Monday, January 9, 2017

MAP ON MONDAY: Three Geostrategists and their Maps: Mahan, Mackinder, Spykman

Although Spain, Portugal, France, and Britain all created globe-spanning, sea-dominated empires, it was not until the end of the 19th century that modern geopolitical thinking emerged. The great sea empires certainly took a map into consideration as they competed with each other for dominance, but as Russia began sweeping across the Eurasian steppe lands the thought of an ascendant land power arising added a new dimension to consider. Think Athens versus Sparta on a worldwide scale: if the Spartan land power could ultimately defeat the vast sea power of Athens, what could happen if a modern empire arose in the very steppe lands that spawned Attila the Hun, the Ottoman Turks, or Genghis Khan? Today we will examine how three early geostrategists began to grapple with this question and how their maps and theories still shape modern geopolitics.

Our first geostrategist is Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840-1914), considered by many as America's greatest strategist of the nineteenth century. Mahan is best known for his book, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History (1890), in which he argued that nations with a large navy and maritime shipping would have a greater impact on world affairs. Mahan's ideas helped inspire the amazing growth of Japan's navy, leading to its overwhelming defeat of the Russians at Tsushima Strait in 1905. It also drove the German desire for an overseas empire, an important - but often overlooked - underlying cause of World War I. Mahan's geopolitical map, however, is found in his lesser-known book, The Problem of Asia and Its Effect Upon International Policies (1900). In this work, Mahan broadens his strategic thinking from purely naval terms by addressing the great landmass of Asia. Mahan, shaped by his naval thinking, organized world powers in terms of allied naval powers versus allied land powers. From his 1900 perspective, Mahan saw France and Russia, joined in a military alliance from 1892-1917, as the dominant land powers in Europe and Asia respectively. Although history would ultimately see Germany as a greater land power, in 1900 the Germans were following a Mahan-style naval strategy and was thus treated as part of the naval alliance of America, Britain, and Japan. As Mahan examined a potential conflict between these land and naval powers in Asia, he believed that the naval powers could dominate the continent's south while the land powers dominated the north. Up for grabs, however, were the four geopolitical choke points of the Suez Canal, the Dardanelles, the Strait of Gibraltar, and the Danish Straits. Mahan also drew two lines at the 30th and 40th parallels which delineated the control of the landed north and naval south. In between, Mahan believed, would be the battle ground for control of Asia. Although the years and decades following Mahan's writing proved him incorrect in terms of national alliances, the geographical areas Mahan highlighted witnessed a great geopolitical tug-of-war which Mahan foresaw. As we shall see with our other two thinkers, his ideas were especially important during the Cold War as the Soviet Union sought fresh water ports on the Arabian and Indian oceans, and access to the Mediterranean and the Atlantic via the Dardanelles and Gibraltar.

Alfred Thayer Mahan, the greatest American strategic thinker of the 19th century, divided Asia into a land-dominated north (red) and a sea-dominated south (blue), with a competitive buffer zone in between (gray).

Four years after Mahan wrote on the problem of Asia, Halford John Mackinder (1861-1947), our second fundamental geostrategist, proposed another map explaining the geopolitical importance of the continent. An English geography professor, Mackinder sought to awaken the naval-minded British to the importance of any potential Asiatic land powers. Mackinder looked to history and the great empires of the steppe - Huns, Mongols, Turks - and noted that their permanent control of Asia's heartland proved untenable due to its geography. Modern technology, especially the railroad, meant that a rising land power like Russia could succeed where the past empires had failed. Such a power could expand to overtake all of Eurasia and Africa - which he called the "World Island" - and from there dominate globe (see map below). Access to the Heartland could be gained by one of three geographic regions, each with its own religious civilization: Christian Europe (with Germany and Russia as its two land powers), the Islamic Middle East (Iran being in the best position to access the heartland), and the Hindu-Buddhist monsoon region of east Asia's India and Pakistan.

Mackinder first outlined his theory in a paper entitled The Geographical Pivot of History (1904), but later expanded his work into the book Democratic Ideals and Reality (1919) which was aimed at convincing the powers at Versailles of the importance of eastern Europe. As he wrote in his book: "Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; Who rules the Heartland commands the World Island; Who rules the World Island commands the World." For Mackinder, it was imperative that eastern European nations remain independent of both Russian and German dominance so that neither land power could go on to fully control the Heartland and thus the World Island. Ultimately Mackinder's theory would place Eurasia at the center of future geostrategic thinking, from the time of the Cold War to the modern day.

Mackinder: "Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; Who rules the Heartland commands the World Island; Who rules the World Island commands the World."

During the Second World War, a Dutch-American international relations professor at Yale named Nicholas Spykman (1893-1943) revised Mackinder's theory and laid the theoretical foundation for what would become America's containment policy of the Cold War. In the first of his two major works on geopolitics, America's Strategy in World Politics: The United States and the Balance of Power (1942), Spykman rejected an isolationist foriegn policy in favor of geopolitical realism. Spykman accepted the realist vision of the world as an amoral, anarchic power struggle between states where, à la Darwin, only the fittest would survive. Concurring with Mackinder's focus on Eurasia, Spykman believed that any power able to dominate Eurasia would overcome the Pacific and Atlantic and eventually dominate the Americas. The United States would thus need to emerge from its isolationist foriegn policy and begin engaging in a balance-of-power strategy wherein no state would become strong enough to take control of Eurasia.

Spykman's second work, The Geography of the Peace (1944), was released shortly after his death from cancer in 1943. In it he questioned some of the assumptions of Mackinder and presented his own theory that in many ways synthesized the thought of Mackinder and Mahan. The first aspect of Mackinder's theory Spykman questioned was the importance of the Heartland. Spyman rejected the the belief that the Heartland possessed enough natural resources to compete with the outlying Rimland territories of Europe, the Middle East, India, and China which surround the Heartland. He further argued that a power in control of the Rimland would have the capacity to overpower the Heartland, prevent any Heartland land power from building a navy on an open water port, and could besiege and economically starve a Heartland power into submission. Following the strategic outlook of Mahan, control of the Rimland would be maintained by strong naval powers like Britain and America. In his emphasis on the Rimland over the Heartland, Spykman rewrote Mackinder's famous dictum as: "Who controls the Rimland rules Eurasia; who rules Eurasia controls the destinies of the world." Spykman's Rimland theory was soon used as the basis for America's containment policy during the Cold War - but his realist, balance-of-power strategy would also be taken up by future geostrategists to resist any potential regional hegemon from arising in any Rimland territory.

Spykman: "Who controls the Rimland rules Eurasia; who rules Eurasia controls the destinies of the world."

The geopolitical maps of Mahan, Mackinder, and Spykman shaped history, our understanding of geopolitics, and the outlook of many modern geostrategists. Understanding their theories and looking at their maps helps us form our own idea of geopolitics in what we call Christian Realism. For more on Christian Realism, we suggest you read our Thursday posts dedicated to this topic on Anthropology of Accord.

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