Sample Article: The Geopolitics of the United States, Part 2: American Identity and the Threats of Tomorrow
Editorís Note:This installment on the United States, presented in two parts, is the 16th in a series of Stratfor monographs on the geopolitics of countries influential in world affairs.
We have already discussed in the first part of this analysis how the American geography dooms whoever controls the territory to being a global power, but there are a number of other outcomes that shape what that power will be like. The first and most critical is the impact of that geography on the American mindset.
The formative period of the American experience began with the opening of the Ohio River Valley by the National Road. For the next century Americans moved from the coastal states inland, finding more and better lands linked together with more and better rivers. Rains were reliable. Soil quality was reliable. Rivers were reliable. Success and wealth were assured. The trickle of settlers became a flood, and yet there was still more than enough well-watered, naturally connected lands for all.
And this happened in isolation. With the notable exception of the War of 1812, the United States did not face any significant foreign incursions in the 19th century. It contained the threat from both Canada and Mexico with a minimum of disruption to American life and in so doing ended the risk of local military conflicts with other countries. North America was viewed as a remarkably safe place.
Even the American Civil War did not disrupt this belief. The massive industrial and demographic imbalance between North and South meant that the war's outcome was never in doubt. The North's population was four times the size of the population of free Southerners while its industrial base was 10 times that of the South. As soon as the North's military strategy started to leverage those advantages the South was crushed. Additionally, most of the settlers of the Midwest and West Coast were from the North (Southern settlers moved into what would become Texas and New Mexico), so the dominant American culture was only strengthened by the limits placed on the South during Reconstruction.
As a result, life for this dominant "Northern" culture got measurably better every single year for more than five generations. Americans became convinced that such a state of affairs -- that things can, will and should improve every day -- was normal. Americans came to believe that their wealth and security is a result of a Manifest Destiny that reflects something different about Americans compared to the rest of humanity. The sense is that Americans are somehow better -- destined for greatness -- rather than simply being very lucky to live where they do. It is an unbalanced and inaccurate belief, but it is at the root of American mania and arrogance.
Many Americans do not understand that the Russian wheat belt is the steppe, which has hotter summers, colder winters and less rain than even the relatively arid Great Plains. There is not a common understanding that the histories of China and Europe are replete with genocidal conflicts because different nationalities were located too close together, or that the African plateaus hinder economic development. Instead there is a general understanding that the United States has been successful for more than two centuries and that the rest of the world has been less so. Americans do not treasure the "good times" because they see growth and security as the normal state of affairs, and Americans are more than a little puzzled as to why the rest of the world always seems to be struggling. And so what Americans see as normal day-to-day activities the rest of the world sees as American hubris.
But not everything goes right all the time. What happens when something goes wrong, when the rest of the world reaches out and touches the Americans on something other than America's terms? When one is convinced that things can, will and should continually improve, the shock of negative developments or foreign interaction is palpable. Mania becomes depression and arrogance turns into panic.
An excellent example is the Japanese attack on American forces at Pearl Harbor. Seventy years on, Americans still think of the event as a massive betrayal underlining the barbaric nature of the Japanese that justified the launching of a total war and the incineration of major cities. This despite the fact that the Americans had systemically shut off East Asia from Japanese traders, complete with a de facto energy embargo, and that the American mainland -- much less its core -- was never threatened.
Such panic and overreaction is a wellspring of modern American power. The United States is a large, physically secure, economically diverse and vibrant entity. When it acts, it can alter developments on a global scale fairly easily. But when it panics, it throws all of its ample strength at the problem at hand, and in doing so reshapes the world.
Other examples of American overreaction include the response to the Soviet launch of Sputnik and the Vietnam War. In the former, the Americans were far ahead of the Soviets in terms of chemistry, electronics and metallurgy -- the core skills needed in the space race. But because the Soviets managed to hurl something into space first the result was a nationwide American panic resulting in the re-fabrication of the country's educational system and industrial plant. The American defeat in the Vietnam conflict similarly triggered a complete military overhaul, including the introduction of information technology into weapon systems, despite the war's never having touched American shores. This paranoia was the true source of satellite communications and precision-guided weapons.
This mindset -- and the panic that comes from it -- is not limited to military events. In the 1980s the Americans became convinced that the Japanese would soon overtake them as the pre-eminent global power even though there were twice as many Americans sitting on more than 100 times as much arable land. Wall Street launched its own restructuring program, which refashioned the American business world, laying the foundation of the growth surge of the 1990s.
In World War II, this panic and overreaction landed the United States with control of Western Europe and the world's oceans, while the response to Sputnik laid the groundwork for a military and economic expansion that won the Cold War. From the Vietnam effort came technology that allows U.S. military aircraft to bomb a target half a world away. Japanophobia made the American economy radically more efficient, so that when the Cold War ended and the United States took Japan to task for its trade policies, the Americans enjoyed the 1990s boom while direct competition with leaner and meaner American firms triggered Japan's post-Cold War economic collapse.