Geography Still Leads Defense Policy

One of the endlessly repeated chestnuts of post-Cold War strategic analysis is that geography isn’t what it used to be. In a globalized world, authors like Thomas Friedman argued, the traditional metrics of national and economic power are less and less relevant. Rather, the growth of mass media, the internationalization of trade and the movement of people, things and ideas have flattened the world and decreased (if not outright erased) the importance of geography to the world’s economic system, with a downstream impact on strategy.

Like all simple ideas that purport to explain enormous trends, this one contains both a nugget of truth and a larger serving of oversimplification and gloss. Certainly, trade flows and the structure of economic power has changed significantly and in doing so, become vulnerable to new complications and challenges. And there are truly transnational threats — terrorism, climate change — which sidestep traditional geographic limitations and protections. But geography remains fundamental to how states assess risk, allocate resources and build their defense and foreign policies.

For a contemporary illustration, look no further than the Pentagon’s new Pacific Deterrence Initiative. The roughly $27 billion program is intended to strengthen the US military’s ability to mount a credible defense of regional American interests and allies against the People’s Republic of China, and includes a range of procurement, construction and partnership activities.

A significant subset of what is funded under the program is, essentially, long-range weaponry, or in Pentagon terminology, “highly survivable, precision-strike fires [that] can support the air and maritime maneuver from distances greater than 500 km.” “Fires” is an intentionally generic term, though most of what it covers currently are ballistic and cruise missiles. The DoD is actively pursuing both ultra-long-range artillery, hypersonic projectiles, and loitering munitions (which stretch the definition of “guided missile” to the breaking point), but for the moment most such long-ranged weapons would have been banned under the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty — at least in land-based guise. The US pulled out of the INF Treaty in 2019 ostensibly because Russia developed and tested a non-compliant system, though it was clear that American defense officials worried about being able to compete with the missile arsenal of the PRC, which was never a party to the INF.

What does this have to do with geography? Part of the reason the U.S. was willing to sign on to the INF Treaty in the first place was that its main area of strategic contestation with the Soviet Union was continental Europe. The INF Treaty does not address sea-launched missiles, which would have played a relatively minor role on either side in a conflict between NATO and the Warsaw Pact.

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The Trump administration suggested that it would be open to a renegotiated INF which added China as a party, but the PRC rejected that proposal out of hand. The failure to make any headway can be partly attributed to the Trump administration’s overall record on arms control agreements — abrogating several without negotiating, signing or ratifying any — but it also reflects a geographic and strategic asymmetry. The American posture in the Pacific is heavily dependent upon warships at sea and land bases, many of which are on small islands and where American forces are guests rather than operating on home turf, which would afford them greater latitude. The PLA, by contrast, can move its land-based missile forces around its own territory under the protection of its own integrated air defense network. It has little reason to bargain this capability away, unless the US is willing to make deeply uncomfortable concessions. Furthermore, unlike with the USSR, there is little space for the US to create a negotiating space with a top-level strategic arms accord with China; the PRC’s nuclear arsenal is a fraction the size of the American one and fulfills a very different space in its strategic imagination.

The Biden administration has a fundamentally different point of view on arms control to its predecessor, but those geostrategic constraints have not changed — nor has the bipartisan consensus view on deterring the PRC. The result is likely to be an accelerating effort to use the geography of the Indo-Pacific to each country’s strategic advantage, rather than any near-term deescalatory flattening.

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