James Holmes

The Vertical Axis in U.S. Foreign Policy

“…we seldom think of our hemisphere as a potential battleground…”

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.

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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.