In 1904, Sir Halford Mackinder published “The Geographical Pivot of History” at the Royal Geographical Society.1 Given the distribution of war potential, he argued that Eurasia, which he called the world island, was a seat of world power: if a great power were to become preponderant on the world island, it would become a global hegemon. He argued further that the only way for a power to gain control of the ‘world island’ was for it to gain control of the heartland. The heartland – the Central Asian steppe that borders China to the east, Europe to the west, and the Middle East and South Asia to the south – is the ‘pivot area’ by virtue of its location.
In the centuries before the rise of western maritime power, mounted invaders from the heartland repeatedly put pressure on the advanced civilizations of the Eurasian rim. The flat, tree-less expanse of the steppe allowed for the rapid deployment of horse-based military power. The most prominent of these were the Mongol conquests, but there were many others: Huns, Avars, Bulgarians, Magyars, Khazars, Parzinaks, Cumans, Kalmuks, Cossacks, Turks, and Tartars. Tamerlane conquered a larger territory than the Great Khan himself. Every time the central Asian steppe tribes were unified by a single power, the settled civilizations on the rim – Europe, the Near East, Persia, India, and China – were immediately under the threat of invasion by the Central Asian hordes.
This cyclic pattern of history came to an abrupt halt with the rise of modern sea power in maritime Europe. First of all, technological developments in firearms made them effective against cavalry. More importantly, breakthroughs in the sailing enabled – for the first time in history – ocean-going ships that could reliably undertake long-distance voyages. Also for the first time, developments in gunnery allowed for the arming of ships with cannon that could deliver substantial firepower. The revolution in guns and sail effectively sealed the fate of societies on the rimland, not to mention, the New World, which were, without exception, subjugated or brought under Western tutelage. In the Columbian era of world history, sea power reigned supreme.
This long primacy of sea power, Mackinder argued, was coming to an end. The development of railroads had neutralized the advantage of relative speed that sea power had enjoyed for so long. With the advent of rail, a continental power could deploy its military more rapidly than a maritime power. Indeed, the Chief of the German General Staff, Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen, formulated his (in-)famous war plan to fight on two fronts precisely by exploiting the opportunities for rapid troop deployment that had opened up with the railroad revolution. Land power had suddenly become competitive with sea power.
Realizing the geopolitical potential of a great power straddling the heartland, which was more or less contiguous with Russian territory, Mackinder predicted Russia’s ascent to superpower status. He was the British High Commissioner in Southern Russia in 1919-20, when Western powers were supporting the counter-revolution against the Bolsheviks. He repeatedly raised the alarm about the long-term threat to Great Britain’s power position from Russia. Worried about the German menace, Great Britain sought a strategic alliance with Russia instead. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the Soviet Union become a potential hegemon in Eurasia. Did his prediction, then, come true?
Mackinder’s theory gathered dust for years. He was completely ignored in the United States and Britain, where Alfred Thaler Mahan’s geopolitical thought continued to prevail. Mahan’s book The Influence of Sea Power on History was published in 1890.2 He argued that, in the modern world, the power position of a state depends not so much on territorial control but rather on economic and trading prowess. Thus, the dominant state of the international order was the sea power whose fleet was supreme, and could thereby govern the sea-borne world economy. Among Atlantic geo-strategists, his views were received wisdom. Even German strategists has been convinced, with the result that Germany embarked on a major naval armament program in 1897, along the lines advocated by Mahan. Namely, a blue-water navy with large battle-fleets of concentrated firepower that could fight and win great naval battles against major power rivals.
This was a mistake for which the German nation was to pay dearly. In 1905, when the Russian army was get pummeled by the Japanese in Manchuria, France sat defenseless against Germany. Here was a remarkable opportunity for Germany to become preponderant in Europe. The Kaiser, however, was convinced by his Chief of Naval Staff to wait. He argued that the German fleet was not yet in a position to take on the Royal Navy. As it turned out, Germany was forced to go to war in 1914, with the fleet still not ready to challenge the Royal Navy’s command of the seas.3 In any case, the world wars would be decided on land. Mackinder had been spot on about the primacy of land power.
The great German geopolitician, professor of Geography at the University of Munich and founder of the school of Geopolitik, Karl Haushofer, expanded and improved on Mackinder’s work.4 His map included not just mountain ranges and rivers, but also indicated the location of the centers of power. Even though he was an advisor to Hitler, he was neither a Nazi nor an anti-Semite. Haushofer’s son was executed by the Nazis for plotting to kill Hitler and he himself ended up in the Dachau concentration camp in 1944. His association, and that of geopolitics in general, with the Third Reich, effectively shelved these ideas for decades after the Second World War. There has been somewhat of a revival of interest in the past few years, almost directly as a result of the advent of unipolarity and the search for a grand-strategy for the United States.5,6
He coined the term Lebensraum, and preached German expansionism and world dominion. Haushofer divided the world into pan-regions: pan-America, Euroafrica, Russia, and the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. He advocated German mastery over Euroafrica, and supported Japanese control of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Russia was to survive as a buffer state between the two pan-regions, one run from Berlin, and the other from Tokyo. He also recognized that the United States would remain a center of world power due to her industrial strength and the security provided by the great oceans. If US power could be bottled up in the Western Hemisphere, and Great Britain and the Soviet Union eliminated as great powers, then Germany would become the global hegemon.
The greatest geopolitical thinker of all time was Nicolas J. Spykman, who was the Sterling Professor of International Relations at Yale. His book America’s Strategy in World Politics: The United States and the Balance of Power appeared in 1942.7 Perhaps due to the clarity imposed by the moment – both the German and the Japanese empires reached there maximal extent when Spykman was writing – this work has yet to be surpassed in quality, depth, and coherence. Even today, US grand-strategy is based almost entirely on this single monograph.
After his untimely death at the age of 49 in 1943, another book was published posthumously under the title The Geography of Peace.8 It was my recent discovery of this book that prompted me to write about what we should be calling classical geopolitics. Instead of jumping straight to Spykman’s findings, we are going to explore the business end of geopolitics. Every trade has its tools: mathematicians have blackboards, chemists have test tubes, biologists have microscopes, astronomers have telescopes, particle physicists have accelerators, and so on and so forth. Geopoliticians have maps.
Due to the globe’s spherical symmetry, there is no way to make a map of the world without making a choice of a specific reference frame. One has to project the globe onto a flat surface, whence maps based on a given choice of reference frame are called projections. Different projections have different mathematical properties which make them suitable for analyzing certain problems and not others. However, all projections are necessarily distorted: there is no way to construct a “true” map because the minimum number of charts required to cover a sphere is two.9
In a conic projection, a cone is placed on the globe, usually tangent to a chosen parallel, say the Tropic of Cancer. The parallels then look like concentric circles and the meridians radiate out from the center of the map. By appropriately resizing the spaces between the parallels, one can obtain either an equal-area representation or a conformal one but not both.10 However, it cannot represent the entire face of the earth in any meaningful way. Suppose we had chosen the Tropic of Cancer as the tangent parallel, then the Equator would be a concentric circle further out, and the Tropic of Capricorn would be further out and so on, until we get to the South Pole which be represented by the entire boundary of the map.
An azimuthal projection is one where you project the surface of the globe upon a plane from some eye point. All great circles appear on such maps as straight lines.11 In a gnomic projection, this eye point is on the surface so that the distances from the center are accurately represented. They are thus useful for air routes and the measurement of ballistic missile ranges.
In an orthographic projection, this eye point is situated at infinity so that a whole hemisphere can be shown. It looks like a snapshot of the globe. Obviously, this projection is neither equal-area, nor conformal. In a stereographic projection, the eye point is on the surface but the center of the map is the anti-podal point.12 It is conformal but the scale is severely distorted.
Among maps with horizontal parallels, the sinusoidal and the Mollweide homolographic are equal-area projections. However, because they have curved meridians, they are not extendible: there is no way to extend the map in an easterly or westerly directions. The only way to make extendible world maps is to use a cylindrical projection. All “normal” maps of the world are cylindrical projections.
The most common one is the Mercator projection where the cylinder is placed tangent to the Equator. It is a conformal map with the property that all compass directions appear as straight lines. However, the shape of the northern and southern latitudes is severely distorted. Gall’s projection assumes that the cylinder cuts the globe at 45° N and 45° S. The distortion of the polar region is reduced at the cost of shrinking the equatorial regions. Finally, Miller’s projection is identical with the Mercator map between 45° N and 45° S, but rescales the northern and southern latitudes to minimize the distortion in scale. This gives us an extendible map with a pleasant balance of shape and scale distortion.
Traditional maps are cylindrical projections centered at Greenwich, UK. They are cartographic expression of British hegemony, appropriate for a long period of time when London was the center of the world. The map appropriate for any analysis of US global policy and security interests will be different. One needs to look at three different projections. An azimuthal equidistant projection centered at the north pole is appropriate to analyze the balance of terror between the United States and Eurasian powers: strategic bombers and ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads will take the much shorter northerly route. A Miller projection centered at the US is required to appreciate how the Eurasian supercontinent completely encircles the New World. A Miller projection centered at the Caspian Sea is appropriate to analyze the global policy of the offshore balancer and global hegemon.
Similarly, one needs to draw appropriate maps centered at Berlin, London, Moscow, New Delhi, Beijing, and Tokyo, to understand the geopolitical considerations that shape the security and foreign policies of major powers. Here is an azimuthal equidistant projection centered at Berlin:
The Distribution of War Potential on the Globe
Why have all the great powers in the past five hundred years been northern states? The answer to this question is surprisingly simple and elegant. 78% of the world’s land mass excluding Antarctica is in the northern hemisphere, as is 90% of the world’s population. Moreover, the tropical zone is unsuitable for human exploitation. The lack of arable land places severe limits on the size of populations: all of Africa has fewer people than India. Tropical diseases sap the strength of the populace. The battle against nature – the rainforest grows too vigorously to clear – is a losing one. There has never been, and will never be, a great power from the tropics. That much is over-determined by climate and geography.
Indeed, a mere glance at world maps of rainfall, arable land, water resources, energy resources, and iron deposits, confirms what we already suspect: the overwhelming bulk of the world’s war potential is concentrated in the northern temperate zone. No other region has enough war potential to produce a great power.
The minimum amount of rainfall necessary for the effective production of wheat and rice is twenty inches a year. Indeed, the bulk of the world’s population lives in the region of moderate rainfall where the yearly average is between twenty and sixty inches. A region which lacks water and arable land in any appreciable degree is bound to play a secondary role in the power relations of the world.
The deposits of iron and coal are important determinants of industrial potential, and therefore of the war-making capacity of modern states. These are fairly evenly distributed among the major powers. Oil is perhaps even more important, and its distribution is highly skewed. The United States and Russia are the only major powers with significant deposits, a fact that played a major, if under-appreciated, role in the stability of the bipolar order in 1945-1989. The United States was the world’s biggest oil producer till 1970, the year US production peaked. Since then the Persian Gulf has been the primary source of energy to all the major powers except the US and Russia. Although the US energy sector is undergoing something of a renaissance, the dependence of major Eurasian powers on west Asian energy will continue. The oil security complex will remain at the epicenter of world politics for decades to come.
Spykman debunked Sir Halford Mackinder’s heartland theory by simply pointing out the limited power potential of the heartland. In fact, Mackinder, writing in the July 1943 issue of Foreign Affairs, conceded the point by shifting the boundary of the heartland to the Yenisei river, and lessening the emphasis on the Central Asian steppe. The focus of Soviet power was located where it belonged: west of the Urals. He finally recognized the necessity of the collaboration between the three superpowers – Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States – to balance Germany. Mackinder even came around to Spykman’s central thesis: most of the power potential in Eurasia is located in the rimland.
The rimland of the Eurasian landmass must be viewed as an intermediate region, situated as it is between the heartland and the marginal seas. Looking in both directions, it must function amphibiously. In the past, it has had to fight against land power from the heartland and the sea power of the offshore islands of Great Britain and Japan. Its amphibious nature lies at the basis of its security problems.
The British imperial system rested on a maritime encirclement of the Eurasian landmass which was maintained by the predominance of her naval power along the ‘circumferential maritime highway’. This position could be threatened by the emergence of a competing sea power on the littoral of the continent, or by penetration of Russian land power to the coast: ‘the great game’ of the nineteenth century. Mackinder was convinced that the central tension must be between land power and sea power. But the truth is that there has never been a simple land power-sea power opposition. The historical alignment has always been in terms of some members of the rimland with Great Britain against some members of the rimland with Russia, or Great Britain and Russia together against a dominating rimland power.
During the course of the Second World War, the United States and Great Britain were forced to accept the reality of the importance of continental warfare and the exercise of land power. It was realized that air and sea power must be seen as instruments for achieving decisions on land. Moreover, neither ships nor airplanes can function without land bases. The ‘planes are bound by invisible strings to the base of operations and beyond’ all the way back through the military supply chain network that terminates at the iron ore quarry and the oil field. The Second World War could not be won from naval bases on the periphery of the great continental landmass of Eurasia.
The combined war potential of the Eurasian landmass is greater than that of the United States. If Germany and Japan were allowed to consolidate their control over the two extremities of Eurasia, their alliance would become too strong for the United States to take on. The US would face complete encirclement. US power would be bottled up in North America and it would only be a matter of time before the US homeland was threatened by the combined resources of the Eurasian supercontinent. Hemispheric defense, Spykman argued in 1942, is no defense at all.
The overall grand-strategy of the United States must be to prevent the emergence of a regional hegemon in Western Europe and East Asia. The power position of the US depends on a balance of power in Eurasia. And if a major power becomes a potential hegemon, the US should try to retain control of as much of the rimland as possible. With the collapse of Great Britain, Germany, and Japan, the Soviet Union become a potential hegemon in Eurasia. The cold war was thus over-determined and would’ve obtained even if the Soviet Union was a capitalist liberal democracy.
Further, and this is where it gets really interesting, due to the primacy of land power, it will prove necessary to recruit allies and clients to provide military bases. Not necessarily on-shore: there are certain regions where it is possible to give land-based air support to naval operations from both sides. The North Sea, the European and Asiatic Mediterraneans, and the Sea of Japan are marginal seas that can support air power against a continental air force.
Going through current US military and security analyses, one finds organizing principles for ‘off-shore Asia’, and ‘over the horizon power projection’. Both of these, and much else, are based on the above geopolitical considerations. US global primacy requires US power projection over the rimland. This can be done onshore: Germany, the Netherlands, Bulgaria, Kosovo, Spain, Turkey, Israel, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE, Afghanistan, South Korea, et cetera all provide military bases directly on the rimland. Or it can be done off-shore: Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Guam, Australia, Singapore, Diego Garcia, Bahrain, Djibouti, Crete, Naples, and the UK.
Geopolitics and Realism
What have we learned from this foray into classical geopolitics? We have learned that geography is the most fundamental factor in world politics because it is the most permanent. The location of a state determines both the opportunities available to, and the limitations imposed on the state. Geography determines who threatens it, and who is a natural ally. Geopolitical interests thus transcend the political orientation of states.
The politics of a state may change but its geopolitical interests are made of sterner stuff. Realpolitik, that is, great power diplomacy, requires statesmen to understand which interests are permanent, and which are transient. The practice of geopolitics marries realism with geography and determines the invariant interests of great powers that exercise a substantial influence on their security and foreign policies.
Realism is an abstract theory where states are indistinguishable except in terms of power. Theoretically, it is no longer tenable to fail to distinguish between sea power and land power. The dominant state in the world economy is the state that enjoys naval primacy. On the other hand, the balance of power depends on land power that can be brought to bear on the territory under question, which makes the balance of power a regional phenomena determined by locally available land-based military power. The failure to unpack hard power has led to all sorts of conundrums in neorealism, and is no longer a sustainable fiction in the dominant theory of political science.
As we move from high theory to applications, we must avoid the temptation to move directly to states’ political orientations, economic interests, and so on, that impinge on their foreign policies. In other words, before bringing in the policy-makers and their specific concerns, there is much we can explore simply by specifying the permanent geopolitical realities of the extant world. This allows us to comprehend the dynamics of great power politics in world history, and gives us the tools to think about the future of world politics in a rapidly changing world. At some point in the next few decades we will move from a unipolar world to a multi-polar world. Yet, we don’t even have a map of how the world looks from Beijing:
P.S. A friend of mine promised to show me how to use GIS software to create maps. At some point this summer, I will take the time to learn to to make the maps we need for geopolitical analysis. Stay tuned.
1 Mackinder, H. J. “The Geographical Pivot of History.” The Geographical Journal 170.4 (1904): 298-321. Print.
2 Mahan, A. T. The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783. New York: Brown and Little, 1890. Print.
3 Germany had to go to war in 1914 because the Russian army was undergoing major military modernization and expansion that would’ve made Russia the strongest power on the continent in 1917. They had to get Russia to mobilize first in order to keep Britain out of combat till it was too late to save France. Berlin skillfully manipulated the other capitals to start a world war that no one but the Germans wanted. See Copeland, Dale C. The Origins of Major War. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2000. Print.
4 Haushofer, Karl, Lewis A. Tambs, and Ernst J. Brehm. An English Translation and Analysis of Major General Karl Ernst Haushofer’s Geopolitics of the Pacific Ocean: Studies on the Relationship between Geography and History. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 2002. Print.
5 Kaplan, Robert D. Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power. New York: Random House, 2010. Print.
6 Brzezinski, Zbigniew. The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives. New York, NY: Basic, 1997. Print.
7 Spykman, Nicholas J. America’s Strategy in World Politics, the United States and the Balance of Power. New York: Harcourt, Brace and, 1942. Print.
8 Spykman, Nicholas J., and Helen R. Nicholl. The Geography of the Peace,. New York: Harcourt, Brace and, 1944. Print.
9 A chart is a smooth map from the manifold, say a surface, to an open set in Euclidean space, say the plane, thus providing a set of local coordinates (x1,x2,…). One can’t do this for a sphere because it has a non-trivial topology, that is, unlike a sheet of paper, there is no way to continuous deform a sphere to a point.
10 A conformal map preserves angles.
11 Geodesics – shortest paths between two points – on a sphere are great circles.
12 The anti-podal point is the point directly on the other side of the sphere.