An Essay Response to Marco Polo’s World

Robert Kaplan is a wonderfully provocative writer. By returning to old verities, he helps us see our world afresh. Geography still matters despite the alleged death of distance. In his words, the 19th century “Eastern Question” has today been replaced by “the Eurasian Question.”

The question is not new. In the view of the early 20th century geographer Halford Mackinder, whoever controls the world island controls the world. An alternative answer was provided by the American admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan who focused on sea power (following the example of Britain whose naval supremacy supported a far-flung empire that ruled a quarter of the world.) After World War II, George Kennan outlined a strategy of alliance with the industrially productive rimlands of Europe and Japan as a means of containing Soviet power.

China is betting on Mackinder (and Marco Polo) with its One Belt: One Road strategy. But the overland route through Central Asia will revive the 19th century “Great Game” that embroiled Britain and Russia, as well as Kaplan’s legacy empires of Turkey and Iran. At the same time, the maritime silk route through the Indian Ocean accentuates the already fraught rivalry with India.

The U.S. is betting on Mahan and Kennan. Asia has its own balance of power and neither India nor Japan want Chinese domination. They see America as part of the solution. And as Kaplan argues, we can pre-position supplies and conduct long-range strikes off ships: Oman, Diego Garcia, India and Singapore come to mind.”

My main complaint is Kaplan’s scant discussion of technology and economics. The world is not entering an era of degloblization analogous to the period between 1914 and 1970. Despite the rise of populism, the Internet makes global supply chains profitable, and more trade will consist of intangible services. Even with heavy goods, the overland silk road to Europe takes half the time, but the technology of ocean transport is twice as cheap.

I place my bet on Mahan.

Dr. Joseph S. Nye Jr., is a University Distinguished Service Professor, and former Dean of the Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He has served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, Chair of the National Intelligence Council, and Deputy Under Secretary of State for Security Assistance, Science and Technology. In a recent survey of international relations scholars, he was ranked as the most influential scholar on American foreign policy, and in 2011, Foreign Policy named him one of the top 100 Global Thinkers.

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