Claremont Institute on June 12, 2013, published an overview of geopolitics in the 21st century including classical geopolitics by professor Colin Dueck. Excerpts below:
What has changed, among other things, is the distribution of power within the international system. Today, it is China’s economic and military power that is rising, not only on land, but at sea. Yet the basic patterns of its rise are hardly unprecedented. So it is appropriate that we go back for perspective, and even wisdom, as these recent books do, to the classical geopolitical theorists. In the past century or so, three stand out: Alfred Mahan, Halford Mackinder, and Nicholas Spykman.
U.S. rear admiral Alfred Mahan was in his time the preeminent theorist of maritime power in world politics. Disturbed by the lack of governmental or popular attention to the state of the U.S. Navy, in 1890 he published his greatest work, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783. In it, he argues that sea power is central to the rise and decline of great nations.
The military essence of sea power, for Mahan, is the concentrated possession of numerous capital ships, with well-trained and aggressive crews, capable of defeating enemy navies in battle.
Mahan refers to this type of naval predominance as “command of the sea.” In wartime, command of the sea allows maritime powers to intervene decisively on land, whether through naval blockade, or in direct support of allied armies. In peacetime, command of the sea allows for the operation of friendly maritime trade, which in turn gathers wealth to finance the maintenance of the navy. Maritime shipping, a strong navy, and the benefits of seaborne commerce thus operate in a kind of virtuous circle for the leading naval powers, giving them a great advantage over nations whose capabilities are bound mainly to the land.
Mahan argued that the self-reinforcing nature of sea power was best demonstrated in modern times by the rise of Great Britain,…
But he worried that modern democracies were not sufficiently attuned to the necessity of maintaining sea power. His own United States, in particular, he viewed as preoccupied with internal matters, and neglectful of its navy. He therefore recommended not only the expansion of the U.S. battle fleet, but the careful development of naval bases, canals, and coaling stations overseas, so that the oceans would act as a strategic asset for America rather than as a liability in the face of more aggressive competitors. Effective control over vital maritime choke points, bases, and ocean lanes would allow the seagoing nations to project their influence inland while constraining the expansion of great land powers such as Russia…
Halford Mackinder was much less confident than Mahan that Anglo-American command of the sea could be used to check the consolidation of great land powers in Europe and Asia. A British parliamentarian and founder of the discipline of geostrategy, Mackinder formulated his core argument only a few years after Mahan’s appeared. In a Geographical Journal article from 1904, and later in a book entitledDemocratic Ideals and Reality, Mackinder asked his readers to think of Europe, Asia, and Africa as one great continent, which he called the “world island.” This single world island, Mackinder pointed out, contained much greater human and natural resources than the rest of the planet’s islands and continents combined. Moreover the world island’s “Heartland”—at its maximum extent including Russia, Mongolia, Iran, Tibet, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe—had the great advantage of virtual inaccessibility to sea power. Historically, it was not so unusual for land powers to defeat and overcome sea powers. After all, sea power was ultimately based upon the land.
Were the European and Asian continents ever to fall under the domination of a single political entity emanating from the Heartland, that entity would necessarily overpower through sheer weight the outer crescent of insular maritime nations such as the United States, Great Britain, Australia, and Japan.
Mackinder suggested that starting in about 1500 A.D., with the launch of what he called the Columbian era, Western European nations had been able to employ specific naval and technological advantages to explore, penetrate, and colonize the rest of the world. The Asian Heartland had thereby been outmaneuvered.
But by the start of the 20th century, that era was coming to an end. The surface of the earth had been largely navigated and partitioned by Europe’s great empires; the international system was now closed, without more possibilities for external discovery. Furthermore, railways now crisscrossed massive distances, bringing new advantages to trade, transport, and communication by land. The future tendency would therefore be toward the consolidation of continental-sized land powers in Eurasia, raising the danger of Britain’s relative decline and encirclement.
The aftermath of the First World War, including the Bolshevik Revolution and Germany’s failed bid for continental dominance, illustrated Mackinder’s argument that the Eurasian landmass could not be allowed to fall under the control of a hostile authoritarian power. His specific response was to call for the creation of an independent tier of East European buffer states, at the Heartland’s perimeter, to guard against either German or Soviet expansion.
Mackinder urged the West’s great maritime democracies to defend themselves by establishing favorable balances of power on land…
The failure of the League of Nations to prevent fascist aggression led to a new wave of Western geostrategy, in which Nicolas Spykman was the leading figure. A Sterling Professor of International Relations at Yale, Spykman built on Mackinder’s work and modified it significantly in two books written during the early 1940s: America’s Strategy in World Politics, and The Geography of the Peace. In particular, Spykman introduced the concept of the “Rimland,” a belt of nations stretching from France and Germany across the Middle East, to India, and finally to China. What distinguished Rimland nations was their amphibious nature: they were neither purely land powers nor sea powers.
But taken together, it was these Rimland powers—and not Mackinder’s Heartland—that contained most of the human population and economic productivity on the planet. Spykman therefore characterized great geopolitical struggles such as the Second World War not as contests of sea power versus land power, but as conflicts between mixed alliances—each on sea and land—over control of the Rimland. And control of the Rimland meant control of the world.
Spykman renamed Mackinder’s outer crescent of maritime powers the “Offshore Islands and Continents.” To offshore islanders like the Americans, a purely naval or isolationist approach is always appealing.
If the U.S. did not exercise effective control over the airspace and sea lanes of the two oceans on either side of it, then somebody else would.
Altogether, the Rimland’s combined potential meant there was simply no safe resting place for Americans on this side of the water. The U.S. would have to ensure, through serious and costly effort, that the resources of the Old World were not combined and mobilized against the New World. Spykman was more optimistic than Mackinder that this could actually be done, through the exercise of a forward strategic presence and with the development of modern American air power.
For both Spykman and Mackinder, the geopolitical nightmare for the West was an autocratic Heartland-Rimland conglomeration able to dominate the Old World to such an extent that the seagoing Anglo-American democracies would be outmaneuvered. This dire scenario has often been dismissed over the years as highly improbable. But the great struggles of the 20th century, including two world wars and one cold one, were fought to prevent it, and without American intervention there is good reason to believe that either an authoritarian Germany or the Soviet Union would have dictated world politics for decades to come.
Comment: Should Russia and China combine in the 21st century there would be a new threat that autocratic great powers could once more control the Heartland-Rimland. Both Mahan, Mackinder, and Spykman are therefore once more highly important in international relations thinking.