Monday, 4 January 2016

Geographic Fatalism: Maps and Why the West isn't Doomed

Maps are amongst the most ingeniously deceptive objects in existence today, for they can make the strong appear weak and the weak appear strong. Maps give you just enough information to come to the wrong conclusions about the way the world is ordered, and the meaning of national power. People tend to fall into the trap of presuming that, when it comes to countries, bigger is better. Strength is assumed to stem from the number of square kilometres of land a state governs, the size of its population, how many soldiers it commands, and its economic produce: measured in tonnes of coal, steel and grain.

There's just one problem with this neat, ordered, view of the world. It's almost completely wrong. It can't explain how the tiny merchant republic of Venice was able to march into the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire in 1204, and burn it to the ground. It can't explain how Portugal and Holland carved out trading empires, that brought them fabulous wealth, from countries many times their size. Nor can it explain how Britain repeatedly and consistently humiliated China, the largest country in the world, throughout the nineteenth century. Maps paint a profoundly misleading picture of the world. They ignore the fact that the larger a country is, the more difficult it becomes to administer and defend. As a state gains "mass" it commonly loses agility and efficiency. The largest countries, with one notable exception, are usually fatally undermined by corruption and bureaucratic inefficiency.
Map of perceived corruption, with the most
corrupt countries in red and the least in blue.
While there are a few enormous countries which dominate vast swathes of the earth's surface they have often proved to be "titans with feet of clay", backwards and underdeveloped because their territory is far too large to centrally manage with any real hope of success. So often shrewd diplomacy, limited aims, good organisation and technical prowess have allowed smaller nations to humble larger ones. It is so often the case that the most successful states, able to project power and influence far beyond their borders, are rarely the largest. Instead they are those that best balance "mass" and resources with efficiency, agility and crucially the will to act.

Britain's experience of Empire is an almost perfect example of how territory alone does not bring power. Having slowly won a vast land empire, over the course of two hundred years, by the middle of the twentieth century the cost of administering that territory had begun to exceed the income it generated. Nor was the Empire an endless source of useful military power, for it consumed the bulk of the British and colonial armies in static garrisons, and most of the Royal Navy policing and protecting its communications. This was a far cry from the early days of Britain's rise to great power status, where the nation's resources were ruthlessly directed into the effort to control maritime trade. A handful of possessions in the Atlantic, Mediterranean, Caribbean and Indian Ocean provided staging grounds for the projection of maritime power and the control of commerce.

The obvious exception to the rule would appear to be the United States, a very large country with the ability to mobilise its resources with sufficient efficiency to produce a degree of international power not before seen in human history. However, let us not forget that it was not until very recently that it attained the hegemonic position it now occupies. It also mustn't be forgotten that the USA's current position was built upon its status as the sole great power to survive the Second World War relatively unscathed. Its rivals were so damaged by the war that in 1945 the US alone accounted for half of global economic output. The war mobilised enough of their economy to generate power that was unrivalled by all but the Soviet Union. Without a sound economic base underpinning their power the Communist bloc, led by the USSR, ended up bankrupting themselves trying to keep pace with the US. By the 1980s the US was spending 7% of it's GDP on defence, while the Soviets were spending 27%. The period of unusual US economic strength from 1945 to the early 1970s laid the foundations for the hegemon we know today. What made it a reality, however, was the US' geostrategic position. The modern continental United States is effectively an island, bounded by the sea to the East and West and incredibly weak neighbours to the North and South. This allows the US government to look beyond the American continent when it comes to securing their interests, instead of having a myopic fixation on their land borders. Despite this, there are clear signs that US power is slowly waning. Now that its economy only accounts for a fifth of global GDP it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to remain the comprehensive superpower we have known. In short, while the United States certainly bucks the trend it remains an atypical example: briefly blessed with overwhelming economic dominance and benefiting from a highly advantageous geographical position. As for corruption and inefficiency, the federal system alleviates some of the worst effects of trying to run such a vast country with a centralised government. That said, there is still enormous waste in the US system. Routine complaints of pork barrel politics, bloated federal government and waste just go to show that the US isn't immune to the problems inherent in managing such a vast country.
The US is a strategic island, able to deploy it's resources to further its
Interests rather than to defend it's borders.
Time and again it's been demonstrated that well organised, efficient and willing small and medium sized countries can out maneuver and defeat their much larger counterparts. In the case of the latter so much effort is invested in simply running vast countries that they rarely have the spare resources or the will to routinely reach far beyond their own borders. This explains why countries like Britain, France, Germany and Japan continue to exert as much or greater influence as countries many times their size, with vastly larger populations and far greater resources to call upon. When large states are able to mobilise their "mass", turning it towards a specific goal, they are nigh - unstoppable: as the Soviet Union and United States demonstrated during the Second World War. However, such mobilisation is extremely difficult to sustain over the long term. With the country usually falling back into a more natural, inward-looking, state of existence.

For the forseeable future it would seem that medium-sized European states, along with the USA, will remain powerful and competitive. Western states, networked and efficient, have advantages that will ensure their continued relevance. Whatever happens, the economic rise of the BRIC countries will be singularly difficult to translate into other forms of power and influence. Their sheer size and vast populations bring as many burdens with them as they do benefits. Drawing simple conclusions about power from maps will lead you to make deterministic assumptions about the power dynamics that govern the international system. Those that believe China will supplant the United States as a global superpower have bought into the lie that territory, resources and population equate to power. A more nuanced examination would show that for all its mass China remains politically fragile, inward looking and largely isolated.

The "rise of the rest" is a defining reality of the twenty first century, but that doesn't mean that large states with big populations are destined to inherit the earth. Historically this has not been the case, it is doubtful that it will be in the future. Unfortunately maps have convinced some that scale correlates closely with power and influence. Thankfully for the West this isn't the case.

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