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Chapter 1: The Rise and Fall of Europe
There is a fixed belief in America that the United States is on the eve of destruction.
Disastrous wars, uncontrolled deficits, high gasoline prices, shootings at universities,
corruption in business and government and an endless litany of other shortcomings—all
of them quite real—create a sense that the American dream has been shattered and that
America is past its prime. Obviously, we are talking about the Nixon era, with the
Vietnam War going badly, shootings at Kent State, surging inflation, gasoline prices
soaring and Watergate, it’s understandable that Americans in 1974 thought America’s
best years were behind it.
It’s not that the Nixon years weren’t troubling. It is just that they were no more troubling
than the Great Depression or today. The feeling that things have gone to hell is something
Americans express even in good times. We look back on the 1950s as an idyllic period,
but you’d really have to be dense to believe that. With the Korean War and McCarthy at
one end, Little Rock in the middle and Sputnik and Berlin at the other end, it was actually
a time of intense anxiety and foreboding.
Psychologically, the United States is a bizarre mixture of utter hubris and profound
insecurity. As we will discuss in the chapter on culture, this is pretty much what you’d
expect from an adolescent. In fact it is the precise description of the adolescent mind and
that is exactly the American condition in the 21st Century. The world’s leading power is
having an extended adolescent identity crisis, replete with irrational mood swings.
But if we think of the United States as an adolescent, early in its history, then we also
know that, regardless of its self-image, adulthood lies ahead. Adults tend to be more
stable and more powerful than adolescents. Therefore, contrary, to the darker side of
America’s self image, my view is that we are entering a century in which the world will
be dominated by the United States. I also believe that given the nature of the United
States, the 21st century will be simultaneously enormously creative and profoundly
unstable.
This view has to be justified, both because it is an extreme claim and because it runs so
counter to the American mood of the moment. We need to describe carefully the method
we use to arrive at this conclusion. That method is geopolitics.
Geopolitics is not simply a pretentious way of saying “international relations.” It is a
method for thinking about the world and forecasting what will happen down the road.
Economists talk about an invisible hand, in which the self-interested, short-term activities
of people lead to what Adam Smith called “The Wealth of Nations.” Geopolitics applies
the concept of the invisible hand to the behavior of nations and other international actors.
The pursuit of short-term self-interest by nations and their leaders leads, if not to the
wealth of nations, then at least to something else that is quite useful, predictable
behavior. It is this tendency that makes it possible to forecast the future of the
international system.
Geopolitics and economics both assume that the players are rational, at least in the sense
of knowing their own short term self interest. As rational actors, reality provides them
with limited choices. It is assumed that, on the whole, people and nations will pursue
their self-interest, if not flawlessly, at least not randomly. Think of a chess game. On the
surface, it appears that each player has twenty potential opening moves. In fact, there are
much fewer because many of these moves are so bad, they quickly lead to defeat. The
better you are at chess, the more clearly you see the options, and the fewer moves there
actually are available. The better the player the more predictable are his moves, except
for the brilliant grandmaster who plays with absolute predictable precision—until that
one, brilliant stroke.
Nations behave the same way. The millions or hundreds of millions of people who make
up a nation are constrained by reality. They generate leaders who would not become
leaders if they were irrational. Climbing to the top of millions of people is not something
fools often do. They do it by understanding their next move and executing it, if not
flawlessly then at least pretty well. An occasional master comes along with a stunningly
unexpected and successful move, but for the most part, it is simply executing the
necessary and logical next step. When politicians run a county’s foreign policy, they
operate the same way. If they die and are replaced, another leader emerges, and continues
what the other was doing.
I am not arguing that political leaders are geniuses, scholars or even gentlemen and
ladies. Simply, political leaders know how to be leaders or they wouldn’t have emerged
as such. It is the delight of all societies to belittle political leaders, and they surely make
mistakes. But the mistakes they make, when carefully examined, are rarely stupid
mistakes and are most likely forced on them by circumstance. We would all like to
believe that we—or our favorite candidate—would never have been so stupid. It is rarely
true. Geopolitics therefore does not take the individual leader very seriously, any more
than economics takes the individual businessman too seriously. They are both players
who know how to manage a process, but aren’t free to break its very intense rules.
The politician is rarely a free actor. His actions are determined by circumstances and
public policy is a response to reality, not to its creator. Within narrow margins, political
decisions can matter. But the most brilliant leader of Iceland will never turn it into a
world power, while the stupidest leader of Rome at its height could not undermine
Rome’s fundamental power. Geopolitics is not about the right and wrong of things, it is
not about the virtues or vices of politicians and it is not about foreign policy debates.
Geopolitics is about broad impersonal forces that constrain nations and human beings and
compel them to act in certain ways.
Part of this, as economists know, is the idea of unintended consequences. Actions people
take for their own good reasons have consequences they don’t envision or intend. The
same is true with geopolitics. It is doubtful that the village of Rome, when it started its
expanding in the 7th Century BC, had a master plan for conquering the Mediterranean
world 500 years later. But the first steps the inhabitants took against neighboring villages
set in motion a process that was both constrained by reality and filled with unintended
consequences. Rome wasn’t planned and it didn’t just happen.
Geopolitics doesn’t mean that everything is predetermined. It does mean that what people
think they are doing, what they hope to achieve and what the final outcome is are not the
same things. Nations and politicians pursue their immediate ends, as constrained by
reality as a grandmaster is constrained by the chessboard, pieces and the rules.
Sometimes they increase the power of the nation. Sometimes they lead the nation to
catastrophe. It is rare that the final outcome will be what they initially intended to achieve
or that in the end, it was simply their personal responsibility.
Geopolitics assumes two things. First, it assumes that humans organize themselves into
units larger than families, and that by doing this, they must engage in politics. It also
assumes that humans have a natural loyalty to the things they were born to, the people
and the places. Loyalty to a tribe, a city or a nation is natural to people. That means that
in our time, national identity matters a great deal. Geopolitics also teaches that the
relationship between these nations is a vital dimension of human life, and that matters of
war and peace are therefore crucial to humans. Consequently, war is sometimes preferred
to peace.
Second, geopolitics argues that the character of a nation is determined to a great extent by
geography as is the relationship between nations. We use the term geography broadly. It
includes the physical characteristics of a location, but it goes beyond that to looking at the
effects of a place on individuals and communities. In antiquity, the difference between
Sparta and Athens was the difference between a landlocked city and a maritime republic.
Athens was wealthy and cosmopolitan, while Sparta was poor, provincial and very tough.
A Spartan was very different from an Athenian in both culture and politics. In the same
way, the geography of America compared to the geography of Europe leads to a very
different age.
Bear in mind that this isn’t going to be a book about the theory of geopolitics. But we
need to put some core concepts into place in order to get to our task, which is thinking
about the 21st century. What we are doing in this book might be called applied
geopolitics. We are using geopolitics as a framework for thinking about the North
American Age, how it came about and what it will look like. However, we can’t
understand the future without understanding the moment we are in and we can’t
understand that without having a clear sense of what led up to it. Geopolitics is about the
unfolding of the history of nations. We can’t start the movie in the middle. We have to
start with how Europe became the center of gravity of the world, and why it fell.
The Rise of the Europe: Hubris, Daring and Brutality
Let’s begin with this question. What was it that made Europe the center of the world? It
was neither the most civilized nor the most advanced civilization in the world. Europe
really was a technical and intellectual backwater in the 15th century. Compared to the
Islamic world, China or Japan, Europe had little to recommend it. The European conquest
of the world cannot be ascribed to cultural superiority, regardless of how Europe felt
about itself.
I need to be more precise. It wasn’t Europe as a whole that was behind Europe’s rise. It
was the part of Europe that was on its Atlantic Coast: Portugal, Spain, France, The
Netherlands and England. We will call this Atlantic Europe.
The countries of this region carried out the explorations and conquests that transformed
the world. The rest of the European countries were not able to because they had no ports
or all their ports were on the Mediterranean, which was controlled by the Turks. So, how
was it that Atlantic Europe, a backwater not only by world standards, but by many
European standards, conquered the world? Why these small, out of the way countries?
Why not China or Turkey or the Incas? And why now and not five hundred years before
or five hundred years later?
The Europeans weren’t looking for glory, they were looking for money. Europe depended
on imports from Asia, particularly India. The importation of pepper, for example, was not
simply for cooking, but as a meat preservative and a critical part of the European
economy. Asia was filled with luxury goods that Europe needed and would pay for.
Historically Asian imports would come overland along the famous Silk Road and other
routes until reaching the Mediterranean. The rise of Turkey closed the routes and
increased the cost of imports dramatically, when they were available at all. The
Iberians—Portugal and Spain--having managed to force the Muslims out of Spain, were
in no position to wage war against Turkey. Europe either paid or did without.
Whichever European power solved the problem posed by Turkey would be both wealthy
and in a position to dominate Europe economically and politically. If war was impractical
and doing without the goods was unappealing, then what other option could be
developed?
This was a unique moment. At other points in history, there would have been no choice.
Atlantic Europe would have fallen even deeper into poverty. But the economic pain was
very real and the Turks were very dangerous so there was pressure to do something. It
was also a crucial psychological moment. The Spaniards, having just expelled the
Muslims from Spain, were at the height of their barbaric hubris. Finally, the means for
doing this was at hand as well. Technology existed that, if properly integrated, might
provide a solution.
The problem was that Europe couldn’t get Asian goods at reasonable prices. The solution
was to go to Asia directly without going through Turkish territory. The European traders
needed to go around the Turks. The Spaniards and the Portuguese--the Iberians--chose
the low cost alternative. They sought another route to India. The Iberians knew of one
route to India, down the African coast and up into the Indian Ocean. They theorized
about another route, assuming that the world was round, a route that would take them to
India by going west, using newly available technologies.
Sailing down the west coast of Africa on a coastal route with smaller boats that put to
shore periodically was dangerous. The Muslims controlled the coastal waters of the
African bulge and were likely to capture any European boats that put in to shore. When
Europeans were captured by Muslims, they were killed or enslaved. So, avoiding coastal
navigation in Africa was important. But if they were traveling out of sight of land, they
would need a way to know where they were and where they were going—navigation.
They would also need larger ships to make the trip worthwhile. Finally, since they were
going to distant places where they would be vastly outnumbered, the Iberians needed
weapons that would kill enemies or at least scare them to death.
The Iberians had the ship. The caravel, a type of ship suited for both coastal waters and
deep water navigation, had already been developed and perfected. It was fast, stable and
could carry cargo. An array of navigational devices, from the compass to the astrolabe
already existed in some form and needed to be perfected. Finally, tubes that expelled
projectiles driven by chemical explosives—guns and cannon—already existed. They
needed to be mounted on the caravels and the caravels adjusted to carry them.
The Iberians could now sail to distant places, arriving at their destination and returning
home. When they arrived they were able to fight with an excellent chance of winning.
People who heard a cannon fire and saw a building explode tended to be more flexible in
negotiations. Columbus could sail west across the Atlantic and return, Vasco da Gamma
could go south around Africa to India, and return. When they reached their destinations
they could kick in the door and gain a first foothold.
None of these technologies was first developed by the Iberians. They had been developed
by Muslims or Chinese and had circulated in the Eastern hemisphere over time. What the
Iberians did was successfully integrate them into a single efficient system. They did this
not for the pleasure of creativity, but out of geopolitical necessity.
We can see the basic elements of geopolitics here. There was geography, political and
economic necessity, technology, and the level of cultural development. They needed to
flank the Turks and get to India and back. They had appropriate technology and the
culture that was prepared to take extreme risks.
This was a pivotal moment in human history, but it didn’t look like it at the time. The
Portuguese did not send Vasco da Gamma to India to create a new global system. They
sent him there to get a better price on spices. Nor did the Spaniards send the
Conquistadors to South America for great and noble ends. They sent them to find an
alternative route to India than the one the Portuguese had found, and once there to find
gold and silver and slaves to aid them in their rivalry with the Portuguese.
Their reasons were practical and immediate. But there was an unintended consequence.
Having demonstrated that a small number of men armed with firearms could defeat and
loot great empires, the Iberians couldn’t and wouldn’t stop. They fought each other for
the world and then other European powers joined in the fight for loot. And in this
competition we see not only the rise, but also the germ of the fall of Europe and the
emergence of the American Age.
We now have the answer to the question of why Spain and Portugal started the conquest
of the world and not some other country at some other time. First, they needed to find a
route to India to solve a pressing economic problem. Second, there was technology at
hand that they could use to get to India. Third, Spain and Portugal were at a point in their
national history when hubris, daring and brutality were plentiful. They had the need, they
had the means and they were barbarians. So they went to India and began to conquer the
world.
This defined the geopolitics of the European Age.
The Decline and Fall of Europe
The European Age started with two countries surging into the world while battling each
other. But it wasn’t a fight to the finish. Instead, Spain and Portugal reached an
agreement in 1506, called the Treaty of Tordesillas, the most important unknown treaty
in history. Brokered by Pope Julius II, the Treaty drew a line running north to south at
about 1100 miles west of the Cape Verde Islands. Everything to the West was Spanish.
Everything to the East was Portuguese. This Treaty is the reason that Brazilians speak
Portuguese and the rest of South America speaks Spanish.
This Treaty had a profound effect on the future of Europe. If Spain and Portugal had
fought it out until the end, Spain would have probably won the war. It was getting
stronger all the time and had an excellent navy and army. Having defeated Portugal,
Spain would have been the only power in the western hemisphere and in the Indian
Ocean. It would have been immensely wealthy and powerful and would have had a good
chance of conquering Europe and uniting it under Spanish dominion. Europe’s capital
would have been in Madrid.
The Treaty of Tordesillas established the principle of compromise in European affairs. It
would have a devastating effect on Europe. By imposing a truce on Portugal and Spain, it
left the situation in Europe unsettled. Other powers, like France and England, had an
opportunity to see their chance and increase their power while Spain and Portugal were
balancing each other off. Later in the 16th century, Spain did absorb Portugal. But by then
it was too late. When Spain was ready to face its new enemies, they were too strong to
deal with.
Spain underestimated the prize. It didn’t realize that the domination of Europe was at
stake. From the Spanish point of view, this exploration was about money. The Spanish
focused on the fact that the treaty gave them a better deal in South America than it gave
the Portuguese. They didn’t see the big prize. They couldn’t.. In this case, the chess
master made the wrong move. He made a peace that let incredible power slip away. By
not fighting the Portuguese to the finish, they let Europe slip from their fingers and with
it, perhaps the world.
After finally beating Portugal, Spain went to war with England. But it was too late by
then. England, seeing the danger from Spain, had built enough of Navy that when Spain
tried to invade England in 1588, England defeated the Spanish Armada albeit with the
help of a storm. The loss of the Armada ended all hope of Spanish domination of Europe.
In part this is a lesson in missing your chance and never getting it again. But it also drives
home a vital lesson in geography that is crucial for understanding European history.
Spain was brave in South America but cautious in Europe. It moved carefully in dealing
with the tightly packed, well armed European powers. It felt it had to. And so it missed its
chance.
The defeat of the Spanish Armada drives home another geopolitical point. No matter
how powerful a European power might be, it cannot secure its hold in Europe without
subduing the English. So long as the English navy can sail the North Atlantic, Europe’s
ability to reach its colonies—the rest of the world—can be cut off. To really defeat
England’s Navy, you must defeat England. But the largest imaginable European Army
cannot swim the English Channel. It has to fight its way across and that thirty miles of
water was difficult to cross, especially in the face of the English Navy. Consequently,
Spain couldn’t get to England and Spain couldn’t dominate Europe and guarantee access
to its colonies.
Spain was unable to impose hegemony on Europe. As a result, the continental conflicts
continued to tear Europe apart while, simultaneously, European power spread throughout
the world. Over the centuries, other nations made the play for European hegemony,
particularly France and Germany. Each managed to become the dominant land power in
Europe but neither could force its way across the English Channel. Napoleon was
defeated at the battle of Trafalgar. Hitler was defeated in the Battle of Britain. While they
could each conquer the continent, the British would increasingly control the world’s
oceans and ultimately, control access to world. And that access to the world was the
difference between a prosperous Europe worth controlling and an impoverished Europe
in decline. Maritime trade was essential and the bottom line was whoever controlled the
North Atlantic defined Europe.
British strategy was simple. Keep the Europeans fighting each other on land, spending
money on armies instead of navies. In the meantime, the British would build the most
powerful navy in the world and control the North Atlantic. This strategy protected British
interests for a long time and, ultimately, it undermined the European imperial system.
Because no one could defeat Britain, conqueror after conqueror failed to dominate
Europe and Europe tore itself apart in endless warfare. Beginning with the Napoleonic
wars of the early 19th century and culminating in World War II, a series of increasingly
vicious wars tore the heart out of Europe. No one could win these wars and the wars
never ended. All there could be were truces. Europe was already exhausted by World
War I where over ten million men—a good part of a generation—died. The European
economy was shattered and European confidence broken. Europe emerged a
demographic, economic and cultural shadow of itself. And then things got really bad.
The Emergence of the United States
The United States played an unexpected role in concluding the First World War. Prior to
the war the U.S. had a powerful navy, but no army worth mentioning, and it didn’t figure
into anyone’s calculations when the war began. Had the war not become a bloody
stalemate, the United States would not have emerged on the world stage just then. But the
war did become a stalemate, and the Germans were forced to make a logical but
dangerous move. In other words, had European geopolitics not generated an inevitable
bloodbath, the United States would never have raised a million man Army, gone to
Europe and begun the process of closing the European Age and starting the American
Recall that the North Atlantic is the key to Atlantic Europe. Whoever controls it can
shape and define Europe. The Royal Navy controlled the North Atlantic, allowing Britain
to supply itself from its empire. Cut the supply line and Britain would starve. If Britain
starved, Germany would win the war. Therefore, the Germans sent U-Boats into the
North Atlantic to cut off supplies to Britain.
The problem was that it was hard to cut off British supplies without interfering with
American supplies and shipping. If Germany took control of the North Atlantic, the
Americans would be in a tough position. As the Germans became more aggressive, the
Americans had to make a choice. Did they prefer a divided Europe with Britain
controlling the North Atlantic or a united Europe under Germany and the Germans
controlling the North Atlantic? It was no brainer. If Germany won the war, the global
balance of power would create a long-term threat to the United States. A divided Europe,
even with Britain controlling the North Atlantic was better for the United States than a
single power controlling Europe and the North Atlantic. Intervening on the side of Britain
and France made sense.
As the war in the Atlantic became more intense and the stalemate on the ground seemed
to be shifting toward Germany, the U.S. intervened, organizing a vast army and sending
hundreds of thousands of men to France. It was an extraordinary performance of
organization. It was also effective. U.S. troops provided the margin that allowed the allies
to reverse German advances and break the stalemate.
The United States emerged from World War I as a global power. That power was in its
infancy. Geopolitically, the European game had to go another round. Psychologically, the
Americans were not yet ready for a permanent place on the global stage. But two things
did happen. The United States announced its presence with resounding authority. And the
United States left a ticking time bomb in Europe that would guarantee America’s power
after then next war. This was the beginning not of the American Age, but of the birth of
the American Age.
Ultimately, World War I was about Germany and its role in Europe. Until 1870,
Germany consisted of dozens of small states. With unification, Europe had a large,
powerful country in its center but it was a country that was insecure geopolitically. Afraid
of being attacked simultaneously from east and west, Germany had to try to win a war by
preempting its enemies. That’s what happened in 1914 and it failed. The French and
British wanted to send Germany back into pre-unification oblivion. If they had
succeeded, France would have dominated the continent and Britain would have
controlled its empire and Europe might have lasted longer than it did.
In fact, Woodrow Wilson, the American President, saved Germany by insisting it not be
dismantled. He permitted France to impose a punitive peace that impoverished Germany
but he wouldn’t let them destroy Germany. In a speech Wilson delivered to the Senate in
1917, he said:
The question upon which the whole future peace and policy of the world depends
is this: Is the present war a struggle for a just and secure peace, or only for a new
balance of power? If it be only a struggle for a new balance of power, who will
guarantee, who can guarantee, the stable equilibrium of the new arrangement?
Only a tranquil Europe can be a stable Europe. There must be, not a balance of
power, but a community of power; not organized rivalries, but an organized
common peace.
Wilson’s idea for a community of power was embodied in his ideas for the final peace
agreement for World War I, the Treaty of Versailles.
The Treaty of Versailles contained the worst of all worlds for Europe. It left Germany
alive and gave it every reason to want to go to war again. Because of the role the United
States played in winning the war, America could insist on this settlement. And it did,
preventing the French from dominating Europe, saving Germany and opening the door
for further conflict and war. The more Europe fought, the weaker it became, creating a
vacuum for the United States to fill.
Woodrow Wilson is portrayed in most histories as an impractical idealist, seeking justice.
It is hard to know what goes on in a man’s mind, but if this were true, then this is the
classic case of unintended consequences. If Wilson had been a ruthless international
buccaneer, he couldn’t have played the American hand better. By insisting on the
Versailles Treaty, he made certain that Europe remained divided and weak. He also made
certain that the Europeans would rip themselves apart in a second war, with the same
line-up of countries, except that this time the United States would be ready to take full
advantage of the war and not be limited to half measures.
Another quote from the same speech is particularly interesting:
The freedom of the seas is the sine qua non of peace, equality, and cooperation.
No doubt a somewhat radical reconsideration of many of the rules of international
practice hitherto thought to be established may be necessary in order to make the
seas indeed free and common in practically all circumstances for the use of
mankind, but the motive for such changes is convincing and compelling. There
can be no trust or intimacy between the peoples of the world without them. The
free, constant, unthreatened intercourse of nations is an essential part of the
process of peace and of development. It need not be difficult either to define or to
secure the freedom of the seas if the governments of the world sincerely desire to
come to an agreement concerning it.
Any discussion of freedom of the sea was directed toward Great Britain, who dominated
the seas. For Wilson, retaining the “community of power,” or whatever alternative
phrasing he used for the balance of power, coincided with his real interest, freedom of the
sea, which could only be achieved at Britain’s expense. Did Wilson understand that he
was speaking against France and Britain and therefore speaking to an increase in
American power? It’s not clear. What is clear is that his words could have no result other
than a resumption of war.
And the war did resume in 1939, twenty one years after the last one ended. Germany
again attacked first, this time conquering France in six weeks. The United States stayed
out of the war, but the United States made sure that the war didn’t end. Britain stayed in
the war and the United States kept it there with Lend Lease. We all remember the Lend
part—where the United States provided Britain with destroyers and other material to fight
the Germans—but the Lease part is usually forgotten. The Lease part was where the
British turned over almost all their naval facilities in the Western Hemisphere to the
United States. Between controlling those facilities and the role the U.S. Navy played in
patrolling the Atlantic, the British were forced to hand the Americans the keys to the
North Atlantic, which was, after all, the key to Europe. In the meantime, the Germans
were totally devastated in the air over the English Channel, which once again saved
Britain.
The United States also forced the Japanese into war. That is an odd thing to say, but let’s
consider this. Japan imported all of its raw materials from other countries and had no
natural resources of its own. The Japanese had treaties with the French and Dutch to get
oil, rubber, tin and so on from French Indochina and the Netherlands East Indies. When
France and Holland fell to the Germans in 1940, the Japanese asked the colonial
governments to guarantee the treaties. The situation was chaotic and in order to protect
their vital national interests, the Japanese moved into Indochina. The United States
carried out covert operations in the East Indies to cut the flow of oil from there, and cut
off the sale of oil to Japan as well. Japan had a few months’ reserves. At that point it had
a choice: it could either seize the East Indies or go belly up. But if the Japanese took the
East Indies, their line of supply could be cut off by whoever controlled the Philippines,
which was the United States. The Japanese, therefore, had to take the Philippines. Then
there was another problem. If they took the Philippines, the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor
would sail west and attack the Japanese. So they had to destroy the U.S. fleet. Hence,
Pearl Harbor.
Did Roosevelt know he was pushing the Japanese into war or did he hope that the
pressure would make them negotiate? It’s hard to know and doesn’t really matter. The
pressure left Japan no choice but to start a war that many of its leaders didn’t think it
could win. It also gave the Americans a free hand to fight in the Pacific with little risk to
the homeland. It also opened the door to American domination of the Pacific.
The United States did everything it could to guarantee that the Soviet Union would stay
in the war by shipping to it all the materiel possible. The Soviets lost over 20 million
dead in the war, bleeding the Germans nearly to death. In June, 1944, the Americans
landed in France, after the Germans had been crippled by the Soviets and seized the
western—and much more valuable—half of Europe in less than a year.
The United States made World War II inevitable by the conditions set at the Treaty of
Versailles, then took advantage of British desperation in 1940 to make Britain give up
control of the North Atlantic. The United States manipulated the Japanese into a war that
it couldn’t win and used the Soviets to crush the bulk of the German Army. And then the
United States took full advantage of the opportunity to become the dominant power in the
world.
A reasonable estimate of World War II’s cost to the world was about 44 million military
dead and approximately 11 million civilian deaths. Europe had torn itself to shreds in this
war and nations were devastated. In contrast, the United States lost around 400,000
military dead and had almost no civilian casualties. At the end of the war, the American
industrial plant was much stronger than before the war, the only combatant nation for
which that was the case. No American cities were bombed, no U.S. territory was
occupied and the United States suffered less than 1 percent of the war’s dead.
For that price, the United States emerged from World War II not only controlling the
North Atlantic, but ruling all of the world’s oceans. It also occupied Western Europe,
shaping the destiny of countries like France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and indeed,
Great Britain itself. The United States simultaneously conquered and occupied Japan,
almost as an afterthought to the European campaigns.
The Europeans lost their empire. Partly out of exhaustion, partly out of being unable to
bear the cost of holding the empire and partly out of the fact that the United States simply
did not want them to continue to hold it, the empire melted away over the next twenty
years, with only desultory resistance by the Europeans. The geopolitical reality that could
first be seen in Spain’s dilemma centuries before had played itself out to a catastrophic
finish. The European Age was nearing an end.
1945 was the moment at which the United States first emerged as the decisive global
power. If it had been planned by a brilliant Machiavellian, it could not have been planned
better. The Americans achieved global preeminence at the cost of 400,000 dead, in a war
where 55 million other perished. As with Wilson, we can ask the question; was Franklin
Roosevelt this brilliantly unscrupulous or did becoming a superpower just happen in the
course of his pursuing the “four freedoms” and the UN Charter? In the end, it doesn’t
matter. The unintended consequences are the most important ones.
The European Age was not quite over yet and the American Age had not quite yet begun.
There was one more era to be played out, the confrontation between the United States and
the Soviet Union. After World War II, two great alliances were created, NATO and the
Warsaw Pact, which placed Europe’s power under the command of American and
Russian generals. A French or Belgian or British Empire was a logical absurdity. All that
was left was establishing the protocols for imperial collapse. The last moments of the
European age were being played out.
The Last Era of the European Age
The United States and the Soviet Union shared more in common than either thought.
Each was the creation of Europe and neither was fully European. Both countries were
created in order to resist European imperialism. Both countries saw themselves as a
model that other nations should emulate. They both emerged to true power out of the
ashes of World War II and both claimed to be doing what they were doing in order to
spread their ideology. There was much that made them different, but these things they
had in common and they were important things.
We need to understand how the Soviet Union emerged as a global power because it
reveals something about the dynamics of global power and U.S. grand strategy. The
United States faced two major enemies in World War II. One was Japan, which was a
dangerous, but regional, power. The other was Germany, which was laying claim to all
of Europe and the Mediterranean. Germany had ambitions far beyond being a European
power.
Fighting on two fronts, the United States could manage Japan, but it did not have the
manpower to defeat Germany by itself. Neither did the British, who were barely hanging
on and whose major contribution was not their army, but their geographic position.
Britain was the gateway to France and the defeat of Germany. The key to the war,
however, was the Soviet Union which had the manpower to defeat Germany. What it
lacked was equipment and technology, which the United States had in plenty. By
transferring what America had to the Soviet Union, the Soviets were able to defeat the
Germans. Obviously, the Soviets emerged from World War II in a powerful position.
They moved their frontier west by hundreds of miles into the center of Europe and, in
addition, they had a vast, well equipped military.
The United States had, in effect, defeated Germany by empowering the Soviet Union. It
defeated one dangerous enemy by creating another. From a moral point of view, it is hard
to distinguish Nazi Germany from Stalinist Russia. Both were ruled by homicidal
maniacs, and worse, they both had a governing ideology that argued being a homicidal
maniac was just fine. The distinction wasn’t moral, it was geopolitical. If the United
States had not allied with the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany would have probably won the
war, controlled Europe and ultimately challenged the United States at sea, quite possibly
winning there as well.
The choice was between defeating Germany and creating a stronger Soviet Union or
allowing Germany to win. The decision was obvious. The United States helped make the
Soviet Union a great power. It was a good move. It was ultimately an inevitable move. It
is also the type of move the United States will make repeatedly in the 21st Century.
Dealing with a danger today by creating a danger for tomorrow is built into American
strategy, so deeply that it is almost never thought of. The automatic American response to
any problem is and will be getting allies. And in building alliances, we see the U.S.
shifting the burden of power but enjoying the benefits.
The U.S.-Soviet confrontation, the Cold War, was truly global because it was basically a
competition over who would inherit Europe’s global empire. With Europe finished, the
first global age was in its last throws. The United States and Soviet Union were now
competing over the question of who would preside over the second global age? Stakes in
this battle were tremendous. Settling the future of Europe, which was now divided into
two spheres of influence, was critical. Each power, the United States and Soviet Union,
wanted to expel the other and take over all of Europe outside the Soviet Union itself.
Would Europe be stable, would there be war or would one side or another just give up?
The second question was the same issue that the Europeans had created: who would
inherit Europe’s empire, now called the Third World? Lust for power was not as much
the issue as fear that the success of one would threaten the other’s existence. Locked in a
strangle hold, the United States and the Soviet Union struggled against each other on
every continent. This was the important question, because the answer to this would define
what the post-European world would look like.
The United States had an inherent advantage. The Soviet Union was vast but essentially
land locked. America was almost as vast but had access to the world’s oceans. While the
Soviets could not contain the Americans, the Americans could certainly contain the
Soviets. That was the American strategy: to contain and thereby strangle the Soviets.
From the North Cape of Norway to the Aleutian Islands, the United States created an
enormous belt of allied nations, all bordering on the Soviet Union—a belt which after
1970 included Communist China itself. At every point where the Soviets had a port, they
found themselves blocked by geography and the United States Navy.
Shipping goods by sea is always cheaper than by any other means. As far back as the 5th
century BC, the Athenians were wealthier than the Spartans because they had a port, a
maritime fleet and a navy to protect it. Maritime powers are always wealthier than nonmaritime neighbors, all other things being equal. With the advent of globalization in the
15th century, this truth became as near to absolute as you can get in geopolitics. The
United States has from the beginning of its history looked to the sea.
The Soviet Union had excellent farm land, massive factories, and a skilled work force.
Whatever the defects of the Soviet social system, the truth about Russia was that it lacked
the ability to transport goods efficiently and cheaply. Its rivers went to the wrong places,
its ports could be blocked by enemies, and its railroads were never extensive enough or
efficient enough.
On the other hand, the United States was a maritime power with a superb internal river
system to carry goods. Rivers flowing from the farmland regions to the sea, and great
ports, supplemented by railroads, were the foundation of American wealth. Even more
important, following World War II, the United States was the only maritime power in the
world. For the first time in human history, a single power controlled all of the oceans of
the world.
U.S. control meant that the United States could not only engage in maritime trade, but it
could define global maritime trade. The U.S. could make the rules or at least block
anyone else’s rules. Defining the rules of maritime trade was not done overtly, by
denying other nations entry to the world’s trade routes, although on occasion the United
States has used this tactic, through sanctions. In general, the U.S. more subtly shaped the
international trading system through its control of the sea. It was not surprising then, that
in addition to its natural endowments, the United States became enormously prosperous
from its sea power. And it became obvious that the Soviet Union couldn’t possibly
compete.
Second, having control of the seas gave the United States a huge political advantage as
well. America could not be invaded but could, as and when it chose, invade other
countries. From 1945 onward, the United States could wage wars wherever it chose,
without fear of having its lines of supply cut. No outside power could wage war on the
continent of North America. In fact, no other nation could mount amphibious operations
without American acquiescence. When the British went to war with Argentina over the
Falklands in 1982, for example, it was possible only because the United States didn’t
prevent it. When the British, French and Israelis invaded Egypt in 1956 against U.S.
wishes, they had to withdraw.
Throughout the Cold War, an alliance with the United States was always more profitable
than an alliance with the Soviet Union. The Soviets could offer arms, political support,
technology and a host of other things. But the United States could offer access to their
international trading system and the right to sell into the American economy. This
dwarfed everything else in importance. Exclusion from the system meant
impoverishment; inclusion in the system meant wealth. Consider, as an example, the
different fates of North and South Korea, West or East Germany.
It is interesting to note that throughout the Cold War, the United States psychologically
felt on the defensive. Korea, McCarthyism, Cuba, Vietnam, Sputnik, left wing terrorism
in the 1970s an 1980s, harsh criticism from European allies under Reagan, all created a
constant sense of gloom and uncertainty in America. Atmospherics constantly gave the
United States the sense that its lead in the Cold War was slipping away. Yet underneath
the hood, in the objective reality of power relations, the Russians never had a chance.
This disjuncture between the American psyche and geopolitical reality is important to
remember for two reasons. First, it reveals the immaturity of American power. Second, it
reveals a tremendous strength. Because the United States was insecure, it generated a
level of effort and energy that was overwhelming. There was nothing casual or confident
in the way the Americans waged the Cold War.
That is one of the reasons the United States was surprised when it won the Cold War.
From the beginning, the American defeat of the Soviet Union was inevitable. Quite apart
from the different efficiencies of their respective social systems, which is not a trivial
matter by any means, the United States had every advantage. Because the United States
and its alliance had the Soviet Union surrounded the Soviets could not afford to challenge
the Americans at sea and had instead to devote their budget to building armies and
missiles. The Soviets could not, therefore, project major forces beyond their immediate
region. On the economic front, the Soviets could not match American economic growth
rates or induce their allies with economic benefits. The Soviet Union not only could not
match the United States but it fell farther and further behind. And then it collapsed.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, 499 years after Columbus’ expedition, ended
an entire Age in history. For the first time in 500 years, power no longer resided in
Europe, nor was Europe the focal point of international competition. After 1991, there
was only one global power in the world, the United States. North America had become
the center of gravity of the international system and the dominant power in North
America. The United States had become the pivot of the international system.