Wars, Rumors, and Geopolitical Logic

The world faces the danger of a major war. To grasp the magnitude of that threat, it is necessary to go beyond the trajectory of news from Ukraine. It is also necessary on the one hand to seek a balanced appreciation of the variable factor of human will in the management of international crises, and the immutable factors of geographic reality on the other. 

The decision in Washington to expand NATO and weaponize Ukraine against Russia was an act of human will; so was the decision in Moscow to respond to this challenge with military force. The permanence of Ukraine’s geographic position, on the other hand, makes this challenge an existential issue for Russia, no less than the control over the Jordan river valley and the Golan Heights is an existential issue for Israel, and the control over its coastal seas is an existential issue for China. A state striving for security can change segments of its space by building Great Walls and Maginot Lines, but it is inseparably bound to the physical framework of its existence: to the location of its land, its position, shape, and size, its resources, and its borders.

Unlike mountain ranges and rivers, however, borders are not fixed realities that separate sovereignties and legal authorities. They are military-political arrangements subject to change depending on power relations. There is nothing sacred or permanent about them. They have been shifting for centuries in favor of the stronger and at the expense of the weaker, regardless of legal or moral claims. The future border between Ukraine and Russia, or between Israel and its Arab neighbors, not to mention China’s maritime frontier, will not be decided at a conference table. They will be decided by the realities created on the ground by force and threat of force.

Of course, the new borders will also be challenged in the fullness of time. Their durability primarily will depend on the raw might of the winners, and on the consensus of their decision-makers to defend the new status quo. In the drama of international politics, power has always been based on strength and will. Territory and physical space has always been the ultimate currency in that cruel and dangerous business.

Most Russians, Jews, and Chinese have finally come to understand that there is no “right” or “wrong” side of history. In the 20th century, all three have paid dearly for this progressivist fallacy—the belief in history as an independent agent that will lead humanity to a better world. This belief engenders megalomaniac visions and leads to horrors of the Gulag, the Holocaust, and the Great March Forward. This fatal misconception is alive and well inside the Washington Beltway, however.

That misconception of history having “sides” also explains why a war with Russia in the near future, or with China at some later stage this century, is a distinct possibility. It rests on the narcissistic assertion of American exceptionalism, the claim that “our values” are universal (transgenderism included). Closely related is the claim, as was once asserted by Madeleine Albright, that “if we have to use force, it is because we are America, the indispensable nation; we stand tall, we see further into the future than others.” Such insanity facilitates dehumanizing and killing designated foes: in Serbia in 1999, in Iraq in 2003, in Libya and Syria soon thereafter. 

The corollary of this “vision” is that a world which fails to accept America’s exceptionalism, indispensability, and farsightedness does not deserve to exist. It is therefore not only possible but mandatory to keep upping the ante: moderation is weakness, and restraint is cowardice. Such an approach to politics among nations treats the factor of space as irrelevant, since America is guided by an abstract concept of national interest. In other words, “our values” will continue to define “who we are” in the context of “rules based international order.” 

Contrary to this collective psychosis, most other states think in traditional terms and base their calculus on real, visible, and tangible spaces. The bigger the country, the more resilient it is, as the historical experience of Russia shows. Instead of the conqueror swallowing the territory and gaining strength from it, the territory repeatedly swallowed the conqueror and exhausted his strength.

This has not changed even in the nuclear age. It is precisely in the nuclear era—as both Russians and Chinese have come to understand—that a great power needs a great territory to deploy its production potential and military effectiveness over as wide a space as possible. The grand strategy of both powers is based on survival, security, and economic strengthening. It may evolve depending on specific circumstances, but it still stems from a set of basic assumptions which would be recognized by the great statesmen of the past, from Caesar to Churchill. 

In Washington, by contrast, for the past 30 years we have had an ongoing deviation from the accumulated experiences of previous generations. As the examples of Kings Philip II and Louis XIV, Napoleon, and Hitler show, putting ideology before geopolitics in formulating grand strategy—or simply allowing personal grandomania to override reason—is a sure path to failure.

The United States seems determined to follow this path. America’s near-complete diplomatic isolation over Israel’s actions in Gaza is unprecedented and just one example of a deeper malaise. Its continuation of the proxy war in Ukraine regardless of cost and risk, and despite the catastrophic military situation on the ground, is reminiscent of the failed powers of yore trusting in willpower to trump reality. 

It is not just the matter of Ukraine today or Taiwan tomorrow. Rejection of geopolitical reality is pervasive in the current administration as it refuses to see the spontaneous aspiration of the international system towards polycentricity. This tendency has been present from the beginning of the decline of the Roman Empire until today. Europe in the classical era of the balance of power—from the end of the Thirty Years War to the outbreak of the Great War—functioned according to the matrix woven in Renaissance Italy. It proved effective in suppressing challengers aspiring to a hegemonic order, from Louis XIV to Hitler.

The system collapsed with the two-stage suicide of the West between 1914 and 1945, the bipolarity of the Cold War, and America’s “unipolar moment” after the implosion of the USSR. Unipolarity proved to be an atypical and unnatural moment in history. Despite the hegemonic rhetoric, laden with ideological platitudes, the spatial dimension of rivalries in specific geographical locations is impossible to overlook. Ukraine, the Middle East, and Taiwan all belong to the Rimland that surrounds the Heartland. The geopolitical map has changed faster over the past hundred-odd years than in any previous period, but the dynamics of spatially determined conflicts among the key players are constant. 

For nearly half a century after World War II, the world rested on a relatively stable bipolar model. Both superpowers tacitly accepted the existence of rival spheres of interest, which was seen in the marked restraint of the U.S. during the Soviet interventions in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. The geopolitical game was played out in the disputed areas of the Third World (the Middle East, Indochina, Africa, Central America), but the rules of the game rested on a relatively rational calculation of the costs and benefits of foreign policies. Client wars remained localized. The implicit rationality of both sides made possible the de-escalation of occasional crises (Berlin 1949, Korea 1950, Cuba 1962) that threatened disaster. 

The world is becoming multipolar again, but the U.S. is not yet ready to accept that fact. The situation has no historical precedent: a hegemonic power has temporarily achieved monopolar dominance of the system and is now resisting its return to the normal state of multipolarity. From the Congress of Vienna until 1914, international relations were dominated by a stable model of balanced multipolarity. It provided Europe and the world with 99 years of relative peace and prosperity. Would-be hegemons faced coalitions ready to make any sacrifice to defeat them, regardless of ideological differences. 

Today, Russia and China also have potential causes of mutual conflict, but their differences are minor compared to the challenge of suppressing a hegemon that does not know its measure. We have seen a bizarre reversal of roles. The Soviet Union was a revolutionary force, a disruptor in the name of ideologically defined utopian objectives. It was opposed during the Cold War by an America practicing containment in defense of the status quo. 

Today, by contrast, the United States has become the bearer of revolutionary dynamism with global ambitions, in the name of postmodern ideological norms. It is resisted by an informal but increasingly assertive coalition of weaker forces, such as the rapidly expanding BRICS nations, that strive to reaffirm the essentially conservative principles of national interest, identity, and state sovereignty. They stand up against the American variant of the old Soviet doctrine of limited sovereignty, which today goes by the name of “rules based international order.”

The new, American emanation of that legally and morally unsustainable concept does not have a geographically limited domain, unlike the Soviet model that only applied to the countries within the socialist camp. Sooner or later, it will result in the creation of a counter-coalition like those that successfully opposed other would-be hegemons, from Xerxes to Hitler. The big question remains whether, and at what cost to themselves and the rest of the world, this fact will be understood by the neoconservative-neoliberal duopoly in Washington. 

Declining powers tend to make risky and destabilizing moves, as shown by the example of Philip II sending the Armada against England in 1588, or Austria-Hungary annexing Bosnia in 1908. America seems ready to follow suit on a much grander scale over Ukraine. Much of Europe—culturally and morally decrepit—seems ready to follow obediently. The story cannot end well unless there is a belated outbreak of sanity in the collective West. 

Today’s international relations are conditioned by geopolitical considerations which override ideology. There is no value system—especially not the monstrosity of wokedom espoused by the U.S.—capable of changing the aspiration of major powers (Russia, China) or regional ones (Israel) to increase their security by expanding control over spaces, resources, and access routes.

The essence of spatial competition does not change; only the essential pressure points do. It is in the American interest for the U.S. policy making elite to understand that this will be true until the end of history, which will come about only when the world passes from time into eternity.  ◆

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