Essays & Reviews

Geography and World Politics

CSD Editorial Note: This essay first appeared in the Claremont Review of Books, Vol. XIII, Number 2 – Spring 2013.  Reprinted by permission.


Becoming the world’s only superpower can cause strange dreams. In the case of the United States, which achieved this status over 20 years ago, many who should know better have dreamed that economic interdependence, multilateral institutions, technological change, global democratization, the rise of non-state actors—even Barack Obama’s charming personality—will have a transformational effect on world affairs, rendering irrelevant the geopolitics underlying American national security. But geopolitical competition between major world powers obviously continues, and these dreams, which are recognizably liberal dreams, remain delusive and dangerous.

The very word “geopolitics” strikes such dreamers as having a kind of reactionary, outmoded, even sinister quality. It represents to them a distasteful way of thinking about the world. In reality, geopolitics is simply the analysis of the relationship between geographical facts on the one hand, and international politics on the other. These geographical facts include natural features, such as rivers, mountains, and oceans along with elements of human and political geography, such as national boundaries, trade networks, and concentrations of economic or military power. To try to make foreign policy while closing one’s eyes to geopolitical factors in world politics is like trying to play chess without noticing the configuration of the board, and the powers of the pieces.

A number of excellent recent books show the continued relevance of classical geopolitical insights today. Jakub Grygiel’s Great Powers and Geopolitical Change (2006) uses historical case studies from the 16th century to show that states prosper or decline depending on whether they match their foreign policies to underlying geopolitical realities. C. Dale Walton’s Geopolitics and the Great Powers in the 21st Century (2007) argues that the coming era of great power competition centered on the eastern half of the Asian continent will be characterized by the need for shifting, fluid alliances, requiring considerable American versatility and skill. Angelo Codevilla’s A Student’s Guide to International Relations (2010) reminds us that a geopolitical framework is not incompatible with an appreciation for the ways in which cultures, regimes, and civilizations differ in their approaches toward international relations, and that the United States is entirely justified in pursuing its own distinct interests abroad rather than conforming to progressive visions of transnational governance. Alexandros Petersen’s The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West (2011) makes a powerful case for the U.S. and its NATO allies to pursue a vigorous forward strategy around Russia’s perimeter, with the aim of integrating the smaller nations of the former Soviet Union more deeply into Western-oriented market and democratic institutions. And Robert Kaplan’s The Revenge of Geography (2012)—one of his best books in years—provides a characteristically engaging geopolitical world tour for the reader, concluding with recommendations for close U.S. cooperation with Mexico on issues of trade, immigration, and counternarcotics.

In addition to their useful differences, these books present certain common themes of geopolitical analysis, which might be summed up as follows: The international system is a competitive arena in which great powers play a disproportionate role, struggling for (in the bland terms of modern social science) security, resources, position, and influence. Military force is critical to that influence. Given their essential autonomy, states not unreasonably tend to fear their own encirclement by other powers, and try to break out of it through strategies of counter-encirclement. The realities of geography and material capability set very definite constraints on foreign policy decision-makers, which they ignore at their peril. At the same time, there is considerable room for human agency and political leadership to respond to these constraints and pursue worthwhile ends with skill, courage, and success. Despite technological and institutional changes over the years, these underlying features of world politics have never really changed much. This is one reason the study of history is instructive for statesmen.

Classical Geopolitics

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. Sea power is defined by Mahan as not simply a strong navy—although it certainly includes that—but a national orientation toward the ocean, in terms of geographical position, commercial shipping, maritime production, and intelligent policies. 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. The possession of such naval forces, when properly led, carries the immeasurable benefit of driving the enemy’s fleet and commerce from the open seas. 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, which achieved worldwide preeminence by defeating the navies of Spain, Holland, and France in turn. 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—but that control would have to be exercised and maintained energetically.

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 aGeographical Journal article from 1904, and later in a book entitled Democratic 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. In this sense, the most relevant precedent for the future might not be European maritime dominance, but the sprawling Mongol empires of the 13th century.

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. But like Mahan, Mackinder feared that modern liberal democracies were not inclined to think strategically over the long run. Woodrow Wilson’s brainchild, the League of Nations, confirmed his fear. Mackinder urged the West’s great maritime democracies to defend themselves by establishing favorable balances of power on land; Wilson created the League with the intention of putting an end to balances of power altogether.

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. Aware of his countrymen’s intense reluctance to engage in military conflicts overseas, Spykman nevertheless denied that an isolationist policy was a viable option for the United States, either during or after World War II. 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. Specifically, Spykman pointed out the southern cone of South America was so far away from the United States that German influence there was a real possibility if Hitler was permitted to win the war in Europe. U.S. hemispheric defense would then inevitably collapse into something even more impoverished and constrained, allowing the Axis powers to dominate vital resources from Europe and Asia. 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. He further warned, in anticipation of World War II’s conclusion, that from the perspective of the leading Offshore Continent (America), a Rimland dominated by the Heartland (Russia) was no improvement on a Heartland dominated by the Rimland (Nazi Germany and Japan).

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.

Eastern Rimland

The other way in which Mackinder’s 1919 book, especially, appears to have been prophetic, was in its prediction of a long-term power shift from West to East, reversing the trend of previous centuries. During most of the modern era, Europe was at the center of international politics, with the world’s most capable militaries, most dynamic economies, and most assertive foreign policies. As Brendan Simms shows in Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy (2013), the focus of great power competition from the early modern era well into the 20th century was ultimately the Holy Roman Empire and its successor states. Even during the Cold War, when Rimland nations in Western Europe were finally overshadowed by the actions of external superpowers, the European continent—particularly Germany—remained the supreme geopolitical prize for which those superpowers contended. The end of the Cold War was taken by many liberal dreamers to mean the end of geopolitics. But in reality, it merely introduced a new distribution and ranking of great powers, characterized by a predominant America, a resentful Russia, a strategically incoherent European Union, and a rising set of Asian nations. As the Chinese economy has grown rapidly, allowing them to build up and modernize their armed forces, there has been a massive shift in relative economic and military capabilities from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The chief focus of international great power competition is now along the eastern rather than the western end of Spykman’s Rimland.

In geopolitical terms, China is not a Heartland but a Rimland power. That is to say, it is accessible by sea and land, with security concerns in both directions. The collapse of the Soviet Union represented a windfall for China, reducing the threat from the north. Starting in the 1990s, Beijing also resolved many of its border disputes with neighboring countries. This has sometimes been taken as an indication that China has few aggressive intentions. But in fact the resolution and security of China’s vast land frontier—an exceptional achievement, by historical standards—allows Beijing to be more assertive and expansionist at sea.

In recent years, aware of America’s preoccupations with economic recession and Mideast terrorism, China has begun throwing its weight around in the South and East China Seas, triggering a series of dangerous maritime incidents with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Vietnam, as well as with U.S. surveillance ships. At the same time, China has built up and modernized its navy, both to lend greater weight to its diplomatic assertions in the region and to protect its extensive and growing merchant marine. As James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara detail in their very useful book, Red Star over the Pacific (2010), numerous Chinese naval strategists explicitly invoke Admiral Mahan and his concept of sea command.

China’s practical goal appears to be command over the South China Sea. Admittedly, the Chinese navy—the People’s Liberation Army Navy, as it is called—is still not comparable to the U.S. Navy, but it doesn’t have to be. By building up large numbers of frigates, submarines, and land-based missiles ready to attack U.S. forces in unorthodox fashion—for example, in concert with cyber strikes—China has created a new correlation of forces which an American president might be reluctant to challenge during a crisis. The purpose of the Chinese naval buildup is not to go looking for war with the United States, but to deter the U.S. from acting in the region, notably in defense of Taiwan. Securing control of Taiwan would constitute not only a sweeping national accomplishment for the Chinese Communist Party, but a dramatic improvement in China’s geopolitical situation at sea. What Chinese strategists call the “first island chain,” stretching from Japan to Malaysia, would then be breached. Beyond that, the Chinese themselves may not know how they plan to use their newfound sea power. But history suggests they will continue to define their maritime interests more expansively as they acquire greater and greater maritime capabilities.

China and America

China is in a position to challenge the U.S. for predominance along the East Asian littoral, and has considerable interest in doing so, especially given its grinding sense of historical grievance. For many Chinese, to achieve such predominance would be a return to the natural order of things, in which the Middle Kingdom leads within East Asia. The Russians, for their part, share with China a long-term desire to expel American influence from their immediate spheres of influence. The most persuasive accounts of Sino-Russian cooperation tend to suggest it is opportunistic and pragmatic. Still, from an American point of view, this is not exactly reassuring. If these two massive, authoritarian powers are able to cooperate pragmatically and case by case against American interests, the U.S. will face a severe geopolitical challenge in much of Eurasia. When Rimland powers are able to secure their land borders, as China seems to be doing, and then convincingly take to the seas, this has to worry offshore powers like the United States.

President Barack Obama came into office hoping for cooperation with China on a range of issues such as climate change and arms control; sustained Sino-American strategic competition was probably the last thing on his mind. He soon discovered that praising China’s growing power, as he did when visiting Beijing in 2009, only encouraged its self-assertion. As America’s Asian allies grew increasingly concerned by Chinese aggressiveness at sea, the Obama Administration eventually announced a strategic “pivot” toward Asia. But at the same time the administration cut U.S. naval strengths significantly—strengths that will be crucial to balance Chinese influence. It didn’t help when Obama displayed his strategic insouciance during a 2012 presidential election debate, mocking concerns over America’s shrinking Navy.

It is neither unusual nor irrational for great powers to engage in long-term geopolitical competition during peacetime. This is exactly what is happening between the U.S. and China now, whatever liberal dreamers may want to dream. In his edited volume, Competitive Strategies for the 21st Century (2012), Thomas Mahnken of the Naval War College shows that although this competition does not rule out the possibility of cooperation in certain areas, it does oblige us to leverage our strengths against our competitor’s weaknesses for decades to come. The last time the U.S. government developed a genuinely grand strategy in relation to another great power was during the 1980s. China is not the Soviet Union, but there are still lessons to be learned from America’s Cold War competition with Moscow, which after all ended peacefully and, for the U.S., successfully.

One of the explanations for the lack of grand strategy toward China today is the tacit and widespread assumption that American power is in relative and irreversible decline, while China’s rise is more or less ordained. But as Georgetown University’s Robert Lieber points out in his new book, Power and Willpower in the American Future (2012), America’s “decline” is vastly overstated. The United States possesses capabilities and advantages denied to any other power. These include the world’s largest economy, its most powerful armed forces by far, its leading universities, a persistent edge in technological innovation, an unusual attractiveness for immigrants, vast natural resources on a continental scale, deep financial markets, underlying political stability, tremendous resilience, and a set of flexible international alliances. China poses a serious geopolitical challenge, but it lacks these advantages, and Chinese leaders know it.

Americans still have the ability to choose whether we want to play a leading role in the world. If we abdicate that role, we will one day awaken not to liberal dreams come true but to nightmarish realities that a sensible foreign policy could, and should, have averted.