15 February 2020

Mapping the Indo-Pacific & Beyond for Decision-Makers: Andrew Rhodes Educates with Geo-History, Strategy & Visual Communications

Andrew Rhodes is a career civil servant who has served as an expert in Asia-Pacific affairs in a variety of analytic, advisory, and staff positions across the Department of Defense and the interagency. He earned a BA in political science from Davidson College, an MA in international relations from The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and a certificate in Geographic Information Sciences from the University of North Dakota. He recently graduated with highest distinction from the U.S. Naval War College and is an affiliated scholar of the Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute.

Click here to gain a fresh perspective from the innovative maps that Rhodes creates and posts on his personal website, “Thinking in Space.”

Andrew Rhodes, “The Second Island Cloud: A Deeper and Broader Concept for American Presence in the Pacific Islands,” Joint Force Quarterly 95 (Fourth Quarter 2019): 46-53.

Andrew Rhodes wrote this essay while a student at the U.S. Naval War College. It won the Strategic Research Paper category of the 2019 Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Strategic Essay Competition.

In the early 20th century, the visionary Marine officer Earl “Pete” Ellis compiled remarkable studies of islands in the Western Pacific and considered the practical means for the seizure or defense of advanced bases. A century after Ellis’s work, China presents new strategic and operational challenges to the U.S. position in Asia, and it is time for Washington to develop a coherent strategy, one that will last another 100 years, for the islands of the Western Pacific. It has become common to consider the second island chain as a defining feature of Pacific geography, but when Ellis mastered its geography, he saw not a “chain,” but a “cloud.” He wrote in 1921 that the “Marshall, Caroline, and Pelew Islands form a ‘cloud’ of islands stretching east and west.” His apt description of these archipelagoes serves well for a broader conception of the islands in, and adjacent to, traditional definitions of the second island chain. A new U.S. strategy should abandon the narrow lens of the “chain” and emphasize a broader second island cloud that highlights the U.S. regional role and invests in a resilient, distributed, and enduring presence in the Pacific.

The United States has often been of two minds about its role in Asia, and recent heated debate on the future of U.S. security commitments in the region is no exception. This pendulum has swung before, from the heavy presence lasting from World War II through Vietnam to a partial retrenchment under Richard Nixon’s Guam Doctrine, and back toward statements of a greater strategic emphasis on the region under the Obama administration’s “Rebalance to Asia.” Despite some inconsistent messaging on military alliances and trade relationships, the Trump administration has indicated a major focus on Asia in the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) and its strategy for a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.” Regardless of whether the United States pursues broad engagement with the region, focuses on military containment of China, or decides to allow a larger Chinese sphere of influence in the Western Pacific, the second island cloud represents critical geography for what Vice President Mike Pence has called an “ironclad commitment” to the region. To demonstrate this commitment and respond to operational imperatives, there is a compelling need to get serious about the second island cloud—we need to identify the challenges to a sustained or enhanced U.S. presence and to pursue near-term opportunities that advance U.S. national interests. A strategy for the second island cloud should deepen the unique U.S. relationship with these islands and reframe the strategic discussion with a broader definition that includes valuable islands excluded from the second island chain.

Origins and Interpretations

The second island chain has no official standing among geographers or international organizations but has served as shorthand for the line of islands extending from the Japanese mainland, through the Nanpõ Shotõ, the Marianas, and the western Caroline Islands, before terminating somewhere in eastern Indonesia. The second island chain lies to the east; the first island chain, which is also imprecise, generally comprises a line from southern Japan through the Ryukyus and Taiwan, terminating in the Philippines or Borneo. The island chains took on strategic importance for the United States when it annexed the Philippines and Guam after the Spanish-American War. The fortification of these outposts was a central feature of negotiations in the 1920s that vainly sought to prevent military competition and conflict between the United States and Japan. Michael Green notes that as much as many planners of the interwar period regretted the decision not to establish robust fortifications of strategic points such as Guam, the restrictions of the Washington Naval Treaties incentivized key innovations in fleet mobility, such as underway replenishment, to mitigate against the threat to fixed fueling points.

The notorious geopolitician Karl Haushofer was one of the first to describe the island chain concept, calling them “offshore island arcs.” Haushofer served as German military attaché in Tokyo before he established his Institute for Geopolitics at the University of Munich and gained influence in the 1930s with Nazi leaders such as Adolf Hitler and Rudolf Hess. Leading architects of the post–World War II Pacific security architecture, including Douglas MacArthur and Dean Acheson, also invoked the island chains. Chinese strategists have focused contemporary attention on the island chains, and it is Chinese adaptations and descriptions of the island chains that have reintroduced the concept to American strategists. Throughout the remarkable modernization of China’s military since the 1990s, its leaders have emphasized the military challenge of U.S. and allied deployments in the island chains and the strategic importance of the waters they enclose. A central figure in the promulgation of the island chains in Chinese geostrategy and military planning was Admiral Liu Huaqing, often referred to as the “Father of the People’s Liberation Army Navy,” who served as its commander in the 1980s and then as vice chairman of the Central Military Commission in the 1990s. One leading Chinese scholar on seapower references control over the Pacific islands as key to U.S.-led efforts to “contain China,” invokes the operational imperative to “break through” the island chains, and also highlights the power of small islands to confer broad “jurisdictional sea area.” Andrew Erickson and Joel Wuthnow catalog these discussions of the island chains concept in Chinese sources and lay out three ways that Chinese authors have thought about island chains: as barriersspringboards, and benchmarks. These three concepts provide a useful framework for not only understanding Chinese perspectives but also analyzing U.S. interests in the region. A durable U.S. regional strategy should reject what have become Chinese concepts of the islands and redefine the geography as a cloud, then consider the various roles of the second island cloud as a barrier, springboard, and benchmark. … … …


A stable footing in the second island cloud is worth these costs and risks, as it can serve as a strategic position and powerful symbol that transcends the operational imperatives to balance Chinese military capabilities in the near term. In the first 50 years after the United States took possession of Guam, Ellis saw the rise of Japan and envisioned key geographic aspects of its defeat that took place two decades after his death. In 1942, geostrategist Nichols Spykman foresaw that technological change and political shifts could one day make Chinese airpower more dominant than British, Japanese, or American seapower in what he called the “Asian Mediterranean.” In only 30 years, China changed from a strategic partner in the Cold War to a peer rival in a newly bipolar world. China is pursuing a much more expansive role on the international stage with new security relationships and overseas bases and is even contemplating military alliances. The coming decades will see major structural changes to the international system, and a truly long-term strategy should secure America’s Pacific position through and beyond the current competition.

Ely Ratner argues that “it is imperative that the United States stop China’s advances toward exerting exclusive and dominant control over key geographic regions.” With growing Chinese investment and influence throughout the Pacific islands, the second island cloud can play a central role in near-term efforts to avoid a power vacuum and create what Ratner calls “spheres of competition.” The current administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy and the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act passed by Congress have brought important focus to the policy discussion on the region, but sustained energy is required to realize these ambitions. In addition to developing new partnerships, Washington should double down where it is already strong—the second island cloud is squarely aligned to the United States, but U.S. policy must work hard to sustain that alignment and build on it to our advantage.

Ellis’s description of an island cloud aptly captures the complexity and diversity of the key geography and provides a framework for lasting and dispersed strength—chains fail with a single weak link, but clouds are resilient. The argument for a durable commitment to the second island cloud in the 21st century is much the same as what Ellis wrote in 1913: “Once secure it will stand as a notice to all the world that America is in the Western Pacific to stay.”

For two of the articles cited here, see:

 Andrew S. Erickson and Joel Wuthnow, “Why Islands Still Matter in Asia: The Enduring Significance of the Pacific ‘Island Chains’,” The National Interest, 5 February 2016.

 Andrew S. Erickson and Joel Wuthnow, “Barriers, Springboards and Benchmarks: China Conceptualizes the Pacific ‘Island Chains’,” The China Quarterly 225 (March 2016): 1-22.


Andrew Rhodes, “Go Get Mahan’s Yardstick,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 145/.7 (July 2019).

Mahan’s 3,500 nm “standard distance” for naval planning may be a crude metric, but it highlights the geographic reality that must shape theater strategy and force development in the vast Pacific operating area.

Writing 120 years ago, just after the U.S. Navy burst on the world stage in the Spanish-American War, Alfred Thayer Mahan said one of the most critical numbers naval planners needed to keep in mind was 3,500. The 3,500 nautical miles (nm) from Hawaii to Guam are what he called the “standard distance” at the heart of naval planning for the United States. Mahan was making a narrow point about the importance of range to battleship design, drawing lessons from the 1898 “race to Manila” for designing a U.S. fleet that could reach the other side of the globe and defeat the enemy when it got there. Nevertheless, that same 3,500-nm distance remains a defining reality in the Pacific theater today, but few U.S. strategists fully appreciate its implications. In thinking about the challenges the nation faces in the Pacific, the Navy must consider Mahan’s yardstick at an intuitive level and also in the course of more deliberate analysis.

The Tyranny of Distance

Mahan’s standard distance is better known among sailors in the Seventh Fleet, planners stationed in Hawaii or Guam, and some policymakers in Washington. Indeed, invoking the “tyranny of distance” has become a staple of congressional testimony by Indo-Pacific Command leaders highlighting the difficulties of rapid response and the importance of forward deployment and foreign partnerships. But the challenge Mahan’s yardstick presents must be more than an Indo-Pacific Command talking point: It should be at the heart of force planning conversations on Capitol Hill and in the Pentagon and be better understood by the American people who pay for that force.

Distance is only one aspect of the operating environment in the Pacific, but low geographic literacy is a problem. In Mahan’s writings, the importance of careful study of geography and the spatial relationships that enable or inhibit concentration of the fleet’s combat power is a repeated theme. His “standard distance” may be a crude metric, but it highlights the geographic reality that must shape theater strategy and force development.

Planners who neglect this yardstick are ignoring one of the most important measures of the Navy’s effectiveness. At the expense of measuring the fleet’s reach, analysts focus on readiness levels, budgets, and total ship numbers. These metrics are essential to force management, but focusing debate on the number of ships obscures a vital issue: the ability of those ships, at the ranges of modern naval combat, to, as Wayne Hughes has argued, “attack effectively first.” A 355-ship Navy, or even a 600-ship Navy, is little better than a 280-ship Navy if those ships lack the ability to maneuver, sense, evade, and attack effectively at the ranges of naval combat in the missile age. …

Carrier aviation is not the only area of force capability where distance has been underplayed. The U.S. surface fleet is well behind Russia and China when it comes to long-range antisurface warfare, although not for any lack of technical capability. This lack of offensive reach results from conscious decisions, such as that 25 years ago to remove the Tomahawk antiship missile (TASM) from the fleet. …

And what might be the “critical distance” for 21st-century naval strategy and operational planning? There are many worthy candidates for a new Mahanian yardstick, but a strong case can be made for 1,000 nautical miles. This is roughly the distance from Shanghai to Tokyo or Manila, from Beijing to Okinawa or Hong Kong, from Singapore to Palawan, and from Jakarta to Fiery Cross Reef. It is a bit beyond the reported 810-nm (1,500-km) range of the Chinese DF-21D antiship ballistic missile—a worthy consideration, given the attention that particular weapon system has gained in the past decade. Given the possibility of new weapons entering the U.S. arsenal after a withdrawal from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the DF-21D range is comparable to that of a Pershing II missile, which retired Navy Captain Sam Tangredi has argued for adapting to a sea-based system. And deployment of the MQ-25 Stingray in its planned refueling role will push the air wing’s striking range close to 1,000 nm, depending on the mission profile and the range of the weapons it carries. …

The Navy must do more to inculcate an awareness of critical distance and must place greater emphasis on range, reach, and distance in force planning and strategy development. And all personnel should spend more time studying the distances in the Pacific and considering which essential strategic and operational challenges might dictate the “standard distance” for the 21st century. But until a better metric comes into focus, measure off 3,500 nm on a good chart of the Pacific and keep Mahan’s yardstick handy.


Andrew Rhodes, “Thinking in Space: The Role of Geography in National Security Decision-Making,” Texas National Security Review 2.4 (November 2019): 90-108. 

Being able to “think in space” is a crucial tool for decision-makers, but one that is often deemphasized. In order to improve its ability to think in space, the national security community ought to objectively assess how effectively it is employing geographic information and seek every opportunity to sharpen its skills in this area.

Only statesmen who can do their political and strategic thinking in terms of a round earth and a three-dimensional warfare can save their countries from being outmaneuvered on distant flanks.

-Nicholas Spykman

Leaders who fail to think in space do so at their own peril. Nicholas Spykman published the above warning on the importance of mental maps in the context of World War II and the global challenges it presented, but his argument regarding the importance of spatial thinking to the nation’s security has never been more relevant. Thinking in space has long been an essential tool for thinking critically and communicating clearly when it comes to national security decision-making. The importance of mental maps and geographic communication are only growing in an era of new global challenges and renewed great power competition. Strategists and diplomats would benefit from gaining greater insight into the ways geographic information shapes national security decision-making. Moreover, understanding this impact can help produce recommendations for how American strategists can more effectively think in space.

The tools and resources needed to elevate the spatial thinking of those charged with conducting America’s foreign policy and securing the national interest are all available. Unfortunately, American strategists are currently not making full use of geographic information, inhibiting the policymaking process as well as the government’s ability to communicate global policy. Despite national security decision-makers having unprecedented access to geographic information and tools with which to visualize the world, this is not the golden age of spatial thinking in national security policymaking. The challenges confronting the national security community require learning new ways of spatial thinking — and relearning old ones — on a global scale.

The ability to “think in space” is more than mere navigation, map-reading, or geographic literacy. The basic assumptions laid out in Richard Neustadt and Ernest May’s classic study Thinking in Time, which explores how decision-makers can make better use of history, are germane to this type of thinking. The first assumption is that busy decision-makers and their advisers are presented with a tremendous quantity and diversity of information every day. Thus, when it comes to thinking in space, such individuals can consume only a small amount of the geographic information available to them. Second, the pressures of time and limited information do not lend themselves to thinking critically or, in the case of thinking in space, questioning the geographic renderings they are presented with. Third, it is nevertheless possible to achieve marginal improvements — in this case, in the use of geographic information — and be, as Neustadt and May put it, “more reflective and systematic.”

This article seeks to advance the conversation about how geographic information shapes national security decisions. While many have agreed with Spykman that “geography matters” and although there is a substantial literature on cartography as a form of communication, there has been little analysis of how geography “matters” when it comes to contemporary national security decision-making. This article begins by considering the position of national security decision-making at the intersection of the art and science of cartography and visualization, the unique cartographic consciousness of American strategists, and the various theories of geopolitics. These three elements are analogous to the three “images” Kenneth Waltz identified to discuss international relations: the individual, the national, and the global. In the sections that follow, I discuss the interaction of technology and geography, arguing that the ability of decision-makers to think critically in space has not kept pace with the advances of technology. The article then turns to the structure and process for employing geography in U.S. national security institutions and the importance of thinking in space in order to tackle 21st-century national security challenges. Finally, the article closes with recommendations for making the national security workforce more effective and identifies areas for further research. … …


Geographic analogies are powerful instruments, though they run the same risks of cognitive bias and shallow analysis as other simplifications, such as historical analogy. The shortcomings of historical analogy have been well studied by scholars who warn against the “tyranny of the past upon the imagination,” and the dangers awaiting those who “do not examine a variety of analogies before selecting the one that they believe sheds light on their situation.” The great military historian Michael Howard highlighted the dangers of overlapping analogies in both history and cartography, writing that historical battlefield maps, with “neat little blocks and arrows moving in a rational and orderly way…are an almost blasphemous travesty of the chaotic truth.”

Just as one ought not to depend on a single historical analogy, a senior official or policy analyst could constrain their thinking if relying on a single geographic perspective. Geography can be just as subjective as history, and those who desire to think more effectively in space should seek out multiple perspectives in the maps they study and their own mental maps. As mentioned above, Richard Edes Harrison argued that a critical first step is to dispense with persistent conventions that inhibit a “flexible view of geography,” such as always placing north at the top of the map. Harrison also wrote, in a wartime article co-authored by Robert Strausz-Hupé, that “the main pitfall to avoid is the continual use of one map, for the mind is inexorably conditioned to its shapes. It begins to look ‘right’ and all others ‘wrong.’” Take as an example a map of the Taiwan Strait rotated 55 degrees. Such a map will look “wrong” at first, but has the benefit of forcing the viewer to give fresh consideration to the key distances and geographic relationships.

Despite the pace of technological development and geopolitical shifts in the last two decades, the fundamental processes of national security institutions have changed remarkably little and are not conducive to the flexible view advocated by Harrison and Strausz-Hupé above. The bureaucratic circulatory system continues to rely on strategy documents, memos, email, briefings, and PowerPoint slides with anemic geographic content. The current distribution of cartographic capability and the standard forms of communication within the government are stagnant and may actively contribute to spatial de-skilling. Thus, the national security community needs to sharpen its understanding of the problem and consider different processes. There is limited data on questions of geographic literacy, trends in the use of geographic data, or the effectiveness of spatial thinking within the U.S. national security establishment. More research is needed to understand the institutional dimensions of how the U.S. government thinks in space, where the strengths and weakness are, what credible options for improvement exist, and what barriers inhibit their employment. Collection of such data would enable meaningful evaluation of how effectively the U.S. government’s geospatial tools and products support decision-makers and would undoubtedly suggest ways to improve the government’s use of geography and fix technical gaps and problems. Broad surveys of America’s national security institutions could not only identify any persistent holes in basic geographic knowledge but could also highlight conceptual strengths and weaknesses in employing the art and science of cartography. The findings of such investigations would provide valuable information to the civilian and military academic institutions of higher learning that shape future policymakers.

There is much work to be done in studying and improving the way the U.S. national security apparatus uses geography. However, another vital question for future scholars and analysts will be how America’s potential adversaries think in space. Succeeding in a long-term strategic competition requires a deep understanding of the thought processes, priorities, and blind spots of the other side. It is crucial to understand the persistent distortions that exist in an adversary’s world view, what inefficiencies endure in the ways they process new and ambiguous geographic information, and what cartographic messages resonate best with their national security system. But this will not be possible until the U.S. national security community improves its own ability to think in space.

Thinking in space is only one tool available to decision-makers and is no panacea to crafting successful strategies and avoiding tragic blunders. But more sophisticated geographic thinking and communication will sharpen national security decision-making and help decision-makers to better communicate their plans to the public. The national security community must be a learning and adaptive organization. It needs an objective evaluation of how effectively it is employing geographic information and it must seek every opportunity to sharpen its skills in order to think effectively in space.