Maritime Primacy, Network Externalities and Asymmetric Blocpolitik


Map 1. Great power blocs, independent powers, contested zones.

In an interesting and contemplative article in the current issue of the National Interest, Michael Lind casts a fresh look at world politics. His approach is to reformulate economic and security alliances as carriers of joint information about the world economy and the global balance of power. This frame of reference allows Lind to go beyond both realism and international economics. The former sees military alliances as temporary and flexible outcomes of great power balancing. In the latter, trade agreements and economic partnerships are divorced from great power politics and geared towards purely economic ends. Neither approach captures the real geoeconomics of blocpolitik.

[In theory, a state] can join one set of security alliances for purposes of military protection, a different trade bloc for commercial purposes and a third set of international alliances, perhaps drawn together by political creed and social values. In the real world, this kaleidoscopic complexity does not exist.

By construction, the overwhelming overlap of international security and economic alliances cannot be explained by purely economic logics. Likewise, the survival of the US-led Atlantic and Pacific security alliances 25 years after the capitulation of the Soviet Union is a glaring anomaly of realism. These anomalies stem from mistakenly treating ‘security and trade policy as distinct realms, each with its own internal logic and unconnected to the other.’ Lind’s novel approach allows him to put both economics and international power politics at the center of the frame of reference. He also pays attention to the neocolonial aspects of blocpolitik.

For the hegemonic power that orchestrates a bloc, the bloc multiplies national military power and wealth by adding foreign populations and foreign resources to its own. Given low fertility rates and the difficulty of raising productivity levels by innovation, the quickest and most effective way to boost the overall GDP of a bloc is to add more countries to it. Needless to say, strength based on territorial expansion as well as internal growth was the strategy of past empires. In the modern era, based on the rules of national self-determination and popular sovereignty, incorporation of additional territories by conquest would be resisted as illegitimate. But blocs that are similar to informal empires can be built up by means of security alliances and trade deals, which may be hard to distinguish from de facto colonialism where one partner is a weak protectorate and the other a great or superpower.… [Emphasis mine.]

In a world economy divided among great-power blocs, industries with increasing returns to scale, like manufacturing, are likely to be most productive and dynamic in the blocs with the largest integrated markets—that is to say, the internal markets of populous nation-states and even more populous blocs. Technological and commercial efficiencies enabled by scale can, in turn, permit higher growth, higher per-capita income and the possibility of raising more taxes in absolute terms, even with lower rates of taxation—taxes to be spent on, among other things, the military. This is the successful strategy the larger and richer American bloc used to drive the smaller and poorer Soviet bloc into bankruptcy.

So it makes economic and strategic sense for great powers to expand their blocs and grow their retinue of protectorates. Small and weak nations too gain from admission into great-power blocs.

The exporters and importers of small nations can be guaranteed access to bloc-wide markets and suppliers, and incorporated into bloc-wide supply chains. As de facto protectorates of the bloc’s dominant nations, weak countries can engage in “free riding” when it comes to defense, spending relatively little on the military.

The reference frame immediately solves the mystery of the endurance of the Western alliance. Indeed, the end of the Cold War led not to a dismantling of Nato but rather an American bid to convert ‘hegemony within its Cold War bloc into universal hegemony—turning the entire planet into a single sphere of influence.’ This bid failed ‘thanks to Chinese and Russian resistance and the war-weariness of the American public.’

‘There is not the slightest chance,’ Lind insists correctly, ‘that Chinese and Russian regimes, of any character, no matter how liberal or democratic, will ever accept as legitimate a permanent U.S. military presence along their borders.’ Whether or not Russia’s near-abroad and the South China Sea are turned into contested zones of Cold War-style military standoffs, ‘the division of the world among regional blocs and spheres of influence—will have come to pass.’

There would be neither enduring, widely accepted U.S. global military hegemony nor a rule-governed global free market. Instead, there would be, at least in the short run, a version of the world envisioned by Burnham and Orwell: an American-led “Oceania,” a Chinese “Eastasia” bloc of some kind, and a Russia-centered “Eurasia” much smaller and weaker than the former USSR. Over time, India might join the United States and China as a leading military and economic power, perhaps as the center of its own bloc—let us call it “Southasia.” Populist nationalism within Europe will doom any attempt to turn the continent into a centralized, independent bloc capable of acting as a unit in world affairs. Instead, Europe may remain a U.S. protectorate, drift into neutrality or, in the worst-case scenario, become a “shatterbelt” for which external powers once again compete.

One can quibble with Lind’s position on the European Union. The possibility of a great power based on the continent ought not to be so easily dismissed. But there are bigger issues with Lind’s prognosis.

My main beef is with Lind’s underemphasis on the extreme asymmetry of great power blocs. Russia’s sphere of influence in its near-abroad is a faint echo of the Warsaw alliance. China’s sphere is nearly non-existent. The only country firmly within the Chinese sphere is North Korea. Even Mongolia and the nations of the central Asian steppe are not yet in the Chinese sphere of influence. Meanwhile, the United States has a retinue of some sixty protectorates; including almost all the great industrial nations of the world—Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, Germany, France, Italy, Britain, and Canada. Moreover, the United States remains the preeminent foreign power in Central America, South America, Africa, Southwest Asia, and Southeast Asia. Even lesser powers that pursue stridently independent foreign policies from Washington—Vietnam, India, Iran, Cuba, Brazil and Venezuela—are likely to seek admission into the US bloc.

Instead of a world ‘divided among great-power blocs’ what we have is a near-unipolar configuration of global alignments. The US bloc militarily, economically, and technologically dwarfs the rest of the world combined. Due to the diffusion of reconnaissance-strike capabilities, the US can no longer impose primacy on China or Russia in their immediate neighborhoods. In particular, China is now in a position to hold all US surface assets in the Western Pacific at risk. In the event of a major confrontation, the US will no longer be able to send aircraft carrier groups to the Taiwan Straits to intimidate China. It will instead have to rely on less effective long-range and undersea platforms to project power.

As China closes the power gap, the exit from the unipolar world approaches. Even in a multipolar world, however, the US bloc would continue to enjoy decisive advantages. Above all, the United States would continue to enjoy maritime primacy until another great power becomes at least somewhat competitive in open ocean warfare. We are so far from that scenario that no other power has even contemplated mounting such a challenge. Because the plumbing of the world economy is sea-based, maritime preponderance gives the US bloc a decisive advantage against other blocs.

A second advantage that is no less decisive is that blocs enjoy network externalities. Beyond the economies of scale, blocs are also containers of technology and situated knowhow. To put it bluntly, the US bloc contains the entire tripolar core of the world economy. From an international politics perspective, these externalities generate a bandwagon effect whereby states outside face tremendous incentives to seek admission into the US bloc. This is why, for instance, Kerry got his opening in Myanmar.

So while I agree with Lind that international politics will become more contested as this century progresses, I seriously doubt that Russia or China will be able to forge a bloc even vaguely comparable to the US bloc. They will definitely try—China’s development bank and the New Silk Route are efforts in precisely this direction—but it will be uphill all the way. Blocpolitik is a useful frame of reference but we should not implicitly endow it with false symmetries.



One thought on “Maritime Primacy, Network Externalities and Asymmetric Blocpolitik

  1. In a world such as this, with an overwhelmingly unipolar structure to the system, it reminds me of previous unipolar regional systems where no larger power was available to halt the emergence of threats from fault lines within the unipole itself. Al Qaeda emerged from the neutral frontier between the US and USSR (Afghanistan); the internal dynamics of the US become the current most likely source of threat to the unipolar global order.

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