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The Superhighway versus the World-Island
Stepping back to look at the big picture for America's foreign policy and global strategy
Since the start of the year, crisis and war in Ukraine have dominated the world’s attention – and understandably so. The stakes are undeniably high for the United States and its NATO allies in Europe, as well as other nations around the world who rely on Ukrainian grain to feed their own people. But it’s important to step back and look at the bigger strategic picture, to think in broader and more basic terms about the nature and scope of geopolitics in the modern world.
It’s a world defined by the transformations – technological, political, social, economic, informational – wrought by the Industrial Revolution. These realities have been with us since at least the late nineteenth century, when steamships and telegraphs began to bind the world together in ways previously unimagined. We can trace the origins and antecedents back even further to the Enlightenment era if we want, with the American and French Revolutions serving as convenient markers here. But for the sake convenience and simplicity, we can take the Industrial Revolution of the late nineteenth century as the start of the modern era of geopolitics.
What’s more, the Industrial Revolution has been accompanied by an ongoing Information Revolution. Just as steamships and jet airliners drew people and nations closer and closer together physically, the telegraph, radio, communications satellites, and the internet drew us closer and closer together mentally. News of events that once took weeks if not months to travel from one place to another could now be transmitted over the wires, beamed across satellites, or uploaded to social media in mere days, hours, and seconds. We’re now able to see events half a world away in real time, with a level of fine-grained detail that frequently strips away context and clouds our judgment more than it enlightens or sharpens our thinking.
Above all, these deep and profound transformations began to draw North America, Europe, and the Pacific rim together and create a new and truly global strategic geography for the first time in human history. Whatever their other disagreements, strategists from Halford Mackinder and Nicholas J. Spykman in the first half of the twentieth century to Zbigniew Brzezinski in the second all saw control of Eurasia – what Mackinder later christened the “world-island,” and consists roughly of modern Russia, China, and Central Asia – as the ultimate objective of geopolitics and national statecraft. But these assessments downplayed the very changes that occurred as these intellectuals formulated their ideas, though Spykman’s notion of a worldwide balance of power between “continental zones” represented an important advance in geopolitical thinking.
Contrary to these thinkers, however, it’s not control of the Eurasian landmass that matters in geopolitics – it’s control of the transoceanic superhighway that connects Europe, North America, and the Western Pacific rim. To put it another way, world politics today can be seen as a contest between the world-island and the superhighway.
Eurasia remains a strategic morass, one that consumes power and resources rather than producing them. Nations like Russia and China must focus their attention as much on their borders with each other and their internal security as anything else, leaving them with less room for strategic maneuver than the United States and its allies on both ends of the superhighway.
By contrast, the superhighway generates power and resources while fortuitously being home to the world's leading industrial democracies: the G7 nations, Australia, South Korea, Taiwan, and the European Union. Its maritime expanses include the North Atlantic and Western Pacific as well as the Mediterranean, Baltic, and Caribbean. Together, nations on the superhighway account for nearly 58 percent of the world’s gross domestic product – while Russia and China combined make up just over 18 percent. Moreover, the United States sits at the heart of the superhighway in every conceivable way: politically, diplomatically, economically, militarily, and geographically. America remains truly indispensable, albeit in a mainly negative sense: without the United States, the superhighway breaks down and cannot function properly. Indeed, the superhighway itself can best be seen as a piece of critical geopolitical infrastructure that needs regular maintenance and upkeep.
But why does the superhighway even exist in the first place?
First and foremost, technology made the superhighway possible by pulling the world closer and closer together. Here, we’re talking mainly about the industrial revolution and beyond – not just the steamships and telegraphy of the late nineteenth century but the internal combustion engines, aviation, radio, satellites, and computers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. That’s not a complete list, but it’s illustrative of the way technological advances have progressively shrunk the world over the past century and a half or so. It’s hard to even conceive of something like the superhighway in their absence.
Second, there’s ideology and politics: democracy, human rights, and the suite of economic policies that fall under the rubric of the welfare state. It’s a basic package that arose ought of the need for societies to cope with the challenges and transformations brought about by industrialization and technological progress. Internationally, shared ideology and political systems make it easier for the nations of the superhighway to connect with and work together in pursuit of shared goals – further strengthening these ties in the process. Like the interstates that crisscross the United States itself, the superhighway is a conduit for goods, ideas, and people.
Here in the United States, we can see both domestic and foreign policy in the first half of the twentieth century as a halting and very much imperfect attempt to come to terms with a world fundamentally changed and bound together first by steamships and telegraph wires and the by aviation, the internal combustion engine, and radio. Matters first came to a head with American intervention in World War I, which boiled down to a reluctant and hesitant acknowledgement that the world no longer allowed the United States to pretend its geographic position could protect it. It’s debatable as to whether or not oceans ever really could insulate the United States from issues of global politics and security, but World War I forced the country to answer these questions more directly than it ever had before.
However, the United States shirked its international responsibilities in the years that followed the war. As the historian William Leuchtenberg put it, “The ghost of the United States sat at every council table in of Europe.”The end result was a post-war settlement jerry-rigged to cope with America’s general absence from the international scene, including convoluted reparations and war-debt repayment schemes that had to be chronically renegotiated. Indeed, American reluctance to participate in a meaningful way in post-war security explains in part why reparations were levied in the first place: France wanted a mutual security pact with the United States and Great Britain as a hedge against a revival of German power, but with no alliance forthcoming France sought and received war reparations instead.
America finally came to terms with the revolutions wrought by industrialization with the New Deal at home and intervention in World War II abroad. President Franklin D. Roosevelt explicitly and repeatedly drew connections between these revolutions and his programs and policies; in his famous "economic royalists" speech in 1936, for instance, he asserted that “the rush of modern civilization itself has raised for us new difficulties, new problems which must be solved.” Likewise, FDR’s equally renowned Arsenal of Democracy fireside chat in 1940 and Four Freedoms address in 1941 pointed toward the advent of long-range aviation and the “tempo of modern warfare” as reasons America had to actively involve itself in the world.
The conditions FDR described then have only expanded and deepened in the decades since World War II. Advances in technology and economic development creating an increasingly democratic superhighway that connected East Asia, North America, and Europe closer and closer together.
Over time, the superhighway has proven resilient, with built-in geopolitical advantages over the autocratic regimes of the world-island like the Soviet Union (now Russia) and communist China. The United States and other nations on the superhighway don’t have to manage vast continental hinterlands, for starters. More importantly, we control the two main arteries of the global economy: the North Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. That means goods and people can easily flow from Europe to North America to East Asia or Australia with little friction and high speed, whether over the sea or in the air. What’s more, the superhighway remains home to critical industries and supply chains ranging from semiconductor production to aerospace and automotive manufacturing. In other words, the superhighway amounts to a massive transoceanic zone of industrial activity and innovation unparalleled in human history.
There's no cause for complacency, however. Indeed, our political and policy debates tend to underestimate just how new and fragile these things – industrialization, technology, human rights – are in the grand sweep of human history. While America still holds the strategic high ground of the superhighway, it now confronts the challenge of its own strategic confusion, a state of uncertainty and indecision driven in part by our own foreign policy errors but also the result of an increasingly cacophonous world colliding with our own broken domestic politics.
Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has shown just how tumultuous the world can be, and it’s made clear that America needs to remind itself of what’s important and what’s not – in other words, the North Star that guides its foreign policy.
Here’s the right guide star: America’s primary geopolitical goal should be to maintain effective control over the global superhighway described above. That doesn’t mean the United States should pretend it’s some sort of global empire or worldwide hegemon; the age of imperialism is dead and buried, and post-Cold War fantasies of a worldwide rules-based liberal international order are by now well past their sell-date. In any case, there’s little appetite among Americans to carry that sort of outsized burden – even if there’s little support for disengagement and the isolationist calls for restraint.
The best way to accomplish this central goal is to deepen cooperation across the superhighway on all levels - political, diplomatic, economic, technological, and military. We already see this sort of cooperation in areas ranging from space exploration to coordinated restrictions on semiconductor exports to Russia, and existing alliances and relationships along the superhighway provide a solid foundation for expanded cooperation moving forward. Building and reinforcing this cooperation against threats and challenges from world-island autocracies like Russia and China stands as the major task for the superhighway today.
Looking beyond the nations and regions already on the superhighway, India and the Middle East will remain strategically important regions. Indeed, the superhighway could one day extend to India in much the same way it made its way over the Atlantic and Pacific. However, neither India nor the superhighway are there yet – especially in terms of India’s troublingly illiberal domestic politics and its lingering geopolitical affection for Russia. Right now, New Delhi is best seen as a transactional strategic partner than a potential ally or eventual destination on the superhighway; our interests coincide and converge in many ways, especially with regard to China, but not in all respects. Strictly speaking, however, the superhighway does not need India to survive and prosper in the years and decades to come.
As the United States and other nations hoping to move toward carbon-free energy have discovered over the past year, the Middle East retains its global economic importance as a major producer of oil and gas. In our geopolitical imaginations, however, the Middle East – or at least the Gulf and Arabian Peninsula – may fit together better with South Asia than the Levantine and North African states that ring the Mediterranean. After all, the Gulf states host large populations of migrant laborers from the subcontinent and the Gulf itself offers a straight shot to India and Pakistan. Moving forward, it may make more sense to think about the Middle East and South Asia as a conceptual whole than the Middle East and North Africa. This broader region is a key support structure for the superhighway as well as a geopolitical hinge point; any turbulence within this broader region ripples out to the rest of the world. That’s why calls to ignore or abandon this part of the world are wrong-headed – and why a more balanced strategic reengagement will be more effective in the long run.
Latin America and Africa remain important in their own right, but they’re not strategically vital in the same way as the superhighway or the world-island. They bear watching for a variety of reasons, especially in terms of potential opportunities to connect them more tightly to the superhighway as well as reducing any potential strains – think the Ebola pandemic of 2014, for instance, or Salafi-jihadi terrorism in the Sahel – they may produce on global politics more broadly. Nonetheless, these continents are unlikely to be a focus for American strategy and foreign policy any time soon.
Of course, none of the foregoing matters if the United States or nations on the superhighway decide to blow it up. Former President Donald Trump, for one, repeatedly questioned the value of America’s superhighway alliances and reportedly planned to pull the United States out of NATO if he’d won a second term. No matter how slim it may be, the prospect of a second Trump term in 2024 poses an existential threat to the superhighway.
But the domestic political challenges to the superhighway go well beyond Trump. He seized control over a Republican Party that had slowly but steadily descended deeper and deeper into political madness over the preceding years and decades. Today, he remains the party’s dominant figure, and many of its new officeholders hew to his isolationist worldview. Indeed, some 63 House Republicans – some thirty percent of the party’s caucus – recently voted against a rather anodyne reaffirmation of America’s commitment to the NATO alliance. Democrats seem unable to mount anything remotely resembling effective political response, in large part because they seem to have abandoned common sense, adopted a faulty theory of politics, and blindly acceded to the demands of the cultural left.
Nor are these problems confined to the United States: far-right dynast Marine Le Pen made it to the second round of the French presidential elections for the second straight time, and she stands a decent chance of winning an upset against incumbent President Emmanuel Marcon on April 24. She’s already promised to pull out of NATO’s military command structure and cozy up to Vladimir Putin if she wins, citing “common civilizational and strategic interests” with the Russian dictator. In effect, a Le Pen victory would put a saboteur in charge of a critical nation on the European end of the superhighway. These political forces tend to play an outsized role in national politics due in no small part to their effective use of identity politics combined with clear narratives and effective (if often exaggerated) use of new tools like social media.
Medium-term political trends seem mixed at best, at least in the United States and Europe. Though the center-left notched some modest electoral victories in Portugal, Germany, and other European countries, Democrats look set to lose the House and Senate in spectacular fashion this November. Absent an unexpected retirement from politics after this election, moreover, Le Pen likely still has several more presidential campaigns in her future. Much work needs to be done at home to shore up the superhighway.
If these saboteurs win power and start ripping up the superhighway, it will be the most dramatic act of geopolitical self-destruction in memory – especially for the United States. The realities created by industrialization and technological progress won’t vanish, and America will be in a much worse strategic position to cope with the threats and challenges that will invariably arise if the superhighway falls apart.
But first things first: we’ve got to recognize the superhighway as the true pivot of global politics and prosperity and treat it like a critical piece of geopolitical infrastructure – one that needs repair, maintenance, and upkeep to survive.
William Leuchtenberg, The Perils of Prosperity, 1914-1932, 2nd edition, p. 105.