Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Mackinder’s Nightmare: Part Two
Mackinder’s Nightmare: Part Two

Mackinder’s Nightmare: Part Two

In the first part of this essay, the author outlined a geopolitical framework for understanding current security challenges posed to the United States and its allies by the rise of the People’s Republic of China. Halford Mackinder’s concepts of a World-Island, Heartland, and outer maritime crescent were found to be relevant today—as was Nicolas Spykman’s addition of an intermediary Rimland. Mackinder feared that a conglomeration of autocratic powers centered on the Eurasian landmass might one day marginalize great maritime democracies such as Great Britain and the United States. This is now a real possibility. This article is drawn from the author’s latest book, Age of Iron: On Conservative Nationalism (Oxford University Press, 2019).

The United States has never faced a great power competitor with the range of economic capabilities now possessed by the People’s Republic of China. Americans need to come to grips with the fact that they could actually lose this long-term strategic competition. Like going bankrupt, there are two ways they could lose: gradually, and then suddenly. The gradual scenario would involve a long-term expansion of Chinese economic, diplomatic, and military capabilities to the extent that U.S.-allied capitals are ultimately unable to resist key Chinese demands. Indeed, this scenario is already well underway. The sudden version involves a violent crisis situation, for example in the Taiwan Strait, in which the relative erosion of an overall U.S. strategic position is fully and forcefully revealed in shocking fashion, ending one historical era and beginning another. Recent wargame simulations run by the RAND Corporation demonstrate that the United States and its allies could be defeated in a “limited” conventional war with the Russian Federation and China on the other side. U.S. military superiority in these encounters can no longer be taken for granted.

The Future of U.S. Foreign Policy

Under these circumstances, what sort of foreign policy should the United States pursue?

A number of academic foreign policy realists advocate an alternative American strategy of offshore balancing. Realists are right to suggest that any plausible foreign policy must begin with a specification of national interests. U.S. vital interests begin with the defense of American territory from attacks of any kind, the preservation of the country’s sovereign integrity and independence, and the protection of America’s distinctive system of limited government. Internationally, the responsibility of the U.S. government is to behave in such a way as to safeguard the above interests, protect the lives and property of American citizens, and enhance economic opportunities for the United States overseas. The preservation of regional balances of power within Europe and Asia is certainly in the American interest. Past these basic interests, the U.S. has a vital stake in the maintenance of American primacy—defined as the retention of more broad-based material capabilities than any other major power—since the promotion of every other American interest will be easier if that primacy is conserved.

The problem with a strategy of purely offshore balancing, however, is that it is hardly obvious it would secure these vital interests any better than a continued U.S. forward presence. There are genuine risks to retrenchment, precisely from a realist perspective. The costs of America’s world role are visible and known. The potential risks and costs of dismantling that overall forward presence are less knowable, but potentially catastrophic. It is entirely possible that comprehensive U.S. strategic disengagement from Eurasia could invite greater nuclear proliferation, jihadist terror, authoritarian advances, and even major power warfare. Yet, advocates of offshore balancing regularly operate on the assumption that no such destabilizing scenarios would materialize—or that they would be of no great interest to the United States. In all likelihood, as Americans were forced to rediscover during World War Two, regional breakdowns coinciding with previous U.S. disengagements would be of very great interest, requiring strategic re-entries far more costly than simply remaining forward committed. Indeed, this is why the U.S. has maintained a forward presence over the past 70 years in the first place. Conservative realists, of all people, should beware the unintended consequences of dismantling core strategic commitments that have served the United States tolerably well.

Countering China

In the abstract, one option in relation to the current Sino-Russian partnership would be for the United States to counterbalance Russia against China, by reaching out to Moscow diplomatically, in a kind of reversal of the Richard Nixon-Henry Kissinger outreach toward Mao Zedong during the early 1970s. This even may be President Donald Trump’s preference. The problem with this option, however, is that Vladimir Putin has demonstrated little interest in acting as a cat’s paw for Washington against China. Moreover, the uses of an anti-American strategic position, together with common interests in continued Sino-Russian coordination, run too deep for the Chinese and Russian regimes. Indeed, President Barack Obama tried an accommodating approach toward both Moscow and Beijing in 2009, only to discover its limitations. Certainly, the U.S. can avoid actions so foolish and precipitous that they unintentionally benefit Sino-Russian partnership. Years from now, Moscow may become convinced that the Chinese challenge is so great as to require genuine rapprochement with the United States. But that is not how Russia’s leadership sees things today. In this sense, President Trump may be ahead of his time. So under the current circumstances, the United States really has no choice but to try to counteract aggressive pressures emanating outward from Moscow and Beijing. Improved U.S.-Russian relations will have to wait for a greater willingness on Moscow’s part to accommodate legitimate Western concerns. Once the Russians are serious about respecting the democratic independence of their European neighbors, they will be sure to let us know through actions and not only words.

With regard to China, the U.S. possesses a number of counterbalancing foreign policy tools, and it should make good use of them. The United States can bolster its military capabilities in the region, encourage strategic cooperation among U.S. allies, develop ballistic missile defense systems against regional threats, consider entering a renegotiated Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, back regional security partners, increase controls on American technology exports useful to China militarily, explore additional U.S. basing options within the Indo-Pacific, support Japan’s expansion of its own defenses, counter influence operations, and help U.S. allies better defend their own sea and air spaces. Improved American awareness of and sensitivity to local political conditions in Central Asia, the Middle East, and South Asia will be crucial in this great power competition, so as to better counteract Chinese influence. The United States will continue to engage with Beijing diplomatically, as well it should. But Washington should simultaneously pursue focused, energetic, and credible policies of deterrence, pressure, and counterbalancing against Chinese regional assertions—as in the South and East China Seas—precisely in order to avert any misunderstandings or mixed messages that might unintentionally lead to armed conflict. This necessarily entails a certain continued level of American defense spending. Without playing service favorites, a long-term buildup of the U.S. Navy will be particularly important within the Indo-Pacific theatre of competition.

The Trump administration has adopted and pursued a number of the policy directions recommended above, including a set of pressure campaigns against China as well as other authoritarian powers overseas. Key documents such as the 2017 National Security Strategy and 2018 National Defense Strategy encapsulate the current U.S. shift toward great power competition, with China as the pacing threat. The president deserves credit for drawing attention to a longtime pattern of predatory Chinese economic behavior against the United States and its allies. A forceful American response is long overdue. China has engaged in a massive campaign of intellectual property theft, forced technology transfer, cyber larceny, and trade-distorting state subsidies over the past generation. This predatory behavior has carried real costs for U.S. citizens. Consequently, there is a strong case for a focused, targeted campaign against Chinese foreign economic practices. American tariffs and the threat of tariffs do constitute one tool in this effort, however blunt. But the main focus should not be on trade deficits per se. Instead, it should be on pressing for changes in the above-mentioned Chinese practices, for example by zeroing in on those companies most guilty of offense. Congressional initiatives have been helpful on this front.

Working with Allies

There do remain several additional areas of concern. One such area is current trade policy toward U.S. allies. In general, trade with democratic allies should be distinguished from trade with authoritarian competitors who simply do not play by the same rules. Neither the U.S. nor its democratic trading partners are entirely innocent of selective commercial protectionism. Some of the specific American complaints regarding allied tariffs are well-founded. Still, lengthy U.S. trade disputes with democratic allies carry all of the economic costs of a trade dispute with China, but with no possible strategic benefit. China is a great power rival, an authoritarian force, and a longtime practitioner of deeply predatory commercial practices. In terms of this unique combination, it is unlike any other U.S. trading partner, and most Americans know it. Trade wars with U.S. allies, on the other hand, cost all sides economically, while rendering strategic cooperation on other matters less likely. The U.S. should therefore de-escalate these commercial disputes with its allies, and focus on forming a common front with them against Beijing. Fortunately, there have been some positive developments along this line. One was the signing of a renegotiated North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Canada and Mexico last year. Another was the earlier conclusion of a new trade agreement with South Korea. A third, recent development was the announcement of a limited, but promising, U.S. trade agreement with Japan. That leaves Congress to approve the new NAFTA, now called the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). It also leaves the European Union as the other great cluster of market democracies currently embroiled in trade disputes with the United States.

Relations between the United States, Canada, and their European allies cannot simply be viewed through legalistic, commercial, and/or domestic political lenses. Transatlantic relations must also be viewed in geopolitical terms. For all their frustrations, the great democracies of Europe anchor the western end of Spykman’s Rimland. Outer maritime powers including the United States cannot be indifferent to Europe’s fate, unless the U.S. is prepared to cede effective domination of the Old World to authoritarian forces with China in the lead. As China’s economic influence in Europe continues to grow, this has profoundly disturbing strategic implications. Some European capitals are waking up to the problem, but so far the response has been inadequate. Assuming the U.S. is serious about counteracting the growth of predatory Chinese practices and capabilities, it should work with its European allies to settle existing commercial differences and refocus on the common threat from Beijing. However, this will require a new readiness to act within European capitals—not just in Washington. If the world’s great maritime democracies do not hang together in matching China’s power, then they may very well hang separately. That would be Mackinder’s nightmare, come to life.