The boldest gambit of the presidential contest thus far has to be Mitt Romney's assertion that Russia is America's "No. 1 geopolitical foe." The GOP candidate first blurted this out months ago, and he has been pilloried by the Dems for Cold War-era "old think" ever since. Some believe this view may even undermine the traditional perception voters have of Republicans being more adept than Democrats at national security affairs.
For all the flak he's taken, Romney reaffirmed his views about Russia last week. He no longer assigns Moscow a number -- much less No. 1 -- but Mitt has made it clear that, in his view, "everything we try to do globally they try and oppose." In particular, he cites the Russians' obstructive behavior when it comes to alleviating the conflict in Syria and the proliferation crisis with Iran.
Longstanding Russian support in the war on terror and the key role Moscow plays in the Northern Distribution Network that sustains the allied intervention in Afghanistan seem to have slipped his mind.
But no matter. Romney is still right about Russia. So far just in his instincts, as it seems he has not yet fully crystallized his thinking. As to the kind of thinking called for, he has made this clear: We must assess the world from a geopolitical perspective. This is most refreshing, given the utter lack of interest today among American institutions of higher learning in the intersection of geography and foreign policy.
The field of geopolitics went into eclipse in the 1940s, in the wake of Nazi Germany's pursuit of a territorially oriented foreign policy based on increasing Lebensraum by force of arms. As an academic discipline, it has never recovered from this malign association in people's minds. One can only hope Romney's Russian gambit stimulates a resurgence of more legitimate interest.
For in classic geopolitical terms -- that is, by giving attention to territory, resources of all sorts, and their influence on beliefs, behavior, and policy -- it is quite clear that Russia is the major counterweight to American power and influence. A huge country that straddles what the great geographer Halford Mackinder called the Eurasian "heartland" is sure to operate with substantial effect in the world. A country with thousands of nuclear weapons, still-substantial armed services, and a cornucopia of natural resources will have its innings in high politics.
Romney's assertions about Russia should be seen less as stale strategic thinking and more as a critique of Barack Obama's looming "Pacific shift," which implies that China has moved into position as our top geopolitical foe. Yet Beijing, in the throes of modernization and heavily weighed down by a massive population, increasingly urgent energy needs, and a troubled political transition -- see: Bo Xilai and other travails of succession -- can hardly be seen as our new No. 1 geopolitical foe.
Furthermore, China's military is still decades away from having any kind of ability to project force over meaningful distances. The 100-mile width of the Taiwan Strait could just as easily be a thousand miles, given China's lack of force-projection capability. Even the quite large People's Liberation Army is full of question marks, with few substantive changes evident since it got such a bloody nose during the 1979 war with Vietnam.