The United States of America has decided to endure its longest war. It has made this decision not because it believes it will prevail against a native insurgency, but because of grander geopolitical interests. By continuing to occupy Afghanistan, America is ensuring it is not overlooked in this century’s ‘New Great Game’.
Trump does not possess much interest in governing, he never has. On most of foreign policy, he has boasted of deferring decisions “to the generals”. While separating an ill-informed, uninterested, impulsive president from perilous decision-making is undoubtedly beneficial to the United States’ interests, it must be noted that the consequence is a markedly more imperialistic state with a renewed interest in realpolitik. This observation is clearest when considering the American administration’s decision to continue America’s longest war.
The geopolitical importance of Central Asia
To India’s north, the Himalayas serve as a wall protecting India from foreign invasion. To the northeast, the Burmese jungles also present harsh enough conditions to shield India from advancing armies. It is from the northwest that India is most vulnerable. Here lies the Persian-Afghan plateau (a gradual incline rather than a divisive mountain range). It is from here that India has faced invading Greeks, Persians, and Mongols, because it is easier to march armies across a plain than over mountains or through jungle.
During the nineteenth century, the British Empire’s Indian holdings stood at the foot of the Persian-Afghan plateau. British officials, peering across this expanse, were concerned by an expanding Russian empire, fearing that Russian invaders would use the Afghan route to seize the crown jewel of the empire. Meanwhile, St Petersburg feared British commercial and military inroads into Central Asia. As such, Afghanistan was the key to security for each rival power – securing Afghanistan would counter each empire’s vulnerability. This rivalry was dubbed ‘the great game’.
The great game example illustrates a geopolitical reality of Eurasia: it is from Central Asia that all other Eurasian powers are most vulnerable. This reality was opined on by the geopolitical scholar Halford John Mackinder, who presented a paper titled ‘The Geographical Pivot of History’ to the Royal Geographical Society in 1904, and later published his book Democratic Ideals and Reality: A Study in the Politics of Reconstruction, which restated his ideas, in 1919. He summarizes his theory with overly quoted and simplistic maxim:
Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland [Central Asia]:
Who rules the Heartland [Central Asia] commands the World-Island [Eurasia]:
Who rules the World-Island [Eurasia] commands the World.
The first line of the maxim must be contextualized. Democratic Ideals and Reality was published during the Paris Peace Conference, and was meant to influence the statesmen at Versailles in their division of Europe after World War I – (the sub-title ‘A Study in the Politics of Reconstruction’ makes the book’s purpose clear). The Russian, Austrian, and Ottoman Empires had all collapsed, and Mackinder was making the case that it was a “vital necessity that there should be a tier of independent states between Germany and Russia”. This was a political goal rather than a geopolitical observation.
The second two lines are Mackinder’s maxim are more mechanical. Mackinder observed the world at a time when railways were opening Central Asia to trade, commerce, and conquest. Where once the area had been controlled exclusively by horse-riding nomads, it would soon be controlled by an industrialized power. Just as the Mongols had conquered all of Eurasia (and consequently terrorized medieval Europe) so too would Russia – and Mackinder was warning Britain and France that their navies would no longer allow them to command the World.
In one way, Mackinder’s maxim was proved right. After World War 2, Russia was able to project power globally because it controlled Central Asia, and most of Eurasia. Had it been preoccupied in Central Asia (for example, if it had to send armies to Siberia to counter Japan), Russia would have lost World War II. Instead, Russia could focus all its efforts on defeating, Germany, and in World War II’s aftermath, Russia asserted itself as one of the world’s great powers. By controlling Central Asia, Russia won World War II, and thereafter could project power as far away as Cuba.
On the other hand, Mackinder’s maxim was proved to be overreaching. Russia, even by controlling Central Asia, never commanded all of Eurasia, and never the World – it lost the Cold War. But it must be remembered that throughout the Cold War Russia remained vulnerable in Central Asia, China was often more of a rival than an ally, and in the Cold War’s final days Russia fought a prolonged War in Afghanistan. Moreover, I do not rely on Mackinder’s maxim as an empirical truth, rather it simply illustrates the geopolitical reality: it is from Central Asia that all other Eurasian powers are most vulnerable.
Modern geopolitics in Central Asia
The tectonic forces of geopolitics are reawakening in Central Asia. Where once the Soviet Union had dominated the region, new forces are asserting themselves: the rising powers of China and India, a Russia that hopes to claw back its Central Asian losses, and an invigorated Iran. China, in particular, deserves some further analysis.
Whereas Russia has always coveted access to the ocean, China is a similarly sized land power with a coastline in both the tropic and temperate zones. Therefore, according to Mackinder, China is theoretically in the world’s most geopolitically advantageous position, in that it can both control Central Asia and project power from Eurasia.
China is asserting itself in the former Soviet sphere of influence. It has become the leading trading partner for all the former Soviet republics (apart from Uzbekistan), as well as the region’s largest investor. Currently China is spearheading its “belt and road” initiative, in which China plans to invest billions of dollars in Central Asian infrastructure – ostensibly to project economic power.
The American Top Brass’s realpolitik
The result of all this is clear. The balance of power in Central Asia is changing. China is asserting itself. Russia is vulnerable. Iran (who no longer has the regional rival Iraq to worry about) is projecting power as far away as Syria and Yemen – it could just as easily turn east. Whichever power controls Central Asia (in the end, most likely China), can then control Eurasia.
Serendipitously, it is at this time that America finds itself with an outpost right in the heart of Central Asia: Afghanistan. Why would America squander the opportunity to have its thumb on the scale during this ‘new great game’? Another president may have overridden his (or her) generals’ focus on the geopolitical forces in favour of domestic or even global humanitarianism, but this president is happy to cede such decisions to the military. The result is a renewed realism. Security is paramount. Any opportunity to influence the dynamic forces of Central Asian geopolitics must be seized because he who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island, and he who rules the World-Island commands the World.
The Economist, What is China’s belt and road initiative? https://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2017/05/economist-explains-11
The Economist, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin behave like the best of buddies, https://www.economist.com/news/china/21725611-suspicion-between-russia-and-china-runs-deep-xi-jinping-and-vladimir-putin-behave-best
Kaplan, Robert D., The Revenge of Geography. New York: Random House, 2012.
Mackinder, Sir Halford J., Democratic Ideals and Reality: A Study in the Politics of Reconstruction. Washington D.C.: National Defense University Press, 1942.
The inter-connectivity of the internet means cyber-war is a reality. Since the Pentagon’s reaction to this revolution is confidential, one can only hope it is being taken seriously.
Throughout history humans have conducted warfare. During most of this time military force could only be projected from two domains, land and sea. With the advent of the modern air force, force could be projected from a third domain – the air. The Cold War added a fourth – space. Today’s digital revolution is adding a fifth – cyberspace. Modern power plants, satellites, airports, railways, financial systems, and even military communications are all reliant on the internet. Let us not forget modern missiles are controlled by GPS, and drones are operated from CIA headquarters half a world away. This leaves these networks open for infiltration.
There has been much discussion of China’s ability to conduct cyber-espionage. China has been openly accused of infiltrating the databases of Western defence contractors such as Lockheed Martin. In The Dragon’s Navy – Chinese Capabilities and American Policy, I pointed to Chinese cyber-capabilities as a part of its anti-access/area-denial program in the Western Pacific. These capabilities could disrupt American military command and communication during a conflict.
Western cyber-experts infer China may have the most ostentatious cyber-aggression program, but Russia is probably both more skilled and subtle at the new paradigm of modern warfare. Estonia’s 2007 decision to move a Soviet-era statue from central Tallinn was followed by a suspicious and complete denial-of-serve attack on Estonian government, media, and bank servers. Although many believe the Kremlin was involved in this attack, it has only been tracked to individual Russian hackers and botnets. In 2008 the connection to the Kremlin appears more well-founded. Georgia’s government and media websites crashed and telephone lines were jammed, this crippled Georgia’s ability to appeal for support as Russian tanks invaded. After the incident in Estonia, NATO opened a new Center of Excellence; this one would be based in Estonia and would focus on cyber-defence. Experts from this centre were deployed to Georgia the following year. These developments raise broader questions. Did the cyber-attack on Estonia constitute an attack by Russia on a NATO member? Would NATO have to respond to this action? Did the assistance provided to Georgia constitute the defense by NATO of a non-member? These questions highlight the fact that cyber-war still exists in a grey-area of international law.
America too has (at least probably) committed cyber-aggression. 2010’s Stuxnet worm infected and sabotaged Iranian nuclear centrifuges, damaging its ability to enrich uranium and build a nuclear weapon. The precision of the attack has led commentators to characterize it as a cyber-missile. The complexity of this type of aggression means it was almost certainly financed by a state. The target, Iran, infers the attacker was either the United States, or Israel, or both. The earlier Conficker worm has been linked to the Stuxnet attack as well, but of course none of this has been proven. Such is the reality of modern ‘plausible-deniability.’
The Bigger Picture
Analyzing cases of state-sponsored cyber-war alone misses the bigger picture. State-sponsored cyber-war is essentially only another tool with which states conduct warfare. Cyber-war has the potential to fundamentally shift the world’s balance of power. I argued in The Era of the Eagle – American Hegemony is Here to Stay that America will remain the world’s only great-power for the near future. However this does not mean the security of America, and indeed all states, is not increasingly being threatened by non-state actors. There has been an ongoing trend in recent international relations wherein non-state actors are gaining power. America’s entire War on Terror lends credit to this assertion. In The Utility of the War on Terror, I outline how America is engaged in a new paradigm of warfare – ‘war amongst the people.’ The state has been the dominant actor in international relations since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648; however this dominance is now being threatened by new networks and organizations rather than states. For example, the ‘hacktivist’ group Anonymous has infiltrated various targets, some governmental, in the pursuit of political power. The fact that modern infrastructure relies on the internet means cyber-terrorists could attack a nuclear power plant, or an airport, remotely. The reality of cyber-war means non-state actors are likely to continue to gain international power and influence, meaning the global power-balance will shift. As of yet, al-Qaeda and other terrorist networks have used the internet primarily for propaganda, however this may change at any time.
Recent policy to address the new reality
The United States Department of Defense Joint Operational Access Concept, a public release, argues that America must maintain an assured operational access to the ‘global commons,’ or areas of air, sea, space, and cyberspace that belong to no single state. This is the direct opposite of China’s anti-access/area-denial aspirations, and requires robust cyber-defense capabilities. Obama has done much to combat the reality that America is vulnerable to cyber-attacks; in May 2009 he accepted the recommendations of the Cyberspace Policy Review and selected an Executive Branch Cybersecurity Coordinator. Howard Schmidt, the former head of security at Microsoft, occupied the position until his retirement in May of 2012. Michael Daniel succeeded Schmidt, both having been overshadowed by the military’s Cyber Command headed by General Keith Alexander. The strategies implemented by both these government branches are confidential. The fact remains that cyber-war has become a modern reality and must be taken seriously.
“A Worm in the Centrifuge,” The Economist, 30 September 2010.
Bowden, Mark. “The Enemy Within,” The Atlantic vol. 305 no. 5, June 2010.
“Joint Operational Access Concept,” United States of America Department of Defense, 17 January 2012. http://www.defense.gov/pubs/pdfs/JOAC_Jan%202012_Signed.pdf
“The Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Iniative,” The Whitehouse Website.
“The Meaning of Stuxnet,” The Economist, 20 September 2010.
“War in the Fifth Domain.” The Economist vol. 396 no. 8689, 3-9 July 2010.
North Korea is a state that has made it clear it does not intend to act according to international standards; it fulfills the definition of ‘rogue state’ perfectly. It also threatens the security of its neighbours. China, North Korea’s only ally, holds the key to resolving this dangerous situation. However China is caught in a precarious position. I argue that China and America can work through the North Korean dilemma together. To do this I present a past example of compromise.
To understand the nature of the Kim dynasty and North Korea’s foreign policy today, one must first understand history. The United States and the Soviet Union divided Korea, a colonial possession of a defeated Japan, in 1945. North Korea fell into the Soviet sphere of influence, while Japan and South Korea would remain allied with the United States. In June of 1950 North Korea invaded South Korea. The world’s Cold War-era balance of power meant a civil war between communist and democratic factions would lead to foreign intervention. A UN sanctioned ‘police action’ meant a US led coalition would act to defend democratic South Korea.
Initial North Korean victories meant United States and South Korean forces were pushed back to the Pusan Perimeter, on the southernmost tip of the peninsula. Meanwhile China acted to secure the Korean border, fearing the potential consequences of an American victory. During the Battle of the Pusan Perimeter, UN forces led by General Douglas MacArthur repelled the Korean People’s Army forces and turned the tide of the war. Subsequent campaigns saw US and South Korean forces push the Korean People’s Army forces past the 38th parallel: the North-South Korean border. When US forces neared the Chinese-Korean border, China intervened. Chinese and North Korean forces would push the United States back to the border area. Negotiations would bring about an armistice however the war would never officially end; the border between North and South Korea remains the world’s most heavily defended. To this day North Korea remains both allied to China and an enemy of South Korea and the United States.
All in the family
Kim Il-sung ruled North Korea from 1948 – 1994, his son Kim Jong-il would secede him and his grandson Kim Jong-un embodies the dynastic chain today. The Jong-il and Jong-un governments have made provocative military actions a cornerstone of the regime’s foreign policy. In March of 2010 the North Korean navy is believed to have sunk the South Korean vessel Cheonan with a torpedo. In November North Korea shelled the South Korean border island of Yeonpyeong. North Korea’s 2006 and 2009 nuclear tests lead most to assume the nation possesses limited nuclear capabilities. However nuclear capabilities are not enough to threaten the security of neighbouring state, the Korean People’s army must possess a way of launching a nuclear warhead.
The security threat North Korea’s ‘space program’ presents
Even if North Korea were able to mount a nuclear weapon to one of its existing military rockets (a technology it has yet to master) its nuclear capabilities would only threaten South Korea and Japan. The only North Korean military rocket to have been successfully launched is its Nodong missile, an improved version of the Russian ‘scud’ chain of missiles. This missile’s range is limited, only South Korea, Japan, China, Russia, and Mongolia fall in its potential trajectory. Although China, Russia, and Mongolia all fall within this range, Pyongyang is not likely to attack these states. North Korea is still ‘at war’ with South Korea and the United States.
Although North Korea possesses military rockets with further range, it has yet to successfully test them as tests like these are extremely provocative. However last Wednesday North Korea launched a satellite into space. Not surprisingly mastering this feat and the feat of successfully launching an intercontinental ballistic missile with much further range than a Nodong missile takes transferable technology. After all, both techniques are considered rocket science. Therefore North Korea’s 12 December launch can be seen as a step in the direction of launching a missile at farther targets. The Unha-3 rocket that carried the regime’s satellite into space in effect extends the potential range in which existing Korean missiles reach. With further technological advances North Korea could threaten the United States‘ security, its enemy since 1950.
A call for action
There have been repeated rounds of sanctions and condemnation from the international community, however North Korea’s complete disregard for international peace warrants a stronger response. Should Kim Jong-un become further emboldened, the violence will surely escalate. It is likely Pyongyang will continue to push the limits. Past incidents of North Korean military aggression prove South Korea already faces major security threats. Therefore the time to act on North Korea is now, before the situation deteriorates further.
China’ precarious position
China hopes to gain great-power status in the international state system, but its ally in Pyongyang continues to put the region’s security in jeopardy. By being allied to a state that makes no attempt to abide by international norms China risks its legitimacy and thus its acceptance as a great-power in the region and the international community. Although China has expressed regret over North Korea’s nuclear testing and rocket launches, and the two regimes have often clashed, Beijing has yet to fully abandon its ally. This is because Beijing fears that should it attempt to forcefully influence North Korea, a spurned Kim Jong-un would lash out violently, provoking South Korea and subsequently America. A war against a Chinese ally on the Chinese border in which US forces are involved would be anathema to Beijing, it would mean China was losing influence in its region. A unified Korea would likely be an American ally, and could be used to check China’s rise. Thus China believes its only hope is that the situation remains as it appears today, it hopes for stability on the Korean Peninsula above all else.
The ticking time bomb
Although the above call for action is certainly warranted, the United States will not become involved militarily on the Korean Peninsula today because North Korea is China’s ally and falls in China’s sphere of influence. But should North Korea continue to act violently (a likely development) it could cause a war with America. This seems especially likely when one considers the North Korea’s satellite launch, as previously mentioned this is a step in the direction of endangering US security. The Pentagon constantly stations around 30,000 troops in both South Korea and Japan and as I argued in the Dragon’s Navy – Chinese Capabilities and American Policy, the United States must remain the dominant naval power in the Western Pacific. Therefore assuming the situation continues to grow more dangerous, the United States will eventually become involved. North Korea thus represents a ticking time bomb to Beijing.
The obvious question
What if China were to both act to remove Kim Jong-un from power and seek to maintain a strong relationship with a unified Korea? China already does more trade with South Korea, maybe it is time for China to force the two to unify. Perhaps America could agree Seoul’s new government would remain neutral, and would remove its troops from a unified Korea. China would likely agree to reunification on these terms.
Unfortunately there are many problems with this scenario. First of all, Chinese foreign policy rests on a doctrine of non-intervention. China has thus far not exported an ideology or colonized land, it would be simply hypocritical to start now. Secondly, America would want to ensure China was not simply throwing its weight around, it may act to either counter China’s aggression towards North Korea, or act vengefully after. Thirdly, even if China were to ‘ok’ its actions with Washington, the Pentagon would at the very least insist US Special Forces secured North Korea’s nuclear-program sites. As mentioned above, US forces acting within China’s sphere of influence would be seen as a foreign policy failure to Beijing.
But what if China and the United States could overcome their differences on North Korea? Perhaps Xi Jinping and Barack Obama could strike a deal wherein a mixture of covert and non-covert actions would see the Kim dynasty removed and Korea unified. There must be a compromise in which a conflict between the two is avoided while both save-face. The deal would have to specify that a unified Korea would remain neutral, and the US would likely have to withdraw its troops. Although 1950 saw war between Cold War rivals China and America, 1962 saw a compromise between the US and the USSR. John F. Kennedy worked out a secret deal with Nikita Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis. This deal saw both super-powers compromise. The USSR removed its missiles from Cuba while the US promised not to invade Cuba and removed its missiles from Turkey. To retain his image as a ‘cold warrior,’ the second part of Kennedy’s deal was kept secret. I argue the situation today can also be overcome, but China and America must first make some back-room deals similar to those made 50 years ago.
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