The Vertical Axis in U.S. Foreign Policy
Image Credit: U.S. Navy (Flickr)

The Vertical Axis in U.S. Foreign Policy


Methinks New Orleans, one of the Naval Diplomat's haunts from way back, did itself proud during Super Bowl week. Denizens of Nawlins appear to be in a buoyant mood. As well they should. Best I can tell, the city has been on the upswing ever since Hurricane Katrina seven-plus years ago. Parts of town doubtless remain to be rehabilitated. But the downtown area — its public face — looked splendid a couple of years back, when last I trod the streets of Jackson Square and the French Quarter.

So much for the shout-out. Several years had elapsed between that visit and my previous one, which was around this time in 2005. Sometimes you only notice obvious things about a place after being away from it awhile. One such thing I noticed about New Orleans while traipsing around downtown is that it's a Caribbean city, not a Southern one. Mobile, Houston, my adopted hometown, Pensacola — Southern. But with its palm trees and easygoing culture, New Orleans reminds me as much of Montego Bay or St. Thomas as it does Southern icons like Atlanta or Nashville.

Why? The Mississippi River helps account for the disparity. The Miz'sipi admits shipping to the continental heartland of North America. Shipping from everywhere: the brine is a medium that places every seaport in contact with every other port across the globe. The sea lanes connect New Orleans to the Atlantic, usually via the Straits of Florida, and to the Pacific via the Panama Canal. But the greater Caribbean basin (including the Gulf of Mexico) is the city's extended neighborhood. It's hardly surprising that food from Caribbean nations is ubiquitous at such a maritime crossroads — jerk chicken, anyone? — or that some of the region's wackier cultural trappings, like carnival season or voodoo, are there to add zest to the city's life.

In his recent book The Revenge of Geography, international man of mystery Robert Kaplan reminds readers that there is, and always has been, a pronounced north-south axis to America's national worldview. Kaplan quips that the lyric from "America the Beautiful" — "from sea to shining sea" — misleads by encouraging Americans to think in purely horizontal, east-west terms.

And so it does. We forget about the vertical dimension, and indeed about geography altogether. History largely spared us the travails of fighting on our own ground or in our near abroad. So we seldom think of our hemisphere as a potential battleground, a place about which we must think strategically. You would be astounded how many knowledgeable Americans insist geography no longer matters in international affairs.

But the New World was once some of the world's most contested turf. Mineral riches beckoned Spaniards. The sugar islands were a priceless economic asset for centuries before the Panama Canal was dug. During our Revolutionary War, Great Britain's King George III ordered the Royal Navy to keep a fleet on station in the Caribbean even if it meant an invasion of the British Isles. When the canal opened, shortening voyages between Atlantic and Pacific by thousands of miles, the United States' strategic gaze took on a southerly vector to complement its perennial eastward one. Yale's Nicholas Spykman went so far as to say the republic swiveled southward on its axis.

While it won't have the same Copernican impact on Americans' outlook, the canal is undergoing a refit and expansion in time for its 2014 centennial. Gulf Coast seaports like New Orleans and Houston stand to benefit enormously once that waterway can accommodate mammoth freighters and tankers. Shippers may well offload their wares down South and ship them overland rather than journeying on to East Coast ports, with all the additional costs longer voyages exact. Having grown up along those shores, I can only say — yippee! Look south, America.

El Sid
April 12, 2013 at 04:28

It's certainly the same shape as the Freedom Bridge on the Suez Canal.

" Shippers may well offload their wares down South and ship them overland rather than journeying on to East Coast ports"

Why struggle through Panama, when you can just offload in Vancouver and let the train take the strain? Increasingly that's how the economics work.

February 7, 2013 at 08:39

Ahhhh, I literally just finished that chapter of Kaplan's book! What Holmes is alluding to (as does Kaplan) is that we, as Americans, don't pay enough attention to our own Hemisphere. We were destined for world power because our forebears settled the temperate zone of a continent that afforded us access to both major oceans; South America, by contrast, is too isolated by the natural contours of geography to facilitate any state becoming a world power. Consequentially, being blessed and isolated in our own imperium, we have enough power to spare to affect the balance of power in Eurasia, which is where the real action is…but that doesn't justify ignoring our Latin American brothers to the South. That doesn't mean we should accept a Third World invasion (mass immigration), but we should also work to build up selected states that would make worthy allies in this Hemisphere, i.e., Brazil.

February 6, 2013 at 11:36

uhh what just happened in that article…

February 6, 2013 at 04:48

If the outlook of USA was reflected in New Orleans, the lights out will be part of America's future.

February 5, 2013 at 01:54

According to this article we shall expect the south to rise once again….

Leonard R.
February 4, 2013 at 22:56

That photo is definitely not New Orleans, Houston, Mobile or Pensacola.  Is it the Panama Canal?
And it was only a couple of decades ago, when Soviet subs in the Gulf were watched from above by old USN P3's.

Share your thoughts

Your Name
Your Email
required, but not published
Your Comment

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief