A New Strategy for the New Geopolitics

By Warner, Michael | The Public Interest, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

A New Strategy for the New Geopolitics


Warner, Michael, The Public Interest


THE late Nicholas Spykman, a pioneer in the study of international relations, once said that "he who controls the Rimland controls Eurasia, who controls Eurasia controls the destinies of the world." This classic statement of geopolitics has guided American foreign policy for more than 60 years. Since June 1940, when the French army collapsed and Hitler seemed poised to dominate Europe, twelve U.S. presidents have followed a grand strategy congruent with the premises and conclusions of Spykman's dictum.

What are those premises? The first is that modern war is so costly and devastating that America must keep it contained to the Old World, or, better yet, prevent it from erupting at all. The second is that only a few nation-states have both the power to wage modern war and the geographic proximity to constitute a serious threat to us.

What policies follow from these premises? That we should concentrate our vigilance on key nation-states along the Atlantic and Pacific littorals. That we must foster a balance of power to ensure that no hegemon arises on either shore of the Eurasian landmass, or builds a power base from which to dominate the world economy. And finally, that for our own security and the greater good of mankind, we should build ties of trade and cooperation among states, encouraging commerce and the peaceful resolution of disputes.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's genius was to respond to Hitler's onslaught with a combination of Wilsonian idealism and the hard-headed realism of Spykman and other apostles of geopolitics. FDR's grand strategy for winning World War II and the subsequent peace developed these approaches, but it fell to his successor, Harry Truman, to build the national and international institutions to implement them in peacetime. Truman created the National Security Council and the Department of Defense, and fostered the United Nations, the Marshall Plan, NATO, and the World Bank. He kept the Soviets out of Western Europe, and then applied Roosevelt's strategy to East Asia to prevent a communist takeover of Korea.

Every president since Truman has wittingly or unwittingly operated within this strategic paradigm. Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson strengthened and expanded Truman's institutions. Nixon saw himself as a master of applied geopolitics in his skillful exploitation of the Sino-Soviet rivalry. Jimmy Carter shifted the ballast of our policies back to the Wilsonian emphasis on human rights, and Ronald Reagan adjusted the two elements anew, striving to balance Soviet power while insisting on democratic reforms in the Third World. The first President Bush applied FDR's strategy to Southwest Asia in the liberation of Kuwait. President Clinton, for all the talk of a post-Cold War world, made no radical changes to this strategy.

ROOSEVELTISM, for lack of a better term, had become the default setting of American foreign policy by the time George W. Bush took office in 2001. Early hints from his administration suggested that he intended to stay the course. The Pentagon's 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review, for instance, spoke of "precluding hostile domination of critical areas, particularly Europe, Northeast Asia, the East Asian littoral, and the Middle East and Southwest Asia." Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld could have called our area of greatest interest "the Rimland" and saved on printing costs.

Did September 11 render Roosevelt's strategic vision obsolete? Perhaps. That morning of horror showed that armed conspirators, not just nation-states, could now reach over the oceans to wreak havoc in our cities. It also made clear that terror was one of the new tactics of choice among the enemies of the United States. That seems to be what bin Laden and his comrades desired: to terrify the "Zionist-Crusader entity" into a retreat from traditionally Muslim lands.

The grand strategy of Roosevelt and previous administrations took account of people whose aim was mass murder, but it assumed that these aims would come to nothing without the political, economic, and technological means available only to powerful nation-states. …

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