Reality Check

How Geography Explains the United States

Even after the tragedy in Boston, our country remains uniquely secure from foreign threats -- and that shapes how Americans see the world.

By , a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Do Americans have a worldview? And is there a central organizing principle that explains it? To frame the question in Tolkienesque terms: Might there be one explanation that rules them all?

I think there is.

Sigmund Freud argued that in the human enterprise, anatomy is destiny. In the affairs of nations, geography -- what it wills, demands, and bestows -- is destiny too.

Do Americans have a worldview? And is there a central organizing principle that explains it? To frame the question in Tolkienesque terms: Might there be one explanation that rules them all?

I think there is.

Sigmund Freud argued that in the human enterprise, anatomy is destiny. In the affairs of nations, geography — what it wills, demands, and bestows — is destiny too.

It can’t explain everything, to be sure. Britain and Japan are both island nations. That might explain their reliance on naval power and even their imperial aspirations. But what accounts for their fundamentally different histories? Other factors are clearly at play, including culture, religion, and what nature bestows or denies in resources. Fortune, along with the random circumstances it brings, pushes them in different directions.

Still, if I had to identify that one thing that — more than any other — helps explain the way Americans see the world, it would be America’s physical location. It’s kind of like in the real estate business: It’s all about location, location, location.

The United States is the only great power in the history of the world that has had the luxury of having nonpredatory neighbors to its north and south, and fish to its east and west. The two oceans to either side of the country are what historian Thomas Bailey brilliantly described as its liquid assets.

Canadians, Mexicans, and fish. That trio of neighbors has given the United States an unprecedented degree of security, a huge margin for error in international affairs, and the luxury of largely unfettered development.

From the earliest days of the country’s founding, geography has been much more an ally than adversary. As the Brits found out, an island cannot rule a continent. To be sure, America was vulnerable in those early years. The French and Spanish threatened North America with their imperial ambitions. The British also wouldn’t give up easily: The king’s troops invaded and burned parts of Washington in 1812 and again looked for advantages during the U.S. Civil War.

Still, for most of its history, the United States lived with a security unparalleled among the countries of the world. And despite the shrinking nature of that world and the threats it carried — take the Pearl Harbor attack, the Cuban missile crisis, the 9/11 attacks — the United States never faced a threat to its existence. Its only real existential threat came not from abroad, but from within — a civil war over slavery that almost tore the country apart. Indeed, after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, the United States would never again be faced with a threat quite like that.

Because America’s geographical position is so unique in the world, it has led to a worldview that is often unrealistic and riddled with contradictions. However well-intentioned Americans may be, their view of global politics is frequently at war with itself. Here are three strains of thought in Americans’ approach to global affairs that continue to impact their country’s role in the world today.

American pragmatism

Freed from the religious and ethnic conflicts of the Old World, America emerged as a world power relatively free from the heavy burdens of ideology. In the New World, Americans created a creed based on the centrality of the individual and the protection of rights and liberties.

Part of that creed also involved a commitment to pragmatism. To overcome the challenges of nation-building, the United States became a country of fixers. Above all, what mattered was what worked.

Sure, it was America’s unique political system that forced compromise and practicality. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves: The United States’ success was made possible by a remarkable margin of security provided by two vast oceans, which allowed Americans the time and space to work on their union largely freed from constant external threats and crises.

Other countries have not been so lucky. It’s fascinating to observe, for example, that Israel has no written constitution. Instead, it has a series of "basic laws" that have evolved over time. Why? The Israelis could not devote the time or risk the divisions that might have resulted from debating core issues when they were struggling to preserve their independence. These core questions — such as those about the religious character of the state and the role of Arab citizens — remain largely unresolved to this day.

Although the U.S. political system failed to resolve the problem of slavery without a civil war, the United States did manage to make it through that war as a united country. Location had much to do with this: You can only imagine America’s fate had it been surrounded by hostile neighbors eager to take advantage of years of bloody war.

Americans seem to believe that because rational dialogue, debate, and compromise have served the United States well, the rest of the world should follow in their footsteps. As Americans extended their influence beyond U.S. shores, it was inevitable that this fix-it mentality would influence U.S. diplomacy.

At the 2000 Camp David summit, I’ll never forget how impressed I was by the Americans’ ability to come up with ingenious fixes — and how disappointed I was when the Israelis and Palestinians didn’t buy them. What could possibly be wrong with granting Israelis sovereignty below ground on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and granting Palestinians sovereignty above ground? It seemed like a brilliant solution to Americans looking to cut a deal, but the parties themselves didn’t see it that way.

Americans’ belief in solutions is both endearing and naive. I think that as the United States gets older as a nation, Americans are coming to accept theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s notion that the best we can do is come up with proximate solutions to insoluble problems.

American idealism

The luxury of America’s circumstances — particularly its physical security and detachment from the world’s ethnic and tribal quarrels — has given Americans an optimistic view of their future. And it has produced a strain in U.S. foreign policy that seeks to do good across the globe.

That optimism can often obscure the grimmer realities of international politics. Americans never really knew the mentality of the small power — the fear of living on the knife’s edge, the trauma of being without, and the viciousness of ethnic and tribal struggle.

U.S. nationalism was defined politically, not ethnically. Anyone can be an American, regardless of color, creed, or religion. America’s public square has become an inclusive one — and is becoming more so, not less. That’s all good news, but too often, it leads Americans to see the world on their terms and not the way it really is.

Just look at America’s recent foreign-policy misadventures. Americans’ mistaken belief that post-invasion Iraq would be a place where Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds would somehow look to the future to build a new nation reflected this tendency. It’s the same story with the Arab Spring: From the beginning, America seemed determined to impose its own upbeat Hollywood ending on a movie that was only just getting started and would become much darker than imagined. The notion that what was happening in Egypt was a transformative event that would turn the country over to the secular liberals powered by Facebook and Twitter was truly an American conceit.

Americans weren’t alone in creating this false narrative, but that doesn’t make their inclination for self-delusion any more comforting. This annoying tendency to see the world as they want it, rather than how it really is, can get them into real trouble. Just take Egypt, which is now in the hands of that country’s two least democratic forces: the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian Army — both of which the United States
is supporting.

American arrogance and ambivalence

Being powerful and relatively free from the threat of attack means Americans don’t have to care much about what the rest of the world thinks. And like all big powers prior, America has taken full advantage of this privilege: It has championed human rights while supporting dictators and has mouthed support for the United Nations and international law while undermining both when U.S. interests demanded it. America’s recent behavior in the Middle East serves as a case study: The United States encouraged reform in Egypt and largely ignored political unrest in Bahrain, highlighted women’s rights in Egypt but not in Saudi Arabia, and intervened in Libya but not Syria.

What sets the United States apart from past world powers is Americans’ ambivalence about their country’s role abroad. Americans have an almost schizophrenic view: They want to be left alone on some days (the post-World War I era, for example) and on other days try to fundamentally change the planet (Iraq in 2003). This is related to the fact that they can come and go as they please — a luxury of America’s location. It’s almost as if U.S. foreign policy is discretionary.

I would have thought that in the wake of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the United States would be entering a period of full-fledged retreat from global affairs. And though President Barack Obama is indeed extricator in chief — determined to take America out of old wars, not get them involved in new ones — he has also been a wartime president since his first term.

Obama may well remain a wartime president until he leaves office. The crisis on the Korean Peninsula, mission creep in Syria, and the prospect of military action against Iran all hold out the likelihood that the next four years will see America more involved in trying to solve the problems of the world. And if the April 15 attack in Boston turns out to be perpetrated by an al Qaeda contractor or part of some Iranian-sponsored black ops, the deadly business of whacking bad guys will intensify. After all, the organizing principle of a country’s foreign policy is protecting the homeland. If you can’t do that, you don’t need a foreign policy.

There’s much good America can do in the world. It remains the most powerful and consequential actor on the world stage and will likely maintain that status for some time to come. Americans just have to be smart about how they use that power — and always remember that not everyone is lucky enough to have Canadians, Mexicans, and fish for neighbors.

Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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