Long ago an inscription at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi advised supplicants to know thyself. Chinese sage Sun Tzu outdid the Greek oracle, instructing disciples to know the enemy and know yourself. Heed this counsel and in a hundred battles you will never be in peril.
Understanding how people interpret the geophysical world around them comprises part of this quest for knowing. The physical setting is fixed in many respects. Anyone with an atlas or internet connection can discover countless objective facts about topography, geographic distances, demographics, and on and on. And yet, subjective perceptions of objective reality—history, national purpose, and limits on human cognition—retain their power to shape human enterprises.
But even perceptions that are not strictly rational commonly take on tactical, operational, and even strategic import. Professor Alan Henrikson defines a mental map as “an ordered but continually adapting structure of the mind” whereby someone “acquires, codes, stores, recalls, reorganizes, and applies, in thought or action, information about his or her large-scale geographical environment, in part or in its entirety.” Mental maps are “triggered” when that someone “confronts a problem that obliges him or her to choose among alternative movements in space.”
Consider an everyday mental map: your commute to work. Geographic distance is important to calculating the best route—but not all-important; roundabout may be better. A longer route is preferable if it saves time, money, or both. Henrikson notes that no single, all-encompassing mental map predetermines how someone thinks or acts. Individuals picture their surroundings through geographical images nested within one another:
Smaller mental maps may be conceived of as being embedded, “hierarchically,” within ever larger ones. . . . That is to say, a mental map of one’s locality fits into that of one’s region, which in turn fits within that for comprehending global relations.
Alternatively, the local map might take precedence over the regional or global perspective the more strongly a person’s outlook or loyalties lie with the local community.
Clearly, then, there’s far more to geopolitics than geography. Geospatial imagery blends with realities and perceptions of diplomatic, economic, and military power to rivet attention on certain geographic features—a Strait of Malacca or the Andes Mountains. Writing during World War II, Professor Nicholas Spykman held that “‘geopolitical’ regions are not geographic regions defined by a fixed and permanent topography but areas determined on the one hand by geography and on the other hand by dynamic shifts in the centers of power.” A region surges to prominence as its inhabitants amass economic and military might or fades as economic or military vibrancy declines.
Sometimes, manmade works vault a geopolitical backwater to prominence. Digging the Panama Canal, writes Spykman, swiveled “the whole of the United States around on its axis” and aimed it first southward, away from its European roots to the east, then westward across the Pacific.
In practical terms, the artificial waterway moved New York thousands of miles closer to Asia. It spared Asia-bound merchantmen and warships the protracted, arduous journey around Africa or South America, bestowing an advantage on U.S. industry and shipowners over their British competitors based in Liverpool. Meanwhile, the merchants’ U.S. Navy protectors took new interest in the Caribbean and Gulf, where shipping destined for the Pacific must pass. Guarding seaborne commerce constitutes a navy’s chief purpose. Ergo, the Navy adjusted its mental map to the new normal.
In short, a 50-mile-long canal reshaped how the Republic transacted affairs of state. More adjustments lay in store.
“Look at your map,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt beseeched Americans during his 1942 Washington’s Birthday fireside chat. FDR sought to recast perceptions, showing them how Axis legions could encircle and vanquish the embattled Allies one by one to encircle North America. No longer could the nation assume the Atlantic and Pacific were impregnable ramparts.
In Spykman’s parlance, the Western European and East Asian “rimlands” were geopolitical regions of commanding importance to the United States. Mental maps originate with individuals, as Henrikson contends, but they can be modified or remade altogether.
Latin America Is No U.S. Preserve
Mental maps demand occasional updating. For example, the United States has compelling interests in Latin America. Yet the region is a zone of relative neglect for the Pentagon, chiefly because troubles besetting the region emanate less from hostile armed forces than from economic underdevelopment, lawbreaking, and shortfalls in good governance. These are diplomatic and constabulary problems, not primarily military ones. Military power, in other words, plays a subsidiary part in U.S. foreign policy and strategy vis-à-vis Latin America.
Latin Americans are permanent neighbors. It behooves U.S. mariners to court friendly relations with them while working toward mutual goals, which takes work. Sharing a hemisphere is no guarantee of diplomatic success. Without forward bases, it is hard to project U.S. power and influence south of the bulge of Brazil, where the “ABC” powers—Argentina, most of Brazil, and Chile—lie.
In fact, the Brazilian economic capital of São Paulo lies virtually equidistant from Washington, D.C., and Lisbon, Portugal, the seat of the erstwhile Portuguese Empire that formerly ruled Brazil. In other words, Europeans are as geographically well situated as North Americans to influence the South American heavyweight. And West Africa lies closer still. Brazil specifically and South America generally are no U.S. preserve.
South American Mental Maps
So much for what North Americans see when they look southward. What do Latin Americans see when they look at their maps?
Start with Colombia. A bicoastal nation fronting the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea, it faces mainly north. Forbidding topography predisposes Colombians to think in vertical terms. Three tall mountain ranges run north-northeasterly, making north-south movement easier than east-west movement. Moreover, the Isthmus of Panama—a former Colombian province lost to revolution in 1903—bisects its shoreline, interposing a physical obstacle to maritime movement between the country’s coasts.
National interests reinforce to some degree the northward orientation. The United States is the predominant power in the Western Hemisphere’s middle sea, but the U.S. Navy has largely vacated these waters to “pivot” to Asia. The semi-enclosed Caribbean is afflicted with drug-running, transnational criminal networks, and other constabulary scourges. Combating lawbreaking is crucial to Colombia’s national economic well-being, and the U.S. Coast Guard constitutes Colombia’s major partner for police duty.
To Colombia’s southwest lie Ecuador and Peru, while to its southeast lies Brazil, the regional great power. Friendly and cooperative relations prevail among these contiguous neighbors, for the most part.
Yet Venezuela to the northeast is an economic basket case riven by political strife. Refugees have streamed across the frontier, causing Bogota no end of headaches while placing Colombia’s own stability in jeopardy. Of necessity, Colombia’s view of its geopolitical region has widened toward the east. Not Venezuelan wealth or military might but Venezuelan weakness distorted the geopolitical region—and Caracas might deliberately distort it further. Embattled political leaders might resort to adventurism at Colombia’s expense to distract Venezuelans’ attention from misgovernment at home.
Some interests, though, summon Colombians’ gaze west. The capital of Bogota lies on roughly the same latitude as Mindanao, almost 11,000 miles away in the Philippines. Little but water lies between. The allure of trade and prosperity, however, increasingly beckons attention toward the western Pacific rim.
Colombians tend to look north, in other words, but opportunities to their west and overland perils to their east force their mental map to span a semicircular arc.
Or take Brazil. Brazilians look mainly eastward and inward, and, like Colombia and their other continental neighbors, they perceive mainly nonmilitary challenges when surveying their environs. Brazil’s continental proportions make it better able to absorb a crossborder tide of Venezuelan refugees. Furthermore, the Brazilian-Venezuelan frontier lies in the remote, densely forested, thinly populated Amazon backcountry—far from population centers clustered along the Atlantic seacoast. Its other frontiers are mainly quiet.
In short, landward problems do not vex Brazilians the way they do Colombians. Hospitable surroundings permit Brazilians’ mental map to take on a nautical tinge. The country mostly lacks overland infrastructure connecting coastal urban hubs to the hinterland, but it is blessed with rivers. Inland navigation substitutes for roads and railways. The Brazilian Navy, or Marinha do Brasil, is a deliverer of medical and other social services to the deep interior as well as an enforcer of law and custodian of the riverine environment. The fleet’s composition conforms to this inward-facing perspective. Radical switchbacks are commonplace in Brazilian waterways. Designers have outfitted the Marinha with shallow-draft ships compact enough to navigate hairpin turns without running aground.
Brazilians’ constabulary outlook applies to offshore waters as well. They refer to their territorial sea, exclusive economic zone (EEZ), and continental shelf as the “Blue Amazon,” where internal waters spill into the open sea. This zone is rich in natural resources and biodiversity. The seafloor appears to hold oil and natural-gas deposits substantial enough for Brazil to rank among the top ten petroleum-producers in the world. Safeguarding this natural wealth from poachers obsesses politicians and strategists in São Paulo while giving rise to eccentricities in the Brazilian order of battle. For example, naval leaders intend to acquire a nuclear-powered submarine to patrol the Blue Amazon. Seldom are subs law-enforcement platforms; they are for the Marinha.
Officialdom does peer eastward across the South Atlantic, where piracy bedevils the Gulf of Guinea. For example, the Brazilian Navy is working alongside the Nigerian Navy to curb freebooters and Boko Haram. In short, the horizontal axis dominates the Brazilian worldview, rather than the vertical relationship among South and North Americans implied by maps. U.S. outreach to South America’s predominant power must take account of such idiosyncrasies, lest initiatives that make perfect sense to Washington fall flat in São Paulo.
And then there is Chile. Chilean mental imagery is drenched in saltwater—the country is “more ocean than land.” The official Chilean Navy Guide proclaims: “Chile is a ‘long and narrow strip of land’”; it is “almost an island, due to its magnificent geographic borders: desert, mountain range, Antarctic ice, and sea.” Together, these erect an imposing barrier to overland threats. Chile occupies territory in Antarctica as well as oceanic territory such as Easter Island to South America’s west and the Cape Horn Islands to its extreme south. Its inhabitants enjoy the luxury of regarding themselves as islanders.
Chileans’ mental map reaches westward deep into the Pacific and sweeps southward toward Cape Horn and icy Antarctica. It encompasses not just the territorial sea, exclusive economic zone, and expanded continental shelf associated with these territories, but also an adjacent “presential sea.” In this broad sea space, the Navy Guide says, Santiago “exerts its influence without claiming . . . sovereignty.” Sustaining a presence there enables the sea services to mount a forward defense of Chilean national interests while helping protect the ecosystem and fishing grounds.
But Chile cannot afford to neglect the high seas. It imports upward of 95 percent of its fuel by freighter while relying on shipping lanes to convey 95 percent of its foreign trade.
To all appearances, political leaders in Santiago have entrusted to the Chilean Navy duties that could swallow up its modest fleet of eight frigates, a handful of subs and amphibious transports, and an assortment of lesser craft. The Armada de Chile and the Maritime Service, or coast guard, must oversee a vast geographic space while executing a formidable slate of constabulary functions. Curiously, though, the Armada regards itself less as a constabulary than a fighting force. Its self-image reflects the legacy of its founders, notably Thomas Cochrane, the ex-Royal Navy officer who furnished the model for Captain “Lucky Jack” Aubrey of Master and Commander fame. The fleet also compiled an enviable record during Chile’s independence struggle from Spain (1810–1821), the War of the Pacific against Peru and Bolivia (1879–1882), and other 19th-century encounters. The heroic past lives on.
How to reconcile tradition with the reality that the navy’s chief function is to perform police duty amid tranquil geopolitical surroundings preoccupies the Armada’s leadership. But the country’s leaders are acutely conscious that China is their biggest trading partner and that the search for prosperity entangles them in East Asian affairs. Santiago appears conflicted between maintaining good relations with China—essential to national economic development—and hewing to politicomilitary initiatives spearheaded by the democratic—and fellow American—United States. How and whether Santiago will resolve this tension remains to be seen.
So, Washington ought not take too much comfort in the Chilean Navy’s having accepted a role as operational commander during the 2018 Rim of the Pacific exercise off Hawaii. Economic development is the top priority for any government. Beijing might be able to redraw—or at least adjust—the Chilean mental map if it threatened to curtail commercial ties in retaliation for too-close partnership in U.S.-led military ventures, or as part of U.S.-China economic warfare. Santiago could well waffle before joining U.S.-led endeavors that might damage Chinese interests. It might, or even abstain altogether.
Look at Your Map
Strategic fluency depends on acquaintanceship with how geography shapes foreign policy and strategy, both at home and abroad. Acquaintanceship begets empathy, without which overtures to foreign partners are apt to falter. For instance, this snapshot of South American mental maps suggests that proposals to admit Brazil to NATO will go nowhere. Such a move would compel Brazil to embrace not just the United States and Canada but the entire North Atlantic defense community—including 27 European countries. Committing to the defense of North America and Europe would mean reinventing the Brazilian Navy as a combat force at the expense of traditional capabilities for managing internal waters, the Blue Amazon, and the Gulf of Guinea. Barring extreme danger, Brazil has little incentive to pay that penalty.
Review the map to foresee which diplomatic initiatives command real promise and which are whimsy.
More from James Holmes:
A Brief Guide to Maritime Strategy
 Alan K. Henrikson, “The Geographical ‘Mental Maps’ of American Foreign Policy Makers,” International Political Science Review 1, no. 4 (1980): 498.
 Henrikson, “Geographical ‘Mental Maps,’” 498.
 Nicholas J. Spykman, The Geography of the Peace, ed. Helen R. Nicholl (New York: Harcourt, 1944), 6–7.
 Spykman, Geography of the Peace, 23.
 Spykman likewise testifies to the menace of encirclement from the Old World. Spykman, Geography of the Peace, 34.
 Francisco Pablo García-Huidobro Correa et al., Horizonte en el Pacífico: Visión Oceánica de la Armada de Chile (Santiago: Chilean Navy, April 2019), 134–35.
 García-Huidobro et al., Horizonte en el Pacífico, 135.