The Last European Great Power


April 29, 1993|By GWYNNE DYER

London. -- Will Russia ever become a superpower again? The answer, in all likelihood, is no.

A democratic, capitalist Russia that gradually restores and raises the living standards of its people will not regain its former great-power status. Neither would a neo-fascist, ultra-nationalist Russia that tried to rebuild the economy and the armed forces by the old Soviet method of compulsion. Either way, the Russians have had their turn at the center of events.

Around the end of the last century, there was a rash of ''geostrategic'' theories that purported to explain why power shifts from one nation to another with the passage of time. The one that nationalist Russians liked best was Halford Mackinder's ''heartland'' theory, because it gave them the final prize.

Since the world first became a single arena of power three centuries before with the advent of long-distance ocean communications, the argument went, the great powers had all been coastal states.

In the 17th century, it was the Dutch, the Spanish and the Portuguese. In the 18th century they were displaced by the British and the French, and the 19th century saw Britain as the unchallenged global superpower -- until the United States, another country with extensive coastlines, began to rival it at the end of the century. And looming on the horizon by then was yet another island power, Japan.

But by Mackinder's time there was a great power emerging in Europe that had very little in the way of coastline: Germany. This, he argued, was the harbinger of an age when a very different dynamic would rule.

By the beginning of the 20th century railways were starting to challenge ships as a means of moving people and large quantities of goods over distances. This gave an advantage to centrally located land powers. So Germany, with its central location was the coming power in Europe.

In the longer run (and this was the bit the Russians especially liked), the same dynamic would inevitably give dominance to Russia, which occupied the center, the ''heartland'' of the Eurasian continent that is home to two-thirds of the human race.

The prophecy never really came true either for Germany or for Russia, but most of this century has been spent in containing their efforts to exploit their central positions in the pursuit of global power. Now, however, the technology has changed again. The main weapons of military power are now missiles that fly thousands of miles over land and sea indiscriminately. And the vast bulk of the world's trade, measured either by weight or by volume, still moves by sea, while railways are everywhere in decline. So much for the heartland.

Russia, even if it recovers economically in a decade or so, is a country with a stable (or perhaps declining) population of only 150 million people. That's about the same as Indonesia. Even Americans (whose population is still slowly growing) will outnumber the Russians two-to-one in another few decades.

Russia is therefore not a promising platform from which to attempt a great-power comeback. Moscow will still have its missiles and its nuclear weapons, of course, and in the worst case it could once again become a major problem for other Europeans, but never again is it likely to have enormous power on a global scale.

Who will be the global powers of 2020, then? The United States will still be a superpower, of course, and China will be its only true equal. The Japanese will still be in the game (perhaps much more than they are now), and the European Community would be a player too if it could ever achieve its goal of a common defense and foreign policy. Perhaps India will also be in the second rank.

Then comes the third rank: Indonesia, a united Korea and perhaps Brazil, Turkey and Thailand. And Russia, which will be among the more powerful members of this group if it gets its act together in the next decade or so.

What conclusion should we draw from all this? Only that while it is important in the short run to do everything possible to ensure the survival of democracy in Russia, our long-term concerns should already be shifting elsewhere.

Four centuries after the globe became a single political arena, we are finally entering a period when the great powers are truly dispersed around the globe. That could be a benefit, because fewer of them will be locked in ancestral disputes about borders. But it also means that the cultural gaps and the possibilities for mutual incomprehension are much greater.

So the sooner we get on with creating an effective global security system that involves all the rising great powers, the likelier we are to escape disaster.

Gwynne Dyer writes a column on global affairs.

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