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A nation must think before it acts.
The United States defines its national security interests in global terms. With every iteration of the National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy, every region of the world is acknowledged as having importance to American interests.
Yet the United States lacks the wherewithal to actively engage every part of the globe, running up, as Derek Reveron, Jim Cook and Ross Coffey note, against the “limits” of America’s ability to shape multiple regional security environments. Rebecca Lissner and Mara Rapp-Hooper concur: the United States “no longer has the power” to set the agenda in every part of the world. This is why, in May 2022, WIlliam Ruger observed that American strategists need to be able to prioritize different regions in the world “relative to our objective national interests … since it will guide how we deploy and trade-off scarce … resources.” Lissner and Rapp-Hooper thus argue that in this emerging environment, the United States will have to navigate a “more fragmented patchwork of global, regional, and domain specific orders.” Building on that theme, Elbridge Colby, who as assistant secretary of defense took the lead in drafting the 2018 National Defense Strategy, noted: “American foreign policy shouldn’t be driven by a special affinity for or “ism” about any region. It should be focused on the parts of the world that matter most for Americans’ security, prosperity, and freedom.”
In 2022, Secretary of State Tony Blinken identified his view of the geographic priority for U.S. security: “The Indo-Pacific is the fastest-growing region on the planet. What happens in this region in the 21st century will shape the trajectory of the world. That is why the United States will continue to play its stabilizing role in the Indo-Pacific.”
But this occurs against the backdrop of a major new U.S. commitment to Euro-Atlantic security, a re-engagement with the broader Middle East, new initiatives for sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, and the emergence of a new region—the Arctic—which is now also defined as vital for future U.S. security. At any given point, the U.S. national security establishment must determine whether Mexico or Moldova is more critical for the security of the U.S. homeland; whether to invest in capacity for Bahrain—given the current importance of the Persian Gulf for providing energy to the world—or for Bolivia, if the green transition takes off and lithium becomes more critical than oil. Is the Czech Republic more important than the Congo when assessing the spread of China’s global influence? So, how does the U.S. national security apparatus determine the relative importance of different regions and countries of the world to American interests and to assign priorities? It comes from an interconnected geographic assessment primarily of key military and economic factors.
Core American interests have remained remarkably stable over the decades (protecting the U.S. homeland from catastrophic attack, sustaining a global system marked by open lines of communication to facilitate commerce, and preserving regional balances of power that favor U.S. preferences), but it does not follow that every region of the world or every country is equally critical to securing these interests. Which regions of the world matter most? How this question is answered leads to very different foreign policy priorities.
For the first hundred years or so of its existence, the United States defined itself as a continental power, focused on establishing its dominance in North America, and prevented threats from overseas from interfering with its local hegemony. In an era of sail vessels oceans were difficult and treacherous to cross, thus providing the United States with two natural moats (the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans) for defense. For the most part, the United States committed itself to a policy of non-involvement and non-interference in the affairs of other parts of the world, starting with Europe, leaving to the private sector the decisions whether to accept risks for trade and commerce by venturing out to the rest of the world In 1823, President James Monroe asserted that, when it came to matters in the Old World, Americans were “interested spectators” but that “with the movements in this hemisphere we are of necessity more immediately connected.”
By the 1890s, however, the United States began to consider a more outward and expanded definition of security. Naval War College president Alfred Thayer Mahan contended that America’s economic future depended on its ability to secure new markets and sources of supply; and with the emergence of new technologies oceans were seen less as barriers and increasingly as bridges between the United States and the rest of the world. Influenced by his thinking, Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge felt American security rested in safeguarding an extended zone across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and throughout the Caribbean basin. As he put it, “I would take and hold the outworks, as we now hold the citadel, of American power.” This was part of a shift in American thinking from a continental base to reconceptualizing American security in terms of projecting power across trans-oceanic regions. Mahan, in particular, stressed the importance of controlling key maritime “choke points” both to prevent hostile powers from accessing the main ocean avenues to the United States and for the U.S. to have points of egress (in modern parlance, “lilypads,” to reach key regions, especially to defend U.S. business interests). This would enable the United States to maintain access to those parts of the world where American manufacturers would expect to sell their goods, or where they would expect to source their vital raw materials
Just as Mahan argued that new maritime technologies changed the nature of the oceans—Jon Sumida has noted how Mahan stressed the fundamental importance of patterns of sea transport and trade, examined the relationship of continental and insular land structures, and connected these subjects to national policy—other advances in communications and transportation infrastructure offered the possibility that disparate and diffused centers of land power could be more easily unified and consolidated. Halford Mackinder warned about the threat that would be posed to maritime powers like the British Empire or the United States should another great power succeed in bringing under its control the bulk of what he termed the “world island”—the interlinked continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa (Afro-Eurasia). Control of the “outworks” was insufficient; the United States would have to accept the necessity for a greater degree of engagement in the continental affairs of Europe and Asia as a necessary precondition for U.S. national security. Per the strategic principle President Franklin Delano Roosevelt enunciated in his famous “Arsenal of Democracy” address (December 29, 1940), “European and Asiatic war-makers should not gain control of the oceans which lead to this hemisphere.” Moreover, it was of vital importance that no one country gain a predominant position in the Old World, for then it would “be in a position to bring enormous military and naval resources against this hemisphere.”
By the mid-20th century, George Kennan had identified five principal “military-industrial” centers where “the sinews of modern military strength could be produced in quantity.” The United States was one; the Soviet Union, the other. The other three—Great Britain, Western Europe (centered on the Rhine Valley), and East Asia (with Japan at the center)—found themselves, after World War II, facing a credible Soviet threat that might end up with the preponderance of the world’s military-industrial strength assembled under Soviet control. This created the imperative for American security of safeguarding Western Europe and East Asia from Soviet domination, and maintaining an effort along the perimeter of the Soviet bloc an effort to contain Soviet power from breaking out and encircling these other centers. This imperative served as the basis for the U.S. approach for most of the 20th century. In addition to the major military-industrial centers, the United States also identified other regions that supplied critical commodities to Western economies, starting with energy, as priorities for U.S. national security. The Carter Doctrine (January 1980) thus added the Persian Gulf (the primary repository of much of the hydrocarbons used to power the economies of the U.S. and its allies) as a region whose security was equivalent to the homeland itself.
Lodge’s concept of the “outworks” created a tripartite focus for the United States that, as Ambassador Robert Strausz-Hupe reiterated half a century later, emphasized the importance of three specific regions—the Atlantic community, the Pacific region, and the Western Hemisphere—to American national security. However, for much of the Cold War, the primary emphasis in U.S. policy, even with the interventions in Korea and Vietnam, was on the Euro-Atlantic region. Monroe’s elevation, in the 19th century, of the Western Hemisphere gave way to a trans-Atlantic focus as no great power rival emerged in the immediate geographic neighborhood of the United States. American strategic planners highlighted the importance of the European theater, given Europe’s industrial capabilities, especially its “munitioning capacity” (e.g., its ability to produce large quantities of advanced military equipment) and the vulnerability of the northeastern Atlantic seaboard, then the industrial core of the United States, to assault across a much narrower Atlantic Ocean.
Possible threats in Asia, in contrast, were less powerful and had a greater distance to cover to be able to credibly threaten the American homeland. By the end of the 20th century, the emergence of new military-industrial centers (mainland China, India, and Southeast Asia) and the gradual but real shift in the world’s military and economic center of gravity from the Euro-Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific basin is forcing a re-evaluation of America’s traditional focus on Western Europe and the Pacific Rim. At the same time, growing concerns about the environmental and climactic impacts of the use of hydrocarbons to power industrial economies is leading efforts to transition to new forms of energy, which have raised the possible importance of southern Africa, Latin America, and the Arctic as indispensable providers of the needed commodities for this transition.
To the extent that the U.S. economy depends on globalized supply chains, and U.S. national security relies on the ability to rapidly deploy forces to maintain regional balances or respond to emerging threats, one way to conceptualize U.S. regional priorities is to identify the key maritime “nodes” of the global system. A combination of the “old” geopolitical imperatives (e.g., preventing a major power from dominating the core of Afro-Eurasia) and newer economics ones (e.g., keeping supply chains open for the free flow of vital items while blocking the spread of transnational threats like terrorism or pandemics) produces the following list:
The traditional geopolitical and updated geoeconomic approaches place a premium on “real estate”—geographic features, topography, climate, and resource endowments—for determining if an area is vital or peripheral to U.S. interests. Yet the military developments of the “Third Industrial Revolution”—especially the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles and cyber capabilities—gives countries more options for pressuring rivals without resorting to direct invasion. The economic transformation of the current “Fourth Industrial Revolution”—with its emphasis on the “internet of things,” the shift to decentralized networks away from massive centralization, and the development of new production technologies such as 3-D printing—fosters a process of devolution and the aggrandizement of smaller, more cohesive regional blocs. As futurist Parag Khanna notes, “devolution (due to spread of infrastructural connectivity, dissipation of capacity, erosion of information monopoly, etc.) remains a profound countertrend to great power competition (both globally and regionally).”
Anne-Marie Slaughter, who served as director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff during the Obama administration, argues that alongside the “chessboard” of traditional geopolitics—where states vie for control of specific “squares” of the world, the 21st century is equally defined by the “web”— “intersecting networks of people, groups, businesses, institutions, and governments.” As new technologies remove the imperative for physical proximity, a place may become important not because of its geographic location but because of the role it plays in facilitating networks—say, as a financial center (like Dubai) or technology incubator (like Taiwan for its role in semiconductor production). In his review of her work, G. John Ikenberry notes: “Energy, trade, disease, crime, terrorism, human rights … these are all areas of threat and opportunity that are now driven more by networks than by traditional interstate relations.”
This is why Robert Cutler, who focuses on geopolitics and geo-economics at the University of Waterloo, notes that in the 21st century, “projection of power and influence is based on networks, not (only) geographic contiguity.” Both “chessboard” and “web” criteria are used to determine areas of vital interest. For instance, when it comes to cybercrime that negatively impacts the United States, the “top ten” list includes not only geopolitically relevant great powers like China and Russia, but states like Nigeria, Vietnam, and Brazil that according to traditional geopolitical theory were more peripheral to the U.S. Yet under network conditions, the damage a well-organized hacking collective can wreak on U.S. interests does not depend on its geographic position. Geopolitics thus coexists with a more decentralized and shifting set of networks in terms of framing the U.S. national security agenda. The “web” elements of technology and economics are not irrelevant to the geopolitical importance of the “chessboard”—they modify but do not negate “the importance of a particular geographic space.”
Two concepts for attempting to combine “web” and “chessboard” elements are the “keystone state” and the “trans-oceanic region.” A “keystone state”, as its name implies,
gives coherence to a regional order—or, if it is itself destabilized, contributes to the insecurity of its neighbors. Such countries are important because they are located at the seams of the global system and serve as critical mediators between different major powers, acting as gateways between different blocs of states, regional associations, and civilizational groupings. … The security and prosperity of almost all countries is now dependent on a series of transnational economic, security, and political networks, which transfer capital, information, goods, and services across borders. For instance, Egypt—regardless of the size of its gross domestic product—is of particular importance to the health of the global economy because, in terms of the physical infrastructure of the world wide web, the main fiber optic cables that facilitate data transmission between the Pacific Rim, South Asia, the Middle East, and Europe all traverse its territory. Any disruption of those systems would have an immediate negative impact on internet connectivity throughout the Eastern Hemisphere.
Geography is a starting point for determining a keystone state, but beyond it, a keystone state requires the existence of important transit and communications lines that are vital for trade traversing its territory, the ability to promote regional integration and collective security among its neighbors or to serve as a point of passage between different blocs, or its position overlapping the spheres of influence of several different major actors. In the current global system, countries like Indonesia, Jordan, or Azerbaijan are easily recognizable as keystone states based on these factors. Keystone states attempt to use the networking potential of the “web” to overcome or mitigate geopolitical fracture points (such as the shatterbelt that results from being in a contested zone of competition between great powers).
The concept of a “trans-oceanic region” has emerged, as Darshana Baruah, a scholar of the Indian Ocean region, noted, out of a realization that slotting the world into “geographical silos …took away the opportunity … to have a conversation on maritime security or maritime domain as a strategic curator for bureaucracies and policymakers.” It prevented a full appreciation of how, within the major oceanic basins of the world, there is a nexus of economic, geopolitical, and security interests that provide strategic coherence both across the maritime domain and in how the littoral states then connect with their continental interiors. As Michael Green characterizes this, the effort to develop a “trans-oceanic” regional and security identity represents a fusion between the 19th-century geographic determinism of an Alfred Thayer Mahan and 21st-century constructivist thinking about the creation of new identities and associations, one that uses the principal oceanic basins of the world as its central organizing principle.
In making the case for thinking about the trans-Indian Ocean region as a single whole, Darshana Baruah and Caroline Duckworth argue that the traditional way of seeing the area as divided among three land-based regions (Middle East, Africa, and South Asia) misses the importance of how trading relationships, supply chains, transnational challenges, and security dilemmas create a single theater which runs from the east coast of Africa to the west coast of Australia.
Trans-oceanic thinking is beginning to take root. A traditional continental power like Russia is reconceptualizing its position in relation to its position as an Arctic littoral state, its access points to the Baltic and Mediterranean, and its ability via the north-south corridor to access the greater trans-Indian region and to use its Pacific ports to trade not only with its immediate neighbors but south and southeast Asia. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo uses maritime language to describe his view of the “three lighthouses” (Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan) that he views as the critical partners in each of these three key regions (Euro-Atlantic, Middle East/trans-Indian, and the Indo-Pacific). The 2022 NATO Strategic Concept also shows steps towards grappling with security issues as tied to larger trans-oceanic regions.
As we await the release of new national security strategic documents for the United States, to lay the basis for how the U.S. will approach the world in the changing conditions of the 2020s, reconceptualizing how the U.S. approaches the regions of the world will continue, as the United States must grapple both with changes to the relative importance of the squares on the geopolitical chessboard and how the web of networks changes the board altogether.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.