The German political geographer Friedrich Ratzel once wrote that “Great statesmen have never lacked a feeling for geography… When one speaks of a healthy political instinct, one usually means a correct evaluation of the geographic bases of political power.”
Americans have been present in the Pacific since the dawn of the Republic. At the time of George Washington’s inauguration in 1789, the country consisted of just 13 states huddled along the Atlantic seaboard, but in the geography of sail navigation Boston and New York were just as close to China as were London, Liverpool, and other European ports. More importantly, the United States was by far the largest whaling country in the world, and with the Atlantic increasingly “fished” out, the whales were in the Pacific. The “Canton trade” with China and the whaling grounds of the northern Pacific made the nascent United States the second most important trading country in Asia (after England).
When the British ambassador, Lord Macartney, presented himself before the Chinese emperor Qianlong in 1793, he exhibited, along with his Chinese hosts, the classic “disconnect” between the two cultures which Michael Keevak discusses in his excellent study of embassies to China. “Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance,” Qianlong told Macartney, “therefore there is no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own products.”