India is not a formal American ally and should not become one. India is too proud and too geographically close to China for that to be in its interest. But India, merely on account of its growing demographic, economic and military heft, along with its location dominating the Indian Ocean, acts as a natural balancer to China. Therefore, we should do everything we can to enable the growth of Indian power, without ever even mentioning a formal alliance with it. An increasingly strong India that gets along with China while never moving into China’s orbit—and is informally aligned with the United States—will be a sign that China is contained.
Taiwan has been a model ally, a stable and vibrant democracy, and one of the world’s most prosperous, efficient economies. It is a successful poster child for the liberal world order that the United States has built and guaranteed in Asia and Europe since World War II. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger opened relations with China, but did so without endangering Taiwan. Therefore, if it ever became clear that the United States was both unable and unwilling to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese military attack on the island—or that an authoritarian China had consolidated its grip on Taiwan without the need of such an attack—then it would signal the end of American strategic dominance in East Asia. Countries from Japan in the north to Australia in the south would have no choice but to seek compromising security assurances from China in the event of such an eclipse of American power. This would be an insidious process often outside the strictures of the news headlines, but one day we would all wake up and realize that Asia has been partly Finlandized and the world had changed. Chinese domination of Taiwan would also, by the way, virtually confirm China’s effective domination of the South China Sea, which, together, with its port building activities to the east and west of India, would help give the Chinese navy unimpeded access to two oceans.
Grand strategy is about recognizing what is important and what is not important. I am arguing that, given our goals, India and Taiwan are ultimately more significant than places like Syria and Afghanistan. (Regarding Russia, because it is not almost at war with China as it was when the Nixon administration played the two communist regimes off against each other, moving closer to Russia now achieves little, though stabilizing our bilateral relationship is in our interest.)
WHEREAS INDIA and Taiwan are greatly affected by American sea power, the desert immensities of the Middle East are much less so. This is not an accident, but indicates something crucial. In a century when we will try to stay out of debilitating land conflicts that require large armies, we are better off relying on our navy which can project power without dragging us into bloody wars nearly as much. It is the U.S. Navy that will counter Chinese power along the semi-circle of the navigable Eurasian rimland, from the eastern Mediterranean to the Sea of Japan. And with less of a chance of drifting into costly military conflicts, we will have a better possibility of healing and invigorating our democracy at home. This is what grand strategy is fundamentally about.
Grand strategy is not about what we should do abroad. It is about what we should do abroad consistent with our economic and social condition at home.
Now, keep in mind my own, three-year rule. No matter how necessary and inspiring a military conflict, the American public will only give policymakers three years to settle it. America’s involvement in World War I lasted little more than eighteen months. In World War II, United States troops did not arrive in the Eastern Hemisphere until 1942, and by the Battle of Okinawa in 1945 there was public clamoring to end the Pacific war (as the war in Europe had already ended). The Korean War began in 1950 and by 1952 was unpopular, with Eisenhower forced to end it in 1953. American troops landed in large numbers in Vietnam in 1965 and the public turned against that war in 1968. The Iraq War was launched in 2003 and the public turned against it in 2006. We should aim never to test this three-year rule again. (In Afghanistan, we were able to break the rule only because we brought casualties down dramatically.) That means keeping a prolonged rivalry with China nonviolent in terms of blood-cost. We should engage on a number of fronts: cyber, economic, naval, diplomatic and so on, without open warfare. This can be achieved by not making a fetish out of the South China Sea. The U.S.-China relationship is too wide-ranging and organic to be reduced to a military dispute about one region. Military, trade and other areas of contention should not be kept in silos, since they can indeed interact.
To repeat, grand strategy for the United States in the twenty-first century is, in the end, about restraining from violence in order to concentrate on the home front, and yet compete with China at the same time: which, in turn, means recognizing certain geographical imperatives. (Of course, there is also the realm of ideas: so that it is tragic that President Trump abrogated the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which as a free-trading alliance would have given us a big idea to compete with Belt and Road.)
For some states and empires, which are victims of geography rather than blessed by it—Byzantium, Habsburg Austria—grand strategy is a necessity for survival. Contrarily, America’s geographical blessings have meant it can incur one disaster after another without paying a commensurate price. But as technology shrinks distance, enmeshing our continental half-island deeper into an unstable world, the United States finally becomes truly vulnerable: meaning it can no longer afford heroic delusions.
Consider: during the Cold War we didn’t need to worry about grand strategy because we already had one. It was called containment. George Kennan eschewed the hot-headed approach of those in the late-1940s and early-1950s who believed that it was possible to defeat the Soviet Union by subversion, special operations forces and other such desperate measures. Kennan understood that since Soviet Communism was fundamentally flawed as a system of governance, it would eventually falter and all we had to do was outlast it (just as we are likely to outlast Communist China if only we are patient). Thus, blessed by geography for so long, and blessed by a wise and temperate grand strategy for over four decades, we lost the art of thinking critically about ourselves, which, once again, is also what grand strategy is ultimately about.
Unable to look ourselves in the mirror and see our flaws and limitations, we concentrated too much on our military, and invaded or intervened in one Muslim country after another in the 2000s and achieved nothing as a result. Intervening in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s was successful in stopping a war, but the creation of ethnic cantons that followed did not lay a groundwork for the future, and even if it had done so, that would not have risen to the level of grand strategy given Yugoslavia’s secondary importance. So we are starting from scratch.
Starting from scratch means realizing that however inspiring the dreams of our elite are, those dreams will be stillborn if not grounded in both granular, local realities around the world and widespread public support at home that spans party lines—and that must be sustained over the long-term. We must be respectful of local realities, whether in Wyoming or Afghanistan.
Robert D. Kaplan is a managing director for global macro at Eurasia Group. His most recent book is The Return of Marco Polo’s World: War, Strategy, and American Interests in the Twenty-first Century.