How the Earth United Us

The Geopolitical Forces of Centralization

From the point of view of conquerors, merchants, generals, and nation-states, the world is a game board. A gigantic game of Risk, the nature of which is defined by four basic constraints:

  • The distribution of resources (fuel, minerals, arable land, potable water) and manpower (unskilled labor, skilled labor, and creative labor) mark the desirable areas of the map.

  • The topography (mountains, rivers, forests, jungles, oceans, deserts, swamps, plains, glaciers, tundras, harbors) defines your level of movement difficulty through the terrain. (Climate is also a key component of the navigability of a topography, and is linked intimately to it, which is why it doesn’t get its own bullet point.)

  • The culture of a region determines what risks it will tolerate, what damage it can take, and what options will occur to it in areas of diplomacy, industry, and war.

There are a few feedback loops built into this—one of them is of special concern for our purposes here:

The distribution of resources and the topography together help shape the culture that grows in such an environment. The culture which grows in such an environment discovers and develops the resources in that environment which can make it an eager target for conquest—or make it a potential conqueror—and the changes wrought by that culture upon that environment further change the meaning of the environment to the culture, which changes the culture, and so on.

One product of that feedback loop is technology, and it is the product that can appear to devastate the three originating factors when it reaches a singularity horizon (we’ll talk more about these later on).

The interaction of all these factors defines the geopolitical game space upon which the grand strategies are played. Make no mistake: the global system, like any wilderness, is (and always has been) an anarchic struggle for survival. The game of Risk and all its descendants (the campaign-level war game genre) understands this, but the public—for understandable reasons—often does not.

Imperialism and The Age of Discovery

Which brings us to imperialism. Not to put too fine a point on it, but empire is expensive and wouldn’t be worth the bother if it wasn’t for two very inconvenient wrinkles:

  1. Resources are not evenly distributed over the face of the earth, so if you need a kind of metal, oil, spice, or food that isn’t produced locally, you have to trade for it.

  2. Humans are apes who compete for mates and resource access via social status, so when there are enough of us in one place, we tend to develop warlords. He who can bring home the treasure gets the girls, and he who goes off seeking treasure in far-off lands (or, as we would call them, “neighboring counties”) gets those girls too, by fair means or (more often) foul.

  3. Such human competition happens at all levels.

    Put these three factors together, and it adds two more constraints to that game board:

  1. You dare not use vulnerable trade routes, nor trade with people who are likely to get involved in wars that might impact your access to their goods and services.

  2. Your reputation as a leader is dependent upon the pride your subjects feel in their national identity and the way you seem (to them) to represent their country on the regional or world stage.

Once those two factors are in play, the urge toward imperialism will emerge wherever imperialism is perceived to be feasible and competition with neighbors exists.

History has been replete with limited empires. When transport is limited to horse and leg and small-sea sailing, geopolitics were intensely local. Land-based empires are hard to conquer and harder to maintain, but they were the only game in town for thousands of years, and they were originally small by modern standards. Geographic constraints limited their scope, and human constraints limited their administration.

Technology began to change things with the dawn of writing. Writing enables bureaucracy, and the ability to keep track of things allows authority to be delegated, opening the door to subsidiarity (devolving power to the lowest possible level in order to aid administration). With written records and subsidiary administration, political power could be wielded over a large area.

These technologies do have their limits, though. Writing remained expensive and relatively fallible before the invention of printing (in Europe—the Chinese invented it a thousand years earlier). More importantly, the constraints of geography remained more-or-less constant up until the Age of Discovery. Before the fifteenth century, only the Romans, the Carthaginians, the Phoenicians, and the Greeks managed to establish stable maritime empires in the west (the early Eastern empires—for reasons first technological and then cultural—engaged in maritime imperialism sparingly), and then only around the Mediterranean.

In the fifteenth century, the Ottoman Empire jacked up the tolls on the trade routes passing through their territory. The desire to get around the toll booth spurred numerous improvement in shipwrightery and navigation.

Before 1500, an ocean moat was the best defense against invasion. After 1500, any natural harbor became a vulnerability against anyone with a blue-water navy. Annoying development for anyone without the money to pour into building a navy, considering that anyone you might trade with had the ability—almost by definition—to turn around and conquer you.

While previous inventions like gunpowder certainly made warfare deadlier and effected the designs of castles and cities, blue water navies (backed up by printed records and efficient bureaucracy) was the first of several inventions that would arrive in rapid-fire fashion over the next five hundred years that would each represent historical singularities.

Singularities

In this context, a singularity is a historical event or convergence (of technological and cultural forces) which fundamentally alters the parameters governing the way that nation-states interact in such a fashion that anyone who attempts to predict the future without knowledge of that singularity would wildly fail in their predictions—not just with regards to the details, but also on matters of basic substance.

In the arena of geopolitics, these convergences don’t change the geography itself (the occasional canal excepted) but would, again and again, change the meaning of geography. In so doing, the terms on which the great anarchic international contest is played changed, and different nations discover that they have unexpected advantages over previously indefatigable neighbors. These changes eventually destroyed the previous geopolitical power point—Istanbul—and turned the the backwater rustics of Europe—the Britons—into the rulers of half the Earth.

The Convergence

By changing the meaning of geography, maritime imperialism brought a number of previous historical accidents into play, adding each to the bright fire of the historical singularity. The Mongolian invasions (which spread the Black Death and the knowledge of gunpowder), double-entry bookkeeping (invented to manage complicated importing businesses in fifteenth-century Italy), the Protestant Reformation (itself precipitated by the invention of the printing press, which was in turn precipitated by the invention of banking and of that parochial fundraising extravaganza, the ecclesiastical indulgence), and the domestication of pigs were once all disparate, unrelated events with no unified meaning. Added to maritime imperialism, they turned what should have been just another set of culture clashes and brush wars resulting in a new geopolitical equilibrium into a wave of conquest and slaughter (both intentional and accidental) on a global scale.

The end result of this process was a world of heavy industrialization in the ruling countries whose supply chains—since they’d learned through thousands of years of intramural warfare and intrigue that the guys across the river were all untrustworthy ignominious twits who’d sooner sell their mothers in a brothel than give their neighbors a square deal—were independent from one another, sequestered inside their own imperial holdings.

Naturally, sooner or later, someone was gonna decide that the matter of “who’s really in charge here” needed settling once and for all. Or, twice and for all. Thrice and for all? Wait, no, it was four times (so far).

Whether or not you count the Hundred Years war as the real first world war (and you should), the question of “Who’s in charge here?” is one that great powers can’t leave alone. So they fought, and the French won.

The Germans and the British didn’t really like that answer, so they started looking for excuses to hold a do-over. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Serbia provided that excuse, precipitating what was (on rational grounds) the most unnecessary war in history, but really, only a prig lets rationalism get in the way of a good time.

The Americans, though, weren’t content to let the Europeans have all the fun. So Woodrow Wilson, championing a grand American moral vision, jumped into the game at the last minute and then laid out a peace treaty guaranteed to ensure that nobody would ever be so stupid as to think they could be German and declare war on anybody ever again. Rationalism and morality won the day forever, and the good and righteous victors could happily spend the next twenty years reminding the Germans exactly how evil and depraved their stupid nationalistic fantasies were.

The Germans, eventually, came to think differently, and like anyone who is mercilessly bullied out of all proportion, they took on the persona the bully painted them with and turned it into a badge of honor, and set out to kick some ass. They teamed up with the Italians (also ground down by the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I) and the Japanese (who were eager to get in on the imperialist game and were angry at the Americans getting snooty about who was boss of the Pacific) and set about trying to get a do-over—a move which led directly to the largest consolidation of power yet seen: a world ruled entirely by two small cliques of people, one located in Moscow, and one located in Washington D.C..

Ironic, that the European imperial system ended with a nuclear war in Japan.

Nonetheless, the peace the U.S. imposed had some conditions attached.

  1. Everyone the US defeated—all historical enemies of one another—were now allies, and they’d better just deal with that or they’d be sent to their room without agriculture.

  2. War would now be illegal between members of the alliance.

  3. The US Dollar would be the world’s reserve currency.

  4. ALL petroleum transactions would be done in US Dollars.

  5. All alliance members must give up their imperial holdings.

  6. The US would militarily occupy every country in the alliance.

  7. All alliance members would subordinate their foreign policy to the desires of the American establishment.

  8. All alliance members would help the Americans contain the Soviet Union, who had already declared grand imperial ambitions.

In return, the Americans would:

  1. Use its navy (the only one to survive the war) to guarantee freedom of the seas for everyone.

  2. Guarantee access to its markets—tariff free—for all other members of the alliance (without requiring reciprocity).

  3. Defend any of its alliance members from attack.

  4. Use its nuclear weapons to respond to Soviet attacks on alliance members.

On top of that, the US would set up institutions devoted to world peace, international development, and free trade that would ensure that no great scale war would ever happen again.

Science would continue to make us healthier, happier, and more secure, delivering technologies that continued to revolutionize our lives (always for the better), with scientists leading us onward to an ever-brighter future.

The age of imperialism was over.

The Great Deception

Which brings us to the great problem with geopolitics. Technology—from the Lateen sail to the stirrup to the tall ship to the atomic bomb—changes the political and military meaning of geography. It does not, however, change human nature. Comfort, resource abundance, and relative safety can blunt the human desperation that leads to wars of survival, but it paradoxically stokes the fires of egoism and greed that breed the lust for conquest even as it lulls us into the delusion that we are “better” people than our barbarian ancestors, and that such things could “never” happen now.

Wouldn’t it be nice?

By the end of World War II, the German method of building power by turning scientific research into a branch of the military had spread to the rest of the world. The Americans re-formed their university system as a bush-league farm for military research, and co-opted the industrial sector by giving companies that contributed to the cause exclusive rights to the products of taxpayer-subsidized research. The era of small scale American invention and innovation was over, or at least on pause—not because research became too sophisticated, but because those doing the research and invention got a better deal working for the government than they could running their own shops (the few that tried running their own shops were often run out of business, and quickly).

The Post-WW2 era has been dominated by international institutions set up ostensibly to prevent another world war by giving all parties a voice at a common table. We, the hoi polloi, see the World Bank, the United Nations, the IMF, the World Health Organization, the European Union, and other such bodies as being qualitatively similar to governments, but at a higher level. A government which governs governments, so to speak, and unconnected to the partisan concerns that vex us at the lower levels.

To the extent that the public buys into this image, the institutions have served their purpose well, because their purpose is to create exactly that impression. But their nature is something else entirely. They are soft power versions of empire, their ultimate purpose and nature being to consolidate geopolitical power and create a stable world.

By the 1990s, geopolitical forces had concentrated supreme power over the entire planet into the hands of the one man who sits behind the Resolute Desk in an imperial-themed office at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C. The “international” governing bodies, set up to serve the American foreign policy vision, ever at his beck and call. The scientific authorities were firmly in hand. The cultural taste-makers were, at worst, very friendly critics, thanks to the subsidization of the entertainment industry to fight the propaganda wars first against the Japanese and the Germans and then later against the Chinese and the Russians.

And that is only the tip of the iceberg where the Institutional Forces of Centralization are concerned...

We will explore the effects of this great centralization of power in the next installment: The Institutional Forces of Centralization.

In the meantime, I invite you to post any corrections or arguments in the comments, or send them directly to me at feedback@jdsawyer.net.