Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

New Asia, Old Europe

Does one obscure Austrian philosopher have the blueprint for the U.S. pivot to Asia?

Gerard van Schagen, via Wikimedia Commons
Gerard van Schagen, via Wikimedia Commons
Gerard van Schagen, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

But take a step back, and consider how America's Atlantic-facing posture in the twentieth century resembles its Pacific one in the twenty-first. In both halves of the previous century, America's foreign policy towards Europe was determined by the same basic question: How to manage relations with a continent that is crucial to world security and prosperity, but fragmented culturally and politically, and under the threat of dominance by its ascendant power -- a state with the potential to replace the United States at the top of the global pecking order?

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.

But take a step back, and consider how America’s Atlantic-facing posture in the twentieth century resembles its Pacific one in the twenty-first. In both halves of the previous century, America’s foreign policy towards Europe was determined by the same basic question: How to manage relations with a continent that is crucial to world security and prosperity, but fragmented culturally and politically, and under the threat of dominance by its ascendant power — a state with the potential to replace the United States at the top of the global pecking order?

That question sketches the outlines of America’s Europe policy before and after World War I, with Germany as the main villain straight out of central casting. It’s also a valid description of the situation post-1945, when the Soviets took on the role of bad guy. And to many, both in the United States and in China, it’s the unspoken realpolitik core of America’s much-vaunted "pivot to Asia," pitting the world’s largest and second-largest economies against each other in a contest for dominance in Asia, and the rest of the world.

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."

In appendix IV, Kohr describes a Federation of European Nation States based, grosso modo, on the post-World War II situation: "European federation, based on its great national blocks, unequal in size and strength, would in the end become a federation in the interest of Germany, because Germany alone would be large enough to enforce a federal law, and no law could be enforced without Germany’s consent. Germany would be arbiter and master."

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.

As with Europe in the twentieth century, Asia in the first half of the twenty-first century sees one of the continent’s largest countries rise from frustrated prostration to fledgling prominence. The question the countries in the neighborhood are asking is: Will China’s rise continue to be peaceful? One should certainly hope so. But the increasingly jingoist rhetoric coming out of Beijing sends a chill down the spine of China’s neighbors.

If China wants to start a fire, there’s plenty of kindling strewn across the East Asian landscape: tugs of war with Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines about the sovereignty over half a handful of islands in the Pacific; friction with India over their mountainous common border; and the loose-cannon client in Pyongyang as a convenient stalking horse for potential mayhem.

Recalling configurations on the twentieth-century European chessboard, Washington could anticipate in Asia either a "German" or a "Soviet" scenario (granted, neither a cheerful prospect). In the former case, the United States will want to avoid the Munich Gambit; at a 1938 conference in that city, France and Britain infamously sacrificed Czechoslovakia to the Nazis in exchange for "peace for our time" — a chimera shattered barely a year later by all-out war.

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?

Not quite, perhaps. But the Soviet simile implies sitting tight and holding out until internal pressures transform the region’s behemoth into a gentler giant. As the Soviet Union was relegated from formidable opponent to also-ran when it collapsed in 1991, so too might China’s monolithic ruthlessness succumb to the forces currently populating the ruling Communist Party cadres’s nightmares (regionalist, separatist, liberal-democratic, and religious) — any and all of which might be emboldened by the rising tide of prosperity. This hypothesis calls for mere containment, restraining China until it enters that confused and depressing condition otherwise known as post-imperialism, post-industrialism, and post-modernism, characterized by material comfort and spiritual unease.

Of course, history never really repeats itself — though you wouldn’t know it from the endless reruns on the History Channel. China’s rise might not mirror either of the grim European scenarios, and continue to be entirely peaceful. In which case U.S. interaction with the other Asian countries becomes even more crucial.

Gathering dust in a filing cabinet in some basement at the U.S. Sta
te 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.

An obvious parallel: Japan and the U.K. Both are archipelagos just off the continental coast, seats of a second-tier power nostalgic for yet uncomfortable with former first-tier glory, their national attitude towards mainland neighbors oscillating between splendid isolation and snooty superiority. Not for nothing is Japan sometimes styled the "Britain of the Far East." The fact that both nations are keen naval powers, and each faces one of America’s coasts (albeit across a wide ocean) is not incidental to the preferential partnership they share with Washington. No wonder some experts explicitly propose grafting the "special relationship" America has cultivated across the Atlantic with Britain onto its transpacific partnership with Japan.

Onwards to Manila, with a sideways glance at the State Department’s Italian file. Surely, it must contain some transferable lessons for dealing with the Philippines, another country forever teetering on the brink of collapse, whose political scene is dominated by the same three Cs as Italy: comedy, chaos, and Catholicism. As Asia’s only Latin-infused nation, the Philippines shares a lot of civilizational DNA with Italy. Like Italians, Filipinos see themselves as survivors of a dysfunctional system, and often — half-jokingly — appeal for the outside world to intervene. Please "invade us", Italy’s new comic-in-chief Beppe Grillo once exclaimed; a staple of Filipino standup, when the U.S. Navy still was present at Subic Bay was the joke that only by invading the base would things be set right — if only the Americans would then counter-invade. This is not a serious invitation, of course, but Foggy Bottom would do well to remember that internal instability of strategic partners can be used to its advantage.

How about Korea? Its division into communist and capitalist halves is reminiscent of Germany’s half-century-long double-life. But however absurd the East-West German split sometimes was, it couldn’t hold a candle to the bizarrely vicious clique controlling Pyongyang. The more apt comparison here is Ceausescu-era Romania. Or, if one would like to stress the DPRK’s hermit-like isolation, Albania under the renegade Stalinist dictatorship of Enver Hoxha — his main benefactors the Chinese, incidentally, like Kim Jong Un’s today.

Indonesia could be the Turkey of Eastern Asia: the largest Muslim nation in the world, weaving its own tapestry from strands both democratic and Islamist. As with Turkey, Indonesia is not just re-assessing the relationship between faith and state, but also managing to combine that process with a hefty dose of economic growth — so much so that Turkey and Indonesia are often hailed as the twin models for other Islamic nations to emulate.

Indonesia’s northern neighbor, Malaysia, shares a lot of its cultural, religious, and economic characteristics; but with its institutionalized internal divisions along ethnic lines, perhaps it should be termed the Belgium of the Far East.

How about Singapore as Asia’s answer to both Monaco, that miniaturized playground for the super-rich, and Denmark, the well-meaning nanny state taking the best interests of its citizens to heart, whether they like it or not?

Tibet and East Turkestan (Xinjiang in Chinese parlance) could be the parallels of the Baltic states in Soviet times: captive nations whose fate is taboo when dealing with China, but impotently lamented elsewhere.

And what of India, the other Asian giant and China’s rival for continental prominence? There isn’t a country in Europe big enough to contain the multitudes and concomitant contradictions of Asia’s second-most populous nation. Except, perhaps, the European Union itself — which extends to encompass about half a billion people, but in doing so has so diluted its purpose and direction as to become an unwieldy, unaccountable, and self-perpetuating bureaucracy not entirely unlike India.

Fair enough: the New Asia-as-Old Europe thought experiment is imperfect. Where, for example, is Asia’s France, or its Spain? But however incomplete, the comparison works in the other direction as well. The parallels between Burma and Belarus are compelling: both paranoid dictatorships, client states of powerful neighbors, yet increasingly anomalous in a changing world. As birds of a feather, both countries flock together. Hillary Clinton’s groundbreaking visit to Burma in 2011 was underplayed in the back pages of the military press, as they had a more prominent guest to celebrate on the front page: yes, the prime minister of Belarus.

But in Burma at least, things are changing rapidly, with the 2010 release of Aung San Suu Kyi and the tentative democratization of the junta-led government. Could the outside world effect a similar change in Minsk, the capital of what is habitually termed the "last dictatorship in Europe"? Unfortunately, the Belarusian opposition lacks a rallying figure with the moral authority and international stature of The Lady. And while the Burmese generals chose to diversify their portfolio of foreign friends, the Belarus government seems content to be a loyal client to its hard-handed neighbor to the northeast.

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?

Frank Jacobs is an author, journalist, and blogger. He writes about strange maps, intriguing borders, and other cartographic curiosities.

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