Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts History and Geography: A Meditation on Foreign Policy and FPRI’s 50th Anniversary

History and Geography: A Meditation on Foreign Policy and FPRI’s 50th Anniversary

Fifty years ago, the United States was engaged in an epic struggle on a world scale: the Cold War with the Soviet Union and international communism. At the time, there were two dominant ways of thinking in America about world affairs. One, the mode of most practitioners of foreign policy, was pragmatism. Drawing upon a pervasive and long-standing American philosophical approach, it tended to look at the particulars of each distinct case. The results were foreign policies and strategies that were usually short-term and often short-sighted. In 1955, there was considerable evidence— most recently the stalemating of the United States in the Korean War; the defeat of America’s ally, France, in the Indochinese War; and the Soviet development of H-bombs— that this approach was no way to win the Cold War.

The second way of thinking, the mode of many scholars of international politics (most notably Hans Morgenthau), was scientism. This also drew upon a pervasive and long-standing American philosophical approach: the belief that important problems could be solved by scientific laws and technical innovations. The results were policy and strategy recommendations that, however elegant in theory, were too abstract to be helpful in practice.

In 1955, there was also considerable evidence— the U.S. reliance upon abstract nuclear strategies of massive retaliation and upon largely formal alliance systems, such as the Baghdad Pact and the South East Asian Treaty Organization— that this approach was also no way to win the Cold War. Neither pragmatism nor scientism paid much attention to the ways history and geography shaped the actual realities of the foreign challenges America faced.

It was in this conceptual context that FPRI founder Robert Strausz-Hupé decided that there was a better way of thinking about world affairs, which was geopolitics. By this, he meant an emphasis upon history and geography. Strausz-Hupé knew that America’s greatest adversary, the Soviet Union, grounded its own foreign policy and strategy in an interpretation of history and geography, and that the Soviets viewed their struggle against the United States through a long-term perspective, i.e., they had developed a strategy of protracted conflict. He also believed that, although communist ideology helped to make the Soviets implacable, it was an error to try to predict Soviet behavior from communist ideology alone; rather, Soviet foreign policy and strategy were also greatly shaped by the history and geography of Russian imperialism. For the United States to prevail in this protracted conflict with the Soviet Union, it would have to develop its own understanding of history and geography and its own strategy of protracted conflict.

In order to expound this geopolitical understanding of world affairs, Strausz-Hupé founded FPRI in Philadelphia in 1955, as an antidote to the twin deformations of pragmatism and scientism. Drawing upon the best of scholarship, the Institute would perform an educational role with respect to two audiences. First, it would help to enlighten political leaders and policymakers about the nature of the protracted conflict, the historical and geographical realities that shaped it, and how to win it. Second, it would help to educate other opinion-makers, who in turn would help to inform the wider public. Hence, the debate over American foreign policy, heretofore limited to a small elite, would be “democratized.”

The world has turned over many times since 1955. The Cold War, the Soviet Union, and communist ideology are no more, and in large measure this is because the United States did prove capable of waging a protracted conflict over the long-run. But as most of the articles in this issue of Orbis attest, America is now engaged in a new protracted conflict on a world scale, this time with Islamist insurgency and terrorism. In the more distant future, there may also develop a protracted conflict with the rising economic and military power of China, although this is not inevitable.

It would be an error to try to predict the behavior of Islamist insurgents and terrorists on the basis of Islamic theology or even Islamist ideology alone, particularly since Islamists take their own understanding of their history very seriously. Rather, an American understanding of the history and geography of the variety of Islamist threats is essential. Similarly, it would be an error to try to predict Chinese behavior from communist ideology or even from abstract notions of the Chinese national interest alone. The Chinese certainly take their own understanding of their history and geography very seriously, and so should we.

This issue of Orbis begins with a cluster of five articles that together discuss American strategy, with special attention to the role of history, geography, and morality and to the contemporary security challenges America faces. These essays owe their origin to the Thornton D. Hooper Lecture Series on American Strategy, made possible by the generosity of Bruce and Eileen Hooper. In addition, we have two articles (by Keith Mines and by Charles Moskos) that discuss current problems and choices in the U.S. military, which is the necessary instrument to carry out any effective American strategy.

The global Islamist threat to America is discussed by a second cluster, composed of two articles (by John Schindler and by Vanni Cappelli) and two review essays (by Robert Snyder and by Susan Braden). Together, these essays present several different strategic options for dealing with the Islamist threat.

China has an ancient and sophisticated strategic tradition, but it is also developing a new maritime strategic doctrine which focuses upon an eventual contest with the United States, and this is discussed by Toshi Yoshihara and James Holmes. Finally, the fundamental basis of any sound national strategy is a sound national society. Radical demographic charges in Western societies, especially in Europe, are a source for serious weakness in the future. These are discussed by Pavel Kohout.

As in 1955 and the fifty years since, so too today and very likely in the fifty years to come, FPRI will seek to comprehend the world and to aid U.S. foreign policy and strategy. FPRI’s scholars will pay special attention to those protracted conflicts that make tragedy an enduring condition of world affairs. It will do so by contributing a distinctive way of thinking: one that emphasizes history and geography and focuses on the perennial and the long term, especially those ideals that sustain the American experiment.

See also

For related articles on FPRI’s website, see: