New Asia, Old Europe

As the United States pivots away from the Western world to face the burgeoning Pacific Rim, what wisdom can it carry over from its former stomping grounds to the new cockpit of geopolitics? Perhaps Washington can take a page out of Leopold Kohr’s book. The obscure Austrian philosopher once popularized the slogan “Small is Beautiful” — which has clearly never caught on in the States. Yet his theories on the importance of size in international relations might help Washington manage its decidedly outsized geopolitical challenges in Asia. That’s because, following Kohr’s quantitative logic, New Asia shows some remarkable resemblance to Old Europe.

Which is strange, I’ll admit. In demographics as in economics, Europe is the incredible shrinking continent. Asia, on the other hand, is the geopolitical equivalent of a magic beanstalk.

So what does Leopold Kohr have to say about all of this? Take a look at this duo of maps, appended to the Austrian thinker’s Breakdown of Nations, his 1957 book in which he expounds upon the geopolitical theory of size. The maps explain the relative strength of America versus the relative weakness of Europe, by switching the pattern of their political demarcations.

Kohr’s United States is divided into a handful of states, grossly unequal in size: the federal level would be powerless to stop the more powerful states from competing for dominance. “Wars would be as frequent as in Europe,” Kohr postulated of this arrangement. Europe, on the other hand, is chopped up in a large number of small statelets, none of them capable of challenging the central authority: “The arrogant, uncooperative, proud, self-glorifying nations (great powers) have given way to small states which could as easily be ruled by Geneva as the U.S. is ruled by Washington. A successful power maniac would be as harmless for the rest as Huey Long.”

More than half a century after its first publication, many in the southern tier of the eurozone will find little to argue with in that definition.

Kohr’s theory of size differentiation as a predictable source of political imbalance can be transplanted to Asia — like Europe, a continent that is culturally diverse, politically fragmented, and dominated by a few outsized states: India, China, Japan. It also provides the United States with an interesting blueprint for managing its interests in the Pacific Rim.

The territorial dispute between Japan and China over a seemingly trivial collection of rocks in the East China Sea, closer to Taiwan than to either of the claimants, currently is the closest parallel to a Munich-like crisis. Should the United States allow its ally Japan to lose face over the archipelago it calls Senkaku (Diaoyu to the Chinese), it would dramatically reverse the balance of power in the region. Appeasement would wipe out Washington’s credibility as an enforcer, inviting wider projections of Chinese military power.

A Soviet scenario replaces the hot war that could follow the peaceful part of China’s rise with a cold one. That scenario might be less bloody, but to those old enough to recall the Iron Curtain, quite nerve-racking. It would imply a continent-wide, Chinese-led group of states hostile to U.S. intentions. Dealing with this Bamboo Bloc would require patient, careful balancing on the part of Washington — again, in chess terms: aiming for a draw, in the hope that the other side commits a fatal error. At least, that’s how Ronald Reagan single-handedly defeated Joseph Stalin, right?

Gathering dust in a filing cabinet in some basement at the U.S. State Department are country profiles and contingency plans drawn from decades of research and planning for potential crises in Europe. With that risk now evaporated, these documents hold some residual value: as a blueprint for dealing with Asian states of similar size and comparable makeup.

Perhaps Kohr’s blueprint becomes a bit fuzzy when you drill down to the details, and size-matters philosophy works best when one is focusing on the big picture. Stepping back again, then, perhaps America’s strategic choice in Asia is a simple one. Look at the two models contrasted by Kohr in his alternate maps of Europe and the United States.

Asia could be a stable place if it were dominated by a single polity — like North America is by the United States — or it could be the scene of constant, bitter, and occasionally violent struggles for dominance and freedom between countries of all too different sizes — as in twentieth-century Europe.

Channeling Machiavelli, the United States could try the second option. It would become the dispenser of arbitrary support for and opposition to Asian countries, not unlike Britain throughout much of its Splendid Isolation: throwing its weight behind a succession of continental powers to maintain a precarious balance of power. Or it could go for the first option — stability through strength. The question on which America’s whole pivot then would turn: who will provide that stability? The United States or China?

Full article: New Asia, Old Europe (The Morung Express)

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