How Geography Explains the United States

Even after the tragedy in Boston, our country remains uniquely secure from foreign threats -- and that shapes how Americans see the world.

Do Americans have a worldview? And is there a central organizing principle that explains it? To frame the question in Tolkienesque terms: Might there be one explanation that rules them all?

I think there is.

Sigmund Freud argued that in the human enterprise, anatomy is destiny. In the affairs of nations, geography -- what it wills, demands, and bestows -- is destiny too.

It can't explain everything, to be sure. Britain and Japan are both island nations. That might explain their reliance on naval power and even their imperial aspirations. But what accounts for their fundamentally different histories? Other factors are clearly at play, including culture, religion, and what nature bestows or denies in resources. Fortune, along with the random circumstances it brings, pushes them in different directions.

Still, if I had to identify that one thing that -- more than any other -- helps explain the way Americans see the world, it would be America's physical location. It's kind of like in the real estate business: It's all about location, location, location.

The United States is the only great power in the history of the world that has had the luxury of having nonpredatory neighbors to its north and south, and fish to its east and west. The two oceans to either side of the country are what historian Thomas Bailey brilliantly described as its liquid assets.

Canadians, Mexicans, and fish. That trio of neighbors has given the United States an unprecedented degree of security, a huge margin for error in international affairs, and the luxury of largely unfettered development.

From the earliest days of the country's founding, geography has been much more an ally than adversary. As the Brits found out, an island cannot rule a continent. To be sure, America was vulnerable in those early years. The French and Spanish threatened North America with their imperial ambitions. The British also wouldn't give up easily: The king's troops invaded and burned parts of Washington in 1812 and again looked for advantages during the U.S. Civil War.

Still, for most of its history, the United States lived with a security unparalleled among the countries of the world. And despite the shrinking nature of that world and the threats it carried -- take the Pearl Harbor attack, the Cuban missile crisis, the 9/11 attacks -- the United States never faced a threat to its existence. Its only real existential threat came not from abroad, but from within -- a civil war over slavery that almost tore the country apart. Indeed, after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, the United States would never again be faced with a threat quite like that.

Because America's geographical position is so unique in the world, it has led to a worldview that is often unrealistic and riddled with contradictions. However well-intentioned Americans may be, their view of global politics is frequently at war with itself. Here are three strains of thought in Americans' approach to global affairs that continue to impact their country's role in the world today.

American pragmatism

Freed from the religious and ethnic conflicts of the Old World, America emerged as a world power relatively free from the heavy burdens of ideology. In the New World, Americans created a creed based on the centrality of the individual and the protection of rights and liberties.

Part of that creed also involved a commitment to pragmatism. To overcome the challenges of nation-building, the United States became a country of fixers. Above all, what mattered was what worked.

Sure, it was America's unique political system that forced compromise and practicality. But we shouldn't kid ourselves: The United States' success was made possible by a remarkable margin of security provided by two vast oceans, which allowed Americans the time and space to work on their union largely freed from constant external threats and crises.

Other countries have not been so lucky. It's fascinating to observe, for example, that Israel has no written constitution. Instead, it has a series of "basic laws" that have evolved over time. Why? The Israelis could not devote the time or risk the divisions that might have resulted from debating core issues when they were struggling to preserve their independence. These core questions -- such as those about the religious character of the state and the role of Arab citizens -- remain largely unresolved to this day.

Although the U.S. political system failed to resolve the problem of slavery without a civil war, the United States did manage to make it through that war as a united country. Location had much to do with this: You can only imagine America's fate had it been surrounded by hostile neighbors eager to take advantage of years of bloody war.

Americans seem to believe that because rational dialogue, debate, and compromise have served the United States well, the rest of the world should follow in their footsteps. As Americans extended their influence beyond U.S. shores, it was inevitable that this fix-it mentality would influence U.S. diplomacy.

At the 2000 Camp David summit, I'll never forget how impressed I was by the Americans' ability to come up with ingenious fixes -- and how disappointed I was when the Israelis and Palestinians didn't buy them. What could possibly be wrong with granting Israelis sovereignty below ground on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and granting Palestinians sovereignty above ground? It seemed like a brilliant solution to Americans looking to cut a deal, but the parties themselves didn't see it that way.

Americans' belief in solutions is both endearing and naive. I think that as the United States gets older as a nation, Americans are coming to accept theologian Reinhold Niebuhr's notion that the best we can do is come up with proximate solutions to insoluble problems.

American idealism

The luxury of America's circumstances -- particularly its physical security and detachment from the world's ethnic and tribal quarrels -- has given Americans an optimistic view of their future. And it has produced a strain in U.S. foreign policy that seeks to do good across the globe.

That optimism can often obscure the grimmer realities of international politics. Americans never really knew the mentality of the small power -- the fear of living on the knife's edge, the trauma of being without, and the viciousness of ethnic and tribal struggle.

U.S. nationalism was defined politically, not ethnically. Anyone can be an American, regardless of color, creed, or religion. America's public square has become an inclusive one -- and is becoming more so, not less. That's all good news, but too often, it leads Americans to see the world on their terms and not the way it really is.

Just look at America's recent foreign-policy misadventures. Americans' mistaken belief that post-invasion Iraq would be a place where Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds would somehow look to the future to build a new nation reflected this tendency. It's the same story with the Arab Spring: From the beginning, America seemed determined to impose its own upbeat Hollywood ending on a movie that was only just getting started and would become much darker than imagined. The notion that what was happening in Egypt was a transformative event that would turn the country over to the secular liberals powered by Facebook and Twitter was truly an American conceit.

Americans weren't alone in creating this false narrative, but that doesn't make their inclination for self-delusion any more comforting. This annoying tendency to see the world as they want it, rather than how it really is, can get them into real trouble. Just take Egypt, which is now in the hands of that country's two least democratic forces: the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian Army -- both of which the United States is supporting.

American arrogance and ambivalence

Being powerful and relatively free from the threat of attack means Americans don't have to care much about what the rest of the world thinks. And like all big powers prior, America has taken full advantage of this privilege: It has championed human rights while supporting dictators and has mouthed support for the United Nations and international law while undermining both when U.S. interests demanded it. America's recent behavior in the Middle East serves as a case study: The United States encouraged reform in Egypt and largely ignored political unrest in Bahrain, highlighted women's rights in Egypt but not in Saudi Arabia, and intervened in Libya but not Syria.

What sets the United States apart from past world powers is Americans' ambivalence about their country's role abroad. Americans have an almost schizophrenic view: They want to be left alone on some days (the post-World War I era, for example) and on other days try to fundamentally change the planet (Iraq in 2003). This is related to the fact that they can come and go as they please -- a luxury of America's location. It's almost as if U.S. foreign policy is discretionary.

I would have thought that in the wake of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the United States would be entering a period of full-fledged retreat from global affairs. And though President Barack Obama is indeed extricator in chief -- determined to take America out of old wars, not get them involved in new ones -- he has also been a wartime president since his first term.

Obama may well remain a wartime president until he leaves office. The crisis on the Korean Peninsula, mission creep in Syria, and the prospect of military action against Iran all hold out the likelihood that the next four years will see America more involved in trying to solve the problems of the world. And if the April 15 attack in Boston turns out to be perpetrated by an al Qaeda contractor or part of some Iranian-sponsored black ops, the deadly business of whacking bad guys will intensify. After all, the organizing principle of a country's foreign policy is protecting the homeland. If you can't do that, you don't need a foreign policy.

There's much good America can do in the world. It remains the most powerful and consequential actor on the world stage and will likely maintain that status for some time to come. Americans just have to be smart about how they use that power -- and always remember that not everyone is lucky enough to have Canadians, Mexicans, and fish for neighbors.


Reality Check

Don't Call It a Shuttle

John Kerry arrived in the Holy Land in his latest attempt to jumpstart talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Here's how he can get the peace process off life support.

War threatens the Korean Peninsula, Syria is imploding, and negotiations with Iran are at an impasse -- even as the centrifuges continue to spin toward a nuclear nirvana for the mullahs. Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry spent his weekend trying to wrestle with the Israeli-Palestinian problem.

Confused about Kerry's priorities? Don't be. Pushing for progress on the Mideast peace process is both necessary and commendable.

The Palestinian problem isn't the key to regional tranquility. It never was and never will be. But it will continue to be a drag on American credibility in a region that has grown increasingly angry, anti-American, and dysfunctional -- particularly now that acquiescent authoritarians like Egypt's Hosni Mubarak have passed from the scene. The United States has less regional cover now, and its policies are more exposed to the fiery cauldron of Arab public opinion than ever before.

The issue isn't whether the United States should engage, but how. Kerry, Obama's point man for this mission, confronts a conundrum: The two-state solution is too complicated to implement now, but it's also too important to abandon. It's hard to see how to square this particular circle at the moment.

That brings us to the matter of John Kerry and the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. As the secretary of state undertakes his third visit to the not-so-holy-land in as many months, here are four "don'ts" -- and one "do" -- about how to revive the stalled peace process.

Don't call this a shuttle

Kerry hasn't used the "s" word, to my knowledge. He's said repeatedly -- probably too many times -- that he isn't carrying a ready-made plan or initiative in his pocket.

But the press -- struck by the difference in style from his predecessor, Hillary Clinton -- has started beating the drum that we're heading into some kind of U.S. shuttle diplomacy. Sooner rather than later, some journalists would have you believe, the secretary of state will embark on some urgent mission in which he hooks the parties around some negotiating text and shuttles back and forth between the parties in breathless pursuit of an agreement. We can only hope so.

In the Middle East context, the "s" word was first used by Henry Kissinger in 1973 and 1974. The late Undersecretary of State Joe Sisco, or more likely the inestimable Assistant Secretary of State Harold Saunders, invented the term. It would come to describe the successful pursuit of three disengagement agreements -- two between Israel and Egypt, and one between Israel and Syria. The latter took 33 days -- making it the longest period in which a secretary of state had been out of the United States since Woodrow Wilson's Secretary of State Robert Lansing attended the Versailles peace conference in 1919.

But whatever Kerry is trying to do, he's not shuttling. A couple of meetings in Jerusalem and Ramallah doesn't a shuttle make. Shuttle diplomacy requires urgency, Arabs and Israelis who really are serious about a deal, a negotiating text, and a willful and empowered mediator prepared to use honey and vinegar to bring the two sides together. It helps immensely if the broker is prepared to walk away from the enterprise if the parties don't cooperate. Is any of that in place now?

Don't overestimate the importance of personality

And this brings us to a related point. I've harped in this space repeatedly on the skills and virtues of two previous secretaries of state, Henry Kissinger and James Baker. But without the circumstances that allowed them to display their formidable talents, there would have been no virtuoso performance. And the most important of these circumstances is the urgency of the moment -- usually driven by both pain and gain, which impels the locals to change their calculations and readjust their horizons to consider an agreement.

Do we really think Kissinger could have succeeded without the 1973 October war, Jimmy Carter without Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, or Baker without America's victory in the first Gulf War? Those guys were good -- but they weren't that good.

No matter how smart and determined Kerry is, he can't manufacture that sense of urgency nor fabricate the ownership required by the Arabs and Israelis to reach an agreement. He can prod, push, bribe, and cajole -- but without the parties' need for the deal, it's not going to happen.

The absence of that urgency and ownership is why there has been no consequential U.S.-brokered agreement since Baker's Madrid conference. That's right -- since October 1991. I'll do the math: That's nearly 22 years.

Don't push for talks for the sake of talks

I'm sure Kerry has already figured this out. Going back to the table without some mutually agreed terms of reference, guidelines, and a code of conduct will mean motion without movement and undermine what's left of the negotiating process -- not to mention Kerry's credibility.

What could possibly come of a rush to get Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table if the gaps that separate them are too wide, neither side is invested in the proposals, and the lack of trust is so deep that neither side is prepared to give the other the benefit of the doubt? At Madrid, we knew that talking for the sake of talking was worth something -- old taboos were broken, new bonds formed. But that was then.

After two decades of failed talks, violence, broken trust, negotiations without direction are not just a key to an empty room, they're destructive and harmful. No negotiations are better than dishonest ones.

Don't become part of the furniture

Baker made nine trips to the Middle East in 1991 to pull off the Madrid conference. Bill Clinton's first secretary of state, Warren Christopher, travelled to the Middle East 20-some times to support the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo agreements. Some criticized him for it, and there was certainly a lot of process and little peace. But that diplomacy helped support the Oslo process, facilitate Israeli-Syrian negotiations, and broker agreements between Israel, Lebanon, and Syria along the Israeli-Lebanese border. That was a lot of time in the air, to be sure, but the diplomacy actually led to results.

Kerry will soon face a separate frequent-flyer problem. For a new secretary of state, three trips in as many months to assess the situation on the ground makes sense. But if Kerry makes a few more without gaining some traction, he will increasingly risk being taken for granted by the Israelis and Palestinians -- too much a part of the furniture.  Both parties can smell an empty suit a mile away. Without results, the Kerry's street cred will rapidly diminish.

The new secretary of state must preserve his authority, and that's undermined by repeated travel viewed as motion without movement. Working on a proposal to get the parties back to the table without a way to keep them there just won't cut it. Condi Rice got her own Hebrew verb -- le kandel -- for her eight trips to put together the Annapolis Conference. The word means "to do nothing."

In this regard, Kerry has a bureaucratic problem. He's right to shy away from appointing a high-level envoy, but he does need a person of some stature who reports to him and can work this issue 24/7, particularly in the region. There are problems with allowing his assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs to play that role: It's a big region and the Israeli-Palestinian issue is a full-time business. Nor can the U.S. ambassador to Israel or the consul general in Jerusalem do it, because it's hard for them to engage with both sides. But if this process gets going, he will need someone who can travel to the region with a frequency that he simply can't.

Do: Identify a strategy

I know this seems so obvious that it shouldn't need repeating. But just take a look at Obama's first term: A bunch of very smart people either thought they had a strategy, or figured they didn't need one. Either way, what emerged -- pushing Netanyahu on a comprehensive settlement freeze -- took bumbling to a new level.

Describing Kerry's challenge is simple. Given the current impasse between Israelis and Palestinians, what might work?

Here's what won't -- a focus on confidence-building measures. It's the 20th anniversary of Oslo -- a heroic process that failed in part because its interim character couldn't be tied to a political horizon that included a resolution to the core issues of the status of Jerusalem, borders, security, and refugees.

The other idea whose time hasn't come -- but is already linked to Kerry's talks with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan -- is using the Turks to lean on Hamas to recognize Israel. It's a curious strategy that threatens to undermine Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, alienate Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi, and provide a justification for some Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to put the negotiations on permanent hold. And it will also embroil Obama in a political mess with Congress and the pro-Israel community.

Every think tank in Washington is basically sending the same message to Kerry: A conflict-ending agreement isn't possible now, so focus on getting an agreement on principles or terms of reference on the big issues. And try to begin with a focus on borders and security -- the two issues where the gaps are narrowest.

This approach makes sense, but has its drawbacks. Jerusalem is a territorial issue too, and by breaking the issues apart you remove the capacity to do trade-offs. For Palestinians, deferring Jerusalem and refugees is a major problem, and the chances of getting this Israeli government and Abbas to agree on setting the border based on some variation of the June 1967 lines is remote.

Still, it's likely that Kerry will try to persuade Israelis and Palestinians to pursue some variant of the security for sovereignty tradeoff, together with confidence-building measures in the initial phase.

Will it work? Well, who knows. But along the way, a moment will invariably come when success or failure may depend on a sustained intervention and some risk taking by the president. We already know Kerry cares about the two-state solution -- he's spending his weekends in Jerusalem and Ramallah instead of his pad on Nantucket. But does the president? At some point, we're also going to find out whether -- or to be more precise, just how much -- Barack Obama cares.

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