Opening Reflection

5 November 2008

It is one of the weaknesses of the geopolitical perspective that it de-emphasizes the role of ideology and attendant cognitive dispositions as actors in history and shapers of policy. It is my intention in this forum to view geopolitics through the prism of ideas, which makes my enterprise a somewhat derived reflection, as geopolitics itself is the attempt to see world events through the prism of geography, with special attention to the ways in which geography shapes history and places constraints upon human action. The objectivity that the geopolitical perspective makes possible is truly salutary, but this perspective, if it is not to lead to nonsense, must be supplemented by an account of events that does not exclude the ideology that motivates human actors in history. That will be my task.

So I begin this account as the US has just settled upon a president-elect. For anyone not blinded by ideological blinkers, the result of the election has been obvious for a month. The commentariat and the punditocracy likes nothing better than to bash the commentary and punditry of the pollsters, but, truth be told, the polls are usually right. Certainly polling methodology has dramatically improved since Truman defeated Dewey contrary to expectations. Since that dramatic reversal, every US politician on the losing side of the polls holds out hope for a dramatic upset, but it almost never happens.

Many of those who have voted for Barack Obama believe that he represents a dramatic change for the better. Many of those who voted against him believe that he represents a dramatic change for the worse. Of course, there will be no dramatic changes and no revolutionary policy initiatives. It is sheer naïveté to believe that there will be dramatic or revolutionary changes. The new president’s foreign policy advisers are all Democratic party stalwarts, and the Financial Times called his economic advisers “centrist.” For those who aren’t aware of this, “centrist” is a political code word that signals continuity. And the Obama administration will demonstrate a significant level of continuity with the Bush administration, as the Bush administration preserved continuity with the Clinton administration, and so on and so forth.

That being said, the international outpouring of goodwill in the wake of Obama’s election is unprecedented. European family members have sent congratulatory e-mails to members of my family here in the US. A comment on the BBC from Amman claimed that children were greeting each other with “Happy Obama day”, and Kenya has declared a public holiday in view of the fact that a son of their soil will be the next US president. Nothing like this would have happened had McCain been elected, and this unprecedented outpouring of goodwill is something that could not be bought for any price. While policy continuity might ultimately issue in disappointment sharpened by unrealistic expectations for change, this reservoir of goodwill is a powerful ally for the Obama administration. Probably no administration in my lifetime will come into office with such a level of goodwill around the world, and if this goodwill is not squandered, it can be a powerful tool of what Joseph Nye has called “soft power”.

If the presence of a new face alters the world’s perception of perennial US policies for the better, then that is all to the good. The leaders of the world’s nation-states are as committed to the calculus of interests as are American leaders of all political persuasions. They will not expect transformational change, and they will not get transformational change. They will get a new face on perennial US interests. Whether or not they like the new face will not influence the calculus of their interests, which are as perennial as US interests. The populations of other nation-states, in contradistinction to their leaders, may well expect transformational change, but unlike the hard-headed realists who fought their way into office by the ballot box or the gun or the smoke-filled back room, these peoples will be influenced by their level of emotional approval or disapproval for the new face of the US president, and, as the outpouring of goodwill attests, their liking will give both their leaders and the new US president room to maneuver. Obama will have the benefit of the doubt, and this can be parlayed into significant opportunity.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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12 Responses to “Opening Reflection”

  1. Ken said

    But Nick, there are those who have dramatically altered the way this country has not only been perceived, but , also in the way it was governed. Franklin Delano Roosevelt is one that bears looking at as a truly “transformational” president. His administration broke totally with Hoover’s in that Roosevelt believed that government could and should take an active role in trying to overcome the crushing burden of unemployment and poverty resulting from the depression. Hoover believed government had no role.

  2. geopolicraticus said

    Thanks for your comment, Ken. I agree that FDR’s administration did, without question, enact transformational change. What do you think is the likelihood of an Obama administration packing the Supreme Court in the way that FDR did in order to pass his agenda, or enacting programs on the scale of the CCC or the WPA? Not very likely. We will see policy “tweaks” and adjustments, but the most radical thing that might happen is nationalized health care, which is not really all that radical. I am not saying the transformational change is a bad thing, only that it is unlikely. Jefferson said “Every generation needs a new revolution”, and maybe we need a revolution too, but genuine revolutions are thin on the ground. People are squeamish about the fact that one must break eggs to make an omelet.

  3. Ken said

    “Packing” the Supreme Court may be easier than one may think inasmuch as there may be at least 3 or more retirees. Also, based on the strength of the boots on the ground among ordinary folk who so actively worked for Obama, coupled with the lack of corporate dollars for funding his campaign, not to mention the strength of his victory, could make it hard for resistance to his agenda. One could make the case that the mood of the people in this country is very much against corporate & wall street america. The revolution may already be underway

    • Sam said

      It is unfortunate that the administration has reinforced continuity in more ways than not while allowing that continuity to be distorted to appear as though it were not continuity at all.

  4. geopolicraticus said

    Ken, terms like “revolution” tend to be used rather loosely, so if we are not to talk at cross purposes we would need to agree on a definition. I suggest that there will be no revolution as I define the term (viz. etymologically, as the return to a point of origin and a new beginning from that point — think of the “revolution” of a planet in orbit). Have we, as a nation, come “full circle” with the recent election? That is a matter upon which I would not expect consensus.

    Certainly the mood of the people is very much against corporate and financial interests, but the mood of the people is fickle and will change in time. Moreover, the masses respond to symbols and emotional appeals. They do not know what agenda the Democrats want to pursue with their majorities, other than the fact that they want to see improvement in their personal situation. This improvement will be measured by the old Reagan question: Are you better off now than you were four years ago? The question is so vague it allows people to be profoundly dishonest with themselves, and fickle individuals will give different answers to this question.

    The upcoming Obama administration will of course appoint Supreme Court Justices in accord with its views and as vacancies become available, but I can’t see them increasing the number of sitting Justices. This would be too controversial. They will choose their battles more wisely than this.

    • Sam said

      Reading these comments in 2015.

      • geopolicraticus said

        I’m surprised anyone would dig so deeply. I’ve thought about deleting some of my earlier posts, but instead they mostly just languish in obscurity.

        Best wishes,


        • Sam said

          Please don’t delete them. It is interesting to read your thoughts and see them fleshed out. You have hyperlinks all over the place and has lead me to have about 26 tabs open on my phone alone. You are an extremely prolific writer and it will take me quite some time to catch up. Everything you seem to write about from Chinese human rights to space colonization, from historical analysis to the values we hold are items I have been fascinated with my whole life. To delete these posts would not only rob posterity of a wealth of analysis and thought but would also eliminate from the web a refreshing breathe of intellectual work. As I am sure you can attest there is certainly a lack of insightful, honest, and deep thought and analysis out there on the “blogosphere”.

          In short:
          Please don’t delete and thank you for contributing to the dialogue of humanity.

        • geopolicraticus said

          Dear Sam,

          No, I’m not going to go back through my archives and throw them all away. I have only thought about getting rid of a few things that I no longer think are very good, but so far everything I’ve written for this blog remains available, no matter how embarrassing. As you note, it gives the whole developmental trajectory from the beginning to the present day.

          I have often been surprised that some extensive blogs have been entirely deleted (or, at least, removed from public view), and I can’t imagine why someone would do this, except if they were turning the material into a book and the publisher didn’t want the first draft blog posts still out there.

          I appreciate your taking the time to follow the links and find related ideas. Someone once said of Alfred North Whitehead’s Process and Reality that the development was not linear, but rather web-like. The use of hypertext now allows one to write philosophy in a new way, as a fully reticulated text, in which each section refers to many other sections, so that the reader can branch outward from whatever point they first encountered the text in whatever direction they like.

          Best wishes,


        • Sam said

          I love hyperlinks for that reason. They also are beautiful in that they allow footnotes or addendums or what not to be inserted as appropriate.

          One thing I have not been able to locate which I would find quite useful would be a table of contents. I would like to see the big picture (the humor of that statement didn’t occur to me until I was writing it). Is there a plan to develop one?

        • geopolicraticus said

          How would I go about developing a table of contents? Do you know if WordPress has a utility to do this? As I spend most of my time researching and writing, I pay little attention to technical details. If I had a staff, I would have them take care of this sort of thing for me.

          Best wishes,


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