With the world seemingly departing from the familiar for parts unknown almost anywhere one looks these days (the Middle East’s evidently insatiable crescendo of chaos, Brexit, the paranormal US election, even staid central bankers exploring the world of negative numbers), this Fourth of July seemed a propitious moment to take a step back from it all.
Annually since 2011, the powerful and trenchant Stratfor has reprinted its monograph on “The Geopolitics of the United States,” which puts global trends in historic military, political, and strategic perspective. The Stratfor piece is actually in two parts, “The Inevitable Empire,” and “American Identity and the Threats of Tomorrow.” I will highlight a few of its insights here.
One of America’s great and oft unappreciated gifts is simply its geography. The Mississippi Basin together with the Intracoastal Waterway contain more kilometers of navigable internal waterways than the rest of the world combined, and the American Midwest is the world’s most productive and largest contiguous piece of farmland. The Atlantic Coast offers more major ports than the rest of the Western Hemisphere.
This matters because water transport is typically one-thirtieth the cost of land transport per ton-mile. And while the Atlantic and Pacific are universally recognized as vast insulators to America’s east and west, less well appreciated is that deserts to our south and lakes and forests to our north provide significant geographic separation from Mexico and Canada, or at least their population centers.
Nevertheless, as Stratfor observes,
But the United States as an entity was not a sure thing in the beginning. France controlled the bulk of the useful territory that in time would enable the United States to rise to power, while the Spanish empire boasted a larger and more robust economy and population in the New World than the fledgling United States. Most of the original 13 colonies were lightly populated by European standards — only Philadelphia could be considered a true city in the European sense — and were linked by only the most basic of physical infrastructure. Additionally, rivers flowed west to east across the coastal plain, tending to sequester regional identities rather than unify them.
Fortunately for the colonies, all the European powers with North American landholdings viewed them as secondary to the real game, which was on the European continent a hemisphere away. Striking a tone of some incredulity, Stratfor notes that
France did not even bother using its American territories to dispose of undesirable segments of its society, while Spain granted its viceroys wide latitude in how they governed imperial territories simply because it was not very important so long as the silver and gold shipments kept arriving.
Still, success as an independent nation was far from assured. The early colonies’ coastal nature made them vulnerable to any serious sea power (cf. the War of 1812, when the British rather handily sacked Washington, DC). Coastal nations have only two ways to protect themselves: Counter navies with a navy of your own, but this gets expensive fast, and the early United States could barely muster a serviceable merchant marine, much less a blue-water navy that others would have to take seriously. This brings us to the second option, which the US pursued with a vengeance: Develop internal territories (primarily, for the US, the great Mississippi Basin).
First we purchased the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803, doubling our territorial landmass at a blow and giving us control of New Orleans, safeguarding access to the entire watershed. (The French may have been willing sellers because at the time Napoleon needed to finance a few military campaigns.)
Second was construction of the Cumberland (a/k/a the “National”) Road, now often seen as a forgotten footnote but critical in linking the East Coast to the interior: It ran first from Baltimore to Cumberland, Maryland (navigable head of the Potomac), then west to the Ohio River Valley at Wheeling, West Virginia in 1818, to Ohio by 1828, Indiana by 1832, Illinois by 1838, and finally Jefferson City, Missouri in 1840. If you’ve traveled on Interstate 70 you have the Cumberland Road to thank for the route.
Finally was the extension to the Pacific by the Oregon Trail, a less well-defined and distinct effort than the Cumberland Road, but of vast consequence strategically and in terms of “addressable” landmass—ultimately touching Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Idaho, California, and of course Oregon.
This secured the young United State’s reach from ocean to ocean but there was still the potential of land-based threats to contend with. To the US’ north, for better or worse but “for good” in the temporal sense, Canada’s far harsher climate and the north-south barriers of the Canadian Rockies and the Canadian Shield have kept Canada far less economically integrated than might otherwise be possible.
Being pragmatic and subscribing to the better part of valor, once the War of 1812 was over—when Canadian troops had taken a leading role in helping the British sack Washington, an insult Americans resented deeply at the time—Canada slowly migrated to a course of full economic integration with the United States, cordial relations with Washington, and downplaying of its former role in the British Empire.
On our southern border, the long drawn-out (and, if certain erstwhile politicians had their druthers, still continuing) tensions with Mexico took longer to resolve, but were ultimately settled for better or worse &c. by the five-to-one-outnumbered “Texians'” improbable victory over (and capturing of) Mexican dictator/general Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto in 1836. That gave the nascent nation of Texas breathing room, but it was still eyed as desirable territory by the both the US and Mexico.
Here another Trail enters history: The Santa Fe Trail, by which the US populated western Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona with American settlers and extending US economic power into those territories at the same time. Confirmation of this US-centric tendency came in the 1846-1848 Mexican-American War whose outcome is well known but which involved a subtle and nice bit of strategy before the outcome was to be clear: The US opened the war with a series of diversionary attacks across the border region, which drew the preponderance of Mexican forces into long and grueling marches across the Chihuahuan, Sonoran and Mojave deserts.
Once the vast bulk of Mexico’s army was far north of Mexico’s core territory—and on the wrong side of the daunting deserts—the US launched an amphibious landing at Veracruz (Mexico’s only real port) before marching on to and capturing Mexico City. All four points of the compass were now secure.
So are countries made—and so, one can readily imagine, are countries undone, should any of a number of geographic or historic variables been different.
This brings us to Brexit.
All that can credibly be said as of now is that we’re in a fog of uncertainty, anyone who claims otherwise is a mountebank, and it’s all going to be very complex and time-consuming to sort out.
Thanks to the Channel and its profound ramifications throughout history, Britain has never been “of” Europe in any way like the nations on the Continent. Its orientation has for centuries been more outward, more maritime, first Atlantic and then global and with, frankly, a continuous and strong strain of Euro-skepticism.
Again (yes, there’s a theme here) I’ll refer to Stratfor and their piece last week (published June 29, just five days after the voting, “Making Sense of Brexit.” Their view, which is surely evolving along with everyone else’s, is that Brexit is a symptom of something far larger:
Of the millions of words written in the past few days about Brexit — the British vote to leave the European Union — the word “State” has seldom appeared. Very few commentators seem to appreciate the one concept that unites the otherwise disparate and paradoxical elements of the Brexit vote. For unless one appreciates that the driving historical force that has brought us to this impasse is the decay of one constitutional order, the industrial nation-state, and the emergence of its successor, the informational market state, the crises brought on by Brexit will simply confound us.
We may be in a period of transition from a world of nation states, perhaps best defined in the late 1800’s in Germany and the US, and particularly after WWI (themselves the successors to empires) to a world of “market states,” where the priority shifts from top-down paternalism administering legislatively driven agendas (social engineering in general) to a priority of providing job training, infrastructure, less complex tax regimes, and other measures designed to enhance individuals’ and communities’ competitiveness in a market order beyond anyone’s control.
Many people find both these alternative models unsatisfactory. The nation state may seem historically exhausted, with the EU itself poster child for such a model. Meanwhile, market states may be (ideally) meritocratic and indifferent to race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, but they’re also indifferent to loyalty, religion, reverence in general, and the family.
We’ll close with the prescient words of Mervyn King in his marvelous The End of Alchemy (W. W. Norton & Co.: 2016) who wrote well in advance of the Brexit vote (p. 344):
Put bluntly, monetary union [in the EU] has created a conflict between a centralised elite on the one hand, and the forces of democracy at the national level on the other. This is extraordinarily dangerous.
In 2015, the Presidents of the European Commission, the Euro Summit, the Eurogroup, the European Central Bank and the European Parliament (the existence of five presidents is testimony to the bureaucratic skills of the elite) published a report arguing for fiscal union in which ‘decisions will icnreasingly need to be made collectively’ and implicitly supporting hte idea of a single finance minister for the euro area.
This approach of creeping transfer of sovereignty to an unelected centre is deeply flawed and will meet popular resistance.
This nation-building stuff is just plain hard, isn’t it?
Happy Fourth to one and all!
We leave the last word to His Royal Majesty King George III: