Foreign Policy by Map

George W. Bush left office with his activist foreign policy in disrepute. Fast-forward six years: President Barack Obama has pursued, in some respects, the opposite approach, and yet he has reached an even lower foreign-policy approval rating — around 32 percent — than his harried predecessor, and presides over a new crisis of confidence in American power. It turns out, as Robert Kagan has noted, that while the president delivered exactly the foreign policy the American people wanted when they elected him twice, they don’t like it very much.

One of the reasons the United States swings back and forth between policy approaches — too hawkish or too dovish — is that we tend to root our foreign policy in political philosophy. As one might expect, the four or five dominant American foreign-policy schools of thought have wildly different assumptions about human behavior, human nature, the forces of history, the purposes and uses of power, the role of America, and just about everything else that goes into one’s worldview.

If the central organizing principle for the foreign policy of a great power is based on a political philosophy or worldview that is coherent but not widely held over the long term by a vast majority of the body politic, it will falter with time — especially if it requires sacrifices and offers only a long-term payoff. And yet if a great power has no real organizing principle or worldview, it bounces from one exigency to the next, always responding to events and never shaping them.

Especially in a diverse representative democracy, we should be skeptical of the staying power of any ideological or philosophical basis for such an organizing principle, yet remain mindful of the need for one. So where can we turn?

The answer should be the map — literally, the physical map, and more broadly, geopolitics classically defined, which of course has political geography at its root. A geopolitical analysis of the United States and the rest of the world offers better guidance for a consistent, smartly managed, prudent, and unapologetic exertion of American power and leadership than any particular political philosophy or perspective on human nature. Of course, the map doesn’t spit out easy answers or perfect policies, but geopolitical realities — many of which move as little as the mountains of the Hindu Kush have moved in the past several thousand years — can point one in a very sound direction.

“Geopolitics” was once a well-understood term, but it is now largely lost in a world where…

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