The National Security Debate and Classical Geopolitics
by Francis P. Sempa
There is an important debate among foreign policy theorists and practitioners regarding the most effective way to protect and promote U.S. national security interests in the 21st century. It involves four general approaches to the world: (1) retrenchment, (2) offshore balancing, (3) liberal internationalism, and (4) conservative internationalism. Each of these theories or approaches is based on a broad worldview about America’s proper role in the world. All of them are based in part on classical geopolitics.
Retrenchment and offshore balancing envision a more modest use of American power, frequently decrying “imperial overstretch,” and favoring a more nuanced and multilateral approach to international disputes.
The Obama administration, in the wake of two unresolved and increasingly unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and with a more benign view of the intentions of America’s potential adversaries, practiced retrenchment across the globe. It largely withdrew U.S. military power from Iraq. It signaled a lack of U.S. resolve in Afghanistan. It “led from behind” in Libya. It stood by as Russia reasserted itself in the Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and China moved aggressively in the South China Sea. It scaled-back the Global War on Terror.
Obama’s foreign policy was an attempt at a return to “normalcy” and a retreat from world leadership reminiscent of the Harding-Coolidge administrations after World War I, and with similar consequences, i.e., other powers—Russia, China, Iran, and ISIS—became more assertive on the world stage.
Advocates of offshore balancing—most prominently John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt—criticize the overextension of American power since the end of the Cold War, preferring instead that the U.S. husband its power and use it only when necessary to redress a global imbalance of power that threatens core U.S. interests. They view America as the successor to the British Empire, which for centuries threw its weight on the scales of power to defeat whatever continental power threatened to upset the global power balance.
Advocates of liberal internationalism and conservative internationalism want the United States to continue to shape the international order that has been in place since the end of World War II. America’s forward presence in Western Europe, the Middle East and East Asia, they believe, is essential to promoting U.S. interest abroad and to preventing the rise of a new peer competitor.
Liberal internationalists tend to be more interventionist abroad, believing that American power should be used to promote democracy, freedom and human rights. Woodrow Wilson, Jimmy Carter, and, to some extent, Bill Clinton are examples of liberal internationalists. Liberal internationalists criticize foreign policy realists for ignoring the internal policies of allies and adversaries. U.S. interests, they believe, are furthered by the promotion freedom and democracy abroad.
Conservative internationalists, such as Hal Brands, Henry Nau, and Robert Kaufman, combine aspects of realism and liberal internationalism. They advocate a strong U.S. forward presence abroad and an assertive use of American power when necessary to protect U.S. interests. Like liberal internationalists, they factor into their analyses the internal nature of foreign regimes, but they do so not to promote human rights and democracy but rather to determine whether the nature of the regime itself affects the regime’s foreign policy vis-à-vis the United States.
United States foreign policy rarely adheres strictly to a well-defined theoretical model, and there is no reason to believe it will do so in a Trump administration. American foreign policy usually evolves slowly and pragmatically in response to events. Policy inertia, resource limitations, and executive-congressional differences tend to impose restraints on any president’s foreign policy. The practical realities of world politics also limit policy choices.
Those practical realities of world politics are best approached with an understanding of classical geopolitics. Nearly one hundred years ago, the great British geographer, Sir Halford Mackinder, in Democratic Ideals and Reality (1919), warned the seafaring democracies that they must adjust their foreign policies to global geopolitical realities. The Eurasian-African “World-Island,” he wrote, contained most of the world’s people and resources, and the great sea powers (i.e., Britain and the United States) must ensure that no hostile power or alliance of hostile powers achieved effective political control of the major power centers of the World-Island (Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia).
Two decades later, Yale political scientist Nicholas Spykman in America’s Strategy in World Politics (1942), observed that American national security depended upon a favorable balance of power on the Eurasian landmass.
Both Mackinder and Spykman were essentially repeating to Western statesmen what the American naval historian and strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan had written in 1901 in The Problem of Asia. Mahan envisioned the United States as the geopolitical successor to the British Empire, which required the maintenance of a favorable balance of power along the periphery of the Eurasian landmass.
The incoming Trump administration would do well to consult the works of these great geopolitical thinkers in fashioning its national security policy. The United States still leads what Walter Russell Mead calls the “maritime world order,” but that world order is under increasing challenges from potential peer competitors such as China and Russia, as well as religious/ideologically-inspired powers such as Iran and ISIS. An understanding of geopolitical realities is an essential foundation for any effective national security policy.
Francis P. Sempa is the author of Somewhere in France, Somewhere in Germany: A Combat Soldier’s Journey through the Second World War (2011), America’s Global Role (2009), and Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century (2002). He is a contributor to Population Decline and the Remaking of Great Power Politics (2012), and has written on historical and foreign policy topics for Joint Force Quarterly, the University Bookman, Presidential Studies Quarterly, Strategic Review, and the Washington Times. He is an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University, and a contributing editor to American Diplomacy.