For almost a century, America’s strategic priority has been to prevent the emergence of a dominant power in Eurasia that could challenge it for world supremacy.
Halford Mackinder recognized as early as 1904 that a single power could lord over the continent if it controlled the entire Eurasian “Heartland”, stretching from Moscow to Tehran to Vladivostok.
Alfred Thayer Mahan and Nicholas Spykman argued it was rather control of the “Rimlands” on the edge of Eurasia that could tip the balance of power: Europe, the Middle East and East Asia.
Their ideas were not mutually exclusive. They both informed the United States’ successful policy of containment during the Cold War. To block Russian ambitions, America allied with democratic Europe, Turkey, the shah’s Iran and Japan. It exploited the Sino-Soviet split and armed the mujahideen in Afghanistan to hasten the Soviet Union’s demise.
Now Donald Trump is overturning this century-old wisdom.
A geostrategy for Eurasia
Zbigniew Brzezinski knew better. America’s top strategist from 1977 to 1981 under President Jimmy Carter, he recognized that the end of the Cold War hadn’t made American geostrategy obsolete. Far from it.
Foreign Affairs recently anthologized Brzezinski’s essays for the magazine in a tribute to the former national security advisor, who died last month at age 89.
The most instructive text for the Trump era is Brzezinski’s 1997 “A Geostrategy for Eurasia“, in which he channels Mackinder, Mahan and Spykman to warn that any power paramount in Eurasia would exercise such decisive influence over two of the world’s three most economically productive regions — Western Europe and East Asia — that the third, North America, could not be far behind.
No single power has enjoyed such preponderance in centuries. The Mongols came close in the early 1200s under Genghis Khan. Tamerlane did a century later. The Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939 briefly raised the specter of a Eurasia under totalitarian rule. So did the Sino-Soviet alliance in the 1950s.
But no state, or combination of states, is likely to pull this off again soon. Which means that, short of American abdication, “the only real alternative to American leadership is international anarchy,” according to Brzezinski.
Even he couldn’t imagine that America would one day abdicate its leadership.
But he was clear-eyed about the consequences. We’re now seeing the signs of what Robert Kaplan, in an influential post-Cold War essay of his own, called “the coming anarchy”.
This is deliberate. According to Trump’s advisors, the president doesn’t believe in a “global community” of nations living in friendship but rather sees international relations as an arena in which states compete; the very war of all against all America did so much to end through what Brzezinski called its “benign hegemony”.
It starts in Europe. A larger “Europe” — united, free and democratic — expands the range of American influence “without simultaneously creating a Europe so politically integrated that it could challenge the United States on matters of geopolitical importance.”
Yet that is precisely what Trump will accomplish by refusing to commit to NATO’s common defense, supporting anti-EU parties like Marine Le Pen’s in France and pulling out of the Paris climate agreement: a Europe, led by France and Germany, united against America.
To reduce the risk of an economic rivalry, Brzezinski suggested a transatlantic free trade agreement.
Twenty years later, such a pact was in fact being negotiated. But it is now dead in the water due to Trump’s opposition to free trade. An economic rivalry is the likely consequence, which can only make transatlantic relations more acrimonious.
Brzezinski called for continued support for the eastward expansion of the EU and NATO, even if it meant antagonizing Russia. “If a choice must be made between a larger Europe-Atlantic system and a better relationship with Russia,” he wrote, “the former must rank higher.”
Trump and his apologists see it the other way around. They prioritize rapprochement with Moscow, even at the cost of abandoning Ukraine, which has been fighting a Russian-backed insurgency inside its borders since it reached out to Europe in 2013.
Back in 1997, Brzezinski was hopeful that Russia might finally abandon its imperial pretensions and join the West.
But he was not naive. “Russia’s longer-term role in Eurasia will depend largely on its self-definition,” he argued — not on Western actions.
He called for economic liberalization and political decentralization in Russia, which could then allow it to have peaceful relations with the newly-independent states of Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
Vladimir Putin hasn’t taken his advice. He has tightened the reins in Russia and restored its imperial project. This has led to economic stagnation, unrest in Russia’s outer provinces and fear in neighboring capitals.
Middle East anchors
Brzezinski argued that stability in the Caucasus and Central Asia hinges on Turkey and Iran.
The former must be drawn into Europe lest it “become more Islamic and less likely to cooperate with the West in integrating Central Asia into the world community,” he wrote.
Europe has failed to heed his advice. It has closed the door on Turkish membership in the wake of last year’s failed military coup and the government’s subsequent purges.
Trump, by contrast, seems willing to overlook Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s autocratic tendencies.
But Erdoğan is exactly the type of Turkish leader Brzezinski feared: an anti-Western, neo-Ottoman strongman, who is now eying a deal with Russia to carve up spheres of influence around the Black Sea.
When it comes to Iran, Trump has none of his predecessor’s patience with its slow push away from autocracy.
Brzezinski maintained that a strong Iran, even if it is religiously motivated, serves America’s interests in the Middle East. Trump disagrees. He has ended Barack Obama’s détente and put the Islamic republic “on notice” (whatever that means).
Rise and restlessness
In East Asia, Brzezinski saw America’s challenges as managing both China’s rise and Japan’s restlessness over its de facto status as an American protectorate. The goal, he argued, should be to divest Chinese power into a constructive regional accommodation and channel Japanese energy into wider international partnerships.
It is unclear if Trump believes in either, or if he has thought about the issue at all.
Brzezinski cautioned against throwing doubt on America’s “One China” policy, which is the first thing Trump did after winning the election in November — only to backpedal a few weeks later.
He accused China at length of waging economic war on the United States and deliberately failing to rein in North Korea, but one meeting with Xi Jinping, his Chinese counterpart, changed his mind.
Japan’s Shinzō Abe is the only other world leader who has so far been treated to a Trump-chic reception at Mar-a-Lago. It doesn’t look like Trump will walk away from his predecessors’ policy of carefully encouraging Japanese remilitarization.
But he did pull the United States out of the Trans Pacific Partnership, which could have gone a long way to meeting Brzezinski’s objectives by forcing China to trade with its neighbors on equal terms and leveraging Japan’s economic strength to encourage liberalization across the region.
Long term, Brzezinski envisioned as trans-Eurasian security system, linking NATO with Russia, China and Japan:
The emergence of such a transcontinental system could gradually relieve America of some of its burdens, while perpetuating beyond a generation its decisive role as Eurasia’s arbitrator.
This was an optimistic vision even for 1997. In the era of America First, it is almost impossible to imagine.