By More Than Providence: A book review by Bob Morris

By More Than Providence: Grand Strategy and American Power in the Asia Pacific Since 1783
Michael Green
Columbia University Press (2017)

Why and how — throughout its history — the U.S. has had to secure its position in the Asia Pacific by more than providence

In this remarkable volume, Michael Green provides an abundance of information and insights while examining the development of grand strategy and American power in the Asia Pacific from 1783 until 2015. This is indeed an evidence-driven analysis as indicated by 139 pages of annotated notes. I hasten to point out, at this point, that I am not an historian, much less an authority on military history. Green seems to have written this book for persons such as I, however, who have a keen interest in how thirteen colonies who established a new nation would evolve — over time — into the global powerhouse it eventually became and continues to be.

Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840-1914) is only one of countless people on whom Green focuses — previously unknown to me — who played a key role in that process. Green observes, “it was Mahan who ultimately exerted the greatest influence on the foreign policies of both Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt (not to mention the war-fighting strategies of the Imperial Japanese Navy). This was in part because Mahan combined the knowledge of history and the sea in terms of Americans had not seen before, but he was than an apostle for naval power. His was the first comprehensive grand strategic concept for the United States – in the Pacific – harnessing diplomatic, ideational, military, and economic tools in pursuit of national interests at a level of detail and realism not met by [John Quincy] Adams, [Matthew Galbraith] Perry, or [William Henry] Seward.”

In a review of By More Than Providence for The New York Times, Gordon Chang addresses a shared vision of “manifest destiny” that extended far beyond both western and eastern coastlines: “Protection of the Pacific, therefore, became a paramount concern. American presidents, diplomats, admirals and analysts may have disagreed on strategy, but the disagreements were mostly about how far forward to draw America’s defensive line. As Walter Lippmann noted, the United States was never isolationist in the Pacific.

“The American effort over time is all the more remarkable because democracies are, by their nature, ill-suited to maintaining consistent foreign policies, something noted by Alexis de Tocqueville in “Democracy in America.” As Green writes: “The founders created a system that was designed to prevent precisely the kind of centralization of decision-making imagined by Thucydides, Clausewitz and other classical strategic thinkers.” Yet America has been able to maintain consistency because its policy, he perceptively notes, “always flowed organically from the Republic’s values and geographic circumstances.”

“Those geographic circumstances — two oceans — did not insulate America. The United States fought two great wars in Europe in the last century, both to prevent one power, Germany, from seizing the continent. That same strategic imperative forced Washington to engage in two epic struggles in the Asia-Pacific, first a war with Japan and then a multidecade effort to contain Soviet power.”

These are among the several dozen passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Green’s coverage:

o The Rise of the United States (Pages 17-18)
o Commerce, the Navy, and God: Expanding Relations with the Pacific During the Era of Manifest Destiny (30-34)
o “Maintaining a Propitious Environment”: Great-Power Politics and American Good Offices (64-70)
o Strategic Lessons from the Gilded Age (76-77)
o “The Greatest Danger to Our Proximate Interests”: Alfred Thayer Mahan and the Problem of Asia (79-86, and 104-107)

o [Theodore Roosevelt] and the Great-Power Diplomacy After Victory (96-97 and 105-108)
o The Rise of Japan (111-113 and 156-239)
o “A Door of Friendship and Advantage”: Woodrow Wilson’s Idealistic but Eurocentric Policy (123-131)
o Conclusion: The War as Crucible (237-239)
o The Rise of the Soviets (241-243)

o “The Best and the Brightest”: Kennedy and Johnson’s Asia Hands (299-306)
o “To Take All Necessary Steps”: Escalation (306-311)
o Nixon’s Legacy in Asia Strategy (354-362)
o Carter’s Legacy in Asia Strategy (382-386)
o Richard Allen (391-392 and 394-397)

o Reagan’s Legacy in Asia Strategy (420-421)
o Clinton Administration (426-427 and 453-481)
o Clinton’s Legacy in Asia Strategy (480-481)
o [George W.] Bush’s Legacy in Asia Strategy (516-517)
o Obama’s Legacy in Asia Strategy (539-540)

This book explains with rigor and eloquence why and how — throughout its history — the U.S. has had to secure its position in the Asia Pacific by more than providence. Early on, Michael Green notes that “the roots of modern American strategic thought on the Pacific have remained largely untouched by generations.” That is, I presume to add, until now.

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