I’ve now shared three fragments of my next book on geopolitics with GPF readers. One on philosophy and geopolitics, one on historical determinism and one outlining a new geopolitical model for the current global system. The first intrigued readers and the third left you cold. But the second raised hackles, so it’s the second I will focus on here. It’s clear that I will need to be careful with the book’s section on determinism – I thank you for the warning.
The core issue of geopolitical determinism is the degree to which individual leaders control events. My argument is that leaders have some influence on secondary issues, but they are trapped on the primary ones. It is easier to make this case by example (although no single example is sufficient, and a coherent theory has to evolve). Let me use the case of the U.S.-Japanese conflict in 1941-45 to try to show you how it was inevitable regardless of who led these countries at the time.
The United States, situated as it is on the North American island, is secure so long as no power can attack it from the sea or cut off its trade routes. Japan, on a string of much smaller islands, has almost no natural resources and exists as an industrial power only by importing virtually all of the industrial minerals it needs. In 1941, Japan was importing most of these minerals from Indochina and what is today Indonesia. The sea lanes it used ran past the Philippines, which was then controlled by the U.S. If Japan could gain control of the Western Pacific, it would be massively strengthened. U.S. control of the Pacific would depend on the same islands, such as Tarawa or Saipan, that the U.S. would later break through en route to Japan. Japan, then, could potentially control the Pacific and put the U.S. in danger. Both sides understood the danger they were in.
When the Japanese invaded China in the 1930s, the U.S. sent aid to China. However, when the Japanese invaded Indochina in 1940, the U.S. became truly concerned. Japan had treaties with France and the Netherlands that facilitated the delivery of raw materials from Indochina and the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia). When, during the course of World War II, Germany overran both France and the Netherlands, control over these countries – and thus the status of their treaties with Japan – became uncertain. Japan felt it had no choice but to invade Indochina and make plans for taking Indonesia; it could not be an industrial power without their raw materials.
The U.S. wanted to avoid war but could not let Japan take control of the Western Pacific. The American solution was to cut off sales of oil and scrap iron to Japan and to send agents to buy up all the Indonesian oil possible before the Japanese could get to it. The U.S. then moved toward a diplomatic settlement with Japan, in which the U.S. retained power to strangle the Japanese economy but agreed not to do so, as long as Japan did not make any aggressive moves. If the Japanese accepted this proposition, their county would exist only by American goodwill. This was impossible for them to do. Neither side was surprised when the Japanese used diplomacy to buy time, and the U.S. moved toward war footing.
The Japanese could neither withdraw from Indochina nor allow the U.S. to control Indonesian oil. But the Japanese could not secure these areas unless they controlled the Philippines, since U.S. air power and a fleet in the Philippines would be able to cut critical Japanese supply lines. Japan also knew that if it seized the Philippines, the U.S. would respond by sending its fleet to the archipelago while the Japanese still hadn’t consolidated their control there. (In fact, the United States’ War Plan Orange anticipated this.) Japan, therefore, had to attempt to destroy the American fleet at the beginning of the war. Hence Pearl Harbor.
The U.S. anticipated neither the fall of France and the Netherlands nor the desperation this development would cause in Japan. When the U.S. finally recognized the threat, it was not ready for war, and the Navy was tied up in the Atlantic. The U.S. knew it was vulnerable, and the Japanese knew they had a small window of opportunity. But the decision to strike Pearl Harbor had less effect on U.S. capabilities in the Pacific than most think.
The Japanese were going to win the first round of battle, according to U.S. war plans. It was in the second round, when U.S. manufacturers started cranking out ships, that the U.S. could respond. In the meantime, the U.S. made only token attempts to defend the Philippines, and no real effort to hold Indonesia. It couldn’t. Rather, it sought to keep open the lines of communication with Australia and to use Australia and Hawaii as bases from which to counterattack.
Note that I have thus far left out the names of the U.S. president and the Japanese leaders. Their hands were tied in two ways: First, in the reality of the Pacific, and second, in the institutional realities at home. Being unable to attack Japan, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had no choice but to hold steady first and then attack. Not attacking at all was not an option; the political system was shaped by the unfolding events. Similarly, neither Emperor Hirohito nor Prime Minister Hideki Tojo ruled Japan; rather, it was ruled by a complex of interests, all of which were highly sensitive to Japan’s economic situation and which demanded pre-emptive action. Each country’s strategic logic was closely paired with a parallel institutional logic. Neither Roosevelt nor Tojo had the power to act in any way other than the way he did. They had some discretion in the details, but in their broad strategic considerations, they could not have resisted their institutions, though as excellent politicians, they had no desire to.
The argument I am making is not that Roosevelt and Tojo are irrelevant. On the contrary, they were indispensable agents of their nations. A successful leader understands the constraints under which all human entities operate – whether individuals or nations – and having understood them the leader acts, because if he failed to act, leaving a nation in potentially dire straits, he would cease to be the leader. I am also arguing that leaders go through an extended vetting and training process that forces them to understand the disciplines of political rule and the realities of their nations. The more they understand these things, the more powerful they become. So political power does not free leaders to be arbitrary but drives them to understand what they must do. Obviously, there are endless minor issues on which they are free to indulge themselves. But when faced with existential realities, leaders respond as they must.
So, the argument I am making is that we must have a more sophisticated understanding of what a leader is. A leader becomes a leader because of a ruthless understanding of the nature of the nation and remains a leader by pursuing the nation’s interests. If the leader excessively exercises self-indulgent behavior, the system – democratic, totalitarian or otherwise – crushes the leader through the forces that he or she set in motion. Nations generate the regime, and the leader emerges from and serves that process. Those who view leaders from afar may fancy them to be free to do as they wish, but that is the illusion of distance and not the reality. So, if Roosevelt or Tojo had passed away in 1940, the broad strokes of history would have remained.
Adolf Hitler catapulted to power because of the configuration of the German nation after World War I. He did not create his power but aligned himself with the power of the nation. This is easier to see in his foreign rather than domestic policy. But even in Hitler’s case, he was able to become Germany’s leader in 1932 but could not have done so in 1900. Reality created him, and he served it.
The idea I am putting forth is still merely a sketch, and it is not unique to me. Machiavelli made the case that a prince can govern only if he understands what he must do and is good at doing it. Others, like Georg Hegel and, to some extent, Thucydides, made similar arguments. I have here applied the theory to a familiar case from World War II. But when we consider Stalin or Charlemagne or Hannibal, we find that the source of their power, too, was their understanding of what had to be done. Apart from that, they would not have had power.
The entire concept of forecasting derives from predictability. I have had some success in forecasting events because I paid little attention to the personality and quirks of whoever led the nation at the time but focused instead on the more predictable forces that generated leaders and their imperatives.
This is the heart of what I mean by geopolitics, but I’m still trying to frame this satisfactorily, so, by all means, argue with me. Next, I intend to make the case that there is no difference between economics, politics and war, but that they are part of a single dynamic, incomprehensible except in terms of each other.