The United States has recently engaged in a partial containment policy of China. This has come with suddenness and subtlety, and though neither the American administration nor the Chinese party leadership are saying much about it out loud (just yet…?), Beijing’s previous attitude of callous, confident optimism is changing to one of caution and pessimism.
[Note: This is the first of a three-part series about America’s containment of China and what I see coming after this round of American focus on Asia. A reader pointed out that I have a bad habit of writing everything at once and posting enormous articles, which can be exhausting to get through in a single sitting.]
Beyond the American containment policy of China and the associated tug-of-war between Washington and Beijing over influence in strategic states across Asia and Oceania it is interesting to note that America is not heavily engaged in a Russian containment policy. There are two reasons for this. On the one hand Americans still tend to mistakenly view Russia as the exhausted, confused and internally chaotic failure of a republic that it was in 1999, and on the the other Washington is in serious need of Moscow’s help in achieving a less-than-disastrous resolution to the war in the ‘Stans.
The situation makes sense only from the limited perspective of an administration obsessed with Afghanistan at the exclusion of everything else in the near-term and is therefore unbalanced. When discussing American foreign policy “unbalanced” equates to “unstable” and means things will not remain as they are for long. Definite changes are on the way, though the actors involved (primarily the American President) seem to have not accepted the notion that Afghanistan is not the center of the Universe just yet.
I will argue through this three-part series that Russia is the most serious challenger to American interests in the mid-term and that China is in more danger of internal collapse and political revolution than the Americans are in danger of facing a credible Chinese threat in the near- to mid-term. I expect there to be an eventual flip in the American direction from a policy of Chinese containment to a policy of subtle Chinese regime life-support and from a situation of mutual back-scratching between Moscow and Washington to a stiff posture of indirect (and occasionally direct) opposition between the two.
Before we dive into a discussion about the China containment policy it may be useful to review what are generally understood and accepted to be the American geopolitical imperatives. It is important to remember that these imperatives are based strictly on the realities of geography and human power. They do not change because the party in power changes and they override any individual’s wishes, dreams or personality. The previous two sentences are, in a nutshell, why the Europeans — though enamored with Obama personally — still tell him “no” on everything they told Bush “no” on. Though he may be a genuinely nice guy he is still an American President whose job it is to push the American agenda. This also implies that being nice is perhaps not a necessary trait for performing the duties of President, though it can be important during election campaigns which must be won before assuming that role in the first place (an interesting democratic paradox).
The geopolitical imperatives below are numbered in order of priority and include some notes below each to get the mind thinking about the steps America took to achieve them and maintain them, and some rough relation to how far distant those actions were. Some folks will dispute the positioning of some of them, and the further you get down the chain the more debate you will find in strategy circles about the order of priority or even validity of each. That is because, for example, not everyone agrees that using U.S. naval dominance to ensure the safe use of the seas for global trade is more important than extending our naval dominance to space, and not everyone agrees that the U.S. should even be bothering with space colonization before every poor child on the planet has enough to eat, etc. I find it obvious that global trade is what will continue to enable the U.S. economy and naturally drive our leadership in space, and I find that history clearly demonstrates that attempting to feed every poor child on the planet is an exercise in futility for a multitude of reasons. But not everyone sees things this way, so take my list with a grain of salt:
- Maintain absolute North American geographical integrity and unity from coast to coast and throughout the Mississippi drainage basin
- War of 1812 & Hudson Bay Company conflicts
- Louisiana Purchase
- Lewis and Clark expedition
- Texas War of Independence & accession to the Union
- American Civil War
- Westward Expansion
- Spanish-American War
- Dominate the Americas politically and economically to prevent any regional rival from emerging
- Mexican-American War
- Monroe Doctrine
- Colombian counter-drug engagement
- Geography generally prevents the rise of powerful rivals
- Advantages in cultural and political maturity predict continued dominance
- Control the oceans to keep everyone at least an ocean-length away from the core
- Ensures all conflicts occur “over there” instead of “right here”
- Forces a technological edge in transportation, military logistics and communication technologies
- Balance regional powers to prevent the consolidation and rise of a global challenger
- Arab-Persia balance
- Dominance of NATO-led Europe against Warsaw Pact
- Relationship with Euro-skeptic U.K., Poland and Czech
- Relationships between and among Asian players (India/Russia-China/Pakistan)
- Angola-South Africa
- Global War on Terror (focusing on Al Qaeda, Jemaah Islamiya and the financial underpinnings of globalist unity jihadists)
- Use naval dominance to promote trade across and among all regions (rising tide)
- U.S. economy benefits when other economies benefit (U.S. GDP = 25% global output)
- All oceanic trade occurs with the implicit permission of the U.S. Navy
- Shipping is far more efficient and cost-effective than land transportation
- Entry cost to credible competition with the U.S. Navy is too high for any to afford it
- Extend naval dominance to space
- American-Japanese-British global BMD capacity creates a leveragable gatekeeper situation
- Generates institutional knowledge and know-how for what will fundamentally be the Next Big Step
- Dual use technologies
- Create a permanent human presence in space
- Dominance of space mercantilism will be strategically important in the next century
- Diversifying humanity and Earth-evolved life processes away from a single planet lessens the chance of human extinction
The U.S. has an unusually firm grasp not only of what its imperatives are, but also how to achieve them. Most nations have a hard time identifying their geopolitical imperatives in as much depth as this — a task made difficult because each geography predicts a different set of imperatives for each country. Assessment of national imperatives is also often complicated by cultural handicaps or political/ideological hangups which prevent dispassionate assessment of the national situation. Imagine if U.S. strategists believed everything they heard in campaign speeches and New York Times opinion columns, or a widespread religion were to rule that computing technologies were an aberration against God, or if all non-white Americans were to decide that higher education was “too white” to pursue — America would be screwed.
Of the nations which do have an understanding of their imperatives very few have had much success in achieving them, often for the same reasons most others have trouble identifying them in the first place. Consider that Mexico has never succeeded in firmly establishing control over its own territory. It follows that a Mexican space program is either a last priority for Mexico City or more likely not even on the government agenda for this decade.
Americans have been hyper-focused on the threat posed by Islam over the last nine years. Immediately after 9/11 this focus was rational. In September 2001 every other potential great power was either distracted and structurally incapable of posing a challenge to Washington or was firmly tied into an American alliance structure that was so beneficial it didn’t make sense to leave. The original 2001 Al Qaida group (as distinct from the current 2010 crop of “Al Qaida” affiliates) had a sophisticated plan to create an Islamic super-state. Such a super-state could have posed a dire threat to the United States and therefore must be prevented. The actual formation of such a super-state may have been a bit of a long-shot, but many world empires have been achieved throughout history that were far more difficult or unlikely to form.
While the attack on New York sucked and required a serious military response, the formation of an Islamic super-state with the stated goal of subjugating the West brought Al Qaeda in direct conflict with the United States over what I listed above as its 4th geopolitical imperative — preventing the rise of a regional hegemon. In fact, a pan-Islamic super-state would actually pose an existinal threat to the U.S. and this is simply not something that Washington can logically allow to happen, no matter the stated goals of any such nation. It is for this reason that George W. Bush invaded Afghanistan to undermine the ability of the Al Qaeda core to operate and invaded Iraq with the goal of disrupting the slipping balance of power in the Middle East (that WMD was the justification for this is irrelevant to the discussion of geopolitics).
Invading Afghanistan to undermine Al Qaeda is different from invading Afghanistan to install a pro-American regime, fight the Taliban or promote women’s rights in the Muslim world (come to think of it, “women’s rights in the Muslim world” is an interesting turn of phrase…). The Taliban, a religious political movement distinct from Al Qaeda, does not pose a credible long-term threat to American interests and therefore does not need to be regarded as a permanent adversary.
Invading Iraq to reset the Middle Eastern geopolitical calculus did imply a regime change, but this is a very different thing from engaging in a mercantilist war over oil resources (despite what internet conspiracy theorists have to say). The Americans are both the number one generators of wealth in the world and the number one oil consumers. If the Americans want oil, someone somewhere will sell it to them and get fabulously rich in the process. The U.S. did just fine throughout the 90’s and 00’s without Iraqi oil, and it will continue to do fine with or without it in the future.
The U.S. has largely achieved the goals it set at the end of 2001 in top form. The Al Qaeda of 2001 is an operationally and ideologically irrelevant memory and the calculus of Middle Eastern power has been reset (though final status has not been agreed upon between Tehran and Washington just yet). Islamic terror is still scary, but then again so are drunk driving accidents and the drug war in Mexico — both issues which overwhelm the actual impact of terrorism but receive far less play in the media or public imagination. Al Qaeda as it existed in mid-2001 is no longer a functioning reality. Al Qaeda franchise groups exist all over the place, but for the most part not in Afghanistan, Pakistan or even the rest of Central Asia (this is not to say that Central Asia is not still awash in batshit crazy Muslim nutbags — but comparing them to the original Al Qaeda group like like comparing a couple of gangbangers to Jason Bourne).
No current Al Qaeda-branded group comes close to posing the long-term threat that the core Al Qaeda of 2001 one did. In general Islamic terror has devolved to the level of 1960’s-style efforts — a menace to civil populations but not a geopolitically significant issue that threatens to change national borders or spark global conflict. “Al Qaeda” branded attacks have gone from complex skyscraper-toppling operations involving the successful hijacking of a single-use air force from within the continental U.S. to knife attacks on cartoonists in Denmark. That’s a long way to fall.
At this point in late 2010 the Americans are still hyper-focused on Islamic terror. In 2001 Al Qaeda demonstrated the potential to threaten American geopolitical imperatives over the long-term while all other global power players were disrupted or distracted. This naturally put Al Qaeda on the top of the American agenda. The situation is now directly reversed. In late 2010 several serious global players that do have the ability to pose direct long-term challenges to American interests have their houses in order and are moving with purpose while the core Al Qaeda group of 2001 has been reduced to operational irrelevance. But the Americans are still hyper-focused on Islamic terror.
Obviously this is not a balanced situation. This does not mean the Americans are stupid or have decided to hand over control of the globe to whoever wants it (i.e. everybody). This indicates instead that American foreign policy is about to change in radical new directions.