Whoever Controls Eurasia Controls the World
The battle over Syria is part of a much larger - and longer-term - struggle for global hegemony
This article originally appeared in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Translated from German by Nils Hansen
One can only be astounded at the scope of almost criminal naïveté, or even just plain ignorance, shown by many who are judging the Syrian crisis – in particular when it comes to revealing the background motives behind the tough game of tug-of-war in the UN Security Council, between America and the western powers on the one side and China and Russia on the other.
If one were to follow the narrative of the conflict in large parts of the western world, then the heart of the matter would seem to be only the question of whether or not the Syrian people could eventually be freed from a cruel dictator. Particularly in Germany, the lack of awareness seems to be limitless in the current discussion of this contest – up to the point of an alleged (although not confirmed) enquiry to the Russian government as to whether Russia would be ready to grant asylum to Assad should he be overthrown.
However, very different issues are at the core of this matter. The lines of conflict run where most German observers fail to notice them – chiefly because they have forgotten how to think in global-political and geostrategic terms. Viewed from a global-political angle, it is in the first instance irrelevant from the perspective of geostrategic considerations, whether the Syrians will be now, or in the future, ruled either by a dictator of the house of Assad, by a democratic government or at least one pretending to be democratic, or a radical Muslim regime.
A division into ‘World Island’ and ‘Heartland’
Around and after the year 1900, the world, the entire global land surface, was divided and mostly under the political reign of the Europeans and the Americans, the geostrategic thinkers of that time developed a completely new idea for global politics going forward.
The Anglo-Saxons, even though they in particular seemed invulnerable, for the first time had a reason to fear for their position in the world. British geographer and politician Halford Mackinder, shortly before the onset of the First World War, developed his extraordinarily momentous doctrine of the inferiority of the maritime global powers.
Whereas previously the maxim posed by American military historian Alfred T. Mahan had applied, stating the unassailability of globally acting maritime powers, Mackinder asserted the contrary.
In his new analysis of the world’s land surface, he assigned the sea powers to the ‘Outer Insular Crescent’, while conceiving of Europe, Asia and Africa collectively as a gigantic supercontinent which he dubbed the ‘World Island’.
The core of this World Island was supposed to be the ‘Pivot Area’, which he found to be in northern and central Asia. According to Mackinder, seven out of eight of the world’s population were situated in the ‘Pivot Area’ and its surroundings, , as well as by far the largest share of globally available raw materials. Thus, the future rulers of the world were bound to be not the Anglo-Saxon maritime powers, so Mackinder argued, but possibly the very power (or group of powers) that would succeed in bringing the ‘Pivot Area’ completely under their control.
The debate about the worlds-politically decisive region on the earth
Not only the strong Anglo-Saxon distrust in the communist Soviet Union in the interwar period, but also the inexorably led war by America and Great Britain, fought to unconditional surrender against the two axis powers Germany and Japan, who were threatening the ‘Pivot Area’ from West and East, can only be understood against the backdrop of this geopolitical conception:
The nightmare of a pivot area jointly controlled by Germany and Japan, or by Germany alone in the worst case, in the heart of Eurasia. This situation had to be averted using all possible means. This was the primary and most important war aim of Roosevelt and Churchill, to which everything else was subordinated.
Still, before the end of the war, Mackinder’s teachings about the meaning of the pivot area were improved upon and slightly altered. Nicholas Spykman, the most significant American geo-politician of his time, had developed during the war the theory that it was not actually the ‘Pivot Area’, but rather its bordering area, the ‘Rim Land’, which was the geopolitically decisive region of the world. This ‘Rim Land’ reaches from Scandinavia across Central Eastern Europe, Turkey, the Arab and Near Eastern countries and India, to Indochina, Korea as well as Eastern and Northern China.
This was to be the truly decisive region of the World Island, of the whole Eurasian continent, and he who would succeed in subjugating the ‘Rim Land’ with its enormous population and undeletable stock of raw materials, would be the ruler of the earth or at least have the ability to force it’s will upon other powers, in particular upon the traditional maritime powers.
A ban on interventions by powers from outside the region?
Based not least of all on the premises of these fundamental analyses by Spykman, who died in 1943, it became the post-war foreign policy of the United States to ultimately abandon its traditional isolationism and henceforth develop into an active driver of world politics.
For the era of the Cold War in any case it can be said that almost all of the main conflict lines between East and West have been located in the regions of this wide ‘Rim Land’ between Finland in the West and Korea in the East. Most wars of the post-WWII period, from the Korean War to the Middle-Eastern and Gulf wars to the Vietnam conflict, have taken place in this very zone.
The counter theory to Mackinder and Spykman in terms of geopolitics and international law dates back perhaps even longer; its core it can be found in the American Monroe Doctrine of 1823; borrowing the title from a well-known oeuvre of the 20th century, it could be called an “International Legal Order for Large Regions with a Ban on Interventions by Powers from Outside” (the title of a book written by Carl Schmitt).
Admittedly, this model did not work out at the time of its creation; and especially with a view to the importance of the ‘Rim Land’ and the heart land, the Americans have neither recognised, nor accepted, a ban on interventions outside of their own American hemisphere (in any case if it was directed against their own interests).
The primary goal is not to protect the Syrian people
Quite the opposite: after 1945, the Americans have repeatedly intervened in those places where they deemed it necessary to strengthen their own position of power. The oil affluent and strategically crucial region between the eastern Mediterranean and the Arab Sea has made this area in particular, a main field of action for American foreign policy. The recent Iraq war, the occupation of Afghanistan and the opaque actions in north-eastern Pakistan, which are by no means legitimate by International Law, are the result of this policy.
The current conflict about an intervention, or non-intervention into the Syrian civil war is so explosive because this question is the manifestation of the antagonism between two radically different geostrategic and world political concepts.
The Americans and the Western side are not particularly concerned with helping the pitiable Syrian people, but rather with influencing the reshaping of the country after an anticipated overthrow of the current regime. Even though the US and its Western partners have been able to work well with the Syrian government in the past, several long-planned oil and gas pipelines of paramount importance for the West are at stake. These pipelines are designed to connect Saudi Arabia and Qatar to the eastern Mediterranean area and Turkey and therefore are, at least partially, to cross Syrian territory.
The tables have turned
The Russians and Chinese have a different perspective. The Russian Mediterranean military base, situated in the Syrian port of Tartus, is also at stake – just like the general power/political position of Moscow and Beijing in the Middle and Near East. The prospect of a possible military conflict between Israel and Iran makes it inevitable that the two largest Asian powers will be present there.
It cannot yet be foreseen which of the two sides will prevail, as the Americans have oftentimes in the past ignored UN resolutions when they deemed it necessary for the advancement of their own interests. The undeclared war against Iraq, which led to the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, was only grudgingly accepted by Moscow and Beijing – in the end only because they did not dare to stand more decisively against the only highly armed world power at the time.
Today, the tables have turned: Due to severe home-made economic problems, themselves connected to a strongly over-expansionist foreign policy and military engagement, the United States finds itself in a considerably weakened position. A military intervention in Syria on their part, for this reason alone, seems hardly probable.
The die is not yet cast
Therefore the government in Washington must interpret the veto by Beijing and Moscow, now voiced three consecutive times, with which a UN resolution against the Syrian regime has been averted, as a serious warning. It appears that China and Russia perceive themselves in a common position of co-dominance over the South Asian realm, and their fierce ‘no’ against an intervention by western powers in Syria can well be seen in the sense of a political-international-legal doctrine of an, at least hinted at, ban on interventions by powers from outside the region, directed chiefly at America.
The government in Washington would hardly be able to accept such a ban if it is meant seriously. Because, as a consequence, it would mean the ultimate surrender of its political-economic influence, possibly even of military intervention, in the regions of the ‘Rim Land’. Washington cannot, simply in their very own interest, afford to leave these Eurasian Rim Land regions to their fate, let alone to the two Asian world powers.
Therefore, one can derive from the scope, the course, and, as can be foreseen, the soon materialising consequences of the Syrian conflict, the current distribution of geopolitical power potentials is like using a concave mirror. The die is not yet cast. Yet the geostrategic global players hold these things in their hands.
Hans-Christof Kraus teaches recent and modern history at the University of Passau.
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