revolution in Iran.
At the height of the Cold War, another US strategist named Saul Cohen updated this policy. He located the main battleground of the US-USSR confrontation in the same borderline area, which he called “Shatterbelt”; but added a naval element that reminds of Mahan’s theories. Along the Shatterbelt, Cohen identified two fracture zone dividing Eurasia and the US-controlled maritime sphere. The first is the Red Sea, with the Suez and Bab-el-Mandeb Straits; the second is Southeast Asia, with the Malacca Strait. He considered these two chokepoints as the essential gateways of global sea trade, which the US had to maintain under its control.
Finally, the last great representative of Mackinder’s theories in America was Zbigniew Brzezinski, who had served as National Security Advisor under President Carter. In his famous book The Grand Chessboard, published after the end of the Cold War, he regards Eurasia as the world’s geopolitical pivot and divides it in four regions: the Eurasian heart, which corresponds to Russia, and then three zones that must be controlled to dominate the whole of Eurasia’s landmass and therefore the world: the West, which is Europe; the South, namely the Middle East; and the East, which includes the Asia-Pacific.
Conclusion: continuity and change
It is clear that there has been much continuity in US geopolitical thinking, with a heavy focus on controlling the oceans and on avoiding that a continental power expands to dominate the whole of Eurasia. These theories have actually inspired America’s grand strategy for decades and continue to be its main drivers. Today, China is rising as a naval power, is trying to extend its influence across Eurasia via the “One Belt, One Road” initiative, and it is fostering close ties with Russia. Since China is located in the border zone identified by Mackinder and his followers, this raises concerns among US policy-makers because it could translate in Eurasia being ruled by hostile powers. America is already readapting its grand strategy to counter this trend. Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” and Trump’s “Indo-Pacific strategy” both seem re-adjustments based on Mahan’s strategy of using naval power to keep rivals at bay combined with the need to control Eurasia’s periphery to prevent the whole of it from being dominated by a single continental power; with the main difference that now the centre of gravity appears to have shifted from Russia to China.