This By-invitation commentary is part of a series by global thinkers on the future of American power—examining the forces shaping the country’s global standing. Read more here.

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THERE THEY were in the flesh: wizened veterans of the Spanish-American War from 1898 marching a few feet away from me at the Memorial Day parade on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn in 1958. It is one of my earliest and most vivid childhood memories. The Spanish-American War, which began in Cuba and led to a bloody and drawn-out American occupation of the Philippines, announced the arrival of the United States as a world power.

The basis of that power was starkly geographical. Hans Morgenthau, a founding father of “realism” in international relations, called geography the most stable component of national power. America is a vast and wealthy continent densely connected by navigable rivers and with an economy of scale, accessible to the main sea lines of communication, yet protected by oceans from the turmoil of the Old World.

And that geography still matters, despite technology having shrunk the globe. Notwithstanding the pathologies of this tighter, more interconnected world—terrorism, viral pandemics, ransomware—America, unlike China, is self-sufficient in hydrocarbons. It has abundant water resources and no powerful and hostile neighbors. The southern border, which American conservatives wail about, involves only poor migrants, and not the soldiers of two armies facing each other like on China’s southern frontier with India.

That geography helps explain why America can miscalculate and fail in successive wars, yet completely recover, unlike smaller and less well-situated countries which have little margin for error. Thus, stories about American decline are overrated. Geography has bequeathed America such power and with such protection that, integrated into an increasingly smaller world as it is, the country cannot help but remain in an imperial-like situation, with far-flung economic and military commitments around the world.

America may withdraw from failed ground interventions in the Middle East, but its navy and air force still patrol large swaths of the planet as the bulwark of alliance systems in Europe and Asia. This continues regardless of its failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Scenes of chaos at Kabul’s airport as America pulled out are arresting, but in strategic terms it’s more image than substance. Remember that following the fall of Saigon in 1975 the United States went on to win the cold war.

Even the obsession of American elites with human rights has a geographical basis, since the protection afforded by oceans has made them suspicious of the ruthless realpolitik always demanded of states with insecure land borders. The country still has the ability to stand aloof and make moral judgments accordingly.

America’s geographical bounty still provides it with an edge against great-power adversaries. This is true despite internal threats. They include challenges to America’s social cohesion from new technology and wealth inequality that geography cannot wholly defend against (and which roil other countries too, notably China and Russia, which vie for “great power” status).

Globalisation has inflamed internal divisions, as wealthier Americans have been swept inside a universal cosmopolitan class, while leaving the mass of poorer Americans behind. And social media, unlike the great newspapers of their day, rewards and attracts the extremes, with poisonous effects on public sentiment and political parties. It is internal challenges that now threaten American power.

The problem is compounded by history. Ernest Renan, a 19th-century French political philosopher, wrote that, “To forget and…to get one’s history wrong are essential factors in the making of a nation; and thus the advance of historical studies is often a danger to nationality.” In fact, a mythic and triumphalist interpretation of the past was an essential element to America’s victories in two world wars and the cold war.

But now historical studies, by revealing much that America should be ashamed of, is forcing the home front to rediscover patriotism on a different basis, in which the conquest of a continent is still accepted, even as some of the methods used in that conquest fill Americans with remorse. That Memorial Day of 1958, with all the people around me in liberal New York City cheering the veterans of a blatant and unnecessary imperial war, is almost unimaginable today.

The country’s vast geography, which lends itself to heterogeneity, might actually help it assuage the polarisation that can arise out of a reinterpretation of national history. America’s 18th-century founders specifically designed a system on a sparsely populated and sprawling continent, where it took many days to travel from one part of the 13 original states to another.

The Founders were conscious of this in inventing a system of checks and balances so that the new capital of Washington would not tyrannise those varied and far-flung states, and thus allow for flexibility in governance. (Robert Frost even wrote a poem, “The Gift Outright”, read at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, about the mystical association between America’s early settlers and their new land: “Such as she was, such as she would become”.)

This geography also featured the availability of affordable land, which constituted the original source of the American people’s optimism and unfriendliness to elites and aristocracies. The whole notion of the frontier, as explained in 1893 by the historian Frederick Jackson Turner, was based on a vast continent with enough land for everybody. A rough equality among citizens was inherent in America’s plentiful and well-watered landscape.

This, at root, is why Americans now cry out for the restoration of the middle class and demand action from politicians. They want to soften the country’s stark economic divisions. That, in turn, may help soften its political and racial ones—and prevent the drift towards a plutocracy concentrated in a few postal codes.

Bear in mind that power is relative. America’s domestic tensions are out in the open, whereas China’s and Russia’s are more opaque. And their geographies are less fortunate. China has difficult borderlands and resorts to extreme oppression to manage its ethnic and religious minorities. Russia is an insecure land power with few natural borders, thus prone to invasion throughout history: this is the deep, unstated reason for Russian aggression.

Moreover, China and Russia are much too dependent on one man at the top, and their inflexible autocracies mask deep social and economic cleavages across immense continental landscapes of their own. Thus, we concentrate too much on the strengths of the three great powers. But all of them could weaken in their own way, creating a more anarchic world.

It has usually been the ordering influence of great powers and empires that has limited chaos. The question may be: which one of the great powers, or ones, will weaken at a faster pace than the others? Mastering change may decide the great-power struggle. Which of them has flexibility built into their political structures? American democracy, as unruly and problematic as it is, has demonstrated an historical proclivity to adapt and reinvent itself more than other big systems.

America’s large and well-endowed landmass certainly helps in a drawbridge-up environment of protectionism. Yet the country still requires allies and credible deterrents in a smaller and claustrophobic world where Russia threatens Ukraine and China threatens Taiwan. Geographical bounty cannot solve every problem. It is, as Morgenthau put it, a crucial component of power among others. Yet the most fortunate geography ever known still offers lessons of considerable hope.

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Robert D. Kaplan holds the Robert Strausz-Hupé Chair in Geopolitics at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He is the author of 19 books, most recently “The Good American: The Epic Life of Bob Gersony, the US Government’s Greatest Humanitarian” (Random House, 2021).