American Geopolitics the English Way

In the 19th Century, at the height of the empire, Great Britain took on the role of the great thalassocratic power, with its back turned to the old continent, and unmatched in its colonial enterprise. Despite its dominant position and relative geographic security, given its insular condition, the historical role of Great Britain was frequently that of the actor which, being outside the European geopolitical pendulum, itself going through moments of dominance of the French axis or of the German axis, and whose transitions were often made through displays of military strength with tragic consequences, turned out to be that of the kingmaker, or in other words, the stakeholder who merely intervenes to decide who is the winner and the loser in the continent. By removing itself from continental issues, it witnessed the emerging power take the war to its own soil in World War 2, through bombardments and naval blockades. However, this positioning echoes to this day, as the Brexit event may be seen as one more strategic reevaluation by the United Kingdom, being geographically European, but not willing to be directly involved in the matters that take place in the continent, in particular the European Union, and not to be subject to its designs.

This approach, however, finds parallels on the other side of the Atlantic. American hegemony, which emerged precisely at the end of World War 2, and later from the fall of the Soviet Union, has been marked by a pronounced involvement of US foreign policy in world events. The world’s largest economy also commands the most powerful navy in history, and consequently, the largest capacity to project purely offensive military power – which from a strategic point of view may be justified with what we might call a position of pseudo-insularity vis a vis Great Britain, but of continental dimensions. The colonial system, which was largely taken down by American pressure in the post-war context and the formation of the UN, ended up being replaced by a highly dynamic and competitive business environment, and a capacity for endemic consumption which has no equal in the current context – a capacity which was also a fundamental strategic weapon in creating the international order of the second half of the 20th century, particularly in the creation of an alliance that would oppose the USSR.

Months after the referendum that would decide whether the United Kingdom would remain or leave the European Union, the American elections saw the confirmation of a president with a markedly protectionist, isolationist discourse, and an approach to the country’s foreign policy on a quid pro quo basis – the defensive aegis of the USA (via NATO) would no longer be extended without its beneficiaries contributing with some sort of compensation, or at least, assuming the military spending targets that are stipulated by NATO membership. Some authors state that this process of recentering of US foreign policy was already taking place since the fall of the USSR, and that sitting president Donald Trump merely verbalized it[1], but this change, paired with the forewarned emergence, be it on economical or geopolitical terms, of new countries to the main stage of international politics, makes us rethink which would be the role of the USA in the future. The answer might precisely be in the past.

Despite remaining as the number one economy on the world stage, the consensus among economists appears to be that while the US share of the world GDP will decrease, it will still remain in the number one position.[2]. The demographic trends of the present century are likely to reinforce this pattern, especially in countries with young populations, where the African continent shows a much higher presence by comparison with the ageing populations of East Asia, whose export prowess led to markedly high GDP growth rates, and threatened to bring the world’s financial center of gravity to their region. As this trend slows down, and other actors emerge, we head towards a multipolar world order, with a more balanced distribution of powers, but at the same time, where the US will still have a prominent position, although not as the center of a liberal world order as it has been since 1945, to a situation of unipolarity since 1995, but as an independent actor, with the ability to decide who the winners and losers are in the coming world order, while divesting from the fate of its traditional economic and military partners, and becomes focused on the dynamics of its hemisphere. This is a possible scenario of return to the past, whose actual details will be doubtlessly built by the up-and-coming individuals in American political decision-making.

[1] Zeihan, P. in Disunited Nations: The Scramble for Power in an Ungoverned World (2020) pp. 1-61

[2] Rebelo de Sousa, A. in Da Economia (2017) pp. 737-746

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