Eurasia: The Hype of Continentalism

EurasiaBy Jeffrey S. Payne

The Diplomat

China’s push west, India’s look north, and Russia’s more aggressive foreign policy – each of these countries is looking with greater interest towards Central Asia and the Middle East. Greater attention towards continental Asia by rising powers could represent a challenge to the global status quo. The area from the Himalayas to the Mediterranean and from Russia to India may well help to define the international order of the 21st century, but analysts should not allow geopolitical possibility to overshadow the divisive conflicts that exist throughout Eurasia. Any type of Eurasian system of partnerships will have to overcome fragile economies, a history of shifting friendships, and deep-seated hostilities between nations. Instead of imagining alternative scenarios like a Russo-Sino alliance or a new pole of global power based in continental Asia, analysts should be focused on how a reliance on Eurasia is as likely to sap the strength of a state as to empower it. Thus, Eurasia will prove itself not to be a springboard for increased partnership throughout Asia, but rather a zone of competition for emerging powers.

Geopolitics, or how geographic attributes influences international relations, fell out of fashion among social scientists in the post-World War II era. Technological advances and ideological competition fostered a sense that geography could be overcome and was not as powerful a shaping factor as once believed. Today, analysts and strategic thinkers throughout the world have recognized that geography does continue to influence international relations, due in part to trends of the post-Cold War period and the reemergence of historically powerful states in Asia.

With geography once again “important,” analysts have given renewed attention to ideas like Brzezinski’s “Grand Chessboard” or Mackinder’s “heartland theory.” Contemporary American analysts, motivated by experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, the emergence of violent extremist groups throughout Asia, and greater challenges to American hegemony by other powers (China, Russia and India), have sought to better understand how events in Eurasia affect the international order. Efforts at understanding Eurasia are a key reason why geopolitical analysis has returned to fashion. There is no denying that a geographic perspective can assist in answering key political questions, such as why China is obsessed with its territorial integrity or why Iran is important for Central Asian republics. Yet, while geography matters, it does not determine a country’s trajectory, nor dictate why states rise and fall.

The idea that recent events in Eurasia (the potential of a nuclear deal with Iran, China’s rise, Russia’s aggression, etc.) signals an international climate that will facilitate partnerships among countries challenging the U.S.-led international order is a reflection of older concepts mixing with contemporary events. Premises like Mackinder’s “world-island” are now commonly found throughout analyses examining contemporary Asia, as terms like “great game” and “silk road” become part of strategy once again. Emphasizing geography, and thus land-based power, has drawn valuable attention to Russia’s intentions around its border regions, China’saspirations for Central Asia and the Middle East, and Iran’s drive to dominate the Middle East. Analysts looking to Eurasia and integrating geopolitical lenses are concerned that the West, particularly the United States, is poorly positioned. With the drawdown in Afghanistan technically completed, some fear that the United States and its Western partners are losing a key baseline for projecting power in Eurasia. Therefore, the United States will return to its traditional domains of power – the air and sea – and leave continental Asia to the designs of other powers.

In other words, while Russia, China, India, and other Asian actors are increasing their engagement throughout Eurasia, the United States and the West are pulling back. The enhanced engagement of these powers is a chance for them to develop a path of influence away from domains dominated by the United States and to developinstitutions that recast the international order. It is true that the Middle East and Central Asia offer considerable economic and political opportunities and several states within South Asia have the potential to become leaders. Yet, it should not be forgotten how unstable Eurasia is, the resources the U.S. and its allies still retain, and that powers seeking to project influence throughout Eurasia are as likely to become competitors as partners.

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Picture: Guillaume Delisle (1675–1726): L’Asie, Paris 1700;

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