A Pacific-centered world order?

17 November 2011


Much news coverage has attended the announcement that the US will station more Marines in Australia. Murray Hiebert and Kiet Nguyen of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) wrote this regarding the announcement:

“President Obama and Prime Minister Julia Gillard are expected to announce an increase in the number of U.S. Marines rotating through Australian bases around the northern coastal city of Darwin, which serves as a critical gateway to Southeast Asia through Indonesia and East Timor. U.S. officials say the United States is not setting up any permanent military bases in Australia. Instead, the United States will rely on Australian military facilities, while withdrawing forces from Afghanistan as the war draws down. The activities of the U.S. Marines will include training and joint exercises. The United States and Australia are also discussing the prepositioning of supplies to better respond to natural disasters.”

Hiebert and Nguyen also reported a number of related diplomatic initiatives undertaken to close any gaps between US and Australian policy in the Asia-Pacific region, invoking the phrase, “America’s Pacific Century” (they put it in scare quotes too).

Mark Mardell of the BBC had an article titled The Pacific President, suggesting that this diplomatic initiative was “part of a bigger picture.” Mardell wrote:

“Born on America’s Pacific Islands, raised for a time in Indonesia, President Obama is of course more likely be a Pacific President than the transtlanticists of the past, whose ancestors came from Europe, the continent which once defined and dominated the whole world.”

But added:

“But it is not about sentiment. Foreign policy is usually linked to economic interest and President Obama makes this explicit.”

Somewhat tangentially related to this, Strategic Forecasting published a half-hour length exchange, A STRATFOR Conversation: George Friedman and Special Guest Robert Kaplan, which begins with the theme of the build-up of Chinese naval power, even suggesting that Chinese naval power will someday surpass US naval power in the Pacific. This conversation between Friedman and Kaplan returns repeatedly to the theme of the rise of Chinese power, and it is this perceived rise of Chinese power that has, at least in part, been the inspiration for the diplomatic initiative with Australia, which latter is a Western nation-state with which the US is likely to have much more in common than other nation-states of the region.

There is nothing new about the idea that the 21st century would be (now will be) the “Pacific Century.” This term has been bandied around for some time, though the CSIS phrase quoted above — the American Pacific Century — is the first time that I have encountered that particular locution.

In a larger context than merely identifying the possibility of a Pacific Century (now or in the future), it has been a talking point in strategic circles for the past decade or so — especially since the fall of the Soviet Union — that the informal, de facto world order instituted at the end of the Second World War is unraveling. The unraveling of one implicit international consensus means groping toward a new implicit international consensus.

There is an obvious sense in which the 20th century was the Atlantic Century, and the international consensus (at least of the Western powers) that followed the Second World War is sometimes called “Atlanticism” (and, less often, “Euro-Atlanticism”). I wrote about this in Bilderberg and Atlanticism. It would surprise no one, then, if the center of global history shifted from the 20th century Atlantic focus to a 21st century Pacific focus. This has been explicitly suggested many times, and these recent analyses follow in this trend.

During the high point of Atlanticism, the greatest economies of the world rounded the Atlantic Ocean. This area was the most dynamic area of world history, with the most rapid advances in science and technology, which were the motive forces of the twentieth century, and the Atlantic also saw the greatest conflicts of the era. The First and Second World Wars were centered on Western Europe, and Western Europe is a peninsula of Asia that sticks out into the Atlantic Ocean. The battle for the North Atlantic was central to the Second World War — even though the US was attacked first in the Pacific, the bulk of its resources went first to the Atlantic theater. Everything else was perceived as marginal.

Now the three largest economies in the world — the US, China, and Japan — are all to be found on the Pacific. This is the region of dynamic growth and innovation in the world today. The Pacific also seems to be a potential theater of conflict between the interests of the nation-states of the region. The Pacific as a region of looming conflict is not new: when the Japanese were building a major Pacific fleet in the first half of the twentieth century, it was widely perceived that there would eventually be a reckoning between the Japanese and the US. And there was. The Japanese lost decisively, and since then the US has had a free hand in the Pacific. It has happened before, and it can happen again, although there is nothing necessary about this.

What are we to call a Pacific-centered world order? We can’t call it pacifism, as that is already taken. “Pacificism” sounds awkward to me, as does anything longer like “Pacific-centered world order” which I have been using above. We also won’t get much help from the traditional decomposition of the world into hemispheres, since the vast Pacific Ocean straddles both northern and southern hemispheres, as well as both eastern and western hemispheres. While we can predict that most of the significant developments in the Pacific will take place in the northern hemisphere because the wealthiest industrialized nation-states are all in the northern hemisphere, we can’t very well call this Pacific orientation “northernism,” as this is both awkward and inaccurate. The inadequacy of this language suggests that inadequacy of these conventional decompositions of the world and the concepts these decompositions imply.

Whatever we come to call a Pacific-centered world order, simply the realization that world history can shift from one region to another — as may be the case with a shift from the Atlantic to the Pacific — embodies the principles of analysis that I attempted to describe in my posts contrasting the centers and periphery of history, The Farther Reaches of Civilization and my posts on Theoretical Geopolitical Thought.

The recognition also constitutes a kind of naturalized Hegelianism. I have planned for some time to write a post on naturalized Hegelianism, but I haven’t yet felt equal to the task. I hope that it will be obvious to the reader how, if we strip away the mumbo-jumbo from Hegel, we still have a serviceable and powerful philosophy of history. We need not say that the world-spirit shifts from the Atlantic to the Pacific in order to recognize that the center of gravity of a particular geographical region (or of the whole world) can be focused on one particular place (or a particular geographical feature), and that the point of focus changes. Similarly, the center of gravity of history may be located at a particular historical juncture. We need not say that the world-spirit develops, but only that the world develops. That’s what I mean by leaving the mumbo-jumbo out of Hegel, while retaining that which remains valuable.

Of course, a revision of Hegelianism begs the question of has far this revision will be taken. I would take it so far, but not necessarily farther. Others would dump Hegel outright, and still others would try to show the continued relevance even of the mumbo-jumbo.

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Hegel is as evergreen as a temperate rain forest: he could not have predicted the form his historical dialectic would take, but we cannot yet get beyond Hegel because history continues to be a dialectical struggle.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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One Response to “A Pacific-centered world order?”

  1. […] A Pacific-centered world order? (geopolicraticus.wordpress.com) […]

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