“Man cannot control the current of events,” remarked Otto von Bismarck, “he can only float with them and steer.” The great German Chancellor understood that it is much easier to design a grand strategy for international politics than to implement one.
Michael J Green, a former NSC staffer and currently an Asia scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, has written a brilliant and highly readable history of America’s evolving grand strategy toward Asia and the Pacific since 1783.
Green has written a brilliant and highly readable history of America’s evolving grand strategy toward Asia and the Pacific.
In By More Than Providence, Green combines historical scholarship, an understanding of America’s “strategic culture”, and shrewd geopolitical insight informed by the timeless writings of Sir Halford Mackinder, Nicholas Spykman, and Alfred Thayer Mahan. The result is a tour de force that is destined to be the definitive work on the history of America’s strategic approach to the Asia-Pacific for many years to come.
Green explores what he calls the “five tensions” that reappear throughout history in America’s approach to the Asia-Pacific—Europe vs Asia; continental vs maritime; defining a forward defensive line in the region; self-determination vs universal values; and protectionism vs free trade—between which, he writes, US statesmen have “struggled to find the right balance.”
Contrary to the conventional wisdom in America that Asia attracted U.S. strategic attention only after the Spanish-American War, the United States has interacted with Asia and the Pacific since the early days of the Republic, beginning with commercial and missionary activities that set the stage for exploration and ultimately political expansion.
Green recounts the growth of US naval power in the 1820s and 1830s, the exploration of Pacific islands in the late 1830s and 1840s, President Tyler’s extension of the Monroe Doctrine to Hawaii (then called the Sandwich Islands), Secretary of State Seward’s strategic vision of acquiring islands to form “steppingstones across the Pacific,” and Admiral Perry’s opening of Japan to American interests.
Grand strategy, however, requires a grand strategist and political leaders to implement it. The United States was fortunate in the late 19th -early 20th century to have both.
Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan was a reluctant seaman but a brilliant writer and thinker who, Green writes, authored “the first comprehensive grand strategic concept for the United States in the Pacific.” In his book The Problem of Asia, Mahan “identified permanent American interests in key geographic areas of the globe in terms of geography, spatial factors, and the distribution of power.” Central Eurasia was the “debatable and debated land,” potentially dominated by Russia, with a weak but potentially powerful China, and a rising offshore power in Japan. Mahan wrote that the United States, with its new Asian and Pacific possessions acquired during and after the Spanish-American War, needed a strong navy to influence the balance of power in East Asia and the Pacific.
Theodore Roosevelt was an admirer of Mahan’s writings and frequently corresponded with him on international and naval subjects. As President of the United States, Roosevelt translated some of Mahan’s concepts “into effective national policy.” Roosevelt expanded US naval power and used diplomacy to maintain an Asian balance of power between Russia and Japan.
The next two decades, however, witnessed a shift in priorities from Asia to Europe with the outbreak of the First World War. The two real “winners” of that war were the United States and Japan whose interests began to collide in the Pacific and East Asia. Roosevelt and Mahan foresaw this, but Woodrow Wilson and his immediate successors placed their trust not in an American-influenced balance of power but in treaties, the League of Nations, and utopian arms control agreements.
Green notes that although Franklin Roosevelt admired both cousin Theodore and Mahan, his approach to Asia throughout much of the 1930s was little more than “strategic drift.” After Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, FDR pursued a “Europe first” strategy that consigned Asia and the Pacific to secondary importance, much to the chagrin of America’s admirals and General Douglas MacArthur.
During the Second World War, Mackinder and Spykman presciently warned that Russia and/or China could replace Germany-Japan as the next potential hegemon of Eurasia, and urged the democratic sea powers to pursue strategies to prevent or offset such a development. The emerging Cold War in the late 1940s confirmed the wisdom of the geopoliticians. Green is scathing in his criticism of US policy toward China during the struggle between Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists and Mao’s Communists:
[The] Communist victory … was ‘far from secure, and its margin of victory in the civil war was thinner than it might appear to have been.’ The 1946 arms embargo left Chiang short of ammunition he needed to fight in the north…, and the combination of proper equipment and American advisors… may well have been enough to tip the balance in the pitched conventional battles in Manchuria and the north and ended the war in stalemate and the blunting of communist expansion.
Had the outcome of the Chinese Civil War been a divided China on the continent, Chiang’s forces would have served as a buffer against communist support for North Korea and later Vietnam. Arguably, the United States committed hundreds of thousands of troops to Korea and Vietnam and lost tens of thousands of men because it was unwilling to commit a few thousand of advisors and a few hundred million dollars in additional aid to Chiang in 1947.
The “wise men” of the Truman administration fell far short of wisdom in their postwar approach to China, and the cost would be borne by US soldiers, sailors, and airmen in two East Asian wars that resulted in stalemate and defeat.
A tour de force that is destined to be the definitive work on the history of America’s strategic approach to the Asia-Pacific for many years to come.
Though Green is critical of the Kennedy and Johnson administration’s strategy (or lack thereof) in Vietnam, he sides with Michael Lind and other revisionists, including Singapore’s late Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew, in believing that the US effort in Vietnam bought time for the other nations of Southeast Asia, including Indonesia, to “fortify their political, economic, and military capabilities” to effectively resist communist takeovers.
As the war in Vietnam sapped US willpower, President Richard Nixon (who Green rates second only to Theodore Roosevelt as a presidential geopolitical strategist) “took decisive steps to restore a favorable balance of power while realigning American ends with reduced American means.” Nixon instituted “Vietnamization” to extract US ground troops from Southeast Asia, applied the concept to other areas as the so-called “Nixon Doctrine”, pursued hard-headed détente with the Soviet Union, and orchestrated the opening to China which Green believes, with Henry Kissinger, set the stage for the Reagan administration’s policies that ended the Cold War on favorable terms for the US.
Green laments that no American president since Reagan has rooted US Asia-Pacific strategy in “a clear understanding of the geopolitics of the region.” Most recently, the Obama “pivot” to Asia, he writes, has been more rhetoric than reality as U.S. defense budgets declined and America became preoccupied with Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
As China rises economically and militarily, U.S. statesmen, Green writes, must understand that America