Note: this article was originally published on Fox & Hedgehog.
In a speech to the Australian Parliament in 2011, President Obama declared that “Our new focus on this region [the Asia Pacific] reflects a fundamental truth—the United States has been, and always will be, a Pacific nation.” His phrasing belied a rather circular logic: if the United States has always been a Pacific nation, how can it suddenly take a new notice of the region it believes marks its own identity? And if the United States must now declare itself to be a Pacific nation in order to be one, doesn’t its absence of prior declarations show how new this understanding of itself as a nation is?
A declaration of national identity in terms of geography is very different from a declaration in terms of ideology or creed. The latter, I believe, are internally focused declarations. The Declaration of Independence, for instance, is the declaration that speaks to Americans as a people about what as a nation they stand for. It describes the markers of difference between Americans and the British. But declarations of geographic identity are not like this. Declarations of geographic identity speak externally, giving those outside the nation an idea of what that nation believes its interests to be.
The United States of America pre-1916 was just that—it defined itself on its own, consciously rejecting external labels of association. It stood for itself, and in its isolationism made no declarations of what external geographies it saw itself as part of. But 1916 meant that security required looking across the Atlantic to Europe, to events there that threatened American interests within its own borders. The Atlantic commitment grew and grew as U.S. interests were threatened for a second time by Germany, and then became seemingly irrevocable with the founding of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as U.S. grand strategy came to embody the response to the Soviet threat.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization: an organization, focused on the Atlantic, that counts as members nations that share no border with that ocean, and which exists to respond to threats nowhere near the Atlantic. The Atlantic here is simply a construction used to declare externally where ideology and interests lie, without necessarily remaining faithful to geographic truth.
Even as U.S. territory in the Pacific was attacked in 1941, the response seemed not to require declarations of Pacific identity, but only an immediate military response. The focus of U.S. identity remained across the Atlantic, in Europe, where the U.S. saw itself fighting for its own values, rather than solely its territorial defence.
There were tepid attempts by the United States to look westwards following WWII—the South East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO), for instance—but these did not extend to definitions of identity, even as the U.S. became embroiled in Vietnam. Christopher Hemmer and Peter Katzenstein have explained how following the Second World War the United States tried to secure itself both from the west and the east, but the approaches it took to doing so demonstrated the relative importance of each region. The U.S. preference for multilateral institutions in Europe and bilateralism in the Asia Pacific, argue Hemmer and Katzenstein, shows clearly where the United States’ self-identity lay during the latter half of the twentieth century. Because U.S. identity lay so strongly in Europe, it was willing to give up a larger degree of control to European partners through multilateralism than to those in the Asia Pacific. Existentially threatened by the Soviet Union, the U.S. was defined by the Atlantic connection.
The United States indeed shares a long coastline with the Pacific ocean. But geographic features do not define a nation’s identity. New Zealand, a country with no geographic markers other than the Pacific, nevertheless defined itself as a European country until forced to focus anew on the Pacific following the fall of Singapore. That a country geographically as far from another as is physically possible can still align itself ideologically to the other side of the world demonstrates the constructed nature of geographic identities. It seems disingenuous for the U.S. to claim long-standing identity as a Pacific nation merely because of its Pacific coastline, or its territories in that ocean.
But if the world’s superpower declares something to be so, it most often is. “The United States has been, and always will be, a Pacific nation.” It matters not whether the historical record supports this; that the United States now believes it is enough to change the record, to change the commitments of nations, to make it a fact that must be taken into account when calculating responses. It is a fact that is now incorporated into the international political security market.
All this is to say: geographic identity descriptors are the strongest statements that can be made by a nation to demonstrate a commitment to a part of the world. In other words, these types of statements are the broadest conception of a grand strategy, where all other components within a nation must then adhere to that broadest commitment made. Those who question the commitment should not do so easily, because such a descriptor has proven historically to be long-lasting and meaningful.
The United States’ “pivot to Asia” seems itself a component of its newfound Pacific identity. Without being a Pacific nation, it is a stretch of imperial power for the United States to claim interests in the East and South China Seas. Only through believing itself to be a Pacific nation can the United States justify its re-alignment of military and economic structures to focus on Asia.
It is also interesting to reflect on the Trans-Pacific Partnership in light of the new U.S. commitment to the Pacific. Discussion has been strong over the purported benefits of the TPP to signatories’ economies. The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative estimates real income benefits to the United States of approximately $77bn annually; other sources put it at up to $131bn. At its best this represents a 0.5 percent increase in annual GDP resulting from the TPP—a not insignificant material benefit, but nonetheless not the sort of world-changing trade deal that the TPP has been billed as by governments. The fervour of the Obama administration in getting the TPP through represents, I think, the recognition that the deal would cement the U.S. de facto as a Pacific nation, as the major partner in the Pacific’s trade deal. To anyone who then questions the U.S.’ Pacific identity and commitment, the U.S. can simply point to the TPP and ask what all the fuss is about. Trade benefits are important, but pale in comparison to the effect that the deal may have on the U.S.’ grand strategy contra China.
There seem to be two further points of interest in relation to the TPP. First, there are signatories to the TPP that do not even touch that ocean, showing, just as with NATO, the necessity of constructed geographic groupings. Second, China is expected to lose approximately $35bn annually through a successful TPP implementation. If the deal was just about increasing incomes through increased trade, China would have been included in the deal. For the deal’s major partner it is about much more than that.
There are, I think, two things that can be taken away from this brief history of the U.S. as a Pacific nation and of the uses of geographic identity descriptors. The first is that U.S. allies in the Asia Pacific should be reassured of the United States’ commitment to the region. As a Pacific nation the United States cannot let other countries it believes not to be Pacific states fundamentally destabilise the region. Second, and more broadly, is the way that other nations themselves may use geographic identity descriptors to align themselves more deeply with allies. This is an important lesson for countries like New Zealand, Australia, and even those nations that do not lie in the Pacific but believe their national interests to be fundamentally affected by stability in the region.