Earning the Rockies

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Drawn in by Henry Kissinger’s effusive praise, I had high hopes for Earning the Rockies. A book that promised to explain how “geography will always determine America’s role in the world,” Earning the Rockies initially disappointed me with its spending of the first one hundred or so pages following the author on his pan-US road trip, a journey the author tells us must be done to appreciate America’s geography and ultimately its power.

The author, Robert Kaplan, a former national security chair at the US Naval Academy and member of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board, spends these pages recording his observations as he makes his way from his comfortable New England home in Massachusetts to the San Diego Naval Base. Along the way he walks in the shadow of eminent thinkers who came before him such as Bernard DeVoto, Walter Webb, and Wallace Stegner all of whom recognized the power of America’s geography in shaping its politics and ultimately the idea of Manifest Destiny. These thinkers lay a formidable groundwork for Kaplan to build upon.

DeVoto remarked that "the yield of a hard country is a love deeper than a fat and easy land inspires" (p. 25) in his novel The Year of Decision 1846¸ which describes the doubling of the US landmass when one-term president James Polk – the greatest one-termer according to Kaplan* – acquired the Oregon Territory, California, and New Mexico. Next, Webb in The Great Plains and Stegner in Beyond the 100th Meridian both commented on how a different America exists westward of the 100th meridian of longitude (a line that passes through the Dakotas down to Texas), and how the lack of readily-available water in these western territories resulted in a different way of life and ultimately different institutions. Kaplan here adds that had the US been settled west-to-east, he believes that it would have been a less liberal country as only the 13 water-rich New England colonies had the luxury of relaxing regulation.

In developing this idea of two distinct Americas (globalized vs. nationalistic), Kaplan reiterates a narrative recently-popularized and referred to since the election of Donald Trump as the 45th president**. While, coastal, cosmopolitan, and globalized Americans were shocked that their non-coastal fellow countrymen had elected Trump, Kaplan was not. He explains that most Americans don’t fit into the 3 categories of elites first outlined by Walter Mead: (1) Wilsonians (those who believe democracy and upholding international law), (2) Hamiltonians (intellectual realists and believers in international commercial ties), or (3) Jeffersonians (those who champion American domestic democracy). Instead, most Americans are Jacksonians (proponents of honor, literal faith in God, and military institutions).

These mostly-interior Jacksonians are inheritors of the very-same warrior tradition and frontier ethos that allowed early settlers to colonize the continent, and the appeal of isolationism to them is quite apparent: in a landscape with so much going on inside it, one hardly has the time to consider the world outside.

But onto geography:

"Geography is not where analysis of national power ends, but is surely where it beings. The fact is, America's geography is the most favored in the world: one perfectly apportioned for nation-hood and global responsibility. Whereas Alaska and Hawaii allow the US to project power all across the northern and central Pacific, the lower forty-eight states are protected by two great oceans and the Canadian Arctic: it is only Mexico to the south … that inhibits to a limited extent America's combination of splendid isolation and oceanic access to both Europe and Asia." (p. 132-133)

As Kaplan explains, America’s greatness is derived from its coherence as a nation, empire, and continent***. This unity in turn comes from the fact that the US has more miles of navigable inland waterways than the rest of the world combined. Further, these waterways crisscross the country diagonally in a manner that unites it relative to Russia’s vertical rivers. This idea of geographic determinism is quickly outlined with comparisons to other countries:

  • Europe’s configuration makes it predisposed to a lack of internal cohesion, and its real southern border is the Sahara desert, which is why it’s currently under attack by the Middle East
  • Russia’s indefensible borders make it predisposed to despotic rule
  • Although China’s modern development is on par with the US, it has to deal with allies such as Japan, S. Korea, Philippines, and Australia whereas the US during its development only had to deal with Canada… further China has domestic enemies: Uighurs and Tibetans
  • India has potential but has historically lacked governing continuity

And one simple fact: thanks its geographic positioning, post-WW2, the only western nation whose homeland wasn’t destroyed was the US, which represented 50% of global manufacturing at the time.

Kaplan’s most trenchant analysis comes in his final chapter wherein he outlines the internal contradictions that the US and Americans faces today thanks to its status as a great continental power. He writes that:

“American foreign policy is governed by the tension between morality and amorality. Power can be spent morally in humanitarian endeavors, but that very power can only be acquired amorally for the sake of balancing against geopolitical adversaries and protecting sea lines of communication and access to hydrocarbons: goals that while not immoral, still do not necessarily fall within the category of lofty principles.” (p. 142) 

Simply put, the US does bad things (interventions in foreign nation states, implicit support of totalitarian regimes for resource security) in order to do good things (be the US).

He also notes the hypocrisy that Americans face when dealing with their imperial legacy ("conquering [the West] was an undeniable imperial venture… and even the most enlightened empires are cruel beyond measure" (p. 97)) whilst simultaneously believing in Manifest Destiny (i.e. America as a shining city upon a hill) and denying the very idea of an American empire****.

Ultimately, Earning the Rockies is an interesting look at how America’s geography has played a role in shaping its status as the hegemon in today’s world. This hegemony is supported by America’s navy, the largest in the world, and its imperial class’ values of ‘universalism’ which are often at odds with the ‘particularism’ (assisted by continentalism/quasi-isolationalism) of traditional realists. And although, Kaplan sees China’s military rise as the single most important challenge to US foreign policy in the 21st century, he sees the utilization of India as a hedge against China.


* Kaplan has George H.W. Bush as a close second thanks to his decision to commit hundreds of thousands of troops to eject Iraq from Kuwait and to not break relations with China after Tiananmen

** Elucidated in an interesting, personal perspective in The Hillbilly Elegy (ALSO REVIEWED LOL)

*** Kaplan does not commit single cause fallacy here by also attributing half of US power to “the ingenuity of a European civilization, characterized by a secular Protestant creed and early modern and modern British parliamentary traditions (p. 121)”

**** Elucidated in Colossus, by Niall Ferguson (ALSO REVIEWED LOL)