These are excerpts from the introductory essay of a new book to be published soon. It was published in its entirety by the Center for a New American Security.
THE DISPERSION OF THE WEST
Never before in history did Western civilization reach such a point of geopolitical concision and raw power as during the Cold War and its immediate aftermath. For well over half a century, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) condensed a millennia-long tradition of political and moral values – the West, in shorthand – into a robust military alliance. NATO was a cultural phenomenon before it was anything. Its spiritual roots reach back to the philosophical and administrative legacies of Greece and Rome, to the emergence of Christendom in the early Middle Ages, and to the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries – from which the ideas of the American Revolution emerged. Of course, key nations of the West fought as an alliance in the First and Second World Wars, and those emergency contingencies constituted forerunners to NATO’s more secure and elaborate structures. Such structures, in turn, were buttressed by a continent-wide economic system, culminating in the European Union (EU). The EU gave both political support and quotidian substance to the values inherent in NATO – those values being, generally, the rule of law over arbitrary fiat, legal states over ethnic nations, and the protection of the individual no matter his race or religion. Democracy, after all, is less about elections than about impartial institutions. The end of the Long European War, 1914–1989, saw those values reign triumphant, as communism was finally defeated and NATO and the EU extended their systems throughout Central and Eastern Europe, from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south. And it categorically was a long European war, as wartime deprivations, political and economic, existed in Soviet satellite states until 1989, when the West triumphed over Europe’s second totalitarian system, just as it did over the first in 1945.
The EU gave both political support and quotidian substance to the values inherent in NATO – those values being, generally, the rule of law over arbitrary fiat, legal states over ethnic nations, and the protection of the individual no matter his race or religion. […] The end of the Long European War, 1914–1989, saw those values reign triumphant, as communism was finally defeated and NATO and the EU extended their systems throughout Central and Eastern Europe, from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south.
It was the monumental devastation of two world wars that led European elites, beginning in the late 1940s, to reject the past altogether, with all of its inherent cultural and ethnic divisions. Only the abstract ideals of the Enlightenment were preserved, which in turn led to political engineering and economic experimentation, so that the specific moral response to the human suffering of 1914–18 and 1939–45 was the establishment of generous social-welfare states, which meant highly regulated economies. As for the national-political conflicts that gave birth to the two world wars, they would not be repeated because, in addition to other aspects of supranational cooperation, European elites imposed a single monetary unit on much of the continent. […]
The irony deepens. Europe’s dull and happy decades in the second half of the 20th century were partially borne of its demographic separation from the Muslim Middle East. This, too, was a product of the Cold War phase of the Long European War, when totalitarian prison-states in such places as Libya, Syria, and Iraq were propped up for decades by Soviet advice and support, and afterwards took on a life of their own. For a long time Europe was lucky in this regard: It could reject power politics and preach human rights precisely because tens of millions of Muslims nearby were being denied human rights, and with them the freedom of movement.[…] Europe now fractures from within as reactionary populism becomes a relevant dynamic, and new borders go up throughout the continent to prevent the movement of Muslim refugees from one country to another. Meanwhile, Europe dissolves from without, as it is reunited with the destiny of Afro-Eurasia as a whole. […]
Europe, at least in the way that we have known it, has begun to vanish. And with it, the West itself – at least as a sharply defined geopolitical force – also loses substantial definition. Of course, the West as a civilizational concept has been in crisis for quite some time.[…]
A NEW STRATEGIC GEOGRAPHY
As Europe disappears, Eurasia coheres. I do not mean to say that Eurasia is becoming unified, or even stable in the manner that Europe was during the Cold War and the Post Cold War – only that the interactions of globalization, technology, and geopolitics, with each reinforcing the other, are leading the Eurasian supercontinent to become, analytically speaking, one fluid and comprehensible unit. Eurasia simply has meaning in the way that it didn’t used to. Moreover, because of the reunification of the Mediterranean Basin, evinced by refugees from North Africa and the Levant flooding Europe, and because of dramatically increased interactions across the Indian Ocean from Indochina to East Africa, we may now speak of Afro-Eurasia in one breath. The term “World-Island,” early 20th-century British geographer Halford Mackinder’s phrase for Eurasia joined with Africa, is no longer premature.
The slowly vanishing West abets this development by depositing its seeds of unity into an emerging global culture that spans continents. Further encouraging this process is the erosion of distance by way of technology: new roads, bridges, ports, airplanes, massive container ships, and fiber-optic cables. It is important, though, to realize that all this constitutes only one layer of what is happening, for there are more troubling changes, too. Precisely because religion and culture are being weakened by globalization, they have to be reinvented in more severe, monochromatic, and ideological form by way of the communications revolution. Witness Boko Haram and the Islamic State, which do not represent Islam per se, but Islam igniting with the tyrannical conformity and mass hysteria inspired by the internet and social media. As I have written previously, it isn’t the so-called clash of civilizations that is taking place, but the clash of artificially reconstructed civilizations. And this only hardens geopolitical divides, which, as the collapse of Middle East prison states indicates, are in evidence not only between states but within states themselves. […]
Europe, North Africa, the Near East, Central Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, East Asia, and the Indian subcontinent are destined to have less and less meaning as geopolitical concepts. Instead, because of the erosion of both hard boundaries and cultural differences, the map will manifest a continuity of subtle gradations, which begin in Central Europe and the Adriatic, and end beyond the Gobi Desert where the agricultural cradle of Chinese civilization begins. Geography counts, but legal borders will matter less so. […]
Geographical divisions will be both greater and lesser than in the 20th century. They will be greater because sovereignties will multiply; that is, a plethora of city-states and region-states will emerge from within existing states themselves to achieve more consequence, even as a supranational organization like the EU wanes and one like ASEAN is destined to have little meaning in a world of intimidation and power. Geographical divisions also will be lesser because the differences – and particularly the degree of separation – between regions like Europe and the Middle East, the Middle East and South Asia, and South Asia and East Asia will decline. The map will become more fluid and baroque, in other words, but with the same pattern repeating itself. […]
Medieval travelers on the Silk Road encountered a world that was, furthermore, “complex, tumultuous, and menacing, but nonetheless porous.” Consequently, with each new traveler’s account, Europeans saw the world not as “smaller and more manageable,” but as “bigger and more chaotic.” This is a perfect description of our own time, in which the smaller the world actually becomes because of the advance of technology, the more permeable, complicated, and overwhelming it seems, with its numberless, seemingly intractable crises that are all entwined. The late 13th-century Venetian merchant Marco Polo, who traveled the length and breadth of the Silk Road, is most famously associated with this world. And the route he traveled provides as good an outline as any for defining the geopolitics of Eurasia in the coming era. […]
Aside from the geopolitical island of India, two especially consequential territories that Marco Polo describes in his Travels are Russia and Persia (or Iran, as it is now called). Russia he describes, just barely and from afar, as a profitable wasteland rich in furs, whereas Persia dictates much of his route. Persia, that is, Iran, is second only to China in Marco Polo’s eyes – in a similar way that the Persian Empire dominated the paths of both Alexander the Great and Herodotus. For Persia was history’s first superpower in antiquity, uniting the Nile, Indus, and Mesopotamia with trade links to China. […] Thus, a map of 13th-century Eurasia during Marco Polo’s lifetime – overlaid by the “Empire of the Great Khan” and the “Khans of Persia” – is now the backdrop to something far more complex and technological. […]
That same legacy also explains how each country could weaken or partially disintegrate. For it is the constancy of history that continues to define Eurasia – not only the stability wrought by empire, but also the chaos that emerged in the interregnum between imperial dynasties, as crises in the capital led to ungovernability in the far-flung provinces. And because of the way communications technology empowers individuals and small groups – in addition to the instability that erupts from the increasing interconnectedness of crises worldwide – threats to imperial-oriented power centers are now greater than ever. And this is to say nothing of the acute economic challenges all these states face, particularly Russia and China, whose own internal stability can never be taken for granted. […]
RUSSIA AND THE INTERMARIUM
To the north of all this complexity and turmoil lies Russia, whose Eastern Orthodox imperium did not take part in the historical ages (the Renaissance and the Enlightenment) that made Europe what it is today, even as the medieval czars long before Napoleon and Hitler faced invasion from Swedes, Poles, and Teutonic Knights – and thus chose to ally with the Mongols. Vladimir Putin’s Eurasianism is deeply rooted in this past, and so “empire is the Russian state’s default option.” Putin knows that the mid-17th century czarist imperial expansion south into the medieval heartland of Kievan Rus (Ukraine, that is) toward the Black Sea paid great dividends, for it marked the early disintegration of Russia’s ultimate enemy, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Stalin knew this history in his bones, too, and was therefore guided by a so-called revolutionary-imperial paradigm to defend Russia against real and perceived threats, especially those coming from Central and Eastern Europe. And because the Middle East adjoins Central-Eastern Europe, its anarchy is something that Putin also cannot now ignore, especially given Russia’s equities in the adjacent Caucasus. Therefore, Putin looks at the Greater Middle East and Central-Eastern Europe and sees a single region. Russia’s own Eurasian geography lends itself to this realization.
What all this adds up to is that the geographical heart of the challenge posed by Russia becomes the Black Sea Basin: here is where Russia intersects with Ukraine, Turkey, Eastern Europe, and the Caucasus. Or explained another way, where Europe meets the Near East and where the former Russian, Ottoman, and Habsburg imperial conflict systems all merge. To be sure, the Greater Black Sea region constitutes a geopolitical concept that unites the wars in Syria and Ukraine, and puts Turkey front and center alongside the Caucasian and Balkan pivot states of Azerbaijan and Romania to counter Russia. The Black Sea is no less a conflict system than the Caribbean was in the 19th century and the South and East China seas are today. Yet the Black Sea does not register within the logic of Cold War area studies around which the U. S. defense and security bureaucracy remains organized. This is because the Black Sea falls within and among other regions, and thus emblemizes the fluid and organic geography that now gives definition to Eurasia in the first place. […]
This essay was published and can be read in its entirety at the Center for a New American Security.