Having taken on the herculean task of investigating the possibility of the existence of capitalism in the ancient world, it is necessary to lay out the conceptual framework of analysis at the outset. Otherwise, it would be fairly easy for us to get utterly lost in the long epochs that constitute ancient history. We shall also restrict our analysis to certain regions and leave the rest to others.
Let us start with our model of world politics, which we shall call centered geopolitical realism. There is a straightforward way to introduce a new theory. Namely, pick an existing, preferably well-known one, and tweak its assumptions. In what follows, we shall amend the dominant theory of international power politics, neorealism, departing from it in precise ways for pedagogical reasons.
In neorealism, the international system consists of functionally undifferentiated units that interact in anarchy.1 Since states may resort to force at any time, they worry about survival and fear other states that are militarily stronger. States try to maximize power in order to ensure their long-term survival. The uni-dimensional quantity called power is the aggregate war-making capability of a state. The balance of power emerges as an equilibrium from the interaction of states. Whence, this is a systemic theory.
Due to the uneven distribution of war potential among states, at any given time, only a handful of states matter in the calculus of the balance of power. The most powerful states in the system, those who can put up a fight with the strongest state in the system, are called great powers. The number of great powers in the system is called the polarity of the system. It is the principal explanatory variable of the theory. The system structure shapes the behavior of the states, shoving them to act in certain ways and not others.
The first premise of neorealism that we will amend is that of the uni-dimensionality of power. We shall distinguish between sea power and land power, that is, the aggregate war-making capabilities of a state on blue waters and on land, respectively. This distinction is necessary and useful because it is land-based military power that matters in major power wars.2 Air power and sea power provide indispensible support to ground forces but cannot independently affect the outcome of a great power war. Moreover, the maritime realm is a natural monopoly for three reasons.3
The first is Bloch’s dictum: a fleet that is not supreme is just a hostage in the hands of the power whose fleet is supreme.4 The second is the existence of natural control points that make it very difficult for a rising naval power to challenge a maritime hegemon’s command of the seas.5 Lastly, naval power contributes significantly to a state’s power position only when it controls an entire trade route. The positive externalities from the protection of sea lanes – the risk premium faced by a naval hegemon is virtually zero – do not accrue to a naval power that enjoys only partial control.
We shall call an international system centered if there exists a sea power that enjoys command of the seas. Otherwise, we call the system decentered. We shall show that the stability of the international system – and the prospects for war & peace – depend quite critically on the polarity of the maritime realm. In particular, the law of uneven growth is, by itself, insufficient to explain hegemonic wars, that is, world wars that involves all the great powers and that reset the international order.6 We show how the likelihood of hegemonic wars depend critically on whether the system is centered or decentered.
Our second departure shall be to explicitly incorporate the first law of geopolitics: threats travel weakly over land. That is to say that land power decays with distance. Even the most powerful states find it very difficult to project power over large distances. Moreover, the stopping power of water is such that it is well-nigh impossible to carry out a sea borne invasion of a territory well defended by a great power.7 The balance of power is thus a regional phenomena. Powerful neighbors are more threatening than great powers located far away. For instance, China threatens Japan but not Germany.
Moreover, the territory of a great power endows it with invariant interests: the location of a great power on the globe determines to a great extent the opportunities and threats it faces.8 Statesmen ignore their geopolitical imperatives at their own peril.
We shall see that the theory of centered geopolitical realism provides a comprehensive explanatory framework for world politics. By incorporating the central insights of Thucydides, Spykman, Gilpin, Waltz, and Mearsheimer, this framework provides a lens through which we can usefully analyze world history. Moreover, it provides a way to directly relate international power politics to a natural history of capitalism. We turn next to the theoretical model of the world economy implicit in Braudel’s work.
1 Waltz, Kenneth Neal. Theory of international politics. Vol. 5. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1979.
2 Mearsheimer, John J. The tragedy of great power politics. WW Norton & Company, 2001.
3 In economic theory, a market is a natural monopoly if the marginal cost curve is falling, which implies that more than one firm cannot survive for any appreciable length of time.
4 Bloch, Jan. The future of war: in its technical, economic, and political relations. Ginn, 1902.
5 Kennedy, Paul. The rise and fall of the great powers. Random House Digital, Inc., 2010.
6 Gilpin, Robert. War and change in world politics. Cambridge University Press, 1981.
7 Mearsheimer, John J. Op. Cit.
8 Spykman, Nicholas John. America’s strategy in world politics: the United States and the balance of power. Transaction Books, 2007.