by Francis P. Sempa
A frequent American Diplomacy contributor, drawing on classical as well as contemporary historical analysis, finds that the twenty-first century marks a tectonic shift from four centuries of European-centered geopolitics to a new age of Asian-centered geopolitics. This calls for shifts in U.S. strategic focus, policies, and resources. — Ed.
The age of European-centered geopolitics is over. It lasted, roughly, from the Hapsburg emperor Charles V’s bid for global supremacy in the sixteenth century to the fall of the Soviet empire at the end of the twentieth century. For more than four centuries, what happened in Europe affected most of the rest of the world, economically, technologically, culturally, and politically. That is no longer true in the twenty-first century.
Instead, the twenty-first century marks the beginning of the age of Asian-centered geopolitics. What is happening now in Asia — economically, technologically, culturally, demographically, and politically — is affecting most of the rest of the world. American statesmen and policymakers need to accept and understand the consequences of this tectonic shift in global geopolitics.
The great British geographer Sir Halford Mackinder, in his masterful paper “The Geographical Pivot of History” (1904), called the age of European-centered geopolitics “the Columbian epoch.” Beginning at the end of the fifteenth century, European explorers discovered and claimed new lands for their countries and, as Mackinder noted, European missionaries, farmers, miners, engineers, and conquerors followed in the explorer’s footsteps and “New Europes were created in the… lands discovered.” By 1914, as James Burnham pointed out in Suicide of the West (1964) and as Niall Ferguson has more recently pointed out in The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West (2006), European powers (and their offspring, including the United States) dominated the world.
During the four-century time period of European ascendancy, the global geopolitical struggle involved mostly European-based hegemonic powers against coalitions of other mostly European-based powers. Charles V’s Spain, Louis XIV’s France, Revolutionary France, Napoleon’s France, Wilhelmine Germany, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet empire challenged the global balance of power and were countered by mostly European-based coalitions of smaller powers, often funded and led by Great Britain. In the twentieth century, the United States, an offspring of Europe, gradually assumed the geopolitical role of the “holder” of the European balance of power previously played by Great Britain.
George F. Kennan wrote that the First World War was the “seminal catastrophe” of the twentieth century. Old Europe was gone forever. The social constraints of monarchical relations and religion were undermined or seriously weakened. The war unleashed the secular ideological forces of communism and fascism that shaped much of the rest of the century. Hajo Holborn reflected that the First World War initiated, and the Second World War completed, the “political collapse of Europe,” meaning the process by which Europe ceased to be a self-contained geopolitical system. The two wars exacted a devastating physical and psychological toll on the old great powers of Western Europe, who recovered physically, but not psychologically. Europe, as Robert Kagan explains at length in his brilliant Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order, has turned away from power.
Viewed in this light, the Cold War can be seen as the last gasp of a dying European-centered geopolitical system. The countries of Western Europe that, together with Russia, defined the geopolitics of the previous four centuries, played a subsidiary role to the United States during the Cold War. They lost or surrendered their colonial empires, and increasingly became objects of, instead of competitors in, that great global geopolitical struggle. When the Cold War ended, these once great empires became even less significant to global geopolitics. They entered what Kagan calls “a post-historical paradise of peace and relative prosperity,” and adopted a “more peaceful strategic culture” that “represents an evolution away from the very different strategic culture that dominated Europe for hundreds of years — at least until World War I.”
It will take some time for the United States to fully adapt to this geopolitical change. Since our nation’s founding, we have followed, primarily, a Euro-centric national security policy, judging, rightly, that events in Europe would have the greatest impact on our national security. We fought a European power (England), with assistance from other European powers (France and Spain) to gain our independence. President George Washington in his Farewell Address warned his countrymen to avoid involvement in European disputes and conflicts. It was a European power (France) that sold us the Louisiana territory that enabled us to become a continental-sized great power. It was a European power (England) that burned our capital during the War of 1812. President Monroe, in announcing the foreign policy doctrine that bears his name in the early 1820s, cautioned European powers against attempting to colonize territory in the Western Hemisphere. During our Civil War, U.S. policymakers and diplomats worked to discourage European (British and French) intervention on the side of the Confederacy. After the Civil War, we mustered troops to persuade France to surrender its claims to Mexico. At the end of the nineteenth century, we fought a declining European empire (Spain) and, thereby, became a colonial power in Asia and the Pacific.
In the First World War, millions of Americans fought in Europe against the European Central Powers to help restore the global balance of power. In the Second World War, even more millions of Americans fought in Europe and elsewhere against the European Axis Powers of Germany and Italy. (We fought in Asia and the Pacific, too, but defeating our European enemies was deemed more imperative). In the Cold War, we provided economic assistance to war-ravaged Europe (the Marshall Plan), stationed hundreds of thousands of American forces in Europe, signed a mutual security treaty (NATO) with most countries of Western Europe, and pledged to use nuclear weapons to prevent Western Europe from falling to the Soviet empire.
Asian-Centered New Realities
This Euro-centric approach to the world continued even after the end of the Cold War. When the Soviet Union collapsed, instead of re-thinking the need for NATO, we expanded it, even though the security threat that led to NATO’s creation had greatly diminished, if not vanished. Indeed, the survival and expansion of NATO is the best evidence that our statesmen and policymakers have not yet fully adjusted to the realities of the twenty-first century’s Asian-centered geopolitics.
Those realities are there for all to see. China and India, the two most populous countries in the world, are emerging as Asian great powers, joining Japan and Russia. Russia, China, India, Israel, and Pakistan are nuclear powers, while Iran and North Korea actively seek to join the nuclear club. At the far western end of Asia—the area that we commonly refer to as the Middle East—Islamic fundamentalists and terrorists threaten to undermine the stability of a region that possesses much of the world’s energy supplies. At the far eastern end of Asia, the North Korean bid for nuclear weapons and the simmering China-Taiwan dispute threaten to engulf the region in conflict and turmoil.
Thus, since the end of the Cold War, if not before, the former great powers of Europe have willingly withdrawn from the geopolitical rivalry that once dominated their politics and have settled into an era of peaceful coexistence that shows no signs of ending anytime soon. Meanwhile, great power rivalry has shifted to Asia, with much of it located in a broad middle-belt of the continent that Alfred Thayer Mahan, in his 1901 classic The Problem of Asia, called “the debatable and debated ground.”
Mahan located “the debatable and debated ground” of Asia between 30 and 40 degrees north latitude. This geopolitical region is about six hundred miles in width, and over five thousand miles in length at its broadest point. In Mahan’s time, the region had an unsettled political condition and was an object of European great power attention and ambition. Today, this same region contains the rising, populous powers of China and India, four nuclear powers, the main centers of Islamic power, enormous reserves of oil and natural gas in the Middle East and Caspian Sea area, the volatile Korean peninsula, and the offshore power of Japan.
North of this region of Asia lies a diminished but still formidable Russia. To the south, a key maritime highway stretches from the Red Sea through the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean, through the Bay of Bengal and China Sea, to the Sea of Japan. That maritime highway includes still important chokepoints such as Suez, Aden, the Strait of Hormuz at the entrance to the Persian Gulf, the Strait of Malacca, and the Taiwan Strait.
Unlike in today’s Europe, the Asian powers continue to vie with each other for resources and territory, and longstanding disputes (India and Pakistan over Kashmir, the two Koreas over control of the peninsula, China and Taiwan over Taiwan’s political status, several Asia-Pacific nations over the Spratly Islands, the countries of the Middle East over land, water, ethnic and religious matters) still fester as they once did among the great powers of Europe.
American policymakers in the early twenty-first century would do well to read the relevant works of Mahan who, in addition to writing on naval history and strategy, wrote voluminously about geopolitics and U.S. foreign policy from 1890 to 1914. Mahan wrote at a time when the United States was emerging as a world power. Throughout most of the nineteenth century, American statesmen had generally followed the broad policy prescriptions of Washington’s Farewell Address and the Monroe Doctrine in pursuit of the country’s “Manifest Destiny.” By avoiding direct involvement in European quarrels, taking advantage of our geographical position in relation to Europe (what George Washington called our “detached and distant situation”), and skillfully exploiting the rivalry among the European great powers to keep them from our shores, the United States by the end of the nineteenth century had grown to a continental giant. But until the aftermath of the Spanish-American War of 1898, it was still mostly an inward looking power.
Beginning eight years before that war, however, Mahan wrote a series of articles in which he advocated a much larger navy, the annexation of the Hawaiian Islands (then known as the Sandwich Islands), strategic cooperation with Great Britain, the building of a canal across the Central American isthmus, and a much broader vision of America’s role in the world. The titles of Mahan’s articles illuminate his view of America’s expanded role in world politics: “The United States Looking Outward,” “Preparedness for Naval War,” “Hawaii and Our Future Sea Power,” “The Possibilities of an Anglo-American Reunion,” “A Twentieth Century Outlook.” It was time for Americans, Mahan wrote, to cast aside the once prudent counsel of President Washington and assume our proper role as a global power. As he explained in two letters in 1896, “A hundred years ago…[Washington’s counsel] was wise and imperative [but] the time has come…when we should and must count for something in the affairs of the world at large.”
The Spanish-American War thrust the United States into the Asia-Pacific region. Our capture and conquest of the Philippine Islands and our annexation of Guam, coupled with control of Hawaii meant we now had concrete interests to promote and protect in that part of the world. Mahan understood this new geopolitical fact and it led to the writing of his most profound book on international politics, The Problem of Asia.
In Mahan’s time, the broad middle-belt of Asia was the object of the European great powers’ imperial ambitions. In the twenty-first century, with Europe quiescently enjoying its post-imperial phase of history, the broad middle-belt of Asia is the primary focus of world politics. As Robert D. Kaplan recently pointed out, China’s impressive military expansion has lasted for nearly two decades. India may soon possess the third-largest navy in the world. Japan’s navy will soon be four times larger than Britain’s. Pakistan and South Korea spend a greater percentage of their domestic output on defense than do France and Britain. North Korea is one of the most militarized states on the planet. Kaplan concludes that the “vitality” of the powers in this region “will take us back to an older world of traditional statecraft, in which we will need to tirelessly leverage allies and seek cooperation from competitors.” In other words, the powers in the Asia-Pacific region will act like the European powers used to.
Twofold Epochal Change
In a much longer article on the Hoover Institution’s Policy Review web site, Tony Corn urges the United States and its NATO allies to recognize and adjust to “the twofold epochal change taking place” in global geopolitics: “the transfer of the center of gravity of the world economy from the Atlantic to the Pacific… and the rise of a ‘second nuclear age’ in Asia and with it, the concomitant end of three centuries of Western military superiority.”
Corn sees the two geopolitical challenges confronting the West in the next thirty years emerging from the Asia-Pacific region. One is the “Long War” against Islamic totalitarianism that is based in the Middle East-Persian Gulf region of West Asia. The other is the “Great Game at Sea” between China and the West for control of the maritime region of Asia that Nicholas Spykman called the “Rimland.” Corn recognizes that Europe has at least temporarily stopped thinking geopolitically, but hopes that NATO as a whole, instead of just America, will rise to these challenges. He wants the Atlantic Alliance to “go global” to meet these challenges, but offers little evidence that Europe is ready, let alone able, to follow America’s lead in that part of the world.
For the United States, that will mean a more pronounced shift in our strategic focus and our military and economic resources away from Europe and into Asia and the Pacific. Our key strategic allies, instead of Britain, Germany, and France, are now Japan, South Korea, Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, Australia, and Taiwan. Continued and greater emphasis should be placed on improving relations with the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, India, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines. Russia, with all its flaws and imperfections, should be viewed as a potential counterweight to China. The U.S. military presence, land and naval forces, should be significantly increased and strengthened in the region—sizeable forces can safely be shifted from Europe to the Asia-Pacific theater.
This does not mean that Europe is unimportant to U.S. security interests. Western Europe remains one of the three key regions of Eurasia that must not be allowed to fall under the control of a power hostile to American interests. But at this moment in history, Western Europe is geopolitically quiet. There are no potential hostile hegemons in Western Europe, nor is there an immediate threat to the independence of Europe by any other Eurasian power. As Lord Palmerston once said, countries have no eternal allies, just eternal interests.
At the end of the First World War, Halford Mackinder observed that “Democracy refuses to think strategically unless and until compelled to do so for purposes of defense.” The democrat, he lamented, often thinks in principles, ideals, and morality, instead of reckoning, as he should, with the realities of geography, economics, space and time. The fundamental geopolitical reality of the early twenty-first century is the shift in the global power struggle from Europe to Asia. If the United States is to remain the dominant global power in the twenty-first century, it must adjust its policies to that reality.
 Halford J. Mackinder, “The Geographical Pivot of History,” in Democratic Ideals and Reality (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1962), p. 241, 258.
 James Burnham, Suicide of the West: An Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism (Chicago, Il: Regnery Books, 1985).
 Niall Ferguson, The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West (New York: The Penguin Press, 2006).
 Robert Kagan, Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003).
 Kagan, Of Paradise and Power, pp. 3, 8.
 Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Problem of Asia: Its Effect upon International Politics (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2003), with a new introduction by Francis P. Sempa.
 For an extensive discussion of Mahan’s geopolitical writings, see Mahan, The Problem of Asia, “Introduction to the Transaction Edition” by Francis P. Sempa at pp. 1-49.
 Robert D. Kaplan, “Lost at Sea,” New York Times, www.nytimes.com/2007/09/21/opinion/21kaplan.html
 Tony Corn, “Perils and Promises of a Global NATO,” Policy Review (August 2007).
 Mackinder, Democratic Ideals and Reality, pp. 23, 25.
Francis P. Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the Twenty-first Century (2002, 2007), and has written introductions to four other books on U.S. foreign policy. He has written on historical and foreign policy topics for American Diplomacy, Strategic Review, The National Interest, Presidential Studies Quarterly, the Human Rights Review, and the Washington Times. He is an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.