CAPTAIN ALFRED THAYER MAHAN'S "The Problem of Asia" was published in 1900. Viewed in the perspective of thirty-five years it takes on the attributes of an intellectual landmark. Mahan had retired from the navy in 1896, but had been recalled to serve on the board of naval strategy during the Spanish American War. His fame rested securely upon a series of well-known works, beginning with "The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783," published in 1890. He was rapidly becoming one of those characters so much revered in the United States, an "authority." Although only sixty, he was beginning to pontificate. An atmosphere of omniscience, of which scholars and teachers may well beware, pervades "The Problem of Asia."

"The Problem of Asia" consists of five chapters. The first three were prepared in the autumn and winter of 1899 after Mahan's return from the so-called Peace Conference at The Hague which he had attended as a member of the United States delegation. These chapters were published as articles in Harper's New Monthly Magazine in the spring of 1900, in the interval between John Hay's "open door" notes of September 1899 and the seige of the Peking Legations which marked the climax of the Boxer Rebellion. The fourth chapter, entitled "Effect of Asiatic Conditions upon World Politics," published in November as an article in The North American Review, was written in August, apparently just prior to the relief of the Legations. There was also a fifth chapter, less germane to the main topic of the book, entitled "Merits of the Transvaal Dispute."

Though there is little documentary evidence to support the assertion, it seems probable that Mahan was seeing Secretary of State John Hay rather frequently during the period in which these essays were in course of preparation. It is also probable that he enjoyed the Secretary's confidence to such an extent as to have become broadly familiar with the information which McKinley and Hay possessed and which guided them in their difficult negotiations with the Powers regarding China. Many paragraphs recall sentiments which Hay was contemporaneously writing to Henry Adams, Joseph Choate, Henry White, Alvey A. Adee, and others. Indeed we probably do no one an injustice in regarding "The Problem of Asia" as a summary of the views regarding the Far East current in the best-informed official circles in Washington during the first part of the year 1900. One should recall, furthermore, that just before writing these articles Mahan had passed through London, where he was highly regarded as an authority on naval history and strategy. Prior to that he had spent several weeks at The Hague in frequent converse with British delegates to the so-called Peace Conference, which marked not the end of a war but rather, as we view it today, the beginning of an era of wars. Many influential Englishmen doubtless knew and agreed with Mahan's views. The book, thus placed in its contemporary setting, is doubly interesting and significant.

In a brief preface, Mahan defined the objectives of his study. He proposed, first, to isolate the great "permanent facts and factors" implicit in the problem of Asia: and, second, to discuss the influence which these factors would exert on the evolution of political events. While outwardly admitting that it might not be possible "to forecast the precise combinations into which, through the operation of unforeseen events, these various factors will ultimately fall," he said that it was still possible to ascertain "at least the existence and character of certain determinative features and the relations subsisting between them." Disclaiming any gift of prophecy, the Captain proposed nevertheless to prophesy.

What, in the view of Mahan and his contemporaries, were the permanent features of the political situation in Asia?

The politically significant portion of Asia, according to Mahan, was an area reaching from China to the Mediterranean between the thirtieth and fortieth parallels of latitude. This broad belt, highly populated in the aggregate, Mahan considered to have an importance far outweighing that of the equatorial zone and the southern hemisphere. It was significant both because of its geographical position and because it was a sort of political no man's land. It had been and was destined to be a disputed area between Russia, the great land Power, and the sea Powers. In the category of sea Powers, which he also called Teutonic Powers, Mahan placed Great Britain, Germany, and the United States. To these he added, not only as a sea Power, but also as a Teutonic Power, Japan, then passing through its first phase of westernization.

The outstanding characteristic of this no man's land was its static condition. Asia seemed to Mahan to lack regenerative capacity. He anticipated nothing in the way of progress toward modern, Christian civilization, save as the impulse came from the western world. Asia thus constituted the white man's burden, his responsibility, but also his opportunity.

The seige of the Peking Legations, in Mahan's eyes, confirmed the conclusions he had reached before the Boxer Uprising. A few days before the relief of the Legations, he wrote, "as a rule, the Oriental, whether nation or individual, does not change. What has happened this year in China is just as likely, unless fear exercise its constraining force, to recur in the East now as it was a thousand years ago, because the East does not progress." Progress, according to Mahan, implied industrial and commercial development. It meant the establishment of political institutions patterned after those of Europe and North America. And it also meant the adoption of Christianity. Upon the last named he laid great emphasis. That Asia was on the eve of industrial, political and social revolution Mahan had not the faintest notion. He was writing under the spell of Rudyard Kipling.

Mahan excepted Japan from his general view of Asia. Here was a compact, insular people which could be admitted, "a willing convert," to the "European family." "It is well worthy of consideration whether we may not see in Japan the prepared soil, whence the grain of mustard seed, having taken root, may spring up and grow to the great trees, the view of which may move the continental communities of Asia to seek the same regenerating force for their own renewal." Mahan's language throughout these essays is inclined toward the Biblical. Japan was becoming Teutonized and Mahan could see in the process only auguries bright for the future. Perhaps Japan would in time become the instrument of Providence for the spiritual and material regeneration of Asia.

Not only was Asia culturally static; it was also politically unstable -- subject to the rivalry of external influences. "In Europe and in America territorial occupancy," in Mahan's opinion, was "now politically fixed and guaranteed, so far as broad lines are concerned." Australasia and Africa had been partitioned. The only large region still politically unstable, "and therefore open to serious change by foreign influences," was that portion of Asia lying between the thirtieth and fortieth parallels of latitude, which included the greater part of "Turkey in Asia, of Persia, or Afghanistan, and of the Chinese Empire, including much of the valley of the Yangtze-Kiang, the great central region of China." Such were the broad outlines of Mahan's world -- eleven years before the collapse of the Manchu dynasty and the establishment of a Republic in China, seventeen years before the Russian Revolution, nineteen years before the Peace Settlement of Paris, twenty years before the Treaty of Sèvres.

"The first law of states, as of men," declared Mahan, "is self-preservation." Self-preservation implied growth, the latter being a "property of healthful life." Growth might take the form of territorial expansion, or it might be manifested as commercial or financial expansion. The result in either event would be ever-widening spheres of interest or dominion, until the impact of one upon another causes war.

Europe, although static as to boundaries and political institutions, seemed to Mahan to be instinct with life and vitality. Like all healthy organisms, European states must expand. And where could this expansive urge find expression so well as in the broad belt of territory beginning at the eastern shore of the Mediterranean and stretching across Asia to the China Sea?

The essence of Russian policy was territorial expansion and commercial monopoly. For Russian statesmen, one great objective was the acquisition of warm water ports in the Mediterranean and in the Far East. Another was the exclusion of economic competitors from the lands under their dominion. The trading nations, on the contrary, wished to buy and sell in a free market. "Each alike will desire that it, individually, have its equal chance in the field, unhindered by the inimical influence of a foreign power, resting not upon fair competition, but upon force, whether exerted by open act or by secret pressure. Nothing is more dreaded, nor will be more resented -- more productive of quarrel -- than such interposition." Presumably Captain Mahan meant the interposition of the military power of one nation on behalf of its nationals with a view to upsetting the balance in a free market.

In two respects there seemed to Captain Mahan to be a community of interest among the naval Powers: their interest required them individually and collectively to oppose the advance of Russia toward warm water anywhere in the Near East or in the Yangtze Valley; as trading nations they had a stake in maintaining peace, a stake so large that Mahan believed it unlikely that they would do other than join forces to preserve peace in Asia. He expected that in China, should necessity arise, the four states would be found following a common line of action based upon naval power. Each state, as he viewed it, was well prepared. Germany had Kiaochau. Japan was strategically placed. England had a base at Hongkong. And the United States in the Philippines had had "we may almost say forced upon her a similarly secure base."

Viewed in retrospect, thirty-five years later, how different is the picture. The proposed Anglo-German alliance, which Mahan favored, resulted in the so-called Yangtze Agreement of 1902, which in turn was wrecked on the twin rocks of Anglo-German trade competition and Russo-German political ambitions. The Anglo-Japanese alliance of 1902 was wrecked by Anglo-Japanese commercial rivalry and by the opposition of the British Dominions. In Washington it had become apparent by 1920 that cooperation with Japan to secure peace in China would always fail because of Japan's published desire to dominate China both politically and commercially. Germany has lost her base at Kiaochau. Neither Hongkong nor the Philippines are now regarded as strategically located. Japan, not Russia, is the aggressor.

Of the three possible regenerative forces for Asia -- Slavonic, Asiatic, and Teutonic -- Mahan had no doubt whatever as to the greater promise of the Teutonic. The experience of the last twenty years leaves us much in doubt, not only as to the essential unity of spirit or interest among the so-called "Teutonic Powers," but also as to their competence to direct the affairs of Asia. As for numbering Japan with them, that is as fantastic in the West as it is resented in Japan.

Mahan felt that the problem of Asia would be solved by the establishment of political equilibrium. Russia must not be permitted to advance in the Near East since it would threaten the trade routes of the Teutonic Powers. But she could not be bottled up. Some compensation must be allowed in the Far East. Mahan favored the Russian advance in Manchuria. He also proposed that the Chinese capital be moved to the Yangtze, where it could be placed under the direct influence of the naval Powers to which he had assigned the Yangtze Valley. The eventual break-up of China he regarded as "inevitable." He saw no probable danger of Japanese aggression, feeling that the limited population of Japan must serve to limit her territorial ambitions.

China, particularly the Yangtze Valley, seemed to Mahan the great and legitimate heart's desire for the trading nations. Their objective there was two-fold. On the one hand, they must prevent preponderant control by any external state or by any group of such states; on the other hand, there must be an open door for the free exchanges of both commerce and thought and for investment. In short, Mahan endorsed the Hay Open Door policy and appealed for popular support. About the integrity of China doctrine of July 3, 1900, he was less emphatic. Spheres of influence and the Open Door seemed to him not in any way inconsistent.

Captain Mahan was addressing his essays primarily to an American public. He appealed to its well-known sense of philanthropy to support Christian missions as a civilizing influence. He seemed to feel that while for the moment the American commercial stake in China was relatively little, it would eventually grow as the mustard seed in fertile ground. The United States, therefore, must join with Germany, Japan and England -- especially the latter -- in the use of such force as might be necessary both to control China and to check Russia. The United States must not merely join; it must do its share. This obligation in turn required a larger navy, for the value of which he advanced his well-known arguments. The traditional unwillingness of Irish and German immigrants to support a policy of coöperation with England troubled him, as it troubled John Hay. Perhaps it was at the latter's request that he inserted into his fourth chapter an appeal to Americans one and all to forget ancient grudges, and to sink racial prejudices in the support of a program which seemed to him supremely beneficial to the welfare of the world. Most of all he counted upon Anglo-American coöperation.

With Mahan's assertion that self preservation is the first law of states none will disagree. But the assumption that economic competitors desire only a free field and no favors seems singularly naïve. Commerce appears to have been viewed by Captain Mahan as a sporting contest governed by Queensbury rules. In fact, commerce was and is not a game, but a struggle for power and profit. The only competitor who desires a free field and no favor is the one who is able to enter that field and sell at a profit. The last thing desired by a losing competitor is a free field. It is as natural for the latter to turn to his government and beg for its interposition to offset his disadvantage as it is for the savage to pray for rain. Furthermore, it is almost inevitable that the intervention will be forthcoming in due time; if not, the losing trader will begin to run after other and stronger political gods. He will work for the overthrow of the political party, or the government, which is deaf to his entreaty.

"The interest of a commercial state," observes Mahan, as though it were an axiom, "is peace." Not necessarily; the interest of a commercial state which is able to make a profit and hold an ever-expanding market is peace: the interest of a losing commercial state is quite the contrary.

Mahan appears to have rested his economic and political theories on the assumption that in commercial states the conditions for the manufacture and exchange of goods were equal and that a free market would be one in which all competitors, regardless of where they secured their raw materials, regardless of the water haul, the skill of their workmen, and the quality of their competing machines, would be equal. He overlooked that the manufacturer with antiquated machinery would first seek from his government the interposition of its gun-boats to offset his economic disadvantages. He seems not to have realized that the manufacturer who is able to induce his government to restore to him the profits would continue to take the profits out of the business rather than to put them into the renovation of his plant. The intervention of a government in what might otherwise seem a free market is very likely to operate to bolster up the inefficient competitor and in time to require still more extended applications of some kind of aid. The more thoroughly republican the form of government, the more certain it is that in the eyes of the losing competitor the military power of the government will seem the ever present help in time of trouble. To the losing merchant no field is likely to appear fair in which he cannot sell his goods at a profit.

After thirty-five years, what is left of the Mahan thesis regarding Asia? His major premises were wrong and his facts were wrong. Europe was not static as to boundaries, economic conditions, or political institutions. Asia was not static internally, from either the political or economic point of view. Japan has replaced Russia as the aggressor in Asia. Germany is no factor in Asia at all. Japan and England, no longer with a community of interest against Russia, no longer allies, are commercial rivals around the world. England has again and again in the last thirty-five years gone on record as unwilling to use force to preserve her position in China. She teeters between coöperation with Japan, as in the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, and coöperation with the United States, as in the existing naval negotiations. The British have no policy, followed with general consistency year after year, sufficiently stable to become a basis for Anglo-American cooperation. Both England and the United States desire peace in Asia; but they are commercial rivals. As for the United States, the rich commercial rewards in Asia foreseen by Mahan have not materialized. The American people heeded Mahan's advice and built a navy even beyond any limit suggested by him in 1900, but that navy is not yet large enough to assure security for American interests in Asia. Its cost, thus far, is out of proportion to the value of any treasure it has to protect.

It is often observed that a system of government in which policies must be referred to the voters ultimately for their approval has the disadvantage that it is difficult if not impossible to undertake preventive measures. Democracies have little foresight. This is especially notable in the history of American plans for military defense. A re-reading of "The Problem of Asia" leads directly to consideration of the broad question of the value of preventive measures. Sometimes they are shown to have been wise and prudent; at other times they have been revealed as provocative and futile. Preventive measures for defense of trade are not likely to be sound when it is impossible to foresee the conditions under which they will be employed. Mahan was quite wrong in his forecasts both as to the stability of Europe and as to the deficiency of Asia in regenerative power. Skilled in naval strategy, he was deficient in the field of economics, nor did he seem to apprehend the processes of political development. But who, in 1900, did? What Mahan sought to prevent did not occur; what occurred could not have been prevented by any measures he devised. It is true that Russia was stopped in Manchuria by a sea Power, but it was the Russian revolution, not Japan, which has so altered the equation that Mahan's forecast is not true today and not likely to be true in this generation. In the next generation other political revolutions which now seem to us not more probable than they seemed to Mahan thirty-five years ago may so alter the situation that preventive measures devised today may seem as quaint then as Mahan's do now.

Mahan offered "The Problem of Asia" frankly as both a diagnosis and as a remedy. Arguing from supposedly known facts, in the rôle of a political scientist, he deduced conclusions and offered predictions. Political science is not an exact science, not as exact even as naval strategy. There were others in Mahan's day with better claims than he to expertness in political science, but either they were more modest or else they were wrong. None foresaw the problem of Asia as it now appears. After reading Mahan, no one now would dare to prophesy for the future. The political scientist may as well admit that he cannot with certainty either identify or isolate the variables. Unlike the political scientists, the statesman must each day make a choice, for the world marches on. That is why opportunism is usually the best statesmanship.

It remains true, as both Mahan and Hay declared in 1900, that if the trading nations can join in respecting and preserving the Open Door in Asia that course will in the long run bring the greatest net profit for everyone. It remains true that control of the sea gives control of the richest part of the market of Asia. It is not equally certain that any combination of naval Powers to enforce the Open Door or to prevent any one Power from securing preponderance in Asia will accomplish its purpose or return a net profit on the investment.

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  • TYLER DENNETT, President of Williams College; formerly Historical Adviser in the Department of State; author of "John Hay: From Poetry to Politics" and other works
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