Despite huge technological advances, satellites, modern weapons, and super-fast transport capabilities, geography remains essential to shaping the global power
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.
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 1 of a 4 part series.
For even the greatest of empires, geography is often destiny. You wouldn’t know it in Washington, though. America’s political, national security, and foreign policy elites continue to ignore the basics of geopolitics that have shaped the fate of world empires for the past 500 years. Consequently, they have missed the significance of the rapid global changes in Eurasia that are in the process of undermining the grand strategy for world dominion that Washington has pursued these past seven decades.
A glance at what passes for insider “wisdom” in Washington these days reveals a worldview of stunning insularity. Take Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye, Jr., known for his concept of “soft power,” as an example. Offering a simple list of ways in which he believes U.S. military, economic, and cultural power remains singular and superior, he recently argued that there was no force, internal or global, capable of eclipsing America’s future as the world’s premier power.
For those pointing to Beijing’s surging economy and proclaiming this “the Chinese century,” Nye offered up a roster of negatives: China’s per capita income “will take decades to catch up (if ever)” with America’s; it has myopically “focused its policies primarily on its region”; and it has “not developed any significant capabilities for global force projection.” Above all, Nye claimed, China suffers “geopolitical disadvantages in the internal Asian balance of power, compared to America.”
Or put it this way (and in this Nye is typical of a whole world of Washington thinking): with more allies, ships, fighters, missiles, money, patents, and blockbuster movies than any other power, Washington wins hands down.
If Professor Nye paints power by the numbers, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s latest tome, modestly titled World Order and hailed in reviews as nothing less than a revelation, adopts a Nietzschean perspective.
The ageless Kissinger portrays global politics as plastic and so highly susceptible to shaping by great leaders with a will to power. By this measure, in the tradition of master European diplomats Charles de Talleyrand and Prince Metternich, President Theodore Roosevelt was a bold visionary who launched “an American role in managing the Asia-Pacific equilibrium.” On the other hand, Woodrow Wilson’s idealistic dream of national self-determination rendered him geopolitically inept and Franklin Roosevelt was blind to Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s steely “global strategy.”
Harry Truman, in contrast, overcame national ambivalence to commit “America to the shaping of a new international order,” a policy wisely followed by the next 12 presidents.
Among the most “courageous” of them, Kissinger insists, was that leader of “courage, dignity, and conviction,” George W. Bush, whose resolute bid for the “transformation of Iraq from among the Middle East’s most repressive states to a multiparty democracy” would have succeeded, had it not been for the “ruthless” subversion of his work by Syria and Iran. In such a view, geopolitics has no place; only the bold vision of “statesmen” and kings really matters.
And perhaps that’s a comforting perspective in Washington at a moment when America’s hegemony is visibly crumbling amid a tectonic shift in global power.
With Washington’s anointed seers strikingly obtuse on the subject of geopolitical power, perhaps it’s time to get back to basics. That means returning to the foundational text of modern geopolitics, which remains an indispensible guide even though it was published in an obscure British geography journal well over a century ago.
Sir Halford Invents Geopolitics
On a cold London evening in January 1904, Sir Halford Mackinder, the director of the London School of Economics, “entranced” an audience at the Royal Geographical Society on Savile Row with a paper boldly titled “The Geographical Pivot of History.” This presentation evinced, said the society’s president, “a brilliancy of description… we have seldom had equaled in this room.”
Mackinder argued that the future of global power lay not, as most British then imagined, in controlling the global sea lanes, but in controlling a vast land mass he called “Euro-Asia.” By turning the globe away from America to place central Asia at the planet’s epicenter, and then tilting the Earth’s axis northward just a bit beyond Mercator’s equatorial projection, Mackinder redrew and thus reconceptualized the world map.
His new map showed Africa, Asia, and Europe not as three separate continents, but as a unitary land mass, a veritable “world island.” Its broad, deep “heartland” — 4,000 miles from the Persian Gulf to the Siberian Sea — was so enormous that it could only be controlled from its “rimlands” in Eastern Europe or what he called its maritime “marginal” in the surrounding seas.
The “discovery of the Cape road to the Indies” in the sixteenth century, Mackinder wrote, “endowed Christendom with the widest possible mobility of power… wrapping her influence round the Euro-Asiatic land-power which had hitherto threatened her very existence.” This greater mobility, he later explained, gave Europe’s seamen “superiority for some four centuries over the landsmen of Africa and Asia.”
Yet the “heartland” of this vast landmass, a “pivot area” stretching from the Persian Gulf to China’s Yangtze River, remained nothing less than the Archimedean fulcrum for future world power. “Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island,” went Mackinder’s later summary of the situation. “Who rules the World-Island commands the world.” Beyond the vast mass of that world island, which made up nearly 60% of the Earth’s land area, lay a less consequential hemisphere covered with broad oceans and a few outlying “smaller islands.” He meant, of course, Australia and the Americas.
For an earlier generation, the opening of the Suez Canal and the advent of steam shipping had “increased the mobility of sea-power [relative] to land power.” But future railways could “work the greater wonder in the steppe,” Mackinder claimed, undercutting the cost of sea transport and shifting the locus of geopolitical power inland.
In the fullness of time, the “pivot state” of Russia might, in alliance with another power like Germany, expand “over the marginal lands of Euro-Asia,” allowing “the use of vast continental resources for fleet-building, and the empire of the world would be in sight.”
For the next two hours, as he read through a text thick with the convoluted syntax and classical references expected of a former Oxford don, his audience knew that they were privy to something extraordinary. Several stayed after to offer extended commentaries.
For instance, the renowned military analyst Spenser Wilkinson, the first to hold a chair in military history at Oxford, pronounced himself unconvinced about “the modern expansion of Russia,” insisting that British and Japanese naval power would continue the historic function of holding “the balance between the divided forces… on the continental area.”
Pressed by his learned listeners to consider other facts or factors, including “air as a means of locomotion,” Mackinder responded: “My aim is not to predict a great future for this or that country, but to make a geographical formula into which you could fit any political balance.” Instead of specific events, Mackinder was reaching for a general theory about the causal connection between geography and global power. “The future of the world,” he insisted, “depends on the maintenance of [a] balance of power” between sea powers such as Britain or Japan operating from the maritime marginal and “the expansive internal forces” within the Euro-Asian heartland they were intent on containing.
Not only did Mackinder give voice to a worldview that would influence Britain’s foreign policy for several decades, but he had, in that moment, created the modern science of “geopolitics” — the study of how geography can, under certain circumstances, shape the destiny of whole peoples, nations, and empires.
That night in London was, of course, more than a long time ago. It was another age. England was still mourning the death of Queen Victoria. Teddy Roosevelt was president. Henry Ford had just opened a small auto plant in Detroit to make his Model-A, an automobile with a top speed of 28 miles per hour. Only a month earlier, the Wright brothers’ “Flyer” had taken to the air for the first time — 120 feet of air, to be exact.
Yet, for the next 110 years, Sir Halford Mackinder’s words would offer a prism of exceptional precision when it came to understanding the often obscure geopolitics driving the world’s major conflicts — two world wars, a Cold War, America’s Asian wars (Korea and Vietnam), two Persian Gulf wars, and even the endless pacification of Afghanistan. The question today is: How can Sir Halford help us understand not only centuries past, but the half-century still to come?