Pax Americana, we hardly knew ye

Reset those geopolitical calendars, folks.  It’s not post-1991 anymore.  It may not be post-1945 anymore.  Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East are interacting more in the pre-WWII (WWI-era?), pre-American-superpower mode every day.  Things are happening so fast now it’s hard to keep up with them.  Herewith an annotated list:

1.  Iran’s nuclear reactor at Bushehr has finally been connected to the power grid.  A “pre-launch” ceremony has been scheduled for 12 September.  The important thing about this is that it means Russia has decided not to hold the Bushehr start-up in reserve any longer, as a bargaining chip with the various players in the Iranian nuclear drama.  (Note: Bushehr is not an important resource for the nuclear weapons program, but its fate is a signal of how seriously Iran takes the UN supervision and inspection regime.)   It’s been the Russians, dragging their feet for years, who have kept postponing the operationalization of the reactor.  They have now chosen to make the break.  Why?

2.  Turkey is rattling the naval saber around the Aegean Sea – and is planning to sign a strategic cooperation agreement with Egypt this month.  The agreement will reportedly include military cooperation.  Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who did an interestingly-timed turn in Somalia last month, plans to visit Egypt – and, reportedly, Gaza – in mid-September.  It’s no accident that Russia and Iran will be celebrating at Bushehr at the same time Erdogan is exercising Islamic leadership in post-Mubarak Egypt.  Russia is using Iran (as opposed to throwing in with her) to signal the Turks that Ankara doesn’t have a free hand and will meet resistance and counter-power in the region.

3.  Russia is motivated to do this by the same things that have reportedly put the Greek military on alert.  Turkey’s naval saber-rattling is both general and particular, and the particular focus is the plans of Cyprus to begin offshore gas exploration in the next several weeks.  Turkey has announced on multiple occasions that this exploration will be prevented.  Cypriots and Greeks are gravely concerned; it is being reported in Cyprus that Russia will send submarines to patrol Cypriot waters and defend the offshore commercial activities there.  (Not as unlikely as it was two years ago, and certainly not impossible.)

The more general purpose of the saber-rattling is regional power projection.  This week, the Turks used the pretext of the UN’s “Palmer report” on the 2010 flotilla incident – which acknowledged that Israel had not violated international law – to announce their new program of naval presence in the region.  Eerily (and pointedly) named the Barbaros Action Plan, the naval program will entail the following:

The Barbaros Action Plan, which aims to display the Turkish Navy’s presence in neighboring seas, now plans for Turkish maritime components to be in constant navigation not only in the Black Sea, the Aegean Sea and the Mediterranean but also in the Adriatic Sea, the Red Sea as well as the Indian Ocean.

In other words, Turkey plans to conduct naval security patrols of the waters of the former Ottoman Empire.  We’re way beyond pre-Pax Americana here; we’re in pre-Pax Britannica territory.

4.  Not unnaturally, Greece has just concluded a security cooperation agreement with Israel.  Those in the Eastern Mediterranean expect the offshore plans of Cyprus to become a flashpoint, and Israel is a cooperative partner in the Cyprus endeavor, having agreed with Cyprus in 2010 on a maritime boundary and a mutual recognition of seabed claims (and being an offshore gas driller herself).  Israel, Greece, and Cyprus have a common interest in both freedom of economic action off Cyprus and reining Turkey in across the board.

The Red Sea patrols in the Barbaros Plan are another new and special concern, one that can ultimately put in question the neutrality and quiescence of a key region of the NATO perimeter.  From the Red Sea, the Turkish navy – by far the biggest and best one in Israel’s immediate neighborhood – can flank Israel.

5.  The Eastern Med isn’t the only area where the old Pax Americana behaviors are behind us.  It cannot be emphasized enough that we have already entered a period in which the US is likely to have to struggle diplomatically for what we have been able to assume in the past.  A parade of West Europeans has been making up to Moscow this year, for example:

6.  Central Europeans aren’t taking this trend lying down.  In May 2011, the Central European consortium called the Visegrad Group, which traces its modern history to the mid-1930s, decided to form its own military “battlegroup” under the command of Poland.  (The Visegrad Group consists of Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, and Slovakia.)  The land-warfare oriented Visegrad battlegroup will operate independently of NATO.

As Richard Cashman of the Henry Jackson Society implies, this development isn’t just indicative of a break-up of NATO-era security assumptions.  It’s in part a reversion to the power/security vision of a century ago, exemplified by the writings of British geopolitical thinker Halford Mackinder and his collaboration with Polish leader Josef Pilsudski in the interwar years.

7.  The essential feature of that older vision was the absence of a superpower on the model of the United States.  The US model matters, because Mackinder’s famous concept – modified and repopularized after WWII by Nicholas Spykman – envisioned the dominant power of the “World Island,” or Eurasia, being the dominant power of the globe.

The missing piece in Mackinder’s theory was the importance of naval power for a (relatively) easily-defended economic titan.  The US, her alliances, and her Navy accomplished after WWII what Mackinder did not envision:  the maritime encirclement of the World Island.  Even the British Empire had not achieved a true precedent for it.  The Soviet Union perceived the American encirclement feat with crystalline clarity, but throughout most of the Cold War, the US, NATO, and Japan persisted in thinking of themselves in Mackinder’s terms:  as a weaker hinterland of the “Heartland” (or Pivot Area – Central/Eastern Europe and the expanses of Russia and Central Asia), trying desperately to defend themselves.

Mackinder's map (from Wikimedia Commons)

(Note for aficionados of these ideas:  essentially, it was a successful US offensive posture with the strategy suggested by Spykman’s analysis that turned the World Island-Rimland construct on its head.   “Containment” was the shorthand defensive formulation of the Spykman-based strategy, but using containment as a basis for rollback was what succeeded in the end. Through alliances, and economic and naval power, the Rimland achieved dominance over the World Island, rather than being consigned to a permanent condition of strategic inferiority.)

No single theory is comprehensively explanatory, but identifying the present situation as a gradual collapse of the maritime encirclement of the World Island goes a long way.  With the absoluteness of US naval power receding, the dynamics predicted by the Mackinder vision are reemerging from long-term storage.

8.  In the West, the emerging drama off Turkey may turn into the first real post-Pax Americana showdown.  In the East, a showdown is all but underway.  As the fear of Chinese ambitions grows among Beijing’s neighbors, the naval powers of the region are beginning to assert a counter-influence.  Late last week, the news came out that an Indian warship, conducting a port visit in Vietnam in July, was confronted by the Chinese navy in international waters and subjected to peremptory demands.

(In an interesting sign of the times, INS Airavat was not in the Indian task group that met with unexpected failure in its attempt to hold a planned exercise with the Russian fleet in April.  Airavat was on a separate deployment.  These multiple naval deployments by the Indian navy to East Asia would have been unimaginable even three years ago.)

Japan, meanwhile, has just gained a new prime minister, whom observers expect to counter Chinese maritime claims – e.g., in the Senkaku Islands at the south of the Japanese archipelago – more “assertively.”

The potential maritime disorder affects arrangements on the continent, as indicated by Russia’s new charm offensive with the Koreas.  US ally Seoul agreed with Moscow in July to significantly increase military cooperation, including hosting Russian troops for training in South Korea.  A month later, the Russians were in North Korea, China’s client, conferring on stepped-up military cooperation and a program of joint exercises.  At virtually the same time, the Russians welcomed Kim Jong-Il for a rare visit.

9.  China gives Russia plenty to worry about in general, having established military exercise series in the last year with Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Turkey, deployed thousands of Chinese troops to the Gilgit-Baltistan region of Northern Pakistan, and continued construction of the Karakoram Highway into Pakistan, which would allow rapid military as well as commercial movement across the heart of Central Asia.

 But Asia isn’t the only part of Russia’s near abroad in Chinese sights.  In July 2011, China dispatched airborne troops for her first-ever military exercise with Belarus.  And in August, China and Ukraine agreed to expand military cooperation. Romania, which inaugurated a series of military exercises with China in 2009, agreed in July 2011 to boost naval cooperation with China.

10.  Every hour brings a new update.  Today – Tuesday, 6 September – China and New Zealand agreed to expand their military relations.

11.  One last gem crops up today.  In her continuing barrage of bizarre announcements, Iran has offered the new analysis that her territory is actually “14 percent larger than previously thought.”  What that means, only the days ahead will make clear.  It sounds like bad news for Iran’s neighbors.

Bottom line

The pressure of encirclement is being released on the World Island – a reasonable starting point for discussing what is going on.  The scramble for dominance of it is underway.

And the time for lament is past.  Too many things are changing; we cannot recapture the post-WWII, post-Cold War Pax Americana along its old outlines.  But neither will the world leave us alone, or retain its generally beneficial features – such as peaceful tradeways and uncoerced agreement to borders – without the use of American power.  No other aspirant to international leadership even has those things as objectives.  With the exception of the British Empire, no other aspirant ever has.  The old Pax Americana is gone; our task now is to get to work on the new one.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at The Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, The Weekly Standard online, and her own blog, The Optimistic Conservative.