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How the Postwar Shift of Global Power to Washington Set the Stage for Today’s Geopolitics

A new book examines the role of maps in shaping how policymakers imagined the new Middle East

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1941 United States War Office map of the Middle East. (Library of Congress)
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Geography is destiny, and perhaps this is nowhere more true than in the Middle East. In Mapping the End of Empire, historian Aiyaz Husain argues that, while British policymakers after World War II imagined Palestine as the western end of a Muslim arc that reached into Southeast Asia, Americans viewed it as Europe’s eastern edge—a difference in perception that in the years leading up to Israel’s declaration of independence made Washington much more receptive to resettling the European survivors of the Holocaust in the Levant.

The close of the Second World War marked a triumph of the victorious Allied powers in a global contest against the forces of fascism. But victory presented immediate challenges: effective postwar cooperation to prevent the recurrence of a total war with its massive human costs, and assorted political, economic, and territorial questions prompted by the end of hostilities. In a series of wartime conferences, the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union had discussed the need for international cooperation to address postwar concerns. Those discussions led in 1945 to the creation of the United Nations Organization, which the Allies hoped would cement world peace after the second global conflict within half a century.

But the challenges of postwar diplomacy extended beyond just questions of interstate war and peace. The dispositions of vast European colonial possessions throughout the Middle East, Asia, and Africa remained indeterminate, despite growing calls for self-determination from active independence movements pitted against colonial governments exhausted by the trials of war. Moreover not all Allied Great Powers were equal at war’s end. The most basic feature of the new international balance of power was the glaring disparity between the economic and military might of the United States and that of its European allies Britain, France, and the Netherlands. While the Netherlands and France lay physically devastated by occupation, bombardment, and Allied liberation, the economic costs of the war accumulated in monumental sterling balances that threatened to crush the British Empire under their weight.

An immediate consequence of this state of affairs was the impending withdrawal of those European powers from territories they controlled in the Middle East and Asia. But how would those power transfers occur, and what state or interstate authorities would manage them? While these questions remained unanswered, the basic outlines of one of the impending global shifts were clear. If the Pax Britannica was giving way to the American Century, the geopolitical evidence of that change was now clearer than ever.

The British Empire was firmly in retreat, overburdened by the monetary cost of imperial defense, which had contributed to a foreign debt burden that soared to some £3 billion—over a third of Britain’s gross domestic product. Britain was vacating its strategic presence in Egypt, the cornerstone of its Middle East policy, leaving the Labour government with vexing quandaries about suitable locations that could sustain a residual force. At stake was nothing less than Britain’s access to the region’s vast oil reserves and the security of the Suez Canal Zone and the eastward sea route to India. Palestine, Cyprus, Cyrenaica, Iraq, and Transjordan were all possible candidates to offset the impact of the loss of Egypt and direct British control of the Canal Zone. And as the loss of India loomed ever larger in the minds of British strategists in the postwar years leading up to 1947, the Middle East seemed an obvious strategic foothold from which to secure the growing British interest in Africa—and thus as a justification for the maintenance of ever costlier fragments of empire. But whatever alternatives remained for preserving influence in the Middle East, the finality of the British Empire’s looming withdrawal from Egypt was clear. Decades of British rule there, the keystone of the crown’s presence in the Arab world at the intersection of three continents, and a prerequisite for control of the Sudan would be at an end after the removal of British forces to the Suez Canal area. The costs of holding India were also mounting to unsustainable levels, while Indian nationalism surged after the wholesale defeat of the Axis powers and the successful defense of the subcontinent, toward which Indian troops had contributed significantly.

Against this backdrop of Britain’s hasty retreat from the Middle East and Asia unfolded the counter-narrative of America’s expansion to fill distant, residual spaces vacated throughout the postwar world by defeated Axis enemies and imploded empires. American power reached its apogee after the Second World War, as the United States contemplated a new role in a changed international landscape. It was American credit that would finance the Marshall Plan and American military manpower and materiel that would shoulder the postwar reconstruction of Germany and Japan. After the United States secured petroleum supplies through concessions on the Arabian Peninsula negotiated by President Franklin Roosevelt with King Ibn Saud, the synergy of Middle Eastern oil and American industrial output began to power global economic recovery and rehabilitate war-torn Europe and Asia. Marshall Plan aid soon flooded across the Atlantic to help resurrect European allies, while billions of dollars of additional U.S. assistance flowed to China, India, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Pakistan.

The displacement of British influence in the world by expanding American economic and military influence thus was somewhat inevitable, as the United States sought to secure key strategic points and access to the raw materials of the third world that the Truman administration considered essential in case of a future global conflict. Moreover, fears of a growing confrontation with the Soviet Union as the early cold war began to divide East and West soon supplied a powerful new rationale for an expanded U.S. global posture: the need to safeguard the free world from communist influence and subversion, especially after the promulgation of the Truman Doctrine and the American assumption from Britain of the responsibility for economic and military assistance to reinforce ailing democratic governments in Greece and Turkey. But as this book argues, the disparity in their material power aside, both Atlantic powers—one falling, one rising—also adhered to distinct geographical conceptions of their security needs in the new international order, conceptions that helped shape their respective postwar foreign policies.

Great Britain’s sense of its own interests in the world had been curtailed by war’s end but remained decidedly colonial. The new British role in the postwar world was predicated on realism and oriented around shielding a contracting empire’s territorial integrity and remaining possessions. Saddled by outsized defense costs while the domestic economy slumped, Britain sensed that its shrinking imperial reach was inevitable. And with that sense of a newly circumscribed international position came a revised geographic conception of Britain’s postwar interests: more limited, more practical, and more concerned with only the most vital interests. Crown rule was crumbling in the empire’s outposts in the Near and Far East, from Palestine to India, leaving strategists scrambling for alternative military basing postures and redefinitions of British security requirements.

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Conversely U.S. officials revealed the mental maps and frameworks that underpinned their own worldviews in framing postwar foreign policy problems. The contours of the Roosevelt administration’s earliest plans for postwar international organization did not delineate a segmented world of geographically dispersed regional alliances. It was rather a vision of a global peace overseen by the world’s most powerful states, “Four Policemen,” in Roosevelt’s formulation, patterned after the Concert of Powers that presided over Europe after 1815 but whose extrapolated responsibilities now spanned the entirety of the globe. Here was a conception of American interests that entered the popular imagination through millions of wartime maps published by National Geographic and that reflected the basing needs of the “air age” dawning on U.S. civil and military aviation alike. Its essential blueprint also materialized as the iconic azimuthal equidistant projection map on the flag of the United Nations, a body whose structure emerged in part from the designs of the Council on Foreign Relations’ Advisory Committee for Postwar Foreign Policy, whose work products would later be folded directly into the State Department’s postwar planning efforts in the prelude to the San Francisco Conference of 1945. Throughout the process the global scope of postwar American interests became increasingly clear, guided by the thinking of officials like the influential geographer of the United States, Isaiah Bowman, who the anthropologist and geographer Neil Smith argues “moved more and more away from seeing a U.S. global future in terms of territorial blocs and regional trading spheres and toward a global vision.”

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How the Postwar Shift of Global Power to Washington Set the Stage for Today’s Geopolitics

A new book examines the role of maps in shaping how policymakers imagined the new Middle East