This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
Whether you realize it or not, we are in a new age of imperial geopolitics on a grand -- and potentially disastrous -- scale. TomDispatch regular Alfred McCoy, author of In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power, lays out devastatingly just what that is likely to mean in the age of Donald Trump. And once you've read his piece on a century-plus of geopolitical thinkers who helped reorganize this planet in genuinely discordant ways, perhaps you'll feel it's time for us to imagine a new kind of geopolitics, one that finally addresses the disaster of empire and the ways in which such geopolitical thinking now intersects with another kind of disaster: climate change. For catastrophic as the previous versions of geopolitics may have been, just wait until such imperial and national follies, including the drive of China and India to build new coal plants galore, meet global warming. By this century's end, that phenomenon may leave significant parts of the planet facing six nightmarish crises at once, ranging from mega-droughts and mega-fires to rising sea levels and catastrophic flooding. Or what about the possibility that intense heat waves (sparked in part by the massive burning of coal) will, later in this century, make the north China plain, now the most heavily populated part of that country, uninhabitable and do the same for parts of northern India and South Asia? Or what about the recent estimate in a congressionally mandated report on climate change (carefully released by the Trump administration on Black Friday in an attempt to bury it) that this country will also be deeply affected, as, for instance, wildfires of the kind that just devastated parts of California will triple, and the U.S. economy will be downsized by 10% or more by 2100?
We are now on a planet guaranteed, barring a miracle of coordinated human action, to find itself in a set of geo-ruins of an unprecedented sort by 2100, ruins that will remain so on a time scale anything but historical or in any way human. With that in mind, consider McCoy's account of the "architects of imperial disaster" who got us to just this spot and to an American president whose goal in life is to do everything humanly possible to pump more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Tom
Trump's Trade Czar, The Latest Architect of Imperial Disaster
Five Academics Who Unleashed the "Demon" of Geopolitical Power
By Alfred W. McCoy- Advertisement -
As Washington's leadership fades more quickly than anyone could have imagined and a new global order struggles to take shape, a generation of leaders has crowded onto the world stage with their own bold geopolitical visions for winning international influence. Xi Xinping has launched his trillion-dollar "Belt and Road Initiative" to dominate Eurasia and thereby the world beyond. To recover the Soviet Union's lost influence, Vladimir Putin seeks to shatter the Western alliance with cyberwar, while threatening to dominate a nationalizing, fragmenting Eastern Europe through raw military power. The Trump White House, in turn, is wielding tariffs as weapons to try to beat recalcitrant allies back into line and cripple the planet's rising power, China. However bizarrely different these approaches may seem, they all share one strikingly similar feature: a reliance on the concept of "geopolitics" to guide their bids for global power.
Over the past century, countless scholars, columnists, and commentators have employed the term "geopolitics" (or the study of global control) to lend gravitas to their arguments. Few, though, have grasped the true significance of this elusive concept. However else the term might be used, geopolitics is essentially a methodology for the management (or mismanagement) of empire. Unlike conventional nations whose peoples are, in normal times, readily and efficiently mobilized for self-defense, empires, thanks to their global reach, are a surprisingly fragile form of government. They seem to yearn for strategic visionaries who can merge land, peoples, and resources into a sustainable global system.
The practice of geopolitics, even if once conducted from horseback, is as old as empire itself, dating back some 4,000 years. Until the dawn of the twentieth century, it was the conquerors themselves -- from Alexander the Great to Julius Caesar to Napoleon Bonaparte -- whose geopolitical visions guided the relentless expansion of their imperial domains. The ancient Greek historian Plutarch tried to capture (or perhaps exaggerate) the enormity of Caesar's conquest of Gaul -- a territory that comprises all of modern France and Belgium -- by enumerating the nine years of war that "took by storm more than eight hundred cities, subdued three hundred tribes, and fought pitched battles... with three million men, of whom he slew one million... and took as many more prisoners."- Advertisement -
In his own account, however, Caesar reduced all of this to its geopolitical essentials. "All Gaul is divided into three parts," he wrote in that famous first sentence of his Gallic Wars. "Of all these, the Belgae are the bravest, because... they are the nearest to the Germans, who dwell beyond the Rhine, with whom they are continually waging war; for which reason the Helvetii also surpass the rest of the Gauls in valor, as they contend with the Germans in almost daily battles." When those formidable Helvetii marched out of their Alpine cantons to occupy Gallic lowlands in 58 BC, Caesar deployed geopolitics to defeat them -- seizing strategic terrain, controlling their grain supplies, and manipulating rival tribes. Instead of enslaving the vanquished Helvetii as other Roman generals might have, Caesar, mindful of the empire's geopolitical balance, returned them to their homelands with generous provisions, lest the German "barbarians" cross the Rhine and destabilize Gaul's natural frontier.
In more modern times, imperial expansion has been guided by professional scholars who have made the formal study of geopolitics a hybrid field of some significance. Its intellectual lineage is actually remarkably straightforward. At the end of the nineteenth century, an American naval historian argued that seapower was the key to national security and international influence. A decade later, a British geographer observed that railroads had shifted the locus of global power landward into the interior of the vast Eurasian continent. In the succeeding century, a succession of scholars would draw on these two basic ideas to inspire bold geopolitical gambits by Nazi Germany, Cold War Washington, post-Soviet Russia, and even Donald Trump's White House.
There is, in fact, a common thread in those disparate scholarly lives: in each case, the study of geopolitics seemed to change the trajectory of their careers, lifting them from the margins of society to the right hand of power. There, at moments when the empire they lived in was experiencing a crisis, their unconventional, even eccentric, ideas won influence -- often in what would prove in the long term a nightmarish fashion.
Over the last century or so, while the actual application of such thinking regularly proved problematic at best and genuinely horrific at worst, geopolitics would remain a seductive concept with a persistent power to entice would-be practitioners. It would also prove an enormously elusive style of thinking, making it difficult to distinguish between the banal and the brilliant, between the imperially helpful and the imperially devastating.
Charting the interplay of land, people, and resources inside any empire, much less in a clash between such behemoths, is impossibly difficult. Admittedly, geopolitics in the hands of a grandmaster has, in the past, led to the crushing of armies and the conquest of continents. But seemingly similar strategies have also produced searing defeat and disaster. Caesar's deft geopolitical balancing of Gaul and Germany on the fulcrum of the Rhine survived for some four centuries; Napoleon's similar attempt lasted all of seven years.
Telling the difference, in the historical moment, is a daunting task and one that hasn't turned out well in the last century. With that in mind, let's now approach the careers of five modern "grandmasters" of geopolitics with an appropriate skepticism.- Advertisement -
America's Strategic Visionary
In 1890, as the industrial boom of the Gilded Age prepared the nation for a debut on the world stage, Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, arguably America's only original strategic thinker, published his famed Influence of Seapower Upon History. In it, he argued that naval power was the determining factor in the fate of nations. Born at West Point, where his father taught military tactics to Army cadets, Mahan came to the study of strategy almost by birthright. After graduating from the Naval Academy and having an indifferent career at sea, he became the head of the Naval War College in 1886. There, he developed novel geopolitical ideas that would revive a stalled career.
By analyzing sea power through a wide range of factors, including the defensibility of ports, national technological prowess, and the nature of good government, Mahan would produce the first serious study of geopolitics in the guise of a guide to naval strategy. In the process, he became an international celebrity, influencing admirals from London to Tokyo and inspiring leaders worldwide to join a naval arms race that would drain their treasuries to build costly battleships. The admiral who headed Germany's navy, for instance, distributed 8,000 copies of Mahan's history in translation and in the process won passage of the country's first naval bill in 1898, funding his fateful challenge to British sea power.