It’s Time for a 21st Century NSC-68
It is time to dust off the strategic maps of the early 1950s and place them on the walls of Pentagon and State Department offices. It is time to place some old books on the shelves of our national security officials -- Halford Mackinder’s Democratic Ideals and Reality, Nicholas Spykman’s America’s Strategy in World Politics and The Geography of the Peace, Raymond Aron’s The Century of Total War, Zbigniew Brzezinski’s The Grand Chessboard, Colin Gray’s The Geopolitics of the Nuclear Era, and Henry Kissinger’s Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy. And it is time for the National Security Council to produce a successor to NSC-68 -- the national security strategy document written in April 1950 that established a geopolitical framework for waging the Cold War with the Sino-Soviet bloc.
Writing on the Foreign Affairs website, Alexander Gabuev of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace contends that Russia’s war with Ukraine “has forced Russia to turn to its fellow Eurasian giant, hat in hand.” What Gabuev describes in that article is the 21st century’s version of the old Sino-Soviet bloc of the 1950s. The strategic implications of this new Sino-Russian bloc are stark. “The Kremlin’s dependence on China,” Gabuev writes, “will turn Russia into a useful instrument in a larger game for Zhongnanhai [the central headquarters of the CCP], a tremendous asset in Beijing’s competition with Washington.”
Gabuev believes that the CCP “sees its relationship with Moscow as being of paramount importance.” “Russia is rich in natural resources, but needs technology,” he explains, “while China can offer technology and investments but needs natural resources.” Russia also provides China with sophisticated military weapons and both countries share a common diplomatic outlook. And their political systems, as in the early 1950s, “have become beholden to” personal rule by dictators -- in 1950 it was Stalin and Mao; today it is Xi and Putin.
Beijing, Gabuev writes, “sees a Russia hostile to the West as an asset.” So China is providing economic support to Russia to relieve the pressure of Western sanctions over Ukraine. China is increasingly using Russia as an energy source. Gabuev notes that Russian exports to China grew by nearly 50% in the last six months. China meanwhile has become Russia’s major source of industrial tools. China’s economic power gives it increased leverage over Putin’s regime, especially because of Western sanctions. “As long as China provides a cash flow that can keep [Putin’s] regime afloat and sustain its confrontation with the West,” Gabuev writes, “the Kremlin will accept Chinese demands.” Gabuev speculates that if current trends continue, China would be in a position to demand that Russia cut its defense ties with India and Vietnam, and wholeheartedly support China’s claims in the South China Sea.
The hardening of the Sino-Russian bloc has enormous geopolitical implications for the United States, Europe, and our Indo-Pacific allies. Those old books that I mentioned above had a common theme -- the centrality of Eurasia in global geopolitics. The United States, its European allies, and its Indo-Pacific allies occupy much of the territory that Spykman called the Rimland. The Sino-Russian bloc occupies the region Mackinder called the Heartland plus some of the Asian Rimland. Spykman believed that whoever controlled the Rimland controlled the destinies of the world. Mackinder believed that whoever controlled the Heartland and portions of the Rimland could achieve effective political control of Eurasia-Africa (the World-Island).
Over 70 years ago, NSC-68 also recognized the centrality of Eurasia to the global balance of power. Look at a map or a globe and color China and Russia red. Russia occupies most of the Heartland. China sits astride both the Heartland and Rimland. The Sino-Russian bloc has allies in the Rimland such as Pakistan, North Korea, and Iran (color them red, too). China’s Belt and Road Initiative seeks to extend China’s influence throughout Eurasia on land and over the East China Sea, South China Sea, Indian Ocean and beyond.
The United States leads a maritime alliance that wields great naval power around the Eurasian landmass. Our allies and potential allies in this 21st-century struggle include Japan, India, Australia, Great Britain, and continental Europe. It is, however, crucial to remember that during the Cold War the West was able to defeat the Soviet empire because China broke the Sino-Soviet bloc and became the West’s de facto ally. China in other words, joined the Rimland alliance to defeat the Heartland-based empire.
Today, China leads the Sino-Russian bloc. Gabuev recognizes that it must be part of America’s strategy to help Russia “free itself from China’s firm embrace” and for the West “to reengage with Russia.” In other words, to formulate and implement a strategy -- a new version of NSC-68 -- to maintain what Brzezinski called the “geopolitical pluralism” of Eurasia. There is no sign that the Biden administration -- which just provided another huge aid package to Ukraine -- understands any of this.