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A Look at the US Grand Strategy for Global Hegemony

$700 billion in annual military spending, over 700 overseas bases, huge and powerful navy, unprecedented air power, military alliances, drones, and constant “interventions” around the world - you name it, US has it -

  • and yet it’s goal of planetary hegemony is slipping away...

The founding father of geopolitics, Sir Halford Mackinder, stated a century ago that the key for global dominance was the control of Eurasia.

The British controlled the world by ruling the seas. They encircled the “world island” (Africa, Asia, and Europe) and thereby managed to contain the land power of Russia and China, which at that time were unable to develop their vast land mass.

<figcaption>US hegemony may be over</figcaption>
US hegemony may be over

The US inherited the British role after WWII. Western Europe and Japan, coupled with military bases that followed Britain’s maritime template provided “containment” of the Eurasian land mass.

But things have changed. In a geopolitical struggle of sea power versus land power, the land power is set to shape the 21st century.

Alfred McCoy takes a look at Washington’s military bases which were expanded in the post-Soviet era, US conflicts, and foreign policy, and concludes that US attempts to “contain” the heartlands of Eurasia never ended.

However, current Washington foreign policy analysts ignore the importance of geography and continue to believe that American military, economic, and cultural power will ensure that US remains sole dominant world power well into the future.

McCoy presents a long list of careful moves by Beijing to connect the “world island”, destroy US grand strategy of global domination, and set the world on a new course for this century.

Amid visibly crumbling US hegemony and a tectonic shift in global power towards China and Russia, Alfred W. McCoy calls for a look at the basics of geopolitics in order to understand why geography is often destiny.


Alfred W. McCoy is a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He specializes in Southeast Asia and has authored numerous works on the region.

This is an excerpt from a longer article which originally appeared at TomDispatch.

Part 3 of a 4 part series. Parts 1, 2.


Having seized the axial ends of the world island from Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in 1945, for the next 70 years the United States relied on ever-thickening layers of military power to contain China and Russia inside that Eurasian heartland. Stripped of its ideological foliage, Washington’s grand strategy of Cold War-era anticommunist “containment” was little more than a process of imperial succession.  A hollowed-out Britain was replaced astride the maritime “marginal,” but the strategic realities remained essentially the same.

Indeed, in 1943, two years before World War II ended, an aging Mackinder published his last article, “The Round World and the Winning of the Peace,” in the influential U.S. journal Foreign Affairs.  In it, he reminded Americans aspiring to a “grand strategy” for an unprecedented version of planetary hegemony that even their “dream of a global air power” would not change geopolitical basics. “If the Soviet Union emerges from this war as conqueror of Germany,” he warned, “she must rank as the greatest land power on the globe,” controlling the “greatest natural fortress on earth.”

When it came to the establishment of a new post-war Pax Americana, first and foundational for the containment of Soviet land power would be the U.S. Navy. Its fleets would come to surround the Eurasian continent, supplementing and then supplanting the British navy: the Sixth Fleet was based at Naples in 1946 for control of the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea; the Seventh Fleet at Subic Bay, Philippines, in 1947, for the Western Pacific; and the Fifth Fleet at Bahrain in the Persian Gulf since 1995.

Next, American diplomats added layers of encircling military alliances — the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (1949), the Middle East Treaty Organization (1955), the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (1954), and the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty (1951).

By 1955, the U.S. also had a global network of 450 military bases in 36 countries aimed, in large part, at containing the Sino-Soviet bloc behind an Iron Curtain that coincided to a surprising degree with Mackinder’s “rimlands” around the Eurasian landmass. By the Cold War’s end in 1990, the encirclement of communist China and Russia required 700 overseas bases, an air force of 1,763 jet fighters, a vast nuclear arsenal, more than 1,000 ballistic missiles, and a navy of 600 ships, including 15 nuclear carrier battle groups — all linked by the world’s only global system of communications satellites.

As the fulcrum for Washington’s strategic perimeter around the world island, the Persian Gulf region has for nearly 40 years been the site of constant American intervention, overt and covert. The 1979 revolution in Iran meant the loss of a keystone country in the arch of U.S. power around the Gulf and left Washington struggling to rebuild its presence in the region. To that end, it would simultaneously back Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in its war against revolutionary Iran and arm the most extreme of the Afghan mujahedeen against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

It was in this context that Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, unleashed his strategy for the defeat of the Soviet Union with a sheer geopolitical agility still little understood even today. In 1979, Brzezinski, a déclassé Polish aristocrat uniquely attuned to his native continent’s geopolitical realities, persuaded Carter to launch Operation Cyclone with massive funding that reached $500 million annually by the late 1980s. Its goal: to mobilize Muslim militants to attack the Soviet Union’s soft Central Asian underbelly and drive a wedge of radical Islam deep into the Soviet heartland. It was to simultaneously inflict a demoralizing defeat on the Red Army in Afghanistan and cut Eastern Europe’s “rimland” free from Moscow’s orbit. “We didn’t push the Russians to intervene [in Afghanistan],” Brzezinski said in 1998, explaining his geopolitical masterstroke in this Cold War edition of the Great Game, “but we knowingly increased the probability that they would… That secret operation was an excellent idea. Its effect was to draw the Russians into the Afghan trap.”

Asked about this operation’s legacy when it came to creating a militant Islam hostile to the U.S., Brzezinski, who studied and frequently cited Mackinder, was coolly unapologetic. “What is most important to the history of the world?” he asked. “The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?”

Yet even America’s stunning victory in the Cold War with the implosion of the Soviet Union would not transform the geopolitical fundamentals of the world island. As a result, after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Washington’s first foreign foray in the new era would involve an attempt to reestablish its dominant position in the Persian Gulf, using Saddam Hussein’s occupation of Kuwait as a pretext.

In 2003, when the U.S. invaded Iraq, imperial historian Paul Kennedy returned to Mackinder’s century-old treatise to explain this seemingly inexplicable misadventure. “Right now, with hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops in the Eurasian rimlands,” Kennedy wrote in the Guardian, “it looks as if Washington is taking seriously Mackinder’s injunction to ensure control of ‘the geographical pivot of history.’” If we interpret these remarks expansively, the sudden proliferation of U.S. bases across Afghanistan and Iraq should be seen as yet another imperial bid for a pivotal position at the edge of the Eurasian heartland, akin to those old British colonial forts along India’s Northwest Frontier.

In the ensuing years, Washington attempted to replace some of its ineffective boots on the ground with drones in the air. By 2011, the Air Force and the CIA had ringed the Eurasian landmass with 60 bases for its armada of drones. By then, its workhorse Reaper, armed with Hellfire missiles and GBU-30 bombs, had a range of 1,150 miles, which meant that from those bases it could strike targets almost anywhere in Africa and Asia.

Significantly, drone bases now dot the maritime margins around the world island — from Sigonella, Sicily, to Icerlik, Turkey; Djibouti on the Red Sea; Qatar and Abu Dhabi on the Persian Gulf; the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean; Jalalabad, Khost, Kandahar, and Shindand in Afghanistan; and in the Pacific, Zamboanga in the Philippines and Andersen Air Base on the island of Guam, among other places. To patrol this sweeping periphery, the Pentagon is spending $10 billion to build an armada of 99 Global Hawk drones equipped with high-resolution cameras capable of surveilling all terrain within a hundred-mile radius, electronic sensors that can sweep up communications, and efficient engines capable of 35 hours of continuous flight and a range of 8,700 miles.


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