The new world
Trudy Kuehner provides a summary of Robert Kaplan's keynote address at the (Foreign Policy Research Institute's) FPRI’s Fourth Annual Partners Brunch, on April 6, 2008.
Kaplan explained that this strong defense relationship is all about Asian balance-of-power politics. India and China, which share a long land border and therefore have to maintain stable relations, are inexorably coming into competition with each other. India’s sphere of influence extends to the borders of the old British India, from the Iranian plateau to the Gulf of Thailand, encompassing Burma, where it is involved in a quiet war of influence with China. It is extending east and west. During the days of the British viceroys in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Persian Gulf, Middle East, and Southeast Asia empire was not run from London, but from the viceroy’s headquarters in Calcutta. India is now assuming those dimensions.
Meanwhile, Kaplan noted, China is pushing southward. The Chinese are building warm-water ports in Gwadar in Pakistan and in Mawlamyaing in Burma; they are going to start at Chittagong in Bangladesh. All these places are closer to cities in western and southwestern China than those cities are to Beijing and Shanghai. That is, developing warm-water ports in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea, both part of the larger Indian Ocean, is a way for much of China’s landmass to break out of being landlocked.
Kaplan observed that this is the world that is being created while the U.S. is focused on messy counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, even if new powers are quietly rising up. The total result of the Iraq War, to him, is that it has fast-forwarded the arrival of the Asian century. India now has the world’s fourth largest navy; it is about to have the third largest. It will soon take delivery of its first nuclear-powered fast-attack submarine. Meanwhile, China’s navy is growing to be in asymmetric terms a peer competitor of the U.S., the Japanese Navy is now three times, soon to be four times, the size of Britain’s Royal Navy. All this is happening not just while the U.S. is deeply involved in two countries in the greater Middle East, but also as European defense budgets are starved at 2 percent or less of their GDPs.
What interests Kaplan is that, as an indicator of where the future is going, Europe has not been able to take advantage strategically or in many other ways of the U.S. quagmire in Iraq and the growing one in Afghanistan, but the Asian countries have. Asian militaries are becoming real civilian-military postindustrial complexes. The fact that the Chinese or Indian armies are so large was for decades meaningless, because they were poorly trained and badly equipped, more useful for defending long land borders and bringing in crops than for actual deployment, maneuverability, and fighting. That is changing rapidly. The Indians are using the Israelis to develop a new space satellite technology tied in with their own military. India and China’s software prowess is increasingly having military dimensions.
While I am obviously no Robert Kaplan, there are a number of points which I would like to comment on.
Kaplan correctly directs our attention to China's immense efforts to create secure energy routes through Central Asia, and around the Indian subcontinent, to the Caspian Sea and the Middle East. He might have added that Russia too is playing to dominate this arena, and it is one in which both Beijing and Moscow will be rivals in the coming decades. Europe, I think, is playing its feeble cards in this arena but due to its lack of direct access is attempting to achieve its goals by diplomatically pressuring America and bribing Russia.
Europe's goal is similar to China's. To ensure an overland energy highway to the Middle East and Central Asia. And Kaplan is also right to say that Iran, both for geographical and petrochemical reasons, is a hinge around which the Russian, Chinese and European plans will turn.
But I think Kaplan is wrong in thinking that Iraq and Afghanistan are irrelevant quagmires. If one had to pick two places, roughly accessible to American power, which would constitute a ringside seat and a strategic position in that arena it would be Iraq and Afghanistan. One is to the East and the other to the West of Iran. These are exactly the right places for America to be in. Whether it is doing the right thing in these places is debateable. But that they are strategic is beyond debate -- except to Barack Obama.
With respect to Kaplan's thesis of the Rise of Asia, two developments over the past 8 years are likely to be recognized as prescient. The first is the new strategic alliance between India and the United States. Its importance is self-explanatory. The second is the US relationship with Japan; the quiet nurturing of the JSDF's role in Pacific naval affairs; the partnership on Japanese homeland missile defense. These two pillars will be historical counterexamples to the often heard criticism that America has neglected its traditional European and NATO allies in favor of irrelevancies. India and Japan are not irrelevancies. Nor is Central Asia and the Middle East. While NATO remains important it would have been a mistake to treat the last ten years as an extension of the immediate post World War 2 years. Europe is still a powerful region. But it is no longer the center of the earth.
Kaplan believes that changes taking place in the Middle East will mean that the US can no longer rely on strongmen there to keep the peace. The strongmen -- indeed central authority -- is weakening all over the region.
Central power in the Middle East continues to erode, Kaplan reported. Whether it is dictatorships in Egypt or Saudi Arabia or legitimate pro-Western monarchies like in Morocco or Jordan; whether it is more in-between regimes like in Tunisia, Algeria; semi-democratic ones like in South Yemen; or family corporate-style enterprises like along the Arabian Gulf, leaders, even dictators, increasingly have to listen to their own people and consult with their own people in order to take decisions. So dictatorship is weakening throughout the Middle East, as is democracy, which is not a success almost anywhere in the Middle East. Central power is weakening as fewer countries have a three- or four-man elite that determines history in these countries. There is now a whole class of people, 100-200 people who make up an increasingly modernizing elite.
As with those who hanker for a return to the halcyon days of TransAtlantic diplomacy, those who want to get off the ground and leave the settlement of problems in the Middle East to the UN or the diplomats are pining for a lost era. Those methods don't work any more. And those who put their faith in Muslim summits or flying trips around the world to show their face to hostile countries are bound to be disappointed. The current administration may have gotten many things wrong; but it would also be wrong to believe that the way forward lies in a return to the past.
That way is barred by the angel of time; as is the way forward. But the door to the future is blocked by our own outdated preconceptions; the barriers erected by our mind.
The Belmont Club is supported largely by donations from its readers.