Tuesday, 25 August 2015

How (and how not) to fight a land war in Asia

The world is on fire. More precisely, the “World-Island” is on fire.

A full 100 years ago, English geographer Halford John Mackinder described his geostrategic “Heartland Theory”. He described how the globe pivots on the “World-Island” – the linked continents of Europe, Asia and Africa. This is the most populous and richest of all possible land combinations and ranges from the Volga to the Yangtze, and from the Himalayas to the Arctic.

"Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; who rules the World-Island commands the world," he wrote.

Controlling the World-Island would be an impregnable and powerful position, every empire knows this. The only question is how to secure it. Plenty of powers have attempted this feat, none have truly succeeded. At the time of Mr Mackinder’s writing, the Russian Empire was in nominal control of much of the World Island, in competition with the British Empire in “The Great Game.”

The US has since tried to pacify the Heartland after the Soviet Union fell, learning a great deal of imperial lessons along the way. Former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that “Any future defence secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined.” Military force, Mr Gates discovered, doesn’t work for very long in Asia.

The World-Island does not however sit passively. Instead, its natural state is to atomise into smaller clashing regional power structures. How far those powers can consolidate influence over the World-Island is largely decided by geography and force of either arms or ideas.

The 20th century closed with the nascent US Empire as sole global hegemon. Competition to this empire is now emerging in Eastern Europe, but also in East Asia and in the Middle East. If the World-Island cannot be secured by force of arms, might it be secured through the spread of coherent ideas? This is where the true battle for the World-Island really is – between the idea of the “international community” and all other competing ideas.

Perhaps it is unfair to bifurcate geopolitics, but there does appear to be an overarching binary question dominating the world system. Each nation grapples with a version of the question of inclusion or exclusion in this international community. To be excluded is to live in isolation or to create one’s own world order. To be included is to be inside the international community.

The international community is a legacy of a structure created when the US was victorious after the Cold War, and is now maintained by the US State Department as a series of default governance and economic systems for running global interactions. It is based on the political ideology of “progressivism” – the worship of progress – which is the mainstream US tradition.

The international community has become the central idea to cohere the modern world. A progressive ideology wishes to introduce democracy and monetary economics to all countries by encouraging nations to gain independence.

How does a country know whether it is part of this international community? One way is to ask whether it is independence and, more importantly, what it thinks it means by the word “independent.”

For example, when the US became independent in 1776 it understood this to mean no other country would fund or control her government. Its geography and economic heft eventually enabled the US to maintain this version of independence by not requiring aid from external patrons. The British Empire didn’t appreciate the US choice of excluding itself from the British international community, but London couldn’t do much about it.

In the modern era, there remain two chief versions of independence: legal and illegal. Legal independence is that which corresponds with the prevailing international community. Nationalist regimes, for instance, are considered good when their goal is to become nice, multilateral members.

Illegal independence is when those movements “defy international opinion” and turn against said community. In Iraq and Ukraine, the current independence movements are illegal precisely because they choose exclusion. They are bombed into submission because they are weak, but consider that China and Russia’s exclusion choice is equally important for the integrity of the international community – they are not as vulnerable to air power.

The international community is now more a US political tradition, it has become the central ideology of much of the world. And it has proven to be incredibly attractive. In fact, there is only one independent country today, neither truly legal nor truly illegal. It's called Somaliland and is not recognised by anyone in the international community. It is essentially invisible, for good reason.

Aid from foreign governments is non-existent in Somaliland. While it is de-facto an independent country, it is not de-jure (legally) recognised internationally. Hence, the government of Somaliland cannot access IMF and World Bank assistance. Of course, one wonders which version of independence the IMF and World Bank aid actually encourages – legal or illegal. The answer should be fairly clear by now.

It might sound strange, but Somaliland and the US are identically independent. Both have pulled away from a prevailing international community. Yet it’s safe to say Somaliland’s illegal independence doesn’t pose a threat to the prevailing international community in the same way the US choice once did.

On the other hand, encouraging the legal independence of both Ukraine and Iraq is incredibly important for the international community. Iraq and Ukraine must be independent in the required direction for any of the overarching structure to work.

Mr Mackinder’s World-Island is indeed on fire, by the heat of ideas and arms. The US attempt to secure it has hit geopolitical speedbumps in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and East Asia. But with massive free trade deals under negotiation, and the rival economic systems in China and Russia stuttering, inclusion or exclusion remains the overarching decision every country needs to make.

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