Back in 1904, Sir Halford MacKinder, the director of the London School of Economics, presented a paper titled “The Geographical Pivot of History” to the Royal Geographical Society. The president of the society said about the paper had “a brilliance of description…we have seldom had equaled in this room.” It proved amazingly prescient about the next 111 years, and provides a timeless and essential framework for understanding today’s geopolitical realities. Alfred McCoy incorporates the MacKinder analysis into a trenchant analysis: “The Geopolitics of American Global Decline, Washington versus China in the Twenty-First Century.” If you only read one SLL post this month, make this the one. It’s a long article, and well worth the time. From Tom Engelhardt and Alfred McCoy, at antiwar.org:
It might have been the most influential single sentence of that era: “In these circumstances it is clear that the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.” And it originated in an 8,000 word telegram – yes, in those days, unbelievably enough, there was no email, no Internet, no Snapchat, no Facebook – sent back to Washington in February 1946 by George F. Kennan, the U.S. chargé d’affaires in Moscow, at a moment when the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was just gaining traction.
The next year, a reworked version of Kennan’s “Long Telegram” with that sentence would be published as “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” in the prestigious magazine Foreign Affairs under the pseudonym “Mr. X” (though it was common knowledge in Washington who had written it). From that moment on, “containment” of what, until the Sino-Soviet split, was called the Soviet bloc, would be Washington’s signature foreign and military policy of the era. The idea was to ring the Soviet Union and China with bases and then militarily, economically, and diplomatically hem in a gaggle of communist states from Hungary and Czechoslovakia in Eastern Europe to North Korea on the Pacific and from Siberia south to the Central Asian SSRs of the Soviet Union. In other words, much of the Eurasian land mass.
And then, when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and the Soviet Union collapsed and disappeared from the face of the Earth in 1991, that was that. Along with the former Communist world, containment as policy was dispatched to the dustbin of history – or was it? Strangely enough, as historian and TomDispatch regular Alfred McCoy points out today, if you look at Washington’s military bases (which, if anything, were expanded in the post-Soviet era), its conflicts, and the focus of its foreign policy, American attempts to “contain” the heartlands of Eurasia, especially Russia and China, have never ended. Given the passage of almost a quarter of a century since the Cold War era, the map of those garrisons and the conflicts that go with them still looks eerily familiar.
And here’s an even stranger thing, as McCoy again makes clear: the U.S. was not the first imperial power to put its energy into “containing” Eurasia. In 1945, when World War II ended with Great Britain and its empire hollowed out and in a state of exhaustion, the U.S. inherited a no-name version of “containment” policy from the British before Kennan even thought to use the term. It’s odd to realize that “containment” as imperial policy has a history that is now, in a sense, more than two centuries old. It’s strange enough, in fact, that McCoy turns his attention to the subject to help make sense of the edgy U.S.-China relationship for the rest of this century. ~ Tom
The Geopolitics of American Global Decline
Washington Versus China in the Twenty-First Century
By Alfred W. McCoy
For even the greatest of empires, geography is often destiny. You wouldn’t know it in Washington, though. America’s political, national security, and foreign policy elites continue to ignore the basics of geopolitics that have shaped the fate of world empires for the past 500 years. Consequently, they have missed the significance of the rapid global changes in Eurasia that are in the process of undermining the grand strategy for world dominion that Washington has pursued these past seven decades.
A glance at what passes for insider “wisdom” in Washington these days reveals a worldview of stunning insularity. Take Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye, Jr., known for his concept of “soft power,” as an example. Offering a simple list of ways in which he believes U.S. military, economic, and cultural power remains singular and superior, he recently argued that there was no force, internal or global, capable of eclipsing America’s future as the world’s premier power.
For those pointing to Beijing’s surging economy and proclaiming this “the Chinese century,” Nye offered up a roster of negatives: China’s per capita income “will take decades to catch up (if ever)” with America’s; it has myopically “focused its policies primarily on its region”; and it has “not developed any significant capabilities for global force projection.” Above all, Nye claimed, China suffers “geopolitical disadvantages in the internal Asian balance of power, compared to America.”
Or put it this way (and in this Nye is typical of a whole world of Washington thinking): with more allies, ships, fighters, missiles, money, patents, and blockbuster movies than any other power, Washington wins hands down.
To continue reading: Washington’s Great game and Why It’s Failing