What are America’s core geopolitical interests?

August 1, 2013

Robert Kaplan takes a stab at that question his National Interest piece The Tragedy of US Foreign Policy.   The tragedy, Kaplan asserts, is that the US cannot – and arguably must not – always and everywhere pursue the goals of personal liberty and human rights that it claims for its own citizens (the debate of how well we do protecting those rights at home is always worth having, but I’ll leave it aside in this post).  Kaplan argues (and I tend to agree) that the responsibilities attendant to the unique US geopolitical position actually constrains its ability to act in what might otherwise be its moral interests.

“The United States, like any nation—but especially because it is a great power—simply has interests that do not always cohere with its values. That is tragic, but it is a tragedy that has to be embraced and accepted.

What are those overriding interests? The United States, as the dominant power in the Western Hemisphere, must always prevent any other power from becoming equally dominant in the Eastern Hemisphere. Moreover, as a liberal maritime power, the United States must seek to protect the sea lines of communication that enable world trade. It must also seek to protect both treaty and de facto allies, and especially their access to hydrocarbons. These are all interests that, while not necessarily contradictory to human rights, simply do not operate in the same category.

Because the United States is a liberal power, its interests—even when they are not directly concerned with human rights—are generally moral. But they are only secondarily moral. For seeking to adjust the balance of power in one’s favor has been throughout history an amoral enterprise pursued by both liberal and illiberal powers. Nevertheless, when a liberal power like the United States pursues such a goal in the service of preventing war among major states, it is acting morally in the highest sense.”

Kaplan is associated with the neo-conservative school of US foreign policy, but the broad description that he gives in the above cited section would just as easily have been embraced by JFK or even FDR as by any conservative president.  It was even applied directly by one of our most pacifist presidents, who instituted the Carter Doctrine, which dedicated US military force to the protection of oil flows out of the Persian Gulf and is the genesis of our entanglement with a large number of anti-democratic, anti-Western, religiously intolerant and misogynistic regimes for over 30 years.  Technological and policy innovation in the energy sphere – both of which are within our grasp – would free us from that entanglement and perhaps even free us to act more easily in the moral interest.


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