The Preponderance of Geography: Revisiting American Grand Strategy in Asia

Below is a snippet of a working paper I did for  The American Studies Program, Institute of Security and International Studies, Bangkok back in 2009. Some of the arguments or articulations seems antiquated and not well-developed. But hey, it’s a working paper, right? I hope to revisit this issue again in the near future and turn in into an actual paper.

What drives the grand strategy of great powers?  Answering this question is crucial not just for the respective countries which such grand strategies are meant to serve, but since foreign policy is an inherent component of any grand strategy, the impact of those grand strategies will also likely be felt by the targeted countries. Furthermore, understanding the grand strategies of great powers also allows us to discern insights into broader regional and international relations that unfold alongside. The case of American grand strategy is particularly relevant here. Not just because of its impact in shaping the regional environment in the Asia Pacific region, but also because of its often contradictory puzzles. In a broad sense, even the nature of U.S. regional engagement is paradoxical.

Following the end of the Cold War, the so-called “age of primacy,” American military power and its “command of the global commons” have made it the strongest power in world, and yet, the U.S. increasingly turns to regional friends to play a larger role. In another example, though the U.S. is often seen as the driver of democratization, American-backed authoritarian regimes are also prevalent—from the House of Saud in the Middle East to “soft authoritarian” rulers like Singapore, or military-backed regimes like Indonesia under Suharto. To simply say that ‘national interest’ explains these paradoxes in grand strategy is insufficient. For one thing, the concept itself is often so vague and broad that it offers little by way of explanatory and predictive value. For another, the concept often fails to adequately explain the continuity and change of grand strategic choices.

In this paper, I offer a plausibility probe of how geography—specifically, geo-strategy or the geographical considerations of military policy and strategy—continues to shape U.S. grand strategy in Asia. I also argue that such geographical preponderance is mainly caused by the institutionalization of geography in American grand strategy making, and the increasing role of military officers, specifically Regional Combatant Commanders (previously known as regional CINCs), in foreign policy making and execution. These arguments will then be applied to revisit American grand strategy in Asia. Moreover, given the region’s geostrategic maritime character, the role of the U.S. Navy through the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) is especially crucial as a means to sustain American grand strategy geared to prevent the rise of regional hegemons while sustaining current operations across the spectrum of threats.

We will also look at how PACOM’s military presence is complimented by Theatre Security Cooperation programs, especially joint training exercises, educational initiatives, and other security assistance. These arguments lead to the conclusion that continuity, not change, has been, and perhaps always will be, the essential contour of American grand strategy and that geography plays a large role in this regard. This means that despite the rhetoric of “change” following President Obama’s ascension to the White House, there will be plenty of “continuity” in the current and future American grand strategy in Asia.

The full working paper is available here.


One thought on “The Preponderance of Geography: Revisiting American Grand Strategy in Asia

  1. Dear Mas Evan,

    My name is Astari Daenuwy and I am currently a junior diplomat in training at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Indonesia (Kemlu). I am writing a paper on Indonesia’s foreign policy, making a comparative case study between RI’s policy towards the US and China. I’ve read your articles on CSIS’ website and I’m very much interested in reading your paper “The Preponderance of Geography: Revisiting American Grand Strategy in Asia.” Would it be possible to obtain a soft copy of this paper? I assure you that this is only for my research purposes only and not for re-publication.

    I look forward to your response. Thank you very much.

    Astari M. Daenuwy

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