Geopolitics

The Third World War

Mushroom Cloud

Given the distribution of war potential on planet earth, the preservation of US primacy requires the prevention of a regional hegemon in Western Europe and East Asia. No other region on earth, certainly no other continent except Eurasia has enough war potential to produce a peer-competitor of the United States.1 US primacy does not require the absence of other great powers. It will endure even after unipolarity gives way to multi-polarity. However, without bringing the resources of either of these two regions under the control of one power – and especially without the elimination of neighboring rivals – no state in the international arena can hope to become stronger than the United States.2

Such an achievement would require the establishment of a centered regional security complex in either of the two extremities of Eurasia.3 Potential regional hegemons: Germany and Russia in Europe, China and Japan in East Asia, face the daunting task of conquering, disarming, or somehow eliminating major powers in their regions. A renewed German bid for hegemony will immediately prompt a balancing coalition of France, Britain, and Russia. Similarly, Japanese ambition will be checked by China and vice-versa.

The United States, alone among the major powers, has the tremendous strategic advantage of having two of the world’s great oceans as moats. The ‘stopping power of water’ is such that no state in the international arena can threaten the US homeland.4 Without a major technological breakthrough that overcomes the ‘stopping power of water’, this strategic advantage will persist. The oceans offer not just protection but also access to world markets. People, ideas, goods, and technologies are transmitted smoothly and rapidly over sea-lanes protected by US naval primacy.

Sea power is different from land-based military power. Threats by land travel weakly over distances. Although a sea-borne invasion of a territory well-defended by a great power is well-nigh impossible, sea power can be easily projected far from home. Moreover, unlike on land, where a rough balance of forces can persist for long periods of time, the blue-water security market is a natural monopoly. Jean D. Bloch, the turn of the century Russian railroad baron and prominent banker who predicted the course of the First World War, argued in 1902 that there was no point in building a blue-water navy that is not supreme, since a fleet that is not supreme is just a hostage in the hands of the power whose fleet is supreme.5

The rapid collapse of the German navy in the First World War, that of German and Japanese in the Second World War, of the Royal Navy after 1945, and even that of the Dutch in 1780-84, attests to this law. Naval primacy by a leading state is the norm, at least for a given set of inter-connected sea-lanes that provide the plumbing for a trading system. The Phoenicians, who established perhaps the first known case of naval primacy in the Mediterranean around 800 BC, were followed by successive naval primacies of Athens, Carthage, and Rome. Venice dominated the eastern Mediterranean for two centuries before the rise of Spain. From the 1490s to the 1620s, Spain protected the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, while her junior geopolitical ally, Portugal, was the dominant power in the Indian Ocean. The Dutch took over the latter system in 1640 – that was the year they wrestled control of the Strait of Malacca from the Portuguese – and became the dominant naval power.

Great Britain, when she finally took over the protection of the sea-lanes from the Dutch in 1780, established a naval primacy of a different order of magnitude, and one that, for the first time, covered more or less the whole world. Beginning in 1897, British sea power was challenged by a revisionist Germany uncomfortably close to home, as well as by Japan in the East, and the United States in the West. In the aftermath of the First World War, the United States, Britain, and Japan agreed to a battle-fleet ratio of 5-5-3. The inter-war exception goes to prove the rule. Was it not the remarkable unity of interests between the City of London and Wall Street during the 1920s – one might even say the take-over of Wall Street by the City, a process which would later be reversed with the advent of the Eurodollar market – that prevented a battle for naval primacy in the Atlantic between Britain and the United States?

In the aftermath of the Second World War, US naval supremacy was near total, a state of affairs that continues to the present day, nearly seventy years later. The Soviet Union did not really possess a true blue-water navy. It wisely concentrated on maintaining its formidable ground forces that enabled it to protect its sphere of influence against its otherwise much stronger rival.

Why is the market for maritime security a natural monopoly?

This remarkable regularity is well-understood by naval historians but seems to have been ignored by realists altogether. The reasons have to do with a set of mutually reinforcing characteristics of the maritime realm. First of all, the whole point of sea power is to secure trade routes, and more importantly, to control access to them. Control of long-distance trade – always at the heart of every capitalist development – requires the imposition of a monopoly of violence over the entire network of sea-lanes that comprise a trade route.6 Moreover, it cannot be fleeting. It has to be stable and predictable. The institutional structures required for long-distance trade – the reorientation of economies towards distant markets, the development of finance and insurance, dockyards, ports, laws, shipbuilding, skills, the infrastructure for the transmission of price information, and so on and so forth – will fail to develop and survive unless the security of sea-lanes can be assured on a long-term basis.

Consider the China trade in the period 1750-1850. Chinese products, whose demand was growing rapidly in European markets, had to be shipped from Canton, through the South China Sea, the Strait of Malacca, the Indian Ocean, around the Cape of Good Hope, up the West African coastline, through the English Channel, to the London entrepôt. This was only one leg of a triangular trade nexus. There was no demand for European products in China so that Bengal had to be reoriented to the Chinese market to close the trade gap. This required not just the conquest of Bengal by the East India Company, accomplished in 1757, but also the expulsion of rival trading powers – the Dutch, the French, and the Portuguese – from the Bay of Bengal.

So, naval primacy is intricately connected to the superstructures of hegemony. When established hegemonies are challenged by rival maritime powers the conflict often takes a naval form. The most important of the these were the Anglo-Dutch wars of the late seventeenth century. England repeatedly tried and failed to wrestle away control of key trade routes from the Dutch. In terms of battle-fleet ratios, the two powers were evenly matched, with England even having an edge in the number of ships in all three naval wars of the late-1600s.7 How is it, then, that Holland managed to preserve its maritime primacy?

Indeed, while Dutch primacy in world trade peaked in the immediate aftermath of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, Dutch naval control of key routes peaked around 1700. The reason has to do with another peculiarity of the maritime realm: the existence of natural control points that confer enormous strategic advantages to the sea power that secures them. Lord Admiral Fisher called them the “five keys that lock up the world”: Gibraltar, Dovar, the Strait of Malacca, the Cape of Good Hope, and Alexandria. The tactical advantage of controlling these choke-points is enormous. A small fleet with suitably positioned batteries is enough to defend a narrow passage of water against a formidable fleet, at least until reinforcements arrive. The natural advantage of defense – turn of the century military experts cite a ratio of 8-1 to take over a well defended position on land – is reinforced at these control points where land-based firepower can be locally projected onto strategic sea-lanes.8

The usefulness of sea power for winning major-power war is indirect. The first and most important mission is to establish command of the seas: the ability to establish control over lines of communication so that friendly ships can move freely, while denying the same to the enemy. Sea power can then be brought to bear by supporting ground forces or independently. The navy enables the deployment of ground forces across an ocean, usually landing on friendly territory, from where they can go into combat against the enemy’s ground forces.

A much more difficult mission is to carry out a sea-borne invasion of a territory controlled by the enemy: initial plans to carry out an amphibious assault against Iraqi forces in Kuwait in the First Gulf War proved unfeasible for the strongest power in history, and had to be quickly scrapped. The inherent advantage of defense is reinforced by the fact that the defender can deploy artillery from sheltered positions, while the attacker’s ships are sitting ducks. Unlike on land, where the terrain offers natural shelter from the hail of fire, on sea, there is nowhere to hide. It is, therefore, impossible to carry out a sea-borne invasion of a territory well-defended by a great power. This is the reason for the law of the ‘stopping power of water’.

There are two ways for a navy to project power directly. In a naval bombardment, targets on the coast are hit with sustained firepower from sea-borne artillery, or flying-artillery deployed from carriers. Celebrated British Admiral, Horatio Nelson, famously remarked that “a ship’s a fool to fight a fort”. In the age of sail, this tactic was used innumerable times, and almost always proved highly ineffective. The rapid improvements in the range and accuracy of firearms in the late nineteenth century increased the firepower that could be deployed from sea. However, it increased the effectiveness of land-based firepower even more, with the result that, in the modern era, ships have always stayed off the coastline of a great power enemy.9

The second tactic, and according to Alfred Thaler Mahan, the real ace in a navy’s toolbox, is the blockade.19 The aim is to cut off the target state’s sea-borne commerce in order to cripple the economy and punish the populace. The more a great power depends on critical supplies from abroad, say, oil to keep its military running, the more effective the coercion. Naval blockages have proved very useful in coercing weaker powers, but has proved highly ineffective in major-power wars. The only successful example in history is the US blockade of Japan in the Second World War. Japan, exceptionally so among great powers, was reliant on imports of critical commodities. Even so, the Japanese army still had to be subdued before the war in the Pacific could be brought to a decisive conclusion.

Although the ‘stopping power of water’, and the limited effectiveness of blockades and coastal bombardment, mean that sea power cannot be relied upon to win a major-power war, it is, nevertheless, indispensible to insular powers. For off-shore powers like Great Britain, the United States, and Japan, naval power is a necessity; for without it, their only hope of fighting in a major-power war is at the invitation of the power that has command of the seas. For insular powers to not develop their sea power is akin to a repudiation of their great power status.

Due to their geostrategic location, Britain and Japan play the role of gate-keepers of Eurasia. The United States cannot project its power in Europe without either the cooperation or the subjugation of Britain. Similarly, Japan can block US power projection in northeast Asia. During the inter-war years, Japan conquered large parts of the mainland over the objections of Western powers because, short of launching a major-power war to subdue Japan, Western powers had no way of balancing Japan in Manchuria and Korea. This geostrategic reality also implies that the alliance with Britain and Japan is critical to US grand-strategy.

How China can win the next hegemonic war

Consider the following scenario is say mid-21st century. The system structure is tripolar. The EU has emerged as a superpower, along with China. Japan bandwagons with China once it is clear that the US can no longer protect it from the superpower next door.10,11 Taiwan has reunified with the mainland, and a unified Korea has fallen squarely in the Chinese sphere of influence, with the result that the closest US military base is now in Singapore.12 The frontline state in the cold war with China is now India which came under US protection after China annexed a large swath of territory in India’s restive northeast.13

The United States has wisely concentrated on maintaining its naval primacy.14 Its stranglehold over the Persian Gulf, and its control over the world’s sea-lanes – especially the Indian Ocean – still enable it to exercise a considerable degree of influence in world politics. However, the Chinese position in Central Asia, Burma, and Indochina has become impregnable. The Bay of Bengal is fast becoming a Chinese lake. There have been naval incidents but so far the Americans and the Indians have managed to block the Chinese advance into the Indian Ocean. More alarmingly, Iran has come under Chinese protection, and Chinese forces have reached the shores of the Persian Gulf.

In order to shore up its waning long-term security and power position, US policy-makers launch a more hawkish policy. The United States threatens to close the Strait of Malacca to Chinese vessels unless China withdraws the hundred thousand troops it has just dispatched to Iran. Oil production in Central Asia – which has been under Chinese protection for twenty years – is declining rapidly.15 China cannot afford to lose Iran, nor can it survive being cut off from world markets. Amid a rapidly deteriorating international situation, Chinese decision-makers launch a major naval offensive to clear the Americans out of the Indian Ocean.16

The Battle of Singapore lasts for a year, shutting down world commerce. In the hail of fire, Singapore is utterly destroyed. US forces withdraw to Diego Garcia, and the action now moves to the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal. The Indian navy collapses rapidly, unable to counter Chinese power deployed from the naval base in Burma. In a last ditch effort to stem the tide, the United States deploys all its aircraft carrier groups in the campaign. China has more naval assets and they are closer to the battlefield. US forces cannot stop the Chinese juggernaut.

In a state of panic, the US deploys tactical nuclear weapons. China immediately counters by launching ICBMs into the theater, overwhelming US’ theater missile defense (TMD) with a barrage of decoys.17 The US military base disappears along with the rest of the island under mushroom clouds. A tense nuclear standoff ensues. The EU, which has so far remained neutral, brokers a ceasefire after a night of frantic diplomacy.

In the negotiations that follow, the two Eurasian superpowers force a much-weakened US to withdraw its remaining forces from the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. The Gulf comes under joint EU-Chinese protection, with EU troops in the Arabian peninsula, and Chinese troops in Iran. The Chinese know that they have a long-term strategic advantage – the string of pearls strategy has borne fruit – and are magnanimous with the Europeans.18 The United States withdraws into the Western Hemisphere. The fall of the United States from primacy on the world stage is as abrupt as it is total.

The euro immediately replaces the dollar as the world currency. The Atlantic and the Mediterranean come under EU protection, while the Indian Ocean and the Pacific come under Chinese suzerainty. The US withdraws into isolation, and the international system settles into a bipolar order.


1 Spykman, Nicholas J. America’s Strategy in World Politics, the United States and the Balance of Power. New York: Harcourt, Brace and, 1942. Print.

2 Wohlforth, William C. “The Stability of a Unipolar World.” International Security 24.1 (1999): 5-41. Print.

3 Buzan, Barry, and Ole Wæver. Regions and Powers: The Structure of International Security. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003. Print.

4 Mearsheimer, John J. The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. New York: Norton, 2001. Print.

5 Bloch, Jan, and R. E. C. Long. The Future of War in Its Technical, Economic, and Political Relations,. Boston: Ginn and, 1902. Print.

6 Braudel, Fernand. Civilization and Capitalism: 15th-18th Century. London: Collins, 1984. Print.

7 Israel, Jonathan I. Dutch Primacy in World Trade 1585 – 1740. Oxford: Clarendon, 1991. Print.

8 Miller, Steven E. Military Strategy and the Origins of the First World War: An International Security Reader. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1985. Print.

9 Mearsheimer, John J. Op. Cit.

10 Band-wagoning with the Chinese colossus is the optimal strategy for Japan once China becomes so strong that the United States can no longer protect Japan against its much more powerful neighbor.

11 Band-wagoning is the most common strategy for weaker powers. See, for instance: Walt, Stephen M. The Origins of Alliances. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1987. Print.

12 The naval base at Singapore, overlooking the Strait of Malacca, is critical to US grand-strategy, as, indeed it has been for all reigning hegemons since the Portuguese established a naval fort on the island in 1511.

13 The seven states of India’s northeast, populated by people largely from the mongoloid racial stock in constant rebellion against New Delhi, and connected to the rest of the country by a narrow 80-mile-thick corridor known as the “chicken neck” is the point of maximal vulnerability. It is virtually guaranteed to be annexed by a resurgent China, given the uneven growth in the power of the two states.

14 As predicted, and recommended, by centered realists, of course.

15 Central Asian oil deposits are a small fraction of the deposits in the Persian Gulf. The twenty-year period of cheap oil ended a decade ago. A major prediction, and recommendation, of centered realism is that China will initially focus on maximizing its land-based power, extending its influence and military hegemony westward to Central Asia in order to secure Caspian energy resources.

16 Many a Ph.D. dissertations will be written on the origins of this war over the course of the next century.

17 A missile defense system can easily be overcome by a barrage of fake warheads, usually balloons, that the TMD system cannot distinguish from the ones with the nuclear payloads. See Butt, Yousaf. “Debunking the Missile-Defense Myth.” The National Interest. Web. 21 May 2013.

18 Khurana, Gurpreet. “China’s ‘String of Pearls’ in the Indian Ocean and Its Security Implications.” Strategic Analysis 32.1 (2008): 1-39. Print.

19 Mahan, Alfred T. The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1890. Print.

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