Eurasia’s Ring of Fire

Yves here. The Germans probably have a word for “theory overreach”. I imagine readers will enjoy deploying their intellectual surgical tools on Professor McCoy’s thesis. While using struggles over what the author calls Eurasia could be a litmus test for imperial ambitions, the visualization of the governance of Europe and the Western parts of Asia show that that aspiring regimes only at best achieved partial control.

Some quick examples of Professor McCoy pushing his thesis too far:

“In the early 1950s, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong forged a Sino-Soviet alliance that threatened to dominate the continent.” Um, the main object on paper was to fortify China against Japan; the terms specifically carved out Soviet aid in case of an attack. Stalin no doubt had already gotten the message loud and clear as to how much the capitalist West loathed his Communist state. Soviet Russia sought to form a defensive alliance with just about anyone against Germany during its pre-WWII militarization period. It formed the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact as a next best, where the two nations pledged in 1939 not to attack each other for 10 years (Germany wanted Russia to stand pat when it invaded Poland and gave it a chunk as a bribe). We know how that movie ended.

Wikipedia delineates how the Sino-Soviet alliance, which lasted only 6 years, was under considerable stress shortly after being sealed.

“Washington admitted Beijing to the World Trade Organization ….bizarrely confident that a compliant China…would somehow join the global economy without changing the balance of power.” While the summary is accurate, the supporting argument off. The widely stated rationale at the time was that trade promoted peace, that countries that did a lot of business with each other did not go to war. A second amounted to overconfidence that the West would undermine China’s communism; some commentators more or less asserted that “free trade” promoted democracy. Third was the hunger of Corporate America, who saw both manufacturing and eventual consumer opportunities as vast. Possible a better rationale, but not much stated, was that the rise of China was inevitable and the US ought to be a position to profit from it and influence it. That amounted to overconfidence that Western multinational would have influence on government and social values.

By Alfred McCoy. Originally published at TomDispatch

Throughout 2021, Americans were absorbed in arguments over mask mandates, school closings, and the meaning of the January 6th attack on the Capitol. Meanwhile, geopolitical hot spots were erupting across Eurasia, forming a veritable ring of fire around that vast land mass.

Let’s circle that continent to visit just a few of those flashpoints, each one suffused with significance for the future of U.S. global power.

On the border with Ukraine, 100,000 Russian troops were massing with tanks and rocket launchers, ready for a possible invasion. Meanwhile, Beijing signed a $400 billion agreement with Tehran to swap infrastructure-building for Iranian oil. Such an exchange might help make that country the future rail hub of Central Asia, while projecting China’s military power into the Persian Gulf. Just across the Iranian border in Afghanistan, Taliban guerrillas swept into Kabul ending a 20-year American occupation in a frantic flurry of shuttle flights for more than 100,000 defeated Afghan allies.

Farther east, high in the Himalayas, Indian Army engineers were digging tunnels and positioning artillery to fend off future clashes with China. In the Bay of Bengal, a dozen ships from Australia, India, Japan, and the United States, led by the supercarrier USS Carl Vinson, were conducting live gunnery drills, practice for a possible future war with China.

Meanwhile, a succession of American naval vessels continually passed through the South China Sea, skirting Chinese island bases there and announcing that no protests from Beijing “will deter us.” Just to the north, U.S. destroyers, denounced by China, regularly sailed through the Strait of Taiwan; while some 80 Chinese jet fighters swarmed into that disputed island’s air security zone, a development Washington condemned as “provocative military activity.”

Around the coast of Japan, a flotilla of 10 Chinese and Russian warships steamed aggressively across waters once virtually owned by the U.S. Seventh Fleet. And in frigid Arctic oceans way to the north, thanks to the radical warming of the planet and receding sea ice, an expanding fleet of Chinese icebreakers maneuvered with their Russian counterparts to open a “polar silk road,” thereby possibly taking possession of the roof of the world.

While you could have read about almost all of this in the American media, sometimes in great detail, nobody here has tried to connect such transcontinental dots to uncover their deeper significance. Our nation’s leaders have visibly not done much better and there’s a reason for this. As I explain in my recent book, To Govern the Globe, both liberal and conservative political elites in the New York–Washington corridor of power have been on top of the world for so long that they can’t remember how they got there.

During the late 1940s, following a catastrophic world war that left some 70 million dead, Washington built a potent apparatus for global power, thanks significantly to its encirclement of Eurasia via both military bases and global trade. The U.S. also formed a new system of global governance, exemplified by the United Nations, that would not only assure its hegemony but also — or so the hope was then — foster an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity.

Three generations later, however, as populism, nationalism, and anti-globalism roiled public discourse, surprisingly few in Washington bothered to defend their world order in a meaningful way. And fewer of them still had any real grasp of the geopolitics — that slippery mix of armaments, occupied lands, subordinated rulers, and logistics — that has been every imperial leader’s essential toolkit for the effective exercise of global power.

So, let’s do what our country’s foreign policy experts, in and out of government, haven’t and examine the latest developments in Eurasia through the prism of geopolitics and history. Do that and you’ll grasp just how they, and the deeper forces they represent, are harbingers of an epochal decline in American global power.

Eurasia as the Epicenter of Power on Planet Earth

In the 500 years since European exploration first brought the continents into continuous contact, the rise of every global hegemon has required one thing above all: dominance over Eurasia. Similarly, their decline has invariably been accompanied by a loss of control over that vast landmass. During the sixteenth century, the Iberian powers, Portugal and Spain, waged a joint struggle to control Eurasia’s maritime commerce by battling the powerful Ottoman empire, whose leader was then the caliph of Islam. In 1509, off the coast of northeast India, skilled Portuguese gunners destroyed a Muslim fleet with lethal broadsides, establishing that country’s century-long dominance over the Indian Ocean. Meanwhile, the Spanish used the silver they had extracted from their new colonies in the Americas for a costly campaign to check Muslim expansion in the Mediterranean Sea. Its culmination: the destruction in 1571 of an Ottoman fleet of 278 ships at the epic Battle of Lepanto.

Next in line, Great Britain’s dominion over the oceans began with an historic naval triumph over a combined French-Spanish fleet off Spain’s Cape Trafalgar in 1805 and only ended when, in 1942, a British garrison of 80,000 men surrendered their seemingly impregnable naval bastion at Singapore to the Japanese — a defeat Winston Churchill called “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history.”

Like all past imperial hegemons, U.S. global power has similarly rested on geopolitical dominance over Eurasia, now home to 70% of the world’s population and productivity. After the Axis alliance of Germany, Italy, and Japan failed to conquer that vast land mass, the Allied victory in World War II allowed Washington, as historian John Darwin put it, to build its “colossal imperium… on an unprecedented scale,” becoming the first power in history to control the strategic axial points “at both ends of Eurasia.”

In the early 1950s, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong forged a Sino-Soviet alliance that threatened to dominate the continent. Washington, however, countered with a deft geopolitical gambit that, for the next 40 years, succeeded in “containing” those two powers behind an “Iron Curtain” stretching 5,000 miles across the vast Eurasian land mass.

As a critical first step, the U.S. formed the NATO alliance in 1949, establishing major military installations in Germany and naval bases in Italy to ensure control of the western side of Eurasia. After its defeat of Japan, as the new overlord of the world’s largest ocean, the Pacific, Washington dictated the terms of four key mutual-defense pacts in the region with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Australia and so acquired a vast range of military bases along the Pacific littoral that would secure the eastern end of Eurasia. To tie the two axial ends of that vast land mass into a strategic perimeter, Washington ringed the continent’s southern rim with successive chains of steel, including three navy fleets, hundreds of combat aircraft, and most recently, a string of 60 drone bases stretching from Sicily to the Pacific island of Guam.

With the communist bloc bottled up behind the Iron Curtain, Washington then sat back and waited for its Cold War enemies to self-destruct — which they did. First, the Sino-Soviet split in the 1960s shattered their hold on the Eurasian heartland. Then, the disastrous Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in the 1980s ravaged the Red Army and precipitated the break-up of the Soviet Union.

After those oh-so-strategic initial steps to capture the axial ends of Eurasia, however, Washington itself essentially stumbled through much of the rest of the Cold War with blunders like the Bay of Pigs catastrophe in Cuba and the disastrous Vietnam War in Southeast Asia. Nonetheless, by the Cold War’s end in 1991, the U.S. military had become a global behemoth with 800 overseas bases, an air force of 1,763 jet fighters, more than a thousand ballistic missiles, and a navy of nearly 600 ships, including 15 nuclear carrier battle groups — all linked by the world’s only global system of communications satellites. For the next 20 years, Washington would enjoy what Trump-era Defense Secretary James Mattis called “uncontested or dominant superiority in every operating domain. We could generally deploy our forces when we wanted, assemble them where we wanted, operate how we wanted.”

The Three Pillars of U.S. Global Power

In the late 1990s, at the absolute apex of U.S. global hegemony, President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, far more astute as an armchair analyst than an actual practitioner of geopolitics, issued a stern warning about the three pillars of power necessary to preserve Washington’s global control. First, the U.S. must avoid the loss of its strategic European “perch on the Western periphery” of Eurasia. Next, it must block the rise of “an assertive single entity” across the continent’s massive “middle space” of Central Asia. And finally, it must prevent “the expulsion of America from its offshore bases” along the Pacific littoral.

Drunk on the heady elixir of limitless global power following the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991, Washington’s foreign-policy elites made increasingly dubious decisions that led to a rapid decline in their country’s dominance. In an act of supreme imperial hubris, born of the belief that they were triumphantly at the all-American “end of history,” Republican neoconservatives in President George W. Bush’s administration invaded and occupied first Afghanistan and then Iraq, convinced that they could remake the entire Greater Middle East, the cradle of Islamic civilization, in America’s secular, free-market image (with oil as their repayment). After an expenditure of nearly $2 trillion on operations in Iraq alone and nearly 4,598 American military deaths, all Washington left behind was the rubble of ruined cities, more than 200,000 Iraqi dead, and a government in Baghdad beholden to Iran. The official U.S. Army history of that war concluded that “an emboldened and expansionist Iran appears to be the only victor.”

Meanwhile, China spent those same decades building industries that would make it the workshop of the world. In a major strategic miscalculation, Washington admitted Beijing to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001, bizarrely confident that a compliant China, home to nearly 20% of humanity and historically the world’s most powerful nation, would somehow join the global economy without changing the balance of power. “Across the ideological spectrum,” as two former Obama administration officials later wrote, “we in the U.S. foreign policy community shared the underlying belief that U.S. power and hegemony could readily mold China to the United States’ liking.” A bit more bluntly, former national security adviser H.R. McMaster concluded that Washington had empowered “a nation whose leaders were determined not only to displace the United States in Asia, but also to promote a rival economic and governance model globally.”

During the 15 years after it joined the WTO, Beijing’s exports to the U.S. grew nearly fivefold to $462 billion while, by 2014, its foreign currency reserves surged from just $200 billion to an unprecedented $4 trillion, a vast treasure it used to launch its trillion-dollar “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI), aimed at uniting Eurasia economically through newly built infrastructure. In the process, Beijing began a systematic demolition of Brzezinski’s three pillars of U.S. geopolitical power.

The First Pillar — Europe

Beijing has scored its most surprising success so far in Europe, long a key bastion of American global power. As part of a chain of 40 commercial ports it’s been building or rebuilding around Eurasia and Africa, Beijing has purchased major port facilities in Europe, including outright ownership of the Greek port of Piraeus and significant shares in those of Zeebrugge in Belgium, Rotterdam in the Netherlands, and Hamburg, Germany.

After a state visit from Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2019, Italy became the first G-7 member to officially join the BRI agreement, subsequently signing over a portion of its ports at Genoa and Trieste. Despite Washington’s strenuous objections, in 2020, the European Union and China also concluded a draft financial services agreement that, when finalized in 2023, will more fully integrate their banking systems.

While China is building ports, rails, roads, and powerplants across the continent, its Russian ally continues to dominate Europe’s energy market and is now just months away from opening its controversial Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline beneath the Baltic Sea, guaranteed to increase Moscow’s economic influence. As the massive pipeline project moved to completion last December, Russian President Putin intensified pressures on NATO with a roster of “extravagant” demands, including a formal guarantee that Ukraine not be admitted to the alliance, removal of all the military infrastructure installed in Eastern Europe since 1997, and a prohibition against future military activity in Central Asia.

In a power play not seen since Stalin and Mao joined forces in the 1950s, the alliance between Putin’s raw military force and Xi’s relentless economic pressure may indeed slowly be pulling Europe away from America. Complicating the U.S. position, Britain’s exit from the European Union cost Washington its most forceful advocate inside Brussels’ labyrinthine corridors of power.

And as Brussels and Washington grow apart, Beijing and Moscow only come closer. Through joint energy ventures, military maneuvers, and periodic summits, Putin and Xi are reprising the Stalin-Mao alliance, a strategic partnership at the heart of Eurasia that could, in the end, break Washington’s steel chains that have long stretched from Eastern Europe to the Pacific.

The Second Pillar — Central Asia

Under its bold BRI scheme to fuse Europe and Asia into a unitary Eurasian economic bloc, Beijing has crisscrossed Central Asia with a steel-ribbed cat’s cradle of railroads and oil pipelines, effectively toppling Brzezinski’s second pillar of geopolitical power — that the U.S. must block the rise of “an assertive single entity” in the continent’s vast “middle space.” When President Xi first announced the Belt and Road Initiative at Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev University in September 2013, he spoke expansively about “connecting the Pacific and the Baltic Sea,” while building “the biggest market in the world with unparalleled potential.”

In the decade since, Beijing has put in place a bold design for transcending the vast distances that historically separated Asia and Europe. Starting in 2008, the China National Petroleum Corporation collaborated with Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan to launch a Central Asia-China gas pipeline that will eventually extend more than 4,000 miles. By 2025, in fact, there should be an integrated inland energy network, including Russia’s extensive grid of gas pipelines, reaching 6,000 miles from the Baltic to the Pacific.

The only real barrier to China’s bid to capture Eurasia’s vast “middle space” was the now-ended U.S. occupation of Afghanistan. To join Central Asia’s gas fields to the energy-hungry markets of South Asia, the TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) pipeline was announced in 2018, but progress though the critical Afghan sector was slowed by the war there. In the months before it captured Kabul, however, Taliban diplomats turned up in Turkmenistan and China to offer assurances about the project’s future. Since then, the scheme has been revived, opening the way for Chinese investment that could complete its capture of Central Asia.

The Third Pillar — the Pacific Littoral

The most volatile flashpoint In Beijing’s grand strategy for breaking Washington’s geopolitical grip over Eurasia lies in the contested waters between China’s coast and the Pacific littoral, which the Chinese call “the first island chain.” By building a half-dozen island bases of its own in the South China Sea since 2014, swarming Taiwan and the East China Sea with repeated fighter plane forays, and staging joint maneuvers with Russia’s navy, Beijing has been conducting a relentless campaign to begin what Brzezinski called “the expulsion of America from its offshore bases” along that Pacific littoral.

As China’s economy grows larger and its naval forces do, too, the end of Washington’s decades-long dominion over that vast ocean expanse may be just over the horizon. For one thing, China may at some point achieve supremacy in certain critical military technologies, including super-secure “quantum entanglement” satellite communications and hypersonic missiles. Last October, the chair of the U.S. Joint Chiefs, General Mark Milley, called China’s recent launch of a hypersonic missile “very close” to “a Sputnik moment.” While U.S. tests of such weapons, which can fly faster than 4,000 m.p.h., have repeatedly failed, China successfully orbited a prototype whose speed and stealth trajectory suddenly make U.S. aircraft carriers significantly more difficult to defend.

But China’s clear advantage in any struggle over that first Pacific island chain is simply distance. A battle fleet of two U.S. supercarriers operating 5,000 miles from Pearl Harbor could deploy, at best, 150 jet fighters. In any conflict within 200 miles of China’s coast, Beijing could use up to 2,200 combat aircraft as well as DF-21D “carrier-killer” missiles whose 900-mile range makes them, according to U.S. Navy sources, “a severe threat to the operations of U.S. and allied navies in the western Pacific.”

The tyranny of distance, in other words, means that the U.S. loss of that first island chain, along with its axial anchor on Eurasia’s Pacific littoral, should only be a matter of time.  

In the years to come, as more such incidents erupt around Eurasia’s ring of fire, readers can insert them into their own geopolitical model — a useful, even essential, means for understanding a fast-changing world. And as you do that, just remember that history has never ended, while the U.S. position in it is being remade before our eyes.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. vlade

    Re Sino-Soviet alliance.

    He means that one that almost ended up in a nuclear war in late 1960s, when Soviets asked the US whether they would object to a Soviet strike on China nuclear capabilities, after running a seven months of an undeclared border war?

    Post Stalin’s (who Mao didn’t like much anyways) death, the Sino-Soviet relationship detoriated extremely quick, as Mao didn’t like what Krushchev was doing to Stalin’s cult of personality (with an eye to what could happen to himself). The massive bill for Korean war that USSR slapped on China (half a biliion rubles) didn’t help either.

    Post Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, this got even worse, as the new Soviet doctrine of “if we don’t like your implementation of socialism/communism, we reserve a right to invade” was taken as a direct threat to China’s regime *. Some historians think that “Nixon goes to China” wasn’t so much about Nixon, but about China making sure there was no two-front war, and considered a war with USSR much more likely.

    *) the interesting thing on this is that Romania, or rather Caucescu, also didn’t like it, and pivoted from USSR to China. Which was brave (or foolish), given China was far while Romania shared border with USSR.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Yes. So often US-centric analysis hypes up Russian China co-operation (and relations are very good right now) while ignoring the long history of geopolitical rivalry. The rival on your doorstep always matters far more than the one the other side of an ocean. The Russians will also be well aware that Chinese nationalists insist that the natural extent of China is the boundaries established by the Qing Dynasty. This includes significant chunks of Russia, including Vladivostok. The Russians will also be less than enthusiastic about losing influence over the ‘stans’ in Central Asia.

      Mostly thanks to US and European geopolitical stupidity, the Russians and Chinese are co-operating well now, but it is entirely one of short term convenience. And of course nations in a belt from North Korea over to the fringes of Europe have proven adept over decades and centuries of playing these two powers off against each other to achieve their own aims. As a general rule, small countries are much better at playing geopolitical games than big countries. If they weren’t, they’d be provinces, not independent countries. Darwinism is the main force at work in Central Asia, it always has been.

      1. Ignacio

        Yep. In any case when you try to reduce world politics to a grand chess game lots of simplifications will be done from either point of view (US, Russian, Chinese, whatever). We tend to give crucial roles to events such as Lepanto, Trafalgar, Stalingrad etc. but though those are indeed important events they are also small part of total stuff going on.
        The US itself is not an immutable entity, changing every decade, and internal changes going on there might have more important and durable effects that all those battleships showing their flags here and there. Not a word on this in that analysis.
        I saw this as as a giant exercise of reductionism which is precisely the things that the military like the most: you are either ally or enemy, then we act. I found this… disgusting.

          1. PlutoniumKun

            Yes, thats one of the most overlooked pivot points in 20th century history. If Japan had won that battle – or even if they’d not been stupid enough to provoke the fight, much of 20th Century history might have been very different. The Japanese strategy up to then had been to control as much of continental Asia (including eastern Siberia) as they could, the Naval strategy was essentially defensive. Nomanhan changed that fundamentally.

            Having said that, I think that Japan would ultimately have lost even if they hadn’t declared war on pretty much everyone in 1941. China was just too big a mouthful for them. They were already in trouble in the late 1930’s, eventually they would have run out of cannon fodder.

            1. David

              Yes, by most estimates, 80-90% of the Japanese war effort was in China: more precisely in Man Chu Kuo. They overran SE Asia with only ten divisions. Even today, folk memories of “the war” in Japan are overwhelmingly of the land conflict to the North. As you say, it is hard to imagine that they would ever really have won that conflict (Tasaki’s “Long the Imperial Way”, written, in English, gives a good, if jaundiced, ground-level account of the fighting). But whether a naval conflict with the US could have been avoided indefinitely, in the political circumstances of the time, is another question.

          2. vlade

            Honestly, it’s “forgotten” only by greater public, but then it’d be hard to say forgotten, since they most likely never heard of it in the first place.

            Anyone with more than cursory interest in WW2 (and not seen by purely European view) knows about it, because, as you say it’s the moment when the push-north clique in Japanese govt lost power and was superseded by the push-south one. It not only lead to attack on the UK (and later the US), but also allowed USSR to recall fresh divisions from Siberia in winter 1941, allowing the Moscow counter-offensive (where they were wasted, but that’s a different story).

            1. Eustachedesaintpierre

              True enough – I am only aware of it due to my Dad telling me about it & all that I remembered before looking it up earlier was Zhukov / Russian border. Dad was mad into military history & would often throw a question at me as to what would I do in certain circumstances. One particular answer he gave me has always stuck in my head, being – Where are all the horses ? which was the answer to the question of what initially most surprised the German coastal defenders on D-day as they watched the Allies unload.

          3. The Rev Kev

            I can think of another what-if from that Diplomat article. If Roosevelt had not put an oil embargo on Japan in 1941, then there would have been no urgency for Japan to strike south to seize the oil fields in the Dutch East Indies. This being the case, they might have decided to strike north instead as the Soviet Army was in no shape to fight a two-front war and probably the other major powers would not have objected to such an invasion either. Not if it kept their interests in the Pacific safe.

            1. ex-PFC Chuck

              Check out Day of Deceit, by Robert Stinnett. He builds an open-and-shut case this was one part of a deliberate plan to induce Japan into attacking US military facilities in the Pacific.
              In October of 1940 Lieutenant Commander Arthur McCollum, the Head of the Far East desk of the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI), wrote a memo to the ONI Director that summarized the world situation, identified dangers to the United States of passively reacting to events initiated by adversaries, and proposed an eight step action plan intended to entice Japan into attacking United States’ military and/or possessions. The memo reached President Roosevelt who, after consulting with McCollum and other officers, implemented the plan.

              “McCollum had a unique background for formulating American tatics and strategy against Japan. Born to Baptist missionary parents in Nagasaki in 1898, McCollum spent his youth in various Japanese cities. He understood the Japanese culture, and spoke the language before learning English. After the death of his father in Japan, the McCollum family returned to Alabama. At eighteen McCollum was appointed to the Naval Academy. After graduation the twenty-two year old ensign was posted to the US Embassy in Tokyo as a naval attaché and took a refresher course in Japanese there. .
              Few people in America’s government or military knew as much about Japan’s activities and intentions as . . McCollum. He felt that war with Japan was inevitable and that the United States should provoke it at a time which suited US interests. In his October 1940 memorandum McCollum advocated eight actions that he predicted would lead to a Japanese attack on the United States:
              A) Make an arrangement with Britain for the use of British bases in the Pacific, particularly Singapore.
              B) Make an arrangement with Holland for the use of base facilities and acquisition of supplies in the Dutch East Indies [now Indonesia].
              C) Give all possible aid to the Chinese government of Chiang Kai-shek.
              D) Send a division of long-range heavy cruisers to the Orient, Philippines, or Singapore.
              E) Send two divisions of submarines to the Orient.
              F) Keep the main strength of the US Fleet, now in the Pacific, in the vicinity of the Hawaiian Islands.
              G) Insist that the Dutch refuse to grant Japanese demands for undue economic concessions, particularly oil.
              H) Completely embargo all trade with Japan, in collaboration with a similar embargo imposed by the British Empire.” P 8

              Stinnett found a copy of McCollum’s memo in an obscure USN doc repository in the Pacific Northwest, and a photo copy of it is in the book.

        1. Susan the other

          Yes. It was standard propaganda basically. I find it interesting that McCoy never mentions what is undeniably the 4th pillar of US national security – Opium and Oil. In some ways this is central to all the rest because it allows us to operate black ops all over the place while paying for them with plenty of oil and an opium epidemic at home. This is also central to propping up our “banking” system, which in turn for the last 20 years now has propped up the stock market. We are crazed for opium and oil like the Spanish and Portuguese were crazed for gold and silver. This really falls under a bigger category of policy, that of preserving our capitalist system by destroying our own constitution and making the poorest pay for it all in a disgraceful race to the bottom. I’m sure McCoy, or any cautious US historian, has never pointed out that the US Constitution does not dictate that we be a capitalist country at all – certainly not a neoliberal militaristic dictatorship. But he goes so far as to warn us that times are constantly changing.

          1. ex-PFC Chuck

            There’s a fifth pillar – preserving the position of the the U$ dollar as the world’s reserve currency. If the US FIRE sector hadn’t been so greedily pulling out all the stops to preserve that position, thus forcing Russia and China into each others’ arms to set up an alternative, it could have gone on ad infinitum. Instead it’s days are numbered.

      2. Polar Socialist

        I think to some extent there has been a fundamental shift in the Sino-Russian relations since the end of Soviet Union. Before that it was a lot about ideological correctness and border disputes (prestige) in some far away place that nobody really cared about.

        Albeit Siberia looked promising for exploitation ever since Russia occupied it, the fact of the matter has been that it’s always been a drain on Russia’s resources. When Gaidar and Chubais facilitated katastroika, Siberia suffered more than European Russia, any industry had survived only due centralized planning and funding. A lot of people moved to European Russia.

        The economy that between 1991 and 2001 (or so) survived in Russian Far East survived basically because of the very organic development of border trade with China. First by just spontaneously individuals seeing an opportunity, then local administrations actively supporting this trade. Eventually the national governments saw the benefit, too, and Russian federal government managed finally bring the Russian Far East under it’s influence so we’re now in a phase of implementing common strategic goals.

        With the economic power of China and Korea it’s actually possible finally to turn Siberia into the enormous asset to Russia they always, in vain, expected it to be. So this may for longer term than expected.

        1. Susan the other

          An idea whose time has come. The spontaneous “organic development of border trade” between China and Russia. Common strategic goals do make the most sense for the long term. Especially in a place that is so isolated that it helps an overcrowded China and an underdeveloped Russia together. Both countries are conservative enough to control what looks like a potential land rush that will create a natural prosperity. Contrast this with the US Empire – a vast network of foreign military bases; lots of high tech equipment, and a business plan that will hit the wall within a decade or two. Nothing long-term about the American Empire.

      3. Kouros

        As long as the US’s breath on both China’s and Russia’s necks, they will see eye to eye. The longer the situation will take, the more integrated their economies and cooperation will become, until they will actually learn to like each other and rely on each other.

        Some pieces of territory that were at one time ruled by the Manchurian dynasty will be of no import. Through commerce, China will get whatever it will need from Russia, and vice versa.

        Why should be think that France and Germany can be reasonable allies after centuries of animosity, but Russia and China cannot, with far less bad blood between them?

        1. MonkeyBusiness

          We all know there are no permanent alliances between countries, but yeah, both Russia and China have to know that if the US were to manage to isolate either one of them, it’s effectively the end for both countries.

  2. PlutoniumKun

    Big picture geopolitical theories are always fun, but its so easy to poke holes in them. There are always exceptions that make any attempt at over-arching narratives look foolish. In reality, there are numerous stories and actors involved and the situation is never as simple as it appears at first sight when you dive deep into the details of any one field of conflict.

    I think the basic idea (as I interpret it) of this article is correct – the US became a hegemon through a specific mix of circumstance and smart use of power, but over the decades its simply forgotten how and why it became so dominant. The institutions of power created have become a vast army of self licking ice creams that exist solely to self perpetuate. As any student of past empires will know, this doesn’t mean they are destined to fail – many empires survived and thrived for centuries long after the original reason for their existence vanished. Strategic facts have their own momentum. And usually, geography wins in the long run. Modern technology (as the Soviets and US discovered in Afghanistan) does not trump the basic reality created by plate tectonics.

    As per usual, this article ignores the reality that these conflicts are not just about the big powers. The US has a chain of outposts in a ring across the pacific and up to the Baltic not just because someone in Washington decided on it, but because a whole series of local powers want it that way. Smaller countries survive by playing stronger countries off against each other. The Vietnamese have been inviting US warships to visit Danang not because the Vietnamese are wonderfully forgiving people willing to forget the Vietnam War, but because the Vietnamese know their history, they know the rival on their border to the north is growing in power, and so see playing off the US (with the Russians) against China is in their strategic interest. Small Baltic states are very pro Nato and pro US not because they love watching Friends and wearing Levis, or even because they’ve somehow bought into neoliberalism, but because they know they will only survive as independent nations by making delicate strategic choices in their friends and rivals and regularly swallowing their national pride if necessary. The ROK and Japan don’t enjoy having US soldiers on their territory, but they choose to accept it because it makes sense for them economically and politically. And they are not passive recipients of bases – going back to the Yoshida Doctrine of the 1950’s, it was an active choice by some Asian nations to see the US nuclear umbrella as a replacement for their own military ambitions. Smart small countries are manipulating China’s Belt and Road initiative in the same way many small nations have been manipulating the US for its own end. Chinas banks have lost billions after being ripped off by crafty well placed businesses all across the region.

    As for the military situation, its not as simple as being portrayed. The whole thing about hypersonic missiles and so on is just a red herring. Hypersonic missiles have been around in one form or another for half a century, its just a buzzword now for military contractors. Aircraft carriers have been very vulnerable to area denial weapons since the 1950’s with the development of nuclear attack submarines and long range self guided torpedos, there is nothing ‘new’ about the dangers to them of carrier killing ballistic missiles or whatever else it is that amateur weapon fetishists love to talk about. Military expenditure is a constant never ending cycle of move and countermove. China may be able to cut off the US’s supply lines to bases in the Pacific, but the US is perfectly capable of ensuring that no Chinese ship can move out of harbour indefinitely (the US of course has by far the most advanced attack submarine fleet in the world) and could easily cut off land based links. Any conflict would likely end in a stalemate, assuming it did not go nuclear. This, of course, is why the Japanese, Taiwanese, ROK, Vietnamese, Indonesians, Malaysians, and everyone else in the region is arming up like crazy, and all are developing indigenous weapons to release themselves from reliance on the big players. Only the Europeans are placidly sitting back in something of a stupor, seemingly unable to decide on what to do. The decisions may well be made for them.

    1. TimD

      Yes and in the meantime, the US is bleeding money in annual deficits that average close to 5% of GDP. The US also has a trade deficit that topped 1$ trillion in 2021. If countries that have a trade surplus, like China, reduce their purchases of American debt and assets like business and real estate, the US could see a lower dollar, higher interest rates and lower asset prices – at a time of high debt and poor capital formation. Increasing military presence and military spending will do nothing to change it.

    2. KD

      Russia is now deploying Zircon missiles on its surface ships which travel Mach 8/9, and can launch from 800 km. U.S. Navy has no defenses. The missiles can be deployed on small ships, and a carrier group is essentially trying to find needles in a hay stack. The issue is that the missiles are faster, harder to intercept and can launch from longer ranges than previously. They can also field a significant land force using combine arms tactics that would be very difficult for NATO to fight off. US troops are trained mostly for small wars, not big ones. The Russians cannot get to Berlin, but they can get to Warsaw, the Baltics, and certainly Kiev.

      China has satellite capabilities that allow it to target a moving object within 1 meter in the S. China Sea, so they don’t need a navy to take out surface ships.

      Granted, US has the upper-hand in subs, and plenty of nukes, but imperial ambitions are misguided. With a GDP by purchasing power parity with the US, and 1 billion people, especially if the Chinese economy keeps growing, China will become the first global competitor since 1812 capable of greater hard power. The US will try and contain China, but it will only be possible with allies.

      As far as the nonsense in Europe, the Blob is crazy. Russia lacks the population and economic power necessary to become a serious competitor, and the US is missing an opportunity to put pressure on China by provoking the Russians and driving them into the arms of Chinese.

  3. Liu Zeyuan

    Stalin no doubt had already gotten the message loud and clear as to how much the capitalist West loathed his Communist state. Soviet Russia sought to form a defensive alliance with just about anyone against Germany during its pre-WWII militarization period. It formed the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact as a next best, where the two nations pledged in 1939 not to attack each other for 10 years (Germany wanted Russia to stand pat when it invaded Poland and gave it a chunk as a bribe). We know how that movie ended.

    Just as an aside- thanks for this Yves, you rarely see this acknowledged anymore. Instead the lazy Cold War narrative that the USSR and Nazi Germany formed a non-aggression pact because they were such good buddies who were very ideologically close to each other remains the standard account.

    It’s a little frustrating because of how absurdly contradictory this is- one only needs to glance at mein Kampf to see that Hitler saw the whole raison d’etre of Nazism in its being a crusade against Bolshevism and the USSR. Indeed, the excellent ‘The Chamberlain-Hitler Collusion’ shows that the secret justification behind Britain’s appeasement policies lay in the hope that by giving a Hitler a free hand in Eastern Europe, Chamberlain could use Hitler to destroy the USSR.

    Similarly, there was actually a lot more ideological common ground between the allies and the Third Reich than is usually supposed. Eugenics, anti-semitism, and white supremacism were common currency throughout the West before WW2. Winston Churchill was a much of a believer in the idea of a ‘Judeo-Bolshevik Conspiracy’ aiming to undermine the West as Hitler (‘A Specter Haunting Europe: The Myth of Judeo-Bolshevism’). In promulgating its Nuremburg Laws, Nazi Germany actually took as a model the racist, segregationist laws of the US at the time (‘Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law’). The term ‘untermensch’ (sub-humans/”under-man”) was actually created by an American eugenicist, not a German Nazi.

    1. Anonymous 2

      ‘Common ground between the allies and the Third Reich’.

      Also little known is how sympathetic UK policy towards Hitler and his allies was in the mid-1930s. While ostensibly neutral with regard to the Spanish Civil War, the UK worked quietly to help Franco and his allies. The British Navy passed information on Republican ship movements to Franco and Co. and quietly supplied arms to the Fascists. At the same time it worked to prevent the French arming the Republicans.

      This is something that the UK public, if it ever knew (doubtful?), certainly does not recall know.

  4. David

    More generally, this reminds me of Mackinder’s Heartland Theory of a hundred years ago, but not taken very seriously these days. Whoever controlled what he described as the “world island” controlled the world. It’s an example of what psychologists call Apophenia: the habit of seeing disconnected things, events and policies as part of an integrated whole, even when, in fact, there is no pattern there. It is the underlying dynamic of CT thinking, and indeed that kind of thinking is distantly present in this article.

    It’s also very American in its obsession with “control” and “hegemony.” Only Americans who never left their country could seriously have thought that the US was a “hegemonic” power in the 1990s. Much of the world did as it wished, as it always had. As we discussed recently, the US did not “form the NATO alliance in 1949, establishing major military installations in Germany and naval bases in Italy to ensure control of the western side of Eurasia.” (To a large extent the US military forces, like the French and British, were there already as occupiers.) Nor did the US “own” the waters around Japan. Many of the historical examples are based on a misunderstanding: for example, Singapore was built as a naval base but never used as one, because the threat from Germany was too great to divert ships there. When the British tried, at the end of 1941, the ships were sunk before they even arrived. Singapore was taken from the land-side, as the culmination of a purely land-based campaign to secure rubber and oil in Malaya. I really can’t see what this example is trying to prove.

    1. KD

      “Only Americans who never left their country could seriously have thought that the US was a “hegemonic” power in the 1990s.”

      Certainly, no one in Central America or South America regards the U.S. as a hegemonic power, and the US has zero involvement in the internal governments in the Americas. Pinochet was popularly elected. Venezuela has problems because Juan Guiado won the election. Cuba longs to be free of the Castros and become a liberal democracy.

      Students of reality understand that nations try to become regional hegemons, which allows them to project power outside their region because they don’t have to worry about their neighbors invading. For example, if you owned the Western hemisphere, you could fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (even if they were stupid wars) without worrying. In contrast, if China tried to intervene militarily in Israel, the US Navy would shut down petro and food to the Mainland. You could imagine if Mexico was allied with China and had Chinese troop bases and a blue water navy that could take out the American navy, and they did not want us in Afghanistan, we wouldn’t be in Afghanistan (we be in a serious security competition with Mexico/China). So nations worry about hegemony because their survival depends upon it. Nations that do not cease to exist.

      There is nothing wrong with MacKinder. The issue is that nations tend to gang up against the hegemon, so that the stronger you become, the more enemies you have. Thus, you get the crabs in a bucket phenomenon of nation-states.

      The U.S. lucked out with the collapse of the Soviet Union, but has wasted its advantage and acted positively suicidal as far as offshoring its manufacturing base to China.

  5. bwilli123

    China has a long history of cleaving along geographic, ethnic, linguistic fault lines.
    The 1990’s US Deep State had confidence that the rise of a billionaire class in China would encourage divided loyalties, and exacerbate centrifugal forces in China, the same way they had in the Gorbachev and Yelstin’s Russia.

    1. JohnnyGL

      And they were determined to help things in that direction every step of the way!

      On the other hand, it never occurred to anyone that a state apparatus that is now brimming with confidence and renewed legitimacy from the 30-40yr golden age might just have the fortitude to leash and collar a few billionares to frighten the rest into line. Whoopsie!

  6. Dftbs

    Great comment Ignacio. I feel like this overdetermined thought process is passed of as analysis but is instead narrative construction. It elevates the importance of individuals and individual events, it imagines continuities, and it falls victim to imagined patterns (history repeats itself). The latter appears to be the only Marxist thought they can tolerate, and then only incompletely, as he said it in the service of political commentary not historical analysis.

    If only the history was a game of Risk, then we wouldn’t have to worry about all those pesky people.

  7. H. Toin

    Right at the beginning, I love the difference between “passed through the South China Sea” / “sailed through the Taiwan Strait” and “steamed aggressively across waters… owned by the US Seventh Fleet”.

    More importantly, the assertion “And as Brussels and Washington grow apart” is just plain wrong. He apparently hasn’t heard of people like Borell, von der Layen or the new German Foreign Minister.
    When Stoltenberg last week casually stated that NATO was fully prepared to go to war with Russia, I don’t recall any European leaders contradicting him, even though it would mean the continent’s suicide. Nord Stream 2 still not being operational as energy prices continue to soar is another counter-example.

    This prophecy keeps getting trotted out but I’m not seeing it. European leaders may sometimes bark for show, but they always go back to the kennel (Macron and the AUKUS deal being a prime example).

    1. Anthony G Stegman

      Germany has little choice as it is for all intents and purposes under US military occupation, and has been since 1945. Germany is far from being a sovereign state. The same can be said for England, as well as much of the Euro zone. Over in east Asia Japan and South Korea are also under US military occupation, and they too cannot be considered truly sovereign states.

  8. Tom Stone

    Y’all are seriously overestimating the quality of American education, especially when it comes to teaching History.
    You get a required course or two in High School and the same in College unless you are a History major.
    My first year in High School was 1968 and I attended Piedmont High (Zip 94610) a very well funded school then and now.
    I had a US History class,we covered WW2 and among the essay questions on the final exam was
    “What battle was the turning point of WW2”.
    Yup. officially there was ONE decisive battle during WW2.
    It said so in the textbook.
    It was an educational moment for me.

    1. JohnnyGL

      Well, it’s not the craziest idea. What if your lens/narrative is one that is explaining and glorifying the story of how US built an imperial network of outposts on Pacific islands which acted like stationary aircraft carriers?

      Australia is a keystone which anchors that network’s sourthern flank.

  9. Carolinian

    That “geopolitical grip” may have been a disaster for the Soviets but it was a disaster for us as well. One reason for the intense counter reaction to Vietnam was a lack of coherent explanation as to why Vietnam’s form of government was any business of ours at all.

    And there’s still no coherent explanation except Michael Hudson’s super imperialism theme of military power as backstop to financial domination. McCoy offers up an explanation. It’s time to demand a justification and not mere passive acceptance by a public distracted by other things. The public, who are ultimately in charge of this government, would be far better off if we made peace with Russia, China.

  10. JohnnyGL

    “Then, the disastrous Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in the 1980s ravaged the Red Army and precipitated the break-up of the Soviet Union.” — this one always drives me nuts. It’s a CIA talking point which makes no more sense than the idea that the United States nearly collapsed due to the Vietnam War.

    The Soviet debacle in afghanistan was humiliating, no doubt, counter-insurgency lessons are hard to take. But there’s no reason to think the solution was to end the warsaw pact and the soviet union itself.

    I think the explanation has to do with an oil crisis of low prices in the mid-80s, combined with failed reform projects like glasnost and perestroika which led to disillusioned elites who degenerated into looting in the yeltsin years.

    I’m happy to be persuaded by others who know better, but losing a war is hardly a reason to just wind up the entire 70yr project.

    1. Polar Socialist

      In the end what precipitated break-up of Soviet Union was the simple fact that Russian leaders stopped caring about “the provinces” and concentrated on taking care of Russia. All the planned reformations were much easier without all the weight of dependent minor states.

      Besides, there was not that much to loot in other parts of Soviet Union than Russia, anyway.

      Also, if Soviet Union broke up because disastrous intervention in Afghanistan, what does that predict for the USA/NATO to happen now? After all, Red Army left in good order after having learned how to quickly adjust technically, tactically and strategically to changing situations in the field and leaving behind an native army who managed to contain the insurgency for years (until Yeltsin took away their ammunition).

      1. commit

        In Moscow, breaking up the union was seen as a way to end the cold war arms race, which they knew they would lose in the long term, and escape the international insulation, get embargoes lifted, get access to imperialist FDI. America did not end the SDI programs after the fall of the Berlin wall, it was ended only by Clinton. According to declassified documents, convincing America to end the SDI was the main goal of Gorbachev’s concessions, he was unsuccessful, so more radical policies were implemented.

  11. lance ringquist

    when fascism came to america, its was sold as free trade spreads democracy, and eradicates poverty.

    the author forgets the dim wit nafta billy clinton trying to run nato up to russias border, and nafta billy clintons illegal and immoral war against what was left of yugoslavia.

    besides nafta billys other outrageous polices that have left america on the verge of collapse.

Comments are closed.