We need international collaboration rather than geopolitical posturing to address global challenges, argues Michael Burleigh
Geopolitics is currently all the rage, meaning that geography becomes destiny. Among those cashing in on the fad are a select group of retired admirals and generals who supplement their income from their many lucrative board appointments by writing novels forecasting future conflicts. Happily it is 2021, and the war predicted for 2017 by the British general Richard Shirreff in his 2016 novel War with Russia never happened. Nor was it likely to: NATO might be a failing organisation, but the combined defence spend of just its European members (excluding Canada and Turkey) is treble that of Putin’s Russia, and our economies are not fatally reliant on yesterday’s fossil fuels.
Admiral James Stavridis, a former NATO Supreme Commander no less, more wisely hedged his chronological bets with 2034: A Novel of the Next World War. This deals with a war between the US and China in the South China Sea, with a walk on part for a villainous Iran, which escalates into a full-blown nuclear conflict. It’s this geopolitical mindset that has led many elite thinkers to quickly identify such a clash between China and the US as almost a racing certainty – though US allies (China has almost none) are not so keen as Washington’s hawks. After four decades in which China was quietly rising, the fact that it has risen (and will double the size of its economy by 2035) has led to all sorts of dark imaginings, from the so-called Thucydides Trap – in which the US becomes a Britain once menaced by the Kaiser’s Germany – to China extending its economic “tentacles” from Africa via Europe to Latin America.
Much of this alarmism has been deliberately confected, with Australian hawks alerting US ones to the “threat” from Huawei, which in turn was assiduously propagated here in the UK by the Henry Jackson Society and the Tories’ risibly named China “Research” Group of Ian Smith, Tom Tugendhat, Neil O’Brien and Robert Seeley. Their guff is routinely relayed by friendly stenographers in the press, some of whom have realised there is more money to be made from the Chinese “threat” than the Russian one they used to scare us with.
In reality, the US is not used to dealing with such an unusual competitor. In essence, a Communist party-state which has just celebrated its centenary has adapted Calvin Coolidge’s 1925 maxim about the US into “the business of China is business” achieving global significance through infrastructure projects, loans and trade – often in places where in the 1960s Mao’s men were present as supporters of armed national liberation struggles. Meanwhile, the CIA was busy propping up every grisly third world dictatorship. But that is what you can do when you have colossal savings (the world’s three biggest banks are all Chinese) while Americans drown in debt from car loans to medical bills and tuition fees. Of course, education and ideas also matter, which is why China is opening a new university per week to thrive in a galloping knowledge economy while we seek to thin them out.
Whereas the US has expended many trillions of dollars on hopeless military adventures – the eighteen-year one in Afghanistan definitively failed this month – or murdering with drones people in countries with which it’s not at war, China’s sole external military presence consists of unarmed troops who wrestle with India’s forces up in the Himalayas, and the largest national contingent of UN peacekeepers. Okay, there is also one modest Chinese naval refuelling base in Djibouti, which surely is not much of a threat to a power which has 700 plus overseas military bases, including giant facilities like Guam, Lakenheath, Ramstein or Clark and Subic Bay? What America does not like is that with the world’s biggest navy, China could probably neutralise the US in the western Pacific.
There are certainly some spatial facts that do impact on great power relations. Obvious ones include the very narrow Straits of Hormuz and those of Malacca, which could easily become maritime “choke points”, denying China or Japan much of the oil they source in the Persian Gulf. But smart people, like the Princeton historian Harold James, object that since geopolitics is the optic of losers – from Kaiser Wilhelm II via Hitler to Vladimir Putin – it is probably not the ideology of choice for victors. Leaving aside the facts that the world will soon dispense with Arab oil, and that much international trade will no longer be necessary because of localised 3-D printing, geopolitics takes no account of either economic globalisation or the many ways in which states have voluntarily combined in multilateral organisations to mitigate or solve common problems. Examples would be the UN, EU, IMF, WHO and WTO, not to speak of the International Court of Justice and the UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea – UNCLOS for short (neither of which the US has signed up to or ratified).
Whereas the US has expended many trillions of dollars on hopeless military adventures, China’s sole external military presence consists of unarmed troops who wrestle with India’s forces up in the Himalayas, and the largest national contingent of UN peacekeepers
Indeed, most people in the West have no desire to adopt China’s idiosyncratic system, any more than – beyond Europe’s illiberal populists – they would care to live in Putin’s Russia without the rule of law. Watch the grim movie Leviathan to understand why not. Communism has Whereas the US has expended many trillions of dollars on hopeless military adventures, China’s sole external military presence consists of unarmed troops who wrestle with India’s forces up in the Himalayas, and the largest national contingent of UN peacekeepers worked wonders for China’s large middle class, who are acquisitive and nationalist, but we reached that state 50 years ago.
China is a technocratic surveillance state that maintains an iron grip on such belated imperial add-ons as Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinxiang precisely because these were never core parts of the historic Middle Kingdom. It clearly wants to assert its regional hegemony, though alarmist western talk of an invasion of Taiwan is clearly based on total ignorance of the island’s population and geography.
One should note that China has multiple problems including a demographic crisis that will halve its population by 2050, few domestic energy sources, and little potable water – one of the reasons China could not essay fracking. Social inequality is also pervasive, as one can glean from the fact that there are more billionaires in its parliament than in the US Congress. But the same people who talk up conflict with China are generally silent about the fact that American democracy is in an existential crisis and its society riven with ideological and racial tensions.
Returning to the plot of Admiral Stavridis’ 2034: A Novel of the Next World War, no sooner have 30 million people in Shanghai been wiped out by a US thermonuclear bomb than India saves the day by brokering peace between the two great power antagonists. A representative of this “Indo-Pacific” great power, whose life indices are lower than those of Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal – let alone China’s – lectures the Americans and Chinese with a typical lesson about the British: “America’s hubris has finally gotten the better of its greatness. You’ve squandered your blood and treasure to what end? For freedom of navigation in the South China Sea? For the sovereignty of Taiwan? Isn’t the world large enough for your government and Beijing’s? Perhaps you’ll win this war. But for what? To be like the British after the Second World War, your empire dismantled, your society in retreat? And millions of dead on both sides?”
Being admonished by a corrupt and illiberal pseudo democracy riven with religious and ethnic conflicts is one of the lesser ironies of this book (the US is, of course, trying to boost India as a key member of its defence/offence “Quad” along with Australia, Japan and South Korea) but the point is well made: US infrastructure is collapsing, and large swathes of the country are currently in flames. In 2020 the country narrowly dodged Trump II, but outside observers are aware that one party has been captured by maniacs, and that Trump II could indeed occur in 2024, or else some less abrasive version – perhaps the two Mikes, Pence and Pompeo, Ted Cruz or the ghastly Tom Cotton. Many people actually regard the US as more of a threat than China, despite the Covid pandemic which began there.
Instead of mindlessly feeding our own (and China’s) paranoias we should acknowledge that our economies are totally enmeshed with China’s – which is enjoying a bumper year for foreign investment – and that many of the real crises facing global humanity won’t be solved without Chinese collaboration. After all, dealing with despots is natural to us, as the Gulf Arabs have long known.
Unless China curbs CO2 emissions (28 per cent of the global total compared with Europe’s eight per cent) the floods and fires we have seen are going to become our reality, along with relentless migrant waves as large parts of the world become uninhabitable. Instead of moralising to the Chinese, we in the UK should focus on tackling social inequality and cleaning up a corrupt system that allows Chinese and Russian oligarchs to treat it as a bargain basement, while American private equity firms go on a shopping spree in our economy. Perhaps it would be better to park “geopolitics” back on the dustier library shelves alongside the long-forgotten Karl Haushofer, Johan Kjellén and Halford Mackinder, so that we can deal with the world as it really is in all its multipolar complexity, and with the problems that face humanity as a whole.
Michael Burleigh is a Senior Fellow at LSE Ideas, a university-based think tank, and his recent books include “Populism: Before and After the Pandemic” and “Day of the Assassins: A History of Political Murder” both published this year