The leaders of the U.S., Australia, India and Japan met on March 12 under the aegis of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (otherwise known as the Quad) to discuss matters of shared interest. Though the Quad has existed since 2004, the Trump administration breathed new life into it as a means to counter Chinese expansionism.
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A Recent Quad Summit Sought to Bring More COVID-19 Vaccines to Affected Countries
Current U.S. President Joe Biden is the first president to attend a meeting at the national leadership level, however. Though the dialogue is intended to address shared security concerns, the outcome of this recent summit led to member nations pledging one billion doses of COVID-19 vaccine to the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and other parts of Asia.
ASEAN is an organization of 10 nations in South East Asia, representing 500 million people. Speaking after the summit, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan stated, “With Indian manufacturing, U.S. technology, Japanese and American financing and Australian logistics… [we are] committed to delivering up to one billion doses.” Providing more COVID-19 vaccine doses may not sound like a security issue, but this effort will engage Asian nations and will help cultivate international support for other endeavors at the strategic level.
A New Grand Strategy Is Needed by the US
In many ways, the U.S. has not adapted to a post-Cold War environment, nor has it moved swiftly beyond fight the War on Terror. The U.S. needs a new grand strategy that offers a purpose and direction that has been sorely missing in the post-Cold War environment.
Though the U.S. is not facing any immediate strategic crises, it does have several challenges that must be addressed in the coming decade. Those challenges include countering Russia in Europe, preventing Turkey or Iran from starting yet another Middle East conflict, and containing China.
None of these challenges are new, or even beyond U.S. and allied capabilities. But surprisingly, the need to counter these combined problems was foreseen by geostrategist and professor Nicholas Spykman in the 1930s and 1940s in his book, “The Geography of the Peace.” Spykman viewed geopolitics as a means of formulating a foreign policy “and its particular type of analysis uses geographic factors to help in the formulation of adequate policies for the achievement of certain justifiable ends.”
Geopolitics and Spykman’s Rimland Theory
Spykman’s definition of geopolitics is important to understanding his “rimland theory,” which would have the foreign policy of the U.S. and the democratic West focus on the creation of “island bases.” The U.S. already has such “island bases” that encircle the Eurasian land mass.
The other focus zeros in on the necessity of a balance of power approach to the same area. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has pointed this need for a balance of power over the past two decades without success. Kissinger believes that the West can balance Russia and China against each other, but successive U.S. presidential administrations have focused elsewhere.
While these two focuses lifted from Spykman’s “The Geography of the Peace” are simplifications of his theories, they should sound familiar to students of international relations. During the Cold War, the U.S. and its allies used a similar containment strategy to prevent the Soviet Union from seizing the entire Eurasian landmass, but today the West must deal with a weakened and still dangerous Russia, as well as an aggressive China.
Spykman’s “rimland” is the area of the Eurasian land mass that stretches from Spain, across southern Europe, through the Middle East and South Asia, to South East Asia and up the Chinese coastline. This vital area plays a pivotal role in history as conquerors from the East swarmed across the Eurasian steppe to seize areas in this rimland region.
Another geographer and one of the founding fathers of geopolitics, Halford Mackinder, pointed out the importance of this region. In a Geographical Journal article called “The Geographical Pivot of History,” Mackinder referred to the rimland as the “inner crescent” and stated that European history should be viewed as “subordinate to Asia and Asiatic history, for European civilization is, in a very real sense, the outcome of the secular struggle against Asiatic invasion.”
As Russian power coalesced into functional principality and eventual empire, the people of the Eurasian steppe were absorbed by new nation-states and subsequently saw their power wane. Power shifted westward on the rimland as European powers rose and expanded.
Spykman points out that the last three conquerors in the last century were Hitler, Wilhelm II, and Napoléon. He notes that their activities demonstrated the desire of expansionist powers to seize the rimland and eventually all of Eurasia.
Two of Spykman’s books were published during World War II. “The Geography of the Peace” states that the war was really over control of the rimland because control of these vital areas would allow the conquering party the ability to marshal the entirety of resources on the world’s largest landmass. With such a landmass under the control of a single political entity, the U.S. would face a foe whose potential to rival the U.S. on the seas would eventually lead to a threat against North America.
Spykman Proposed That the US Should Use Its Military Power and Diplomatic Reach to Control the Rimland
Spykman’s idea was for the U.S. to use its military power and diplomatic reach to prevent other nations from controlling the rimland. The Soviet Union was the last empire that threatened to consume Eurasia, and today that threat has moved back eastward in the form of China. China may not have the reach of the former Soviet state, but it does have economic influence and a continually modernizing military with which to contend.
The U.S. can return to a balance of power approach to the rimland, but it must first free itself from peripheral military entanglements. Washington, under the Trump administration, was keen to ending the level of U.S. involvement in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. However, the Biden administration may try to restart U.S. involvement in the Iran nuclear deal, but with the Abraham Accords now signed, the Arab states and Israel should prove to be a sufficient counterweight to Iranian expansion in the Levant.
Some U.S. input will be necessary, of course. Additionally, the formalization of the Quad defense cooperation between the U.S., Japan, India, and Australia further supports a rimland strategy of disrupting some political aggression of Eurasian continental powers. A balance of power approach does have a significant drawback, requiring the political will and military ability to intervene when necessary.
Spykman reminds us that, “States have very different sets of values which they each regard as fundamental and, with all the goodwill in the world, they will not avoid conflict over the applications of these values; nor will they refuse to apply pressure for the attainment of what they consider justifiable ends. Each state will feel that it must be able to protect, by force if necessary, the values regarded as vital… At any given time, there are always some that are satisfied and others that are dissatisfied with the political and territorial status quo. When such dissatisfaction reaches a certain point, efforts will be made to change the situation by force. A spirit of co-operation and forbearance is no defense against a determined seeker of change.”
While the U.S. maintains the military and diplomatic ability to execute a capable policy in the rimland, the challenge will come when those contained powers show a determination to break containment. This will be the test to U.S. policy to watch over the coming decade. The recent Quad meeting and subsequent pledge to provide vaccines to Asia’s periphery suggests that the U.S. is moving in this direction.