Between retrenchment and redeployment: Washington's challenges

(To Marco Centaro)

In March 1946, President Harry Truman launched a 400 million dollar aid package for Greece and Turkey, a maneuver that, in fact, would revolutionize American foreign policy for decades to come (Varsori, 2015) . The justification provided to the Congress depicted an eastern Mediterranean, at that time, particularly vulnerable to external threats and influences, however concealing the references to Soviet expansion which at the same time was reaching out to nearby Eastern Europe. This financing, also of a military nature, should have blocked the communist advance and kept that particularly strategic sea within its (nascent) sphere of influence. A similar maneuver later fell within the broader concept of containment, a foreign policy covered ideologically by responsibility to protect, designed to create a belt of states to be torn away from the Soviet Union and exploited as a cordon sanitaire in the name of freedom and democracy. 

The strategy was so effective that it forced Truman's successor, Eisenhower, to retreat to it after failing to carry out his own policy of roll back: in fact, the former general failed both to expel the communists from the Korean peninsula and to reconquer the democratic hearts of Budapest after the Hungarian crisis, thus finding himself having to send his Secretary of State Dulles around the world looking for anti-Soviet partners. Indeed, precisely under the Eisenhower administration, the United States managed to stipulate agreements and alliances (illustrious cases Baghdad Pact and SEATO) which allowed Washington to expand its own soft power from the Near East to New Zealand, not surprisingly the band of territories named rimland, the control of which will be the cause of frequent restless sleep for subsequent American administrations.

For the United States it has always been of vital importance to be able to count on a network of allies located in strategic areas of the globe, precisely because, as for any thalassocracy, naval military projection capability is essential to protect one's strategic interests.

Nowadays, international relations no longer witness a bipolar split in power relations, a fact which, consequently, should no longer push the Biden administration to resort to containment. Yet the headaches facing the White House as this is written appear to be receiving treatment not dissimilar to that resorted to by Truman.

In February 2022, Moscow unleashes a ground invasion against the increasingly Western Ukraine, alarming the command of a NATO passed off as brain-dead; while in October Iran appears to be the architect (or instigator) of a "Pearl Harbor" attack against Israel, inflaming a region now accustomed to bloody escalations; if we combine this with the perception of an increasingly aggressive China in the Taiwan Strait and in the South China Sea (the US Department of Defense estimates over 300 episodes, in two years, of coercive activities by the Dragon outside its territorial waters1) one can understand the alarmism that hovers in the Pentagon offices. 

In all these scenarios, Washington finds itself committed to defending its interests embodied by the attacked or threatened allies, mainly resorting to the financial instrument or military support, but reserving the right to monitor the sea with the addition of a further Carrier Strike Group, especially now that the Yemeni Houthi militias are hindering (not without inflationary effects) the smooth flow of maritime traffic near the Red Sea.

Similar to Truman, Biden therefore proposes a 106 billion dollar package to be allocated to the main security quadrants (Ukraine and Israel in the lead2), demonstrating strong historical continuity in not wanting to leave its allies alone. Alongside this, the current naval military deployment is also curious, in particular that concerning the aircraft carrier battle groups: once again there are four outside the Americas, they cover territorial bands that make some bells ring in the memory, since two cover the seas between the Eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf of Oman (by extension also the Indian Ocean), while the same number divides the waters of the Philippines and Japan3.

Apparently, Spykman strikes again, and his theories on theimportance of ensuring its presence along the entire coastal strip from Western Europe to the Far East. Given the increase in threats, the technique of surrounding is therefore perfectly in line with American strategic manuals rimland (and the World Island) with the key instruments of its military projection, while at the same time containing the influences of its competitors. 

However, this is not enough, because the United States is at the same time aware that, following the debacles Iraqi and Afghan operations boots on the ground they constitute more of an economic hemorrhage (and a trauma) rather than an effective enforcement mechanism, which entails the need to resort to diplomatic and cooperation tools aimed at ensuring the support and loyalty of one's allies. In an overall linear manner to the aforementioned policies of Eisenhower, Biden has combined this military re-deployment with extensive diplomatic activity, which has the merit of having concluded or renewed agreements, even of a military nature, with historic and new partners: it is curious to for example, the Camp David agreement in August (perhaps not a coincidental location), which surprisingly brought together the leaders of Japan and South Korea in a new framework of security cooperation; the renewal of the mutual defense agreement with the Philippines also has a significant significance, especially if we consider the clarification of numerous shadowy areas regarding the possibilities and scenarios of military intervention4; with the new Washington-Helsinki agreement the United States carves out very large spaces for maneuver in territories even bordering Russia; finally, the launch of the operation Prosperity Guardian it seems to be both an opportunity to show American resolve (especially when its maritime power is threatened), and to gather allies and "devolve" a slice of the responsibility to protect.

The White House knows, therefore, that in the face of new and recent geopolitical explosions there is a need to reverse the retrenchment started by Obama at the beginning of the last decade (Graziano, 2018), and to this end appears to be launching an undeclared policy of containment. Washington also knows that to return to asserting itself in power relations it must follow certain guidelines, especially geographical ones. This is how the recent could be read redeployment American. From Seoul and Tokyo, passing through Manila and arriving in Finland, Biden managed to gain the support of essential actors to contain the movements of Beijing, Pyongyang and Moscow, consequently strengthening the framework already active of the Aukus and the Quad.

Not happy, the American president wanted to send a clear message also to Tehran, placing an additional aircraft carrier in the waters used by Iran itself to supply its affiliates in the Arabian Peninsula and the Near East.

By connecting the dots you can see a curious line which, not surprisingly, entirely envelops the World Island, demonstrating the (perhaps) reinvigorated American desire to have the last word on the "destinies of the world".

Such an interpretation of Washington's latest movements is partly based on National Defense Strategy drawn up in October 2022. The document also identifies the main threats to the security of the American "Motherland" and its allies, focusing attention on certain quadrants and geopolitical scenarios (the acronym PRC, standing for People's Republic of China, appears 88 times out of 80 pages of document5). In addition to China, Russia, Iran and North Korea are also mentioned, and alongside this there is a strong appeal not to abandon one's allies, a fundamental piece for containing threats to world balance. 

In short, Biden's Dems perceive the need for a renewed American assertiveness that readjusts the serious instabilities that today afflict the geopolitical reality (which is not surprisingly accompanied by the epithet of anarchist). To do this, the United States must assume the leadership role, while requiring the support of as many partners as possible.

The problem is that both domestic and external conditions are in no way comparable (for worse) to those of 1946. Truman had no major difficulties in convincing Congress to approve the packages for Greece and Turkey, while Biden today struggles to receive the green light for new pro-Ukraine funding, included in the package of 106 billion dollars mentioned above. GOP senators ("Grand Old Party", the Republican Party, ed.), but also a large part of the electorate in general, are no longer convinced that Ukraine is a priority for American foreign policy (especially when the captagon spreads and the borders with Mexico become more permeable than ever). In some ways it seems that the orientation towards messianism is already blocked from the start, that is, from within6; a condition at odds with those after the Second World War. 

Furthermore, when the United States had the opportunity to launch its expansionary policy and began to attract as many states as possible within its sphere of influence, it presented such excessive power that it became an almost obligatory partner.

Credibility today Stars and Stripes is seen to be clearly reduced, especially in the Gulf area. This is demonstrated, for example, by the repeated cuts to OPEC oil production which see Russia and Saudi Arabia closing ranks against the opposing demands of Washington (forced to intensely consume its own oil reserves). Add to this the rapid growth of many more poles of influence, including regional ones, capable of offering attractive alternatives to the dominance of the dollar; BRICS bloc in the lead. 

The substantial difference between today and 1946 is that Washington is not the only power capable of exerting pressure and influence capable of shaping the international system at will. It is a question of distance in terms of power: if once the United States were the undisputed masters (especially towards the end of the twentieth century), today the gap not with one, but with several powers it was significantly reduced. Revisionist forces can now afford to have a say, and it is something that is perceived by the "chosen people" as a threat not to security, but to their own existence (Graziano, 2018). 

Il retrenchment which the United States was forced into, mainly due to an obvious and miscalculated overstretch, reached its peak with the disastrous withdrawal from the Middle East in 2021. Therefore, it is plausible that Biden (aware of entering the electoral campaign shortly) is attempting to trigger a process of slow Revival, destined to make the American phoenix rise from the ashes, reaffirming its dominance over a drifting international system where threats are increasing in danger and number.

If this is true, it seems that the redeployment follow a strategy already seen in the past. One that allows you to conquer the rimland, surround theHeartland and maintain their place on the throne by recovering their lost assertiveness.

Between internal isolationist tendencies and the rather aggressive competitors externally, finally, it is not easy to imagine the outcome of similar policies, but the question remains: will Haushofer's much feared American "anaconda" manage to crush the World Island?



Graziano M., The island at the center of the world. A geopolitics of the United States, Bologna, Il Mulino, 2018.

Varsori A., International history. From 1919 to today, Bologna, Il Mulino, 2015.