May 15, 2014
Despite the East-West territorial clash over the buffer state of Ukraine, despite the sanguinary battles for patches of ground across the swath of the Middle East -- in Libya, Yemen, Syria and Iraq -- and despite the zero-sum territorial conflicts throughout maritime East Asia, the myth persists of a world benignly ruled by multilateral institutions and agreements, by international financial markets that have all escaped geopolitics, and by the geography on which it is based.
Such thinking obviously contains a large measure of truth, but taken too far it creates the dangerous illusion of inexorable progress that is willfully blind to dangers ahead. While geography tells many stories, often contradictory, and can be overcome by human agency -- especially in the form of brave and moral leadership -- a belief in the inevitability of progress is dangerously deterministic. It was such deterministic optimism that made the civilized world less prepared for the two world wars in the 20th century.
As long as the world is ruled by imperfect men and women -- some of whom will be evil, some of whom will be naive and some of whom will be competent yet unable to avoid disputes with other competent leaders whose self-interests and national interests are simply different -- conflict will dominate international relations. And as long as human beings live on this earth they will have disputes over territory that, no matter how bleak or water-starved or lacking in other resources, constitutes holy ground fundamental to their group identity.
This situation will be aggravated by the world population increasing from 7 billion to more than 9 billion by 2050, according to the latest U.N. projections. Most of this increase will occur in the poorest and least stable countries -- those already prone to war. Geography is about to become more precious than ever. Meanwhile, communications technology will make geopolitics increasingly claustrophobic, as events in one part of the world can affect those in another as never before.
Interlocking, catalytic conflict rooted in geography is about to define the 21st century. To wit, Europe lacks the will to enforce meaningful sanctions against Russia because it is too dependent on Russia's webwork of natural gas pipelines -- a fact of geography if ever there was one. This leads to a perception of weakness on the part of the West that can only encourage the Chinese to be even more provocative in pressing territorial claims in the South and East China seas. The Japanese, who contest territory in the East China Sea with China, have specifically warned of the danger that the Western response to Crimea poses to them.
Meanwhile, the collapse of distance wrought by advances in military technology has brought China and India into a strategic competition that has no precedent in their collective histories: Indian space satellites spy on Chinese airfields; Chinese fighter jets have the capability to incorporate India into their arc of operations; Indian missiles can target Chinese cities and Chinese warships are present in the Indian Ocean. The world has shrunk, in other words, even as vast and poverty-wracked cities expand, and group identity -- whether tribal in Africa, sectarian in the Middle East or ethnic and nationalistic in East Asia -- has been dangerously reconstructed by the Internet and other technologies into the most exclusivist, inflexible forms.