Nonetheless, some American rulers took advantage of the accident to deal with the substance: the Gulf War was one episode; another was the intervention in Bosnia; and the enlargement of NATO to the east was yet another, just to recall the main stages (not to mention the progressive reopening to China after the Tiananmen crisis -- today criticized by everybody in America, but then widely invoked if only to avoid leaving China – that Eldorado of easy and abundant profits that was opening up to investors from around the world -- only to Europeans and Japanese).
The NATO enlargement of the 1990s has recently been thrust back into the center of international debate, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. For the Russians and their friends, this enlargement is the “original sin” from which everything sprang, placing responsibility, they say, for Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation” entirely on Washington’s shoulders.
As in all ideologies, there is a pinch of truth (which make them plausible), which is greatly simplified and de-contextualized before being served to the masses as a soup of propaganda. The pinch of truth comes precisely from Washington’s unilateral decision to position itself, through NATO, in Central and Eastern European nations newly freed from the Russian yoke; but for context we must look to the expansion into those very same territories by the European Union. NATO’s expansion preceded that of the EU; by five years in the case of Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary (in 1999); a few months (in 2004) for Slovenia, Slovakia and the three Baltic states; and three years (still in 2004) for Bulgaria and Romania. The buffer states between Russia and the heart of Europe, which lay at the center of American concerns after the two world wars, were again of burning topicality: those states could not be left to the exclusive control of Europe, because otherwise they would cease to be a buffer.
Now, if the United States has an incontrovertible strategic objective, it is precisely to prevent Europe (or, to be realistic, Germany and/or any group it leads) from establishing a cooperation of any kind with Russia. Since replacing the United Kingdom as the world hegemonic power, the Americans have inherited one of its most famous theories: the heartland theory formulated by Sir Halford Mackinder: essentially holding that if Eastern Europe (read Germany) takes control of the heartland (read Russia) its dominion over Eurasia, and therefore over the world, will ensue. The theory reflects the constant British concern over a possible Eurasian continental union capable of contesting, and ultimately overthrowing, London’s hegemony. It is not for nothing that the British intervened three times on the continent to prevent its unification: once against France and twice against Germany.
Mackinder’s thesis was revived during World War II by Nicolas Spykman, a Dutch-born Yale political scientist, who transformed it into the theory of rimland, that is, a “ring” of countries that could surround the heartland. In Spykman’s formulation, control of this ring becomes crucial for world control, a thesis later translated into the policy of containment, that is, of a cordon sanitaire around Russia. Containment wasnothing more than the expansion to the Asiatic front of the first postwar system of buffer states, though it was deliberately misrepresented throughout the Cold War: its purpose, in fact, was not to “contain” Russia, which posed no serious threat, given its extreme weakness (George Kennan himself, “father” of containment , wrote in 1947 that “Russia will remain economically a vulnerable, and in a certain sense, an impotent nation”), but to contain Germany and Japan -- that is, to cut off the legs of the pro-Russian factions in these two countries, leaving the cast-iron border control of the rimland to Stalin’s tanks.
The concern over a possible Eurasian continental union capable of challenging, and ultimately overthrowing, their world hegemony had passed from the British to the Americans. As Henry Kissinger candidly confirmed: “In the first half of the 20th century, the United States fought two wars to prevent the domination of Europe by a potential adversary… In the second half of the 20th century (in fact, starting in 1941), the United States went on to fight three wars to vindicate the same principle in Asia – against Japan, in Korea, and in Vietnam.” Farewell to the notions of “a civilizing mission,” “the defense of freedom,” “an arsenal of democracy,” or a war on militarism, fascism or communism ... Once the ideologies evaporate, the reality of the great powers’ relations of force remain, in which the strongest dictates the rules, rewrites history and forges the ideologies that everyone is bound to believe.
The fact that “communism” had nothing to do with this competition is demonstrated not only by the soft-handed treatment of Yugoslavia’s Tito or the 1972 agreement with Mao but also by these words from Zbigniew Brzezinski written in 1997 -- six years after the “fall of communism”: “Whether preventing the emergence of a dominant and antagonistic Eurasian power remains central to America’s capacity to exercise global primacy… It is imperative that no Eurasian challenger emerges, capable of dominating Eurasia and thus also of challenging America.” In the map accompanying his text, Brzezinski drew a “Middle Space” that resembled Mackinder’s heartland like two drops of water, and three blocs called, without much imagination, “West” (Europe), “South” (the Middle East) and “East” (Asia), which resembled Spykman’s rimland like three drops of water.
When, in 2011, Vladimir Putin launched his proposal for a Eurasian Union (one of the many attempts to recompose the Russian empire), intended to become an “essential component of Greater Europe ... from Lisbon to Vladivostok,” the American secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, reacted promptly and frankly: “There is a move to re-Sovietize the region. It’s not going to be called that. It’s going to be called a customs union, it will be called Eurasian Union and all of that… But let’s make no mistake about it. We know what the goal is, and we are trying to figure out effective ways to slow down or prevent it.”
If the risk, feared by Mackinder, Spykman, Kennan, Kissinger, Brzezinski and Clinton, is that of a possible union of forces between a great industrial power and the Russian heartland, it is evident that the threat to the United States today comes more from China than from Europe or Japan. Thus, the attempt to drive a wedge between China and Russia is undoubtedly one of the strategic priorities of the United States, if not the strategic priority.With the war that began on February 24, Russia has rendered two great services to the United States: it has reunited, enlarged and rearmed NATO, removing the possibility of an agreement with Europe or even with just some European countries; and it has heightened Beijing’s distrust of Moscow. Americans benefit; but a strategy cannot be built on the blunders of an adversary.
And herein problems arise. Meanwhile, the fact that there is an objective strategy (avoiding “second place for the United States of America,” in Obama’s words) does not necessarily mean that it becomes a subjective strategy, that is, consciously organized, planned, and implemented by a ruling class.
“There is no favorable wind for the sailor who does not know where to go,” Seneca wisely said; and the United States looks like that sailor: its relative decline has yet to be identified as such, and its political division means that any possible strategic hypothesis risks being modified -- or even overturned -- every four years.
Moreover, much of the country’s political class, drunk on ideologies, still feeds on the tale told by G.W. Bush advisor Karl Rove nearly twenty years ago: “When we act, we create our own reality”; and while specialists are scrambling to study or decipher that reality, “we’ll act again, creating other new realities.” The several thousand “Roves” present in the American political class render their country the same service that Putin’s advisers, drunk on ideologies, render to theirs: with their good intentions and their stubborn and proud ignorance of geopolitical constraints, they pave the way to hell.