The stunning growth in the capabilities of the People’s Republic of China during the past 30 years has created a severe geopolitical challenge for the United States and its allies. The U.S. faces a near-peer competitor with the potential ability to dominate the Eurasian Rimland through previously unexpected means. In this sense, the nightmare scenario sketched by Halford Mackinder over a century ago is now a real possibility: A number of authoritarian powers, with Beijing in the lead, today threaten to dominate the Eurasian landmass, marginalizing the outer crescent of maritime democracies. Fortunately, geopolitical analysis also provides a remedy. Nicolas Spykman pointed out during the 1940s that effective control over the Old World by authoritarian forces could be prevented in part through active balancing by the United States. In today’s terms, that remedy incudes a carefully maintained U.S. forward presence to counterbalance China and a continuing American economic pressure campaign against Beijing. One current policy implication is that the Donald Trump administration should resolve remaining trade disputes with U.S. allies—notably the European Union—and work alongside those allies to counteract Chinese economic, diplomatic, and strategic influence along the Rimland perimeter.
Mackinder’s Geopolitical Heartland
Since the end of the Cold War, a number of weaknesses in both the theory and practice of the liberal international order have become increasingly apparent. The geopolitical challenge to the liberal order emanates from long-term structural changes, power shifts, and persistent weak points inherent within the internationalist project. To understand why this is so requires a little elaboration as to what can be gained from a geopolitical analysis.
Geopolitics refers to the study of the relationship between international politics and geographic facts. These facts on the ground can include human and political realities like trade networks, national boundaries, and constellations of military or economic power, along with persistent natural features, such as rivers, oceans, or mountains. Many of the key geopolitical insights were laid out by British parliamentarian Halford Mackinder and Dutch-American scholar Nicolas Spykman over the first half of the twentieth century. Broaching the subject in a 1904 Geographical Journal article, Mackinder suggested that the era of European maritime predominance established 400 years earlier was coming to an end. Western naval and colonial powers had previously been able to outflank and dominate the Asian landmass through superior technology. But the consolidation of great continental-sized land powers such as the Russian Federation and potentially China—combined with changes in land transportation—meant that insular maritime democracies including Great Britain would have a more difficult time maintaining their global position. Mackinder asked his readers to envision continental Europe, continental Asia, and continental Africa as a single “World Island,” possessing most of the world’s population and industrial potential. The core of this world island he called the Heartland, inaccessible to sea power—essentially, Russia, Mongolia, Tibet, and Central Asia, including parts of China and Iran. If the world island were ever united under a single political entity, with a base in the Heartland, then it would possess overwhelming economic and military advantages over the outer crescent of geographically insular maritime powers, such as Great Britain, Japan, and the United States. Mackinder’s recommendation was for these maritime powers to encourage the creation of geopolitical buffer zones, for example in Eastern Europe. He viewed the League of Nations as well-intentioned but almost beside the point, if it did not embody a material determination on the part of the world’s great seagoing democracies to maintain favorable balances of power on the Eurasian continent.
The League of Nations’ failure to prevent a second world war encouraged a new appreciation for geopolitics. Writing in the early 1940s, Nicolas Spykman modified Mackinder’s formulations by pointing to the existence of what he called an amphibious Rimland—located in between the Heartland and its great offshore islands—and stretching from Western Europe around the Middle East, across India, ending in coastal China. Spykman pointed out that most of the world’s productive potential was in the Rimland, not within the Heartland. Control of the Rimland therefore meant control of the world—precisely what was at stake during both world wars—and this would be determined by struggles between mixed alliances, rather than by simply lining up sea powers versus land powers straightforwardly. Spykman understood that Americans, as offshore islanders, are always tempted by an offshore strategic approach, but he did not view such an approach as viable. If the U.S. failed to maintain control over vital sea and airspace in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, then some other power eventually would. Even a predominant U.S. influence in South America’s southern cone could hardly be taken for granted, given the vast distances involved, and if that influence were lost then a hemispheric defense would collapse into something more constrained and impoverished. Taken as a whole, the Rimland’s economic and military weight pointed to no secure resting place for Americans in the absence of internal Old World balances, and these balances would have to be actively upheld by the United States. As he put it, America’s “main political objective, both in peace and in war, must therefore be to prevent the unification of the Old World centers of power in a coalition hostile to her own interests.” Spykman was more sanguine than Mackinder that this could actually be done, both through a forward U.S. strategic presence, and through technological developments in American airpower properly deployed and maintained in bases far away from the United States.
A Shift from Europe to Asia
What is the geopolitical situation in our own time? According to British scholar Barry Buzan, only superpowers have global military reach. In geopolitical terms then, since the collapse of the Soviet Union—and even now—the United States remains the world’s only superpower. In fact the United States has possessed more broadly based economic and military capabilities than any other major power since the end of World War Two. This condition is sometimes called primacy, and it is indeed a condition, not a strategy in itself. An objective net assessment of America’s material advantages today reveals a nation with a range of capabilities still unmatched by any other country. These include a gigantic national economy, deep financial markets, a favorable geographic position, vast natural resources, revolutionary advances in the domestic production of shale oil and gas, robust demographics, a large population, high per capita income, a scientific and technological edge in innovation, a vibrant civil society, worldwide alliance networks, the leading military capabilities on the planet, a continuing edge in precision strike technology, and an underlying political-constitutional order of tenacious strength. Other major powers possess some of these advantages, but none of them possess all, apart from the United States.
Having said that, since the 1990s, there clearly have been some very significant shifts within the international balance of power, in broad alignment with Mackinder’s predictions over a century ago. The single greatest gravitational shift in relative economic and military weight has been from the Atlantic toward the Pacific, and from Europe toward Asia. As Robert Kaplan argues, we appear in some ways to be returning to the premodern world of Marco Polo, in which Western Europe was only one portion of a vast Eurasian commercial network encompassing roughly equal civilizations, centered on China as much as on any other power. The Indo-Pacific, rather than Europe’s Western half, is increasingly the focus of the world’s greatest economies, militaries, and geopolitical ambitions. In particular, the dramatic long-term growth in China’s economic capabilities allows it to build greater diplomatic and military assets. Obviously this long-term power shift has profound implications for America’s interests, its allies, its primacy, and indeed the very idea of liberal world order.
Strictly speaking, China is not a pure land power, but an amphibious one. That is, China faces both land and sea. This means it faces threats in both directions. But it also means that China has opportunities for expansion in both directions as well. One useful historical comparison would be not so much the Soviet Union, as early modern France. France under Louis XIV and then Napoleon had great relative capabilities. Yet, the French also carried the burden of facing threats and opportunities on land as well as at sea. Twenty-first century China—unlike early modern France—has accomplished the remarkable feat of largely securing its land boundaries with weaker neighboring countries. This permits it to pivot toward maritime military efforts, and/or the peaceful landward expansion of Chinese influence throughout Asia and beyond. It has been centuries since China was in such a favorable position.
This post-Cold War power shift within the Eurasian Rimland, from west to east, has gone hand-in-hand with the stubborn persistence and even revival of autocratic forms of government internationally, and this is probably not coincidental. Leading authoritarian regimes whose demise, reform, or transformation was confidently predicted during the heyday of post-Cold War optimism have managed to survive and adapt. The great “third wave” of democratization, stretching from the 1970s into the 1990s—and bringing Mediterranean Europe, much of Latin America, key portions of littoral Asia, and most of Central-Eastern Europe into the democratic fold—has long since ended. Now, we live in an age in which autocratic regimes have discovered creative new techniques to extend their rule and push back on democratic opponents, worldwide and inside their own countries.
Internationally, we see revisionist authoritarian forces pushing up against existing regional orders to assert alternative political-ideological visions, including their own increased influence, status, and external and internal security. Such forces take three main forms. First, there are the two great authoritarian continental-sized powers, namely Russia and China. Second, there are regional rogue states—primarily Iran and North Korea—with aggressive revisionist ambitions. Third, there are salafi-jihadist terrorist groups, such as ISIS and Al Qaeda, along with radical Islamist factions hostile to the West. These various autocratic forces do not necessarily cooperate. Sometimes, they compete with or combat one another. Moreover, their degree of enmity toward the United States varies considerably. China, for example, is a powerful challenger that has benefitted a great deal from open international economic arrangements and does not actively seek violent conflict with the West. Al Qaeda on the other hand is at perpetual war with the United States by its own choosing. Still, it is useful to understand that none of these authoritarian powers are actually genuine partners or friends of the United States.
America’s Next Challenger
In terms of sheer material capabilities, the weightiest of the authoritarian challengers is China. And this must necessarily inform the prioritization of U.S. policy responses. Over the past 40 years, following Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, China has transformed itself from a Maoist, impoverished Third World country into one of the two largest national economies in the world. Indeed, when measured by purchasing power parity, China’s gross domestic product surpassed that of the United States in 2014. This material growth has gone hand-in-hand with a vast expansion of Chinese trade and investment on every inhabited continent, including Africa and South America. Under its “Belt and Road Initiative,” China funds large-scale infrastructure projects across Asia and beyond, tying diverse regions together economically under enhanced Chinese influence. In terms of its commercial and financial reach, China is now a global power with affiliated institutions of its own. Moreover Beijing can and is using this newfound wealth to fund impressive modernizations of its army, navy, and air force, so as to lend itself better deterrent and coercive leverage in relation to any crisis around the country’s vast perimeter on land, air, and sea.
Claims that China only protects its sovereignty are disingenuous. As Congressman Mike Gallagher (R-WI) has noted, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) looks to actively shape the internal affairs of other countries through CCP-affiliated political influence operations, bribery, and disinformation. Under Chairman Xi Jinping, the CCP has abandoned Deng’s emphasis on biding time, and has announced an ambitious “China dream,” whereby the nation reasserts itself as one of the truly great powers in the world. Beijing may ultimately attempt to supplant the United States as the predominant alliance leader within East Asia, a role it played for centuries before the arrival of Western and Japanese imperial influence, and a role the Chinese view as rightly theirs. Of course, China also has serious weaknesses and vulnerabilities, both demographic, domestic political, economic, military, and international. It does not yet have a global military or strategic presence to match that of the United States. Nevertheless, China’s continuing rise offers a serious challenge to U.S. interests, to American allies, and to the very concept of liberal international order. Under these conditions, it would be misleading to speak of a single worldwide rules-based liberal order. Rather, we may be headed toward two alternative orders, one U.S.-led, and one Sinocentric—each with their own rules.
Vladimir Putin’s Russia offers another major-power challenge to U.S. interests in Europe and beyond. The conventional wisdom regarding Sino-Russian cooperation used to be that their relationship was nothing more than an axis of convenience. Unfortunately, this is no longer true. To be sure, Moscow and Beijing still have many foreign policy differences, and their coordination falls well short of any formal military alliance. But Russia and China now have a working strategic partnership that reaches across multiple issue areas, including weapons sales, oil and gas supplies, security coordination, and defense against liberal democratic norms. The two authoritarian regimes see eye-to-eye in protesting supposed outside interference in their own affairs—and in creating or recreating regional spheres of influence as economic and security buffer zones. Both ultimately look to see a world free from American primacy, and characterized instead by the internal and external security of their own authoritarian regimes. Moreover, both Moscow and Beijing often have business-like and mutually beneficial relationships with other leading autocracies, such as Iran and North Korea.
Altogether, the result is a Eurasian landmass dominated by a de facto Sino-Russian partnership and its attendant supporters, whether dictatorial or simply weak. This is something close to Halford Mackinder’s geopolitical nightmare: an Old World increasingly subject to an authoritarian Heartland, against an outer crescent of maritime democracies.
In part two of this essay, the author considers a number of U.S. strategic alternatives to meet the above challenge, assesses the Trump administration’s approach, and offers some current policy recommendations.