The United States, China and ‘The Geography of the Peace’

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“The United States must recognize once again, and permanently, that the power constellation in Europe and Asia is of everlasting concern to her, both in time of war and in time of peace.” So wrote Nicholas J. Spykman in The Geography of the Peace, which was published in 1944, when the Second World War was still raging in Europe and Asia, and on the oceans of the world.

Spykman, who was the Sterling Professor of International Relations at Yale University and had previously authored a lengthy and brilliant analysis of global geopolitics in America’s Strategy in World Politics (1942), died before the publication of The Geography of the Peace. His research assistant at Yale, Helen R. Nicholl, edited Spykman’s manuscript for final publication.

The book—only 66 pages in length, with double-column pages—was then, and remains today, a powerful analysis of global geopolitics. 51 maps depict the globe from various geographical projections, show the distribution of rainfall, agriculture, energy resources, and population densities, and trace transportation routes. Some of the maps show the conflict zones of the Second World War. Other maps show the world power distribution as envisioned by other geopolitical theorists, including Halford Mackinder and Karl Haushofer.

Spykman hoped to educate American statesmen and the American public about the geographical realities of world power relationships in the coming postwar world. Unlike U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, Spykman placed little hope in the United Nations. “We shall continue to depend primarily on our own strength,” he wrote, “for we know that the failure of a great state to consider power means its eventual destruction and conquest.”

Spykman’s book remains relevant today because he envisioned China as the dominant power in the Far East, and placed India (assuming it gained its independence from Britain) as a potential rival of China in a region he called the “Asiatic rimland.” He foresaw that the “growth of nationalism” would cause “tensions” in the region between China and India, while Russia, which occupied Mackinder’s “Heartland,” would be a “continental balance to the Chinese position.” He then urged the United States and other Western powers to “establish island bases” offshore of the Far Eastern littoral. The combination of continental distractions (India and Russia) and Western island outposts, he wrote, “will probably be sufficient to counterbalance any future attempt of China to dominate the Far East completely.”

Whereas Mackinder had identified the Eurasian Heartland (essentially the territory of the USSR) as the "pivot" region of world politics, Spykman believed that the crescent-shaped area situated between Soviet Russia and the marginal seas of Eurasia—a region he called the Rimland — "controls the destinies of the world." Spykman’s Rimland contains China, Southeast Asia, India and Southwest Asia, the Middle East, and Western Europe. Spykman noted that the three previous contenders for Eurasian hegemony came from the European Rimland—Napoleon’s France and Wilhelmine and Nazi Germany.

Looking back, we can see that the First and Second World Wars exhausted the powers in the European Rimland. Power in Eurasia shifted east after World War II. During the Cold War, Soviet Russia situated in the Heartland (and for a time allied with China) sought Eurasian hegemony but was ultimately defeated by the combined weight of the United States, Western Europe, Japan, and China after the Sino-Soviet split.

In the 21st century, the would-be Eurasian hegemon is China, situated in Spykman’s Asiatic Rimland. China, with its military build-up and Belt and Road Initiative, seeks to extend its power and influence across the Eurasian landmass. As Spykman envisioned in The Geography of the Peace, the U.S. has established “island bases” near the Far Eastern littoral, and India is increasingly a continental distraction for China. The United States would be wise to consider Spykman’s suggestion that Russia, too, can be used to counterbalance China.

Spykman wrote that the Second World War was being fought “for the control of the rimland littoral of Europe and Asia.” The U.S. objective in that war, he explained, was “to prevent the domination of both these regions by hegemonic powers whose principles and ideals are opposed to the whole course of Western civilization.” The current struggle with China involves similar stakes. If we fail to contain an expansionist China, the United States, in Spykman’s words, “would  . . . find herself irresistibly encircled by a superior force if she should ever be confronted by a united Eurasian rimland.”

Those who counsel engagement with China would do well to reflect on what Spykman wrote in The Geography of the Peace about the nature of the international system:

[S]tates [that] have very different sets of values which they each regard as fundamental and, with all the goodwill in the world, . . . will not avoid conflict over the applications of these values; nor will they refuse to apply pressure for the attainment of what they consider justifiable ends. . . At any given time, there are always some [states] that are satisfied and others that are dissatisfied with the political and territorial status quo. When such dissatisfaction reaches a certain point, efforts will be made to change the situation by force. A spirit of co-operation and forbearance is no defense against a determined seeker of change.

This is a remarkable description of what scholars today call the Thucydides Trap. The wisdom of The Geography of the Peace is timeless.

Francis P. Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21stCentury, America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War, and Somewhere in France, Somewhere in Germany: A Combat Soldier’s Journey through the Second World War. He has written lengthy introductions to two of Mahan’s books, and has written on historical and foreign policy topics for The Diplomat, the University Bookman, Joint Force Quarterly, the Asian Review of Books, the New York Journal of Books, the Claremont Review of Books, American Diplomacy, the Washington Times, and other publications. He is an attorney, an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University, and a contributing editor to American Diplomacy.

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