Of Dominoes and Quantums

The Geography of Warfare, published in 1983, is a collection of strategic and political musings by Patrick O’Sullivan (Professor of Geography at Florida State University) and Jesse W. Miller (Professor of Accounting at State University of New York). Like many other similarly themed books published around the same time, the book is a wide-ranging, searching work; a modest contribution to the strategic remooring that was just beginning to occur as America recovered from the post-Vietnam haze and responded to the perceived Soviet ascent.


Not quite so simple…

Their post-mortem analysis of the domino theory shows the value of remembering that strategy occurs in a physical plane and is still subject to geographic limitations:

Since there is no formal statement of the domino theory, in order to analyse its logical structure we can only examine the mechanics of the analogy. The elegant, rippling collapse of a row of dominoes derives from its artful arrangement in a state of unstable equilibrium so that any disturbance will be transmitted along the row. The pieces are endowed with potential energy by standing them on their ends so that each will strike the next as it falls. If a gap greater than the length of a piece separates two dominoes, the chain reaction ceases. The dominoes have three states: standing, falling and fallen. That ‘falling’ and ‘fallen’ equate with ‘going communist’ may satisfy the moral perspective of those who apply this theory. On the other hand they might have been disturbed that the fallen state was a stable equilibrium while standing was unstable. The red and white characterisation of politics implied by the analogy is not only naïve and insulting but also runs contrary to a geographical sense of uniqueness. It utterly fails to capture the significance of regional or national identity which daily we see dominating mankind’s sense of self and place.

The model treats of aggression from one end of the row as the potential energy of the first domino is translated to kinetic energy by an initial tap. It falls, registering a change to the same affiliation as the aggressor and, in so doing, imparts this character to the next domino as it strikes it down and so forth. What the necessities of similar size and appropriate spacing translate into in geographical terms is unclear. Obviously in order to land on the beaches of San Diego some very large dominoes would have to be stationed on the Philippines, Wake Island and Hawaii. The existence of a gap like the Pacific should quiet fears of the red menace wading ashore in California. In the proliferation of the theory’s use, oceans or intervening nations are obviously not seen as gaps containing the contagion, but can be conveniently erased. The nature of the contamination process is not made very clear by the analogy. ‘Knocked over’ is redolent of liquor stores rather than nations and hardly provides a rich enough description of the process to prescribe preventative action. ‘Propping up’ has been used to indicate one type of solution, but has proven difficult to translate into successful political, military and economic operations. ‘Knocking out’, the lateral displacement of one or more pieces to provide a fire-break to check the progress of the conflagration, does appeal to some military minds as a feasible action. (p. 100-1)

As an alternative to the domino theory the authors outline a model that potentially has a much wider application for the understanding of great power relations:

We can imagine a limitless plain upon which rival foci of power and identity may arise. For a given quantum of economic, military and moral power, the focus of an empire can only extend its field of influence at a cost in terms of the spatial intensity of this influence. The same total amount of power spread evenly over a wider radius will form a more squat cylinder than if it is confined to a narrow compass. The intensity of power exerted must decline as the inverse square of the radius of the territorial limit, giving a potential field of influence like a sagging bell tent. (This representation could be generalised to account for variations in distance friction and population density by defining a geographical coefficient which transforms the homogeneity of Euclidean space into the differentiated space of geography.) This abstraction would suggest that mustering sufficient power to overcome and ingest any erstwhile independent centres presents a greater strain the wider the bounds of an empire are cast. Independent foci require less energy to emerge within the bounds of a more widespread domain. The contest between two adjacent, compact empires is likely to be fiercer than that between two far-flung empires with distant cores. Competition between expanding empires will tend to generate an equilibrium boundary where their levels of influence are equal. There is ample historical evidence of the overextension of empires and their collapse as power is spread too thinly. More compact units such as Byzantium and China were far longer lived than the empires of Alexander, Rome, Genghis Khan, the Third Reich and the East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. (p 101-2)

The section concludes with a reminder: “Until such time as we shake off the coils of distance our motives and actions will be influenced by where we are and where everybody else is, and statesman would do well to keep this in mind.” (p. 104)

Social media and communications technology makes this admonition easy to forget and perhaps altered its degree of relevance, but not its fundamental truth. The gruesome images of human suffering that fill out Twitter feeds – be they from Ukraine, Syria, Gaza, Iraq or the Congo – are disturbing, but the fact remains that they were taken in regions that are very distant from the centers of American power, and originate in conflicts amid civilizations and political cultures vastly different from our own. America’s ability to affect outcomes in these environments is limited at best.

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