By John Hamre
Four hundred years ago, the first genuinely international system of states in human history emerged. Prior to that time, there were regional geopolitical systems such as the various Chinese dynasties interacting with neighboring kingdoms. But there were no genuinely international systems. The Westphalian system created something quite new when nation states emerged. Personal loyalties were transferred from fealty to a king to a national identity and commitment to a state. The era also witnessed new organizational concepts, such as limited-liability corporations that broadly mobilized capital to focus it on targeted mercantilist ventures.
These European nation states sought to compete by creating globe-spanning empires to generate riches to support metropolitan centers. An international geopolitical system was born, centered in Europe, based on balance of power as an operating modality and grounded on mercantilist principles.
But there was a collateral consequence of this development. European empires sought commercial outposts around the world. The economic dynamism of this system pulled entrepreneurial impulses in Asia and Africa to the coastline. Naval transportation be – came the foundation of global commerce, giving rise to the great cities of Asia located on coastlines and along key waterways. And for the past 400 years, the geopolitical focus in Asia centered on the littoral.
Prior to this time, commerce and geopolitics in Asia were internal to the Eurasian continent. Interstate commerce coursed along the so-called “silk routes.”
Today, this 400-year epoch of Asian geopolitics focused on the littoral is changing. The great Eurasian supercontinent is reconnecting internally. Russia has announced ambitious plans to create a modern rail network connecting the Far East with Europe. China has announced even more ambitious plans under the “One Belt, One Road” set of initiatives that would dramatically expand transportation networks through Central Asia into Western Asia. China has added a set of impressive and ambitious initiatives such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Silk Route Fund. Dozens of major infrastructure projects have been announced, giving operational direction to this sweeping initiative.
The One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative has stimulated wide-ranging debate. Some analysts voice skepticism, casting OBOR as an effort to stimulate development in China’s lagging interior. Others see it as the next phase of pump priming, instigated by the now huge Chinese construction industry that is seeing slacking urban construction opportunities at home. And others see it as a grand geopolitical gesture designed to capture the loyalties of Central Asian countries, cementing them into vassal structures.
What does OBOR mean for the United States? Will OBOR consume the energies of China for the next few decades and ease pressure in Southeast Asia, or does OBOR reflect an all- encompassing agenda of Chinese hegemony throughout the vast Asian continent? Is OBOR good for America or a threat to our interests?
The new silk route narrative has been in circulation for many years. Over half of the “new silk route” entries in a web search trace back to Turkey and reflect Turkish commercial interests. There is no doubt that OBOR has geopolitical dimensions, but failing to see the underlying commercial dynamics would distort our analysis. The most efficient way to connect Asian producers to European markets in recent memory has been via sea transport. But overland rail links could easily cut transportation times by a factor of two or three. Cutting transit times dramatically would lower working capital demands by significantly reducing time when invested capital is unproductive.
The U.S. government is ill equipped to assess this macro-development. From a bureaucratic standpoint, we divide the world in ways that block clearer vision. The State Department divides this space into four bureaus—East Asia and Pacific Affairs, European and Eurasian Affairs, Near Eastern Affairs, and South and Central Asian Affairs. The Defense Department divides itself into a Pacific Command that includes China in its area of responsibility, but the Central Command and the European Command are responsible for other portions of Greater Asia.
Bureaucratic institutions channel creative thinking. We are ill equipped to perceive a mega-trend when we look at it from four different perspectives, seeing the attributes of a new dynamic only through distant historic filters.
It would be a huge mistake to ignore the significance of the reconnecting of Eurasia. It would be equally dangerous to cast it as a geopolitical threat to the United States. We have a limited role in shaping this mega-development, but we certainly could alienate ourselves from the central actors involved in it. We have time to assess this objectively. It should be on any agenda for the next presidency.
Dr. John J. Hamre is president and CEO, Pritzker Chair, and director, Brzezinski Institute on Geostrategy at CSIS. Before joining CSIS, he served as the 26th U.S. deputy secretary of defense.