A Continental Island

Sometimes people refer to “Fortress America” as a somewhat ironic term for the military-industrial complex. But a much more accurate term would be “Island America.” For, indeed, the United States of America is an island – and I’m not just counting Hawaii here.

The thing is, it’s a really BIG island – sea-to-shining-sea, after all – and it’s easy to forget we live on one. The tension between real and imagined status as an island nation has always been a defining characteristic of American national character.

So let’s stop for a moment and consider why America is an island politically and geographically.

Why Is America an Island?

The overwhelming political factor is that we have good neighbors – Canadians to the left of me, Mexicans to the right; here I am, stuck in the middle with U.(S.A.). Things are pretty quiet here. The world’s longest undefended border last saw battle in the War of 1812. The U.S.-Mexico relationship has been a little more tumultuous (including one of the strangest episodes of the 20th century) but Mexico clearly does not have aggressive intentions. Ultimately we’ve been able to push ahead with things like NAFTA and U.S./Canadian NATO cooperation to closely integrate North American neighbors. This permits the U.S. to look farther afield without fear of getting sucker-punched by Justin Trudeau (which, let’s face it, would be pretty embarrassing coming from this guy).

The ability to look outward brings geography to the fore. Everyone else out there is across the sea. Even our Caribbean neighbors, which are not that far off, are still surrounded by generous quantities of salt water. And to get to continental nations, there’s even more. Miami to Caracas, Venezuela, is more than 1, 300 miles. The distance between Boston and Lisbon, Portugal, exceeds 3,000 miles across the Atlantic. And it’s more than 5,000 miles from San Francisco to Tokyo.

Without foreign aggressors at home, and vast distances to anyone else, that sure sounds like an island to me.

And wasn’t that the whole point? People came to America to get away from the troubles of their old countries, and find opportunity in a new land. If America wasn’t functionally an island, how would any of that have been possible?

Why Do We Forget It’s an Island?

It's BIG! Really BIG!

It’s BIG! Really BIG!

But, as mentioned earlier, it’s a gigantic island that spans a continent. Canada is even bigger (if mostly uninhabited). So there’s plenty for people in the interior to do – plenty of room to set up homes, cities and lifestyles, and plenty of resources to extract. The U.S. frontier only closed in 1890, and even after that there was (is) still bountiful barely-populated land to tame.

Between the Arctic tundra and the jungles of Yucatan lies almost everything a modern economy could want – plenty of timber, mineral and oil wealth, a steady water supply in the heart of the continent, and above all, space, space, space. If you’ve never set foot in the deserts, plains and mountains between the Sierras and the Mississippi (or visited Alaska or the Yukon or Northwest Territories) I’m not sure you can conceive of how undeveloped most of North America is. Or think of it this way – between Seattle and Minneapolis, there are no Major League Baseball teams. That’s a 1,600-mile gap. Picking a team must be tough if you live in Montana (minors to the rescue!).

With such ample natural wealth and vast overland distances it is easy to turn inward. If forced by global crisis, North Americans could probably get by on their own. It wouldn’t be comfortable, and you wouldn’t be able to get out-of-season fruit from Chile, but we wouldn’t starve. And that is what makes the American island different – on a regular island, the resources do not exist to support an industrial society. They are reliant on trade to support themselves. Think of some historically great trading nations and city-states – Great Britain, Athens, Japan, Singapore, Holland, Venice, Portugal. These are all either islands or have some geographic feature that makes them functionally similar. Commercial activity was the only way to maintain the accustomed standard of living of a growing population within a static space. Happily, it made them rich, too.

Commerce and Capital

The American colonies were mostly founded as commercial enterprises. Sure, there were plenty of natural resources to exploit in the 1500s and 1600s, but who among the colonists had the money to get a crew together and go to work? Capital was necessary. And the capital that funded these efforts was not native to this country – it came from abroad. So, from the very first moments of post-Columbian history, America had to maintain close commercial connections with the Old World. Otherwise, colonists would have been destined to remain subsistence farmers, able to make little more than a hardscrabble living off the land with the tools they brought with them. In reality, an infusion of international capital over 200 years enabled American colonists to enjoy the world’s highest standard of living even before the events of 1776.

The new United States retained its commercial character and colonial commodities-based economy – an economy much like those of Jamaica and other Caribbean islands, just bigger. Yes, there was a vast continent across the Appalachians to explore, but those intrepid pioneers still needed London bankers to pay for it. So the enormous American maritime industry continued to put ships to sea exporting American commodities and returning with European manufactured goods – and cold, hard cash.

A Highway and a Moat

Pop quiz: Can anyone recite the reasons why the War of 1812 was fought? OK, you’re forgiven. In retrospect, it seems like a pointless exercise, right? It can only be understood by zooming out – the war between the U.S. and Britain was, in fact, directly related to the Napoleonic Wars raging in Europe. And it resulted, arguably, from George Washington’s philosophical mistake.

I really shouldn't be picking fights with this guy...

I really shouldn’t be picking fights with this guy…

Among the many hats he wore, Washington was a businessman and he understood the value of international trade to the young United States. He knew a merchant fleet was vital and that a navy was required to preserve its safety, as exemplified by his signature on the Navy Act of 1794, ordering six frigates that would go on to form the nucleus of the United States Navy. Washington understood that, as a virtual island nation separated from and connected to other modern nations by sea, maritime commerce would be vital to the future well-being of the U.S.

But he wanted it both ways. In Washington’s Farewell Address, he cautioned the nation against involvement in “entangling alliances” with foreign powers.[i] His aim, justifiably, was to use the sea as a highway for commercial enterprise and a moat against unrest abroad (the French Revolution being the crisis of the day). The resulting policy of the U.S. was to deal commercially with all comers in a neutral manner, which students of American involvement in World War I will find familiar.

At the time, that primarily meant trade with Great Britain and France. However, after Napoleon’s rise to power and demonstrated propensity for belligerence, Great Britain found that American trade with France went directly against its interests, and thus worked to prevent it. The upshot was that even neutral trade, conducted without malice toward either party, was itself an act of taking sides in the eyes of the combatants. No alliances were created, but the very act of commerce generated entanglements. Perhaps Washington anticipated this but didn’t say anything, in order to amplify the point he did make. Or perhaps he would have been blindsided had he lived to see 1812. In either case, to stand up for the principle of neutral trade, the U.S. had to fight the world’s greatest empire. Ultimately it was only settled by the fall of Napoleon and the end of war in Europe, rendering the point of contention moot.

The more effective policy would have been to simply side with the British. Doctors would have reported an alarming incidence of heart attacks among veterans of the Revolution and Lafayette’s groupies, and we wouldn’t have had Francis Scott Key write The Star-Spangled Banner, but the war (and related economic collapse) could have been avoided.

But this post is not to second-guess the policies of the Madison Administration (though we can do that, if you’d like). It is to make the point that the same tendency recurs again and again and again throughout American history – the belief that we can base a national economy upon worldwide commerce and somehow avoid the troubles of our business partners. The problem is, trouble always finds you when you’re not looking.

America Is an Island, Not a Hermit

Geography blessed America, but in that blessing lie the seeds of complacency. From Day One, high standards of living in the U.S. have been the direct result of international trade bringing capital and new products to its shores. At the same time, the distance from America to troublesome faraway points tempts Americans to think they don’t have to worry about them – that we can take care of ourselves here and let others clean up their own mess. But the only way for an island to escape the troubles of the outside world is to give up its friendly connections with it.

If retrenchment and disengagement is the national inclination, as the winnowed-down crop of presidential candidates seems to indicate (except one, maybe), then that’s OK. There’s no right or wrong answer in this sort of thing, only trade-offs. But the trade-offs are really important. These decisions impact America’s place in the world and, in the long run, affect how everything you own is produced and priced. So they must be made with our eyes open.

Otherwise time on this American island will be no day at the beach.



[i] Interestingly, the exact phrase “entangling alliances” appears nowhere in the text, but that is the only piece anyone “remembers” from the Farewell Address. Here is Washington’s actual statement on the topic, quoted at length from the much longer full document:

“Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course. If we remain one people under an efficient government, the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.

“Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice?

“It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world; so far, I mean, as we are now at liberty to do it; for let me not be understood as capable of patronizing infidelity to existing engagements. I hold the maxim no less applicable to public than to private affairs, that honesty is always the best policy. I repeat it, therefore, let those engagements be observed in their genuine sense. But, in my opinion, it is unnecessary and would be unwise to extend them.

“Taking care always to keep ourselves by suitable establishments on a respectable defensive posture, we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies.”

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