Astropolitik: A Hypothetical Near Future

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On a three dimension plane, where does a country end? If nations have such things as air space then the question of how high that space goes must be asked.

In the present day we have agreed that while satellites can be the property of a nation or a corporation-and so Earth orbit itself seems to be a neutral zone-this could change. Trump’s much derided ‘space force’, while hugely preemptive and likely just a PR gig for the time being, is still a very real future we Earthlings will face in the future should our technological capacity (and ability to support it) continue growing. This may provoke some kind of renegotiation for space and the power projection and militarization of it.

My personal hope would be that we could, in fact, put our Earthly differences aside when in the vast leagues of the solar system. But I know from history that hope is a hopeless bet. So long as there are multiple advanced nations on Earth a future of a solar system wrapped up in our power politics is very likely.

The Earth rotates of course, so unless we wanted to deal with the annoyance of an eternal airspace that oscillated throughout the cosmos based on Earth’s spin it seems most likely to me that competing space powers of the near future would seek to carve out distinct ‘zones of influence’ (mostly for mining and research stations) in specific locations. The earlier powers to Space Race 2.0 would have a huge advantage in finder’s keepers–though this could inspire the first offensive combat fleets from the late coming revisionist powers to take their fair share in turn. Certain asteroids and moons with deposits of useful materials would be the first stage of potential conflict zone. Whichever nation (or multinational) which held these in the long term would be given in turn a huge boost to their position back on Earth.

Keep in mind that one difference between all of this and present terrestrial warfare would be timing. War is faster and more instantaneous now than ever before…but that is just on Earth. Space itself and the distances under our present technological limitations drag out the pace of operations. Even information warfare that could be effectively conducted at the speed of light would no longer seem as instantaneous as it does back home, with such actions now having to be measured in light minutes and hours. Speed would matter more than anything else, including speed of physical weapons. Perhaps some kind of electronic equipment frying wave is the first attack followed by guided kinetics. The levels of sophistication in any conceivable future probably argue for a focus on larger, durable, and versatile vessels.

Let us push a few more hypothetical generations out. As a species we have managed to outdo my expectations and actually started the process not only of solar system colonization, but of terraforming. This means colonies are not little space-supplied pockets of experts but rather baby societies in the making with a self sustaining populations and basic tech levels.

It seems quite possible that if there were multiple nations on Earth with space-faring capacity, there would be nationally oriented colonies. Far less likely than see expensive and possibly pointless war between colonies on different celestial bodies, we would see multiple national colonies on the same most valuable celestial bodies. Think the Seven Years War in North America. So if Mars and Europa are the best place for colonists you would have multiple competing colonies on each. Geography, and geopolitics, come back into the fore in this new and more established phase of astropolitik. The underwater colonies of Europa, for example, moving towards negotiation over the space between the ice shelf ceiling and the sea floor in diplomacy with fleets of submarines to bolster their claims. The open nature and low gravity of Mars might be a boon for vehicles who can change from high to low altitude with great speed for a variety of technical purposes which could, in turn, be harvested strategically.

Of course, as  colonizing itself becomes easier with logistical improvements new colonies might bud off from the older ones which diverge from national origin and become ideologically or sectarian based. Political dissidents, religious fanatics, utopian experimenters, escaped prisoners, etc. This is the kind of future phase extremely well portrayed by my personal favorite computer game, Alpha Centurai, despite that game starting out with the initial settlement already being ideological rather than national. Think Pitcairn Island, the Gulla culture, Iceland being settled and then settling Greenland, the Qara-Khitai Khanate, etc.

But if the core assumption of geopolitics is that geography shapes the strategy (and historically, the people) of a place then this colony on colony rivalry eventually might give way to greater levels of solidarity against Earth. Food and basic tool production, once achieved on the colonies, makes them more functionally autonomous. The various second tier non-national colonies begin to influence their mother societies (for better or worse). Colonial conflicts might increasingly become more akin to civil wars, where one faction seeks to take the entire body of settlements for itself, or remove some kind of dangerous local pest, rather than its mother nation. Mother nations back on Earth, in turn, might themselves collapse leading to colonies being stranded, independent, or being absorbed by others. New home grown factions topple loyalists allied with the Motherworld to make new deals and institute reforms unwanted by home base.

In the end, the distances, assuming we never develop the truly impressive drives made necessary for storytelling in so much of science fiction (it does seem improbable to happen anytime soon from today’s vantage point) practically ensure many colonies become independent. Some might go a Qin Dynasty route with a Shi Huangdi type figure forcibly unifying and then making a whole celestial body uniform. Others might be anti-Earth (or anti-other colony) coalitions that are domestically autonomous. Some might descend into total city-state style colony on colony warfare once a common external threat is no longer viewed as possible. A truly successful terraforming project coupled with exploitation of some new abundant locally available resource might even see a colonial power come to rival or even out-class Earth itself…which might in turn be a boon for peace on Earth as the common, now properly ‘alien’ threat might just bring those fractuous nations of Earth together for once.

Of course, Africa begat humanity and the Middle East begat urbanized agrarian civilization, and those have never yet unified in the face of outside threats so…there is always the chance that powerful colonies than completely reverse the process and begin fighting with each other on Earth over slices of Earth proxies and junior partners. You have to admit, there is a certain humorous irony in that. Especially if it eventually ends up creating Pan-Earth-Solidarity through anticolonial resistance to the occupation of the ex-colonies.

For this entry I was keeping solely with what seems realistic for a future expanding multi-polar humanity to achieve. In the future I might consider a less reality rooted hypothetical of faster-than-light transport and what it would mean for an interstellar empire or a few of them. If you are new to the blog and want to see the few other times I have talked about science fiction you can find my take on Star Trek: Deep Space 9 and IR theory (specifically neoclassical realism) here, and the overlooked but interesting concept of geopolitics and anticolonial war in Heavy Gear here.

 

The Grand Alliance Future Predicted by Geotrickster is Here

On posts too numerous to mention (or bother going through to link directly to) on this blog I have often talked about the importance of the Eurasian landmass and the traditional fear of naval powers of grand land-power alliances locking up most of it. In contemporary terms this often means a China-Russia alliance of the sort from the early Cold War returning. I recommended to American strategists that this be avoided and that overly antagonizing Russia on all fronts would increase the likelihood of it happening. In the end great power rivalry was always more important than tiny peripheral gains (and over-expansion) at Russia’s expense.

Well, it has happened. Or more accurately, it now is definitely in the process of happening. This doesn’t mean that the numerous tensions in the relationship-especially over influence in Central Asia-won’t flare up or reverse the process, but its clearly time to start thinking about the US position of being sidelined in much of Eurasia actually is.

A true realist does not pine for the past (one the reasons I find the large presence of paleocon realists so baffling) but constantly adapts to changing circumstances. Rather than scream about how dumb American strategists are which I do enough anyway, here are some recommendations for them assuming present trends of the Moscow-Beijing bromance hold true:

  1. Neither Russia nor China could challenge America on its own yet. Together they actually do provide a challenge large enough to get America back on spending government dime on science, technology, the space race, infrastructure, and competing in green energy. The Cold War was one of the best things to ever happen to the United States, internally speaking, and its end with hindsight was one of the worst. We cut spending on so many of the things that made us great and competitive so we could pursue the phantom chimera of endless tax cuts, deregulation, voodoo economics, and yelling about social issues while both major parties gobble from the Wall Street trough.
  2. A mega-power blob of Russia and China will both attract new allies and alienate new enemies. In the re-alignment that occurs the US could in fact increase its influence in many new countries who fear a new Eurasian power bloc. I have said before that I see North America, not Eurasia, as the true ‘world-island’ in geopolitics, the ability to maintain and expand relationships with powerful nations like France, India, and the like in the long run counts more than losing much of the Middle East to Iran (which will no doubt go for Russia-China if present policies continue).
  3. Finally, a way to responsibly end Afghanistan. Being bogged down in Afghanistan is a drain on American grand strategy (if a boon for defense contractors, funny how that often happens), and can be jettisoned if Afghanistan is de facto ceded to a Eurasian bloc as a security concern. China’s close relationships with Pakistan increases the odds of more effective policies being adopted, and the inevitability of Islamabad-DC fallout and growing New Delhi-DC ties make this a natural development which should be accelerated rather than delayed.
  4. Potential access to resources, the real core of power politics, will be cut for US and allied nations, but what is lost in one place can be gained elsewhere, outside of conflict zones even, especially considering the most under-reported and extremely important news of centuries worth of rare earth materials being found in Japanese exclusive territory. This further stresses that the US-Japan Alliance is the most important in the world and should be the top priority of US diplomats.

Navigating the Beringian Age of Geopolitics

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I have written numerous Eurasia geopolitics articles, North America articles, and a South American article on here so far. It was my plan to do Africa next, but instead it seems first comes one which is both Eurasia and North America together. Go figure.

Eurasia is what is often referred to as ‘The World Island’ in classical geopolitics. The closest thing our present geological era has to a supercontinent. For much of history land power was easier and cheaper to wield than sea power-though obviously this has changed since-and Eurasia, being directly connected to humanity’s birthplace of Africa and the birthplace of both agriculture and animal domestication was the location of the strongest and most technologically advanced states. Up until the rise of the United States this was almost always true, with a one off in Carthage, a possible economic Malian interlude in the Middle Ages, and Egypt really being the only periodic exception (and even then just barely as it straddled two continents). Having the majority of Earth’s population and societies, Eurasia was the natural laboratory of state formation and warfare innovation, especially connected as it was with other parts of its own massive expanse due to a plethora of natural harbors an an ‘inland sea’ of sorts in the grasslands of the Eurasian steppe that stretch from Hungary to Manchuria.

The first geopolitical thinkers to really get into this World-Island thesis were people like Halford Mackinder, who came of prominence in a time when the British were still top dogs but knew their time was running out due to the rapid rise of German, Russian, and American power. He was the first to postulate that the rapid industrialization of these powers and the expansion of their railroad networks would return the logistical and military initiative to land powers for the first time since the decline of the steppe nomads who had once been the qualitatively dominant military force in world history. It would become a British obsession, soon to be inherited also by the Americans, French, and Japanese as well, to hinder any one power from exerting this level of dominance over Eurasia, the continent-of-continents. The French would use alliances and dominance of Africa to attempt to be a secondary player in this game, the Japanese would attempt to carve out their own exclusive sphere, and the Americans would use their fortunate geography to sit around, sabotage everyone else from a distance, and then come roaring in with economic power and naval power. Russia, the second place player, had become the Eurasian colossus always feared in the form of the Soviet Union. But a rising China and a hostile Western Europe and Japan kept it safely in check and America secure. Eurasia was still too big and too diverse to become someone’s private world-island. Even in the face of the power and prestige of the largest an most mobile army the world had yet to see.

But this very falling of the dice called into question the Eurasian presumption. It was a North America, dominated by one power which also in turn dominated South America, that became the first truly global maritime power. As I wrote about on here previously, this leads to many factors to reconsider the concept of the ‘world island’: be it the very concept itself or which continent it might be. I argued that North America makes a better case if the concept is to be used.

What is clear, however, is that great power rivalry in the near future will more heavily involve North America and Eurasia as the central poles of alliance networks. This does not mean that major conflicts and powers will not arise elsewhere, but for the time being the changes that will matter most will happen on these two land masses. Their past interactions have already had a massive import on the world we live in causing spillovers across the planet, even pre-dating modern humanity when a more Eurasia-connected North America wreaked disproportionate devastation on South America.

There is nothing mystical or obscure about this. These are the continents with the largest East-West widths which enable an easier and more rapid spread of flora and fauna within climate zones, something that quite possibly helps the spread of human technology and infrastructure as well. Both have long productive coastlines, vast stretches hospitable to life but also diverse in biome, and connecting interior highways of grasslands and big navigable rivers. Due to the movement of plate tectonics and shifting sea depths due to ice ages, both continents would periodically compete and exchange life forms in evolution in more recent history than many other continental collisions. For most of history Eurasia was clearly the place to be for humans maximizing their power. The horse, a North American creature originally, would die out there before being reintroduced by the Spanish but thrive in Eurasia. Eurasia was bigger, most diverse, more connected with other places. It had the good fortune to have a larger span of dray-maritime real estate for agriculture and the most animals situated for domestication. North America lacked this critical large pack beast advantage. It was also, of course, settled by humanity significantly later than Eurasia was due to simple reason of location and distance from Africa.

The human version of the Great American Interchange would begin in 1492, though the uneven nature of it would not be apparent until the fall of the Aztec Empire to the Spanish decades later. Spanish iron, gunpowder, pack animals, and sea power would be decisive despite the fact that North America had on average even larger cities than Europe in Mesoamerica and just as-if not more diverse-agricultural crops and practices. Despite their late comparative peopling and isolation, Mesoamerica (and the Andes) had numerous inventions and highly advanced urban planning, irrigation systems, and in the Aztec and Mayan worlds specifically, written bureaucracies.

The technological disparity forged in the furnace of Eurasian state formation was an obvious advantage to the invaders, but it was not the most important one. Technology can be adopted and copied. The Spanish were few and far from home. It was the pathogens they brought from their long contact with pack animals that were truly decisive. The labor saving animals may have jump-started resource collection and travel, but for the point of the Columbian Exchange, the most important part was the diseases the Eurasians had partial immunity to that the Native Americans did not. On reading in this topic I have seen estimates of death rates due to disease anywhere from 80%-95%. It remains an open issue, but this was a far deadlier outbreak of pestilence for the western hemisphere than the Bubonic Plague ever had been in Eurasia. It also led to ridiculous myths about Native Americans being backward as many of their societies had been fatally weakened if not outright destroyed before they had ever even been seen by the newcomers. The western hemisphere had become a post-apocalyptic tableau of societal collapse. Spain had the keys to be the pre-eminent world power, the only country in that era that realistically could have equaled or surpassed Ming China.

And yet the technology was still too young. Spain squandered its gains by using pillaged gold in galleon convoys to basically drive up inflation. Its infrastructure would remain largely feudal at home and in the colonies. Meanwhile, piracy on the high seas of these easy Spanish pickings by British, French, and Dutch privateers would in fact end up benefiting those countries more at Spain’s expense. The cauldron of Eurasian competition was offshore to the oceans and outside of Europe, relocating to the Americas. By having to hack out self-sustaining colonies out of the blue these more northerly powers would end up getting more of the benefit from the new world with tobacco, cotton, furs, and timber. Native Americans north of Mesoamerica were less ‘advanced’ and lesser in numbers than those further south, but this in fact made them far more difficult to conquer. They were mobile, more open to adaptation in war, and could not be simply overrun by a specific region or city. Plus, they now had competeing powers to play off each other for weapons, horses, and supplies. For about a century, from the mid 17th to mid 18th Century, the Natives of North America would in fact be equal partners in the great power rivalry that dominated the continent. Either way, the Spanish unipolar moment in the hemisphere (and thus the potential of bringing that power home as well) was over. Even without the arrival of the new European powers, the Pueblo Indians and the Comanche had already rolled back the Spanish frontier in the north, and the Mapuche had stopped it in the southern cone of South America.

In many ways the European nations could only thrive in North America if the natives were fighting each other. But many of the natives gained when European fought as well. The Iroquois would destroy their long tong rivals, the Huron, and then go on to roll back Quebec’s frontier with their musket-armed forces. Hudson’s bay firearms-for-fur trading would empower the Blackfoot to heights previously unheard of for them, and the previously mentioned Comanche basically ran their own horseback empire in the southwest for a century at Spanish expense. This was a multipolar world. Then British naval power took Quebec and expelled the French from the continent. A defensive Spain could only play catch up as British goods and settlers flooded the continent. Unipolar domination of the Western Hemisphere, an explicit goal of William Pitt the Elder, then Prime Minister, once again looked in sight with London-rather than Madrid-its true heir. Demographics had now tipped in favor of the settlers. Europeans outnumbered Native Americans in their own continent. Despite the partial rolling back of the frontier in Pontiac’s War, Native solidarity could not survive the American Revolution and the subsequent Northwest War where the US army was born after its largest ever battlefield defeat at the hands of the Shawnee, Miami, and Lenape-but critically from the geopolitical (if not cultural) perspective, neither did Britain’s North American empire. The first independent country of the colonial era had arisen in the Americas, it would soon be followed by many others. Events in Europe were about to give the Americas a big break.

Napoleon upsetting Europe’s apple cart turned out to be the most important thing. Haiti would be the next country to fight for and gain independence. With Spain reeling from French occupation, its colonies in Central and South America would soon follow. Kicked out of North America south of Canada (aside from Caribbean Isles and Guyanas of course) and much more into India these days anyway, the British would pull a 180 degree turn after the stalemate of the War of 1812 and thoroughly support the independence of Spain’s former colonies in order to keep them out too and open the markets of these new countries to British goods. It was in this world that North America’s first diplomatic counter-blow to the dominance of Eurasian-based states would come: The Monroe Doctrine.

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At the time of its formulation in the early Victorian era the United States most certainly did not have the power to enforce the claim of the doctrine, which was to oppose European re-colonization or re-establishment of spheres of influence over their former territories. Britain or France could have swept the American navy aside had they so chosen. But now Britain was the secret enforcer behind the American declaration. They weren’t going to take Latin America directly for themselves, so they would make damn sure no one else did, either. After the US-Mexico War it was obvious the U.S. was growing in power to one day enforce it on its own, however.

The doctrine had only one failure, the American Civil War. With the one great power of the western hemisphere divided against itself in a death struggle, and the secondary power of the region (Brazil) involved in a surprisingly costly war with a delusionally expansionistic Paraguay and without much of a navy, France moved in to establish a proxy-state in a weakened Mexico. Though the Mexicans would hold their own under Benito Juarez, the French would not be evicted fully until the American Civil War was over and the US army was redeployed on the border to threaten them and ship weapons directly to the Mexican forces.

The Civil War made a federation of squabbling pseudo republics into a proper nation. This nation was the empire of the west in all but name. With growing modern naval power and a final bookend of sweeping Spain from its remnants in 1898, the last vestiges of the old order had been relegated to a few isolated enclaves and Canada, itself already beginning the process of unofficially turning south. The worlds biggest economy and industrial producer now lay there, after all. Available resources and land along the wide continent were fueling a growth in power rapid beyond any previous one in recent history.

In this light of viewing the poles of conflict as geographic, it was now time for the power or North America to come to benefit from the misfortune of Eurasia. This time it would be neither disease nor technology but Eurasia’s multitude of great powers that would spell the reversal of the location of the world-island. From a large and removed scale much as multiple conflicts could be viewed as different phases in one grand struggle for mastery in America (Piracy and the Beaver Wars in the late 17th Century through the Mexican-US War), so too would the rise of new and fall of old powers in Eurasia set up a struggle for master in Eurasia which would last from 1902-1945 (the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, Russo-Japanese War, First World War, Russian Civil War, Turkish War of Independence, The Second World War). Britain sought to sure up its declining position by breaking its ‘splendid isolation’ and joining with Japan. Japan put the brakes on Russian expansion in southern Manchuria and its eventual dream target, Korea, eventually taking these things for itself and starting its own growth as a new power. This made Germany more a threat to the maritime alliance than Russia and made Russia more bellicose in its European objectives towards German allies. France, already in danger of being eclipsed, linked with with Russia and Britain to stave off this threat. The dying old empires of Austria-Hungary and the Ottomans would hitch a ride on German power in order to reverse their decline and ensure survival. They would end up the biggest losers of all in eventual Allied victory.

The United States played an important, but not decisive role in the First World War, but it was clearly now one of the big players at the global level. Though on the surface it seemed France and Britain had gained much from the conflict, the gains were of little long term value and their overall global position had actually been weakened. The British solider and poet Siegfried Sassoon ruminated that the only nations to gain from the war he fought in was the United States and Japan. Indeed, there were now three established naval powers by treaty, Britain, the USA, and Japan. Britain was part of a triumvirate that couldn’t get along. So much for ruling the waves. Not only that, but the Russians and Turks both, whose empires had utterly collapsed in the war, successfully fought to expel Allied backed foreign intervention in their lands leading to near immediate revisions of the postwar settlements made at their expense. Turkey would become an independent republic and the Soviet Union would reclaim most of the Tsar’s collapsed domains. Both would make rapid gains in development and education that would outstrip their less fortunate semi-colonized neighbors. More importantly, until WWII, they would be tacitly allied with each for precisely this end. The first tremors of independence movements started to rock India and Ireland. The colonial powers were living on borrowed time. Japan, having yet to experience a reverse outside of the Siberian Intervention, largely continued forward with that previous era’s policies of expansion, however, putting on a collision course with the United States.

World War II would settle Eurasia’s issue. Despite the ‘Great Game’ beginning due to fears of Russian domination, that would be exactly the outcome of all of this. Russian and American domination, that is. For all the death, destruction and misery The Second World War would cause a majority of the planet and especially the eastern and western edges of Eurasia itself, The Axis Revolt, as it could be termed, served much like the American Civil War only to delay the inevitable at great cost. In fact, it aided what was coming. The Soviets broke Germany, the Americans broke the Japanese, and each fought the other Axis powers at some time or another victoriously. But before this outcome it is relevant to note that the Germans had also now broken the French, and the Japanese had broken the British. There were only two powers. The Soviet Eurasian Heartland and the United States Western Hemisphere Dominion. The world was getting smaller due to technology, but the powers only got larger. When Britain and France tried to re-insert themselves as decisive actors in the great power game with the Suez Crisis, they found only embarrassment as the Russians threatened them and the Americans scolded them and offered no support.

But despite the one sided history in Eurasia’s favor, the Cold War would show that North America finally had the leg up. Naval power did still rule over land power despite Mackinder’s fears. Eurasia was too multi-polar and divided and it was harder for the USSR to export power when their Chinese proteges (now having replaced Japan to regain their traditional place as East Asia’s most strategically relevant country) could turn to their own interests once they were strong enough to stand up to a domineering partner. There was not, yet, an equivalent of this in the America’s to complicate the United States’ position-though if there one day were it would most likely be Brazil.

It was with deftness and skill that Zhou Enlai, Mao Zedong, Richard Nixon, and Henry Kissinger saw that world that was coming out of a simple binary. The Cold War was a power struggle, in my opinion, and the ideology that marked so much of it on both sides was largely intellectual cover for competition in the ripe proxy combat ground of the third world and newly independent former colonies. Both feared the world hegemonic goals of the other. Mix and match any number of socio-economic models with globe-spanning powers that big and strong and you would have a rivalry no matter what. So it was that two pre-eminent wingnut cold warriors of their respected countries created the conditions for bringing China in as a third pole to the rivalry, one that would send the Soviets into a conniption and, in the end, fatal death spiral of defense spending. It was this, in my opinion, that decided the Cold War more than any of Reagan’s policies, which largely took effect when the terminal decline was already taking place in Moscow. But it is worth noting that in the 60s and 70s the growth of the Soviet economy and tech sectors made many people, Kissinger included, convinced that the future was theirs more than the USA’s. China sold the new alliance to its people with much the same thinking as rhetoric. ‘The Americans will decline, the Russians are more the threat.’ In geopolitics the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Cold Warriors of the smarter varieties could see that their societies were no different from others with interests like when the Catholic French supported the Protestants in the 30 Years War against their fellow Catholics in Hapsburg Austria. Its the traditional cost benefit calculation of Cardinal Richelieu.

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With the breakup of the USSR this proved to be the opposite. Or, more accurately, the USSR declined *first*. The United States did not gain in power in the post-Cold War era so much as have all checks on its preexisting power removed. Now Washington would call the shots directly in Eurasia in places never before imagined. China had ways to go at that point to replace Russia as the bipolar competitor, but by now its safe to say it may well reach that point in my life time. But much like how the USSR could alienate China, so too could China alienate India, or one day even Russia.

This brings us to the present, and many topics I have and will go over again and have before in other entries. So, to go full circle, the fate of geopolitics in the foreseeable future relies on events in North America and Eurasia and their interaction with each other. Right now, North America still holds an advantage, though having foolishly driven Russia into China’s arms by its own hubris, (thus counteracting Brzezinski’s grand strategic advice) its an advantage rapidly being squandered. Meanwhile, China’s One Belt One Road initiative resembles another attempt to create the internal ‘world island’ where a dominant power in Eurasia is safe from the sea-power of its foes. Having learned many lessons from Soviet and, increasingly, American failure, a concerted buildup of this inland international interior could end up being a challenge the USSR never was. Or not. Eurasia’s multipolar and divided nature still counts against it and India seems to be solidly orienting towards the oceanic world for obvious geographic reasons. Still, there is nothing so complacent as assuming the present state of sovereign nations is in any way permanent. That never has been true in the past.

Something that I could see if things changed more drastically is a Beringian World. In a Beringian World, the geopolitical alliances that matter most are a dominant power or alliance network in one continent being opposed in its own hemisphere by a defensive coalition backed by the dominant power of the other continent, which in turn is opposed by its own local coalition backed by the dominant power of the other continent. What this might look like with the present international states would be a China-backed Brazil or even Mexico (though that is less likely I think) or collection of South American states under Chinese partnership which in turn is reciprocated by a US-backed India or even eventually Russia. If China and Russia somehow stay friends permanently, this will be manifest in bringing Japan, Indonesia, and India closer together, a project which, arguably, is already underway in those countries.

Should China experience a decline or a shocking sudden state failure, however, this may reverse. If Japan and India are close together they might take up the mantle of Latin America’s revisionist states and the US will have to find no friends to balance against them. This is, of course, all very long term and hypothetical.

The point is, once Eurasian countries divided up North (and South) America for their spoils. Then North America rode a wave of Eurasia dividing itself up to become the center of political power. But now the technological disparities have largely gone from between them and the world continues to shrink bringing both new allies and new enemies. In a future Beringian World the geopolitical center of gravity might be split between both continents, which will, strategically speaking, come together as part of the same world in a way not seen since the seas were low and the Bering Strait open, when wild canines left the Americas to colonize and independently evolve all over the world.

Of course, some new exclusive resource revolutionizing technology could always finally through the ball to another region. You never know.

In the more near future don’t be surprised if you see another Nixon-goes-to-China moment except more likely with another power being the recipient of the visit and no one as smart as Nixon to do the visiting. If you see it, I encourage you to follow it as it flies away, it will be relevant if it fails or succeeds.

 

So Far, Only North America is a World-Island

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I always had two historical loves which won out over all the others. Sure, there isn’t a time and place I can’t not find interesting or even devote significant amount of time to reading up on, but my true loves that beat all the others are Eurasian nomads and Native American studies. So it has been since my teens, and remains so to this day. Just today I realized a concept I learned in the study of one might make more sense applied to the other.

When I made the transition into International Relations I became aware of geopolitics. There was a lot to disagree with as well as agree with and parsing through the gems from the coal became one of the purposes of this very blog. Even the founding article of the field, Mackinder’s ‘The Geographic Pivot of History’, is so full of holes a knowledgeable person can leap through with space to spare. But this first halting step did create new and interesting discussions in policy circles back in its original context of rampant Russophobia in Britain and the Anglo-Japanese Alliance and Russo-Japanese War which was occurring at the time of its publication. Though that war would show that the Romanov Dynasty had feet made of clay and that Germany was Britain’s true rival, the core thesis had one very stark and obvious insight: that Eurasia was rich in population and resources and the closest thing we have to a super-continent right now. Thus if one power could dominate it, it would truly be unstoppable and quite possibly unassailable. If anything, Soviet defense in depth and being able to shuffle resources back and forth from frontiers with Germany and Japan in response to changing circumstances lent the theory some real world credit in the Second World War. It certainly interested Cold War strategists in the NATO world.

Nowadays, it has spawned a quite bizarre, almost theosophist-mystic form of geopolitics in Russia. Alexander Dugin, a kind of Blavatsky-Evola-Rasputin hybrid creature, waxes poetically about Russia’s need to directly annex a variety of countries and regions and apply them to some kind of fascistic definition of Eurasian solidarity that would have made the tolerant and flexible Mongols he claims to idolize sneer in contempt. But that is a different subject from this post. Brzezinski’s book ‘The Grand Chessboard’ shows the American take on the subject is still here as well. The point is, whether for good or ill, World-Island Theory (the term for Eurasia’s central role in geopolitics) is still strong. And while I hold the central observation of Eurasia’s massive importance to be largely correct, I dispute that it has yet to achieve its potential. North America, on the other hand, already has.

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In a great irony of prehistory, the horse, which first evolved in North America, would end up going extinct there while the Eurasian migrated branches of the species would survive, thrive, and go on to play such an important role in human history. The Americas, by and large, are severely lacking in indigenous domesticated animals which can be put to human use. Jared Diamond’s ‘Guns Germs and Steel’ and Charles Mann’s book ‘1491’ goes further into detail into the science behind this observation, as do many other works. The point is, lack of such beasts hampered both mobility and disease resistance, as this is mostly acquired through close contact by living with domestic animals. As it was, when horses returned they quickly went wild, almost as coming home. The Plains tribes rose to a massive gain of power projection and living standards practically overnight in the late 17th and early 18th Centuries due in no small part to these creatures. All this despite already have suffered through waves of depopulating plagues. By that point it was too late to undo the effect of thousands of years of their absence, but the rise of the Comanche Empire, which would humiliate the frontiers of New Spain and then Mexico for over a century despite a calamitous demographic situation for the Native population speaks volumes.

Imagine, if you will, a world where horses never died out in the Americas before being reintroduced by the Spanish.The percentage of the land taken up by the Great Plains is far larger, proportionally, than the great Eurasian Steppe, where the nomadic people there did so much to spread trade and technology from one end of the land mass to the other. One suspects it would be a realm of large empires and thriving trade cities connecting the eastern forest and river peoples to groups far further afield than they otherwise would have direct contact with, such as the Tlingit, Haida, and other Pacific Northwest peoples who had probably the highest living standards of the pre-industrial world and (possibly) a few tenuous trade links to Asia. The greater effort of technology and commerce travelling north-south as opposed to east-west (due to more shifting climate zones) could be overridden by the massive interconnectedness of the Great Plains under nomadic empires. As it was, even with the tragic and utterly unnecessary genocide and driving to the periphery of the Native peoples of North America, a small collection of fractious colonies on the eastern seaboards of both the US and Canada would find a rapid expansion followed by an intense interconnections of resources and peoples-first through rail and then through interstate highways. Now, cheap domestic flight seals the deal.

As with all things geopolitics, this is not permanent. It is the interplay of social sciences with the physicality of geoscience and geography that really make the discipline when it is being thorough. One dominant state in the center of the landmass with cordial relations with its two neighbors is not a permanent situation…but it is so far the most ideal conjunction of forces for the wielding of great power politics on a global scale than has ever so far existed. Control of the North American world-island means the security to build bases and dominate trade routes around the entire planet. The British had no defense beyond their navy in a multi-polar Europe, the Mongols were a small minority who ruled with a relatively light hand, and the Spanish came into such a glut of wealth they suffered hyperinflation and became prey for other countries’ pirates. So far, out of this group, only the United States has equaled if not surpassed the Mongolian geopolitical achievement.

Good North American strategists see that it is the ocean that is both the highway and the fortification protecting this remarkably secure and wealthy apparatus from Arctic to Panama Canal, bad ones overextend themselves dangerously into Eurasia and Africa. For North America (specifically the United States as the core of this order) to re-learn the strategy it has lost through smug complacency since the fall of the USSR, some kind of American Maritime Focused Hadrian figure is necessary. Right now there is no such thing in the running for leadership…though Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard points to a distinct possibility for the future.

It seems such a waste for such a conjunction of positive forces to be squandered on nation building outside of core maritime connections. Not to mention the human cost of many of these ill-fought out interventions. Perhaps in the future I can write a post about what allies are actually critical to the American edifice. North American geopolitical thinkers also need not fear about Eurasian unification, it is much larger, much more divided (both geographically and culturally) and could only be unified under circumstances that do not presently nor could foreseeably exist in the near future. Eurasia, in the end, is actually a super-continent build for balance-of-power politics, not so much hegemony. After all, when various Chinese dynasties were the leading scientific and technological forces of the world, they still could not meaningfully exert this dominance too far afield. So long as powerful maritime states exist outside of Eurasia, they cannot make such an attempt in the future. The large populations of South Asia and East Asia are not coming together anytime soon, and even a demographically challenged Russia is still playing the game. And even a Eurasia-dominating empire would no longer necessarily be able to overtake a stable North America that retains its decisive role in South America. The cumulative sea-surrounded landmass of the Americas, no longer as hampered by climactic variation and choke-points as it once was, could verily be the real super-continent for strategist of the future to ponder on.

None of this is to say that North America will never split apart. The Washington DC hegemony splintering or becoming a Byzantine rump state is always a possibility, causing the political geography of North America itself to create its own states in the Northeast, Appalachia, Southeast, Plains, Rockies, and northern and southern West Coasts-to say nothing of Quebec, Mayan populated parts of Mexico, and all the many other possible conjunctions. States are like people, they have various and finite lifespans. And like the super-continent cycle itself, division and unification of landmasses under specific rule comes and goes from one to the other. This should make it all the more important that strategists in Washington, Ottawa, and Mexico City make the most of what they have now and not through it away on an altar of faddish economic and political theories which exist to self-congratulate the ruling class. The present order of world affairs is not a product of such forces, but rather of smart strategy applied to fortuitous geography. A world-island, if you can keep it.

The World’s Biggest Feint

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‘All warfare is based on deception…Offer the enemy bait to lure him.’

~Sunzi

So you have probably heard of the recent ruling in the South China Sea. Considering the internalization of maritime and other disputes that Beijing enjoys deploying as nation-affirming red meat for the people, I would certainly not want to say this issue will be solved anytime soon. However, I would like to posit one even more interesting interpretation-that whether or not domestic pressures force a dangerous showdown in the Southwestern Pacific or not, this ecologically destructive race of island building and extending maritime claims  was originally and possibly still is nothing but a geopolitical feint of truly massive scope.

Think about it. China is a nation with an ancient history of grand strategy. Many of the best strategists in history come from there and nearly two centuries of a national dark age has knocked the former complacency of several thousand years of relative cultural success out of stasis. Surely, considering these factors, a rapidly rising world power is not yet on track to risk everything in a mad-dash naval rivalry with the United States and its allies? After all, the example of the last country to do that is China’s favorite punching bag: Japan. Only once, in the early Ming Dynasty, did it seriously see itself as a naval power rather than a land power with naval interests on the side.

While it is worth considering that shore based anti-ship missiles might have restored the advantage to the defender in naval war for the first time since before cannons on ships, we simply do not know how effectively they will actually be yet. So while retaining the caveat that China might have pushed its maritime claims into its domestic sphere so far that it might be forced to be foolishly belligerent, let me advance the potential for a wiser and probably more likely scenario.

The Chinese government wants US forces on the ready in the Pacific. Combined with America’s hubristic and unnecessary proclivity to deploy many forces to the Middle East, this leaves less for Washington to have immediately ready to act in the Indian Ocean. More importantly, the US, having abandoned Central Asia to Russia (and rightly so, as it was an unnecessary extension for a naval power) can now no longer pursue more military and political influence in said region.

During the War of Spanish Succession, the Duke of Marlborough on multiple occasions fought against the most powerful army of his day by launching multiple feints, forcing the foe to weaken critical spots in their line by redeploying forces elsewhere to meet his well broadcast attacks. This inactive backwater of the front or battlefield would then become the main focus of his attacks, overwhelming the overburdened position of the enemy. If one views what is often called as ‘The Eurasian Chessboard’ in a similar way one sees an opening for China in the west, which leads to a potential opening south.

Even if the Beijing-Islamabad axis never gets any stronger, and India remains strong enough to contain the Indian Ocean, there is plenty to be gained from inland Eurasia. And not a damn thing the U.S.-whose regional role is now to be isolated and bogged down in Afghanistan and nothing else-can do about it. In fact, Beijing benefits from Washington keeping the Taliban busy while it pursues its own objectives elsewhere in the neighborhood.

In order to shore up this economic and resource expansion on the continent, it is necessary for Beijing to keep good relations with Moscow. Russia holds this new arrangement together, keeping the northern flank intact and providing the cooperation needed to work well with local elites in the region. But Russia, with its insecurities about the Siberian frontier, remains cautious. The historically inclined inside the PRC are probably salivating at the potential for analogies for when the Han Dynasty divided the Xiongnu Empire and turned some of them into perpetual warrior proxies on their behalf.

Therefore, one suspects as Chinese interests grow in Central and possibly South Asia that tacit yet unofficial backing of Russian bellicosity in the Caucasus and Eastern Europe will in fact increase. They would never admit it openly of course, but to drive the wedge further between Russia and western Europe and the US is to keep Russia from contesting losing some relative influence in Central Asia to China. Not to mention that if very successful, this policy could also reduce the long-running de facto military hardware export dealing between Moscow and Delhi, which would further strengthen China’s position towards its giant southern rival.

Assuming this comes to pass, I actually see it as a potential positive in world affairs. A confirmed sea power and a confirmed land power with minimal ability to directly interfere in each other’s interior business and with only a few places where proxy conflict could break out. A type of Cold War lite with the appeals to ideology mercifully slim. Of course, in order to keep Moscow and Brussels sufficiently separate even in this best-case scenario major upsets will occur.

And of course it requires two very important and totally not guaranteed variables: Sober realism in both Beijing and Washington.

 

Classical Geopolitics, A Review

Despite having started out near the beginning of this blog with a couple book reviews, I have not really kept the trend going. So, I figure it is time to look at a book I discovered purely by accident here in a DC bookshop and recently finished. ‘Classical Geopolitics: A New Analytical Model’ by Phil Kelly, Professor at Emporia State University.

Kelly seeks to make the article, in a vein similar to Brzezinski or Kaplan, that geopolitics is a lost art buried by frauds (such as the racist Nazi version of geopolitics) or obfuscated by…well, an ideology which does nothing but obfuscate, such as postmodernism (seriously, when did anything good ever come from putting the word ‘critical’ on the front of any academic topic?). The main thrust of his argument is that at its core geopolitics has an emphasis on the geo part-a la geography- and thus is an understanding about physical properties and the shapes of states and their access to resources with no predetermined ideological baggage. He goes even further than most in seeking to divorce geopolitics with the theory it is most widely connected to, that of realism. Kelly does not deny that on so many issues the theory of realism will in fact merge with that of geopolitics, and is its closest fit, but he seeks to establish geopolitics as a stand-alone strategic understanding in its own right. This may be one of the more unique arguments in classical geopolitics I have yet seen.

As to what he means by classical geopolitics, it is the method of focusing international and foreign policy strategy around geographically based strengths and weaknesses, resource bases, the trade routes that connect them, and the general logistical issues which arise between these physical factors. It is a kind of study which is often associated with being created by Halford Mackinder, but antecedents of which have been floating around many cultures and eras. Most notable would be Kautilya’s understanding of the geographic and political checkerboard made by multipolar systems in Northern India in the classical era early Maurya Empire as well as Sun Tzu’s clear prioritization of shaping ones military and sometimes diplomatic strategies primarily around the nature of the geography one has to work with. One does not have to agree with Mackinder to be into geopolitics. I myself believe that though he started an interesting discussion, if Mackinder were right A. land power would have long since superseded sea power before the 21rst century and B. that the Soviet Union would have come to at least equate if not outright outperform the United States. Obviously, none of these came true, though one could argue that in the case of the latter it was because of skillful grand strategy on behalf of the Nixon administration towards China and the exploitation of the Sino-Soviet split.

But Mackinder brought the centrality of geography to foreign policy back to the European (and North American) worlds as a keystone with a power unseen since Hadrian demarcated a defensible height and stopping point for the Roman Empire. Many of his acolytes were more interesting either by refining his thoughts in a more interesting way (Spkyman) or for being ridiculous and downright terrible (Haushoffer, Dugin). In Kelly’s book I also learned about the very recent ‘Great Powers and Geopolitical Change’ by Jakub  Griegiel, which I very much plan to read in the future based off the synopsis given. Perhaps it will be the next book review to appear here.

One commonality that most geopolitical thinkers have, no matter their interests or disagreements, is the importance of Eurasia. As a supercontinent (if India is not considered a separate continent than neither should Europe be, anyway). It is ‘the world island’, the place where the most people, land, and resources lie. If a single power were to exert dominance over all of it at once its power-projection capabilities would be truly immense. Of course, the nature of multiple large powerful states in Eurasia does make this exceedingly difficult and even the China of today is more constrained in the international hierarchy than the Han or Tang dynasties were at their heights.

Still, it behooves those on this landmass who are not major powers and are jealous of their autonomy to ally with stronger powers which can prevent such a geographic monopolization. The United States fills this roll better than any other country yet has. Its own fortunate terrain (total hemispheric dominance and major naval protection while also being located suitably far from major powder kegs) being the predominant factor in this equation.

What I like best about Kelly’s work however is not merely his defense of furthering this once popular but now on the back-burner field, but his South American academic background. Nearly every example of non-global but rather regional geopolitics comes from what I once referred to as ‘the strangely overlooked continent‘ which is a nice departure from normal literature on the subject.

I do have some quibbles with the text, however. First of all, many may be turned off by the very academic style of the writing. Being a veteran of academia, I was not, but its worth noting. Another thing is that Kelly argues that geopolitics should be positivistic, and I believe it is too into the humanities for this to be desirable. He also then adds little that could actually be in the field of positivism, further boosting my criticism. Arts of Strategy are often called arts for a reason. I feel if one wanted to go into that direction one should study geology and the earth sciences more. Even though I am not a fan of positivism in IR, geopolitics itself got me into the topic and I now possess a hobbiest level of knowledge about plate tectonics, ecology, and the like. But you never see any of that in geopolitical literature which makes it come off as a bit solely map-studyish.

But none of these concerns negatively impact the overall point of the book or the main arguments made therein.

 

 

Multipolarity or Unipolarity for Eurasia’s Future?

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Answer: I don’t know. Let’s dig deeper! Here is a good article from The New Statesman. I have a few additional points I would like to add to it.

Moscow is only going to take expanding Chinese influence in the region for so long without some sort of give and take, especially as they have potentially more to offer. Its hard to see the ultranationalist and increasingly xenophobic Russian state asserting itself towards the west and giving up in the east. Of course, that might also be the idea. Secretly Moscow might see such a bend as inevitable and thus the immense pride and low risk force projection towards geriatric Europe and world-hated ISIS is the cover for a massive but calculated preparation to take junior status to China in all but name on the world stage.

Either way, the United States and its allies are doing everything they possibly can to shoot themselves in the foot right now as a big part of what draws these powers together is the scheming of Atlantic nations who have little strategic gain in the region but at least superficially and sometimes directly support opposition movements anyway. It is fascinating to watch American grand strategy drive two natural rivals closer together based on nothing but overconfidence and overreach. We don’t just have a military-industrial complex, we have a liberal-humanitarian NGO complex too. Both influence strategic decision making in often unwise directions.

I would be willing to bet that the Sino-Russian relationship would have already started breaking down by now if not for the complacent imperial overreach and narcissistic Wilsonianism of the US and its allies. And if they keep pushing they risk making this otherwise temporary arrangement of convenience a permanent one, locking them out of the region entirely for sure.

But no matter what happens in this arrangement Russia might still be the loser. A rivalry with the US is much less dangerous than a rivalry with China for them, whereas a rivalry with Russia is significantly less dangerous for China. Expanding influence into Central Asia seems a much less risky move than the South Pacific on the part of Beijing. Any such action could be more exploited by the US to divide the powers. Of course, if these countries do hold onto a Eurasian lock together against the odds long term they really would have made the first large scale and successful multi-regional check on US ambitions…well, possibly ever.

It is a fascinating time for grand strategy, that is for sure. There is nothing else (contemporary, anyway) I would rather study.