Get Full Access:
Save 44% Now
Trusted by over 40,000 readers

Geopolitical Theories

Nov. 9, 2017 Jacob L. Shapiro and Xander Snyder review three political theories being discussed in the media, and what to look for when making historical analogies. Sign up here for free updates on topics like this.

Jacob L. Shapiro: Hello everyone! Welcome to another Geopolitical Futures Podcast. I’m back from hiatus. Xander Snyder is with me. Hey Xander, how’s it going?

Xander Snyder: Hey Jacob, how’s it going?

JLS: It’s going alright, you know I went to the eye doctor and my eyes are completely dilated right now so it’s a minor miracle that I could even hit the record button and I think you’re in your car, right?

XS: Yeah this is an unusual recording set up today.

JLS: Well here we are and what we wanted to talk about was we wanted to get a little ethereal, a little abstract, theoretical, insert whatever word you want there. We’re going to talk about some theories of geopolitics and we’re going to talk about three main theories of geopolitics from three main thinkers and you know these three thinkers are Alfred Mahan, who is an American, who wrote about sea power and we’ll get into that in a second. Halford Mackinder, who is English, wrote about really land power is a little bit too much of a vulgar simplification but we’ll explain that. And then Nicholas Spykman, another American who really is one of the guys who gave the intellectual underpinnings for what would become containment theory.

We’re not going to be talking about, there are plenty of other geopolitical theories out there from non-Western countries and we’re not going to be talking about them. But it might be interesting to come and maybe do a comparative conversation about some of them at some point but for now we’re just going to talk about these three theories.

They’re interesting because they’re, the reason these theories are so important, and you sort of, they’re what us geopolitical nerds like to talk about, they each posit a different center for what a dominant world power has to control in order to be a global power. So ironically, Mahan was the one who came first and Mahan was read voraciously by Teddy Roosevelt, by Franklin Roosevelt. He inspired a lot of different American strategists and thinkers and politicians’ etcetera. His real contention was that global power was based on the sea, that if you could control the world’s oceans, if you could control bodies of water you would then see a global power emerge.

Mackinder comes a little bit later and he publishes a paper with his Heartland theory. And hopefully we’re gonna put a map up, hopefully as a link to this podcast so you can see what I’m talking about here. But basically in Mackinder’s vision, basically from Europe all the way to Asia is something that he calls “The World Island” and if you control this Heartland of this World Island, which is generally you know sort of around Russia, Central Asia, sort of that central part of the World Island, you then control the world.

So when the Cold War was just starting, you could think in terms of Mahan sort of saying well the United States controls the oceans, therefore the United States is more powerful. A Mackinder view might be to say well no the Soviet Union controls the Heartland of the World Island, really the Soviet Union is going to be the dominant power.

And then Spykman comes along and sort of modifies Mackinder’s theory just enough I think to sort of be thought of as separate because it’s not really the Heartland of the World Island that is important. But it’s also not just the seas, sea power is not enough. It’s really what he calls the Rimland. And the Rimland is all of this land that is around that is around the Heartland of the World Island and if you can control that, then you become a global power.

And you know, the reason I wanna bring this up, these thinkers come up all the time if you’re thinking about geopolitics and they were certainly extremely relevant in the Cold War. But I have heard people talking about them again. I actually recently heard Steve Bannon talking about them and bringing them up in terms of competition between the United States and China and I have heard it in a couple of other places. And one of the things that people have been saying is that well you know the United States is operating on this paradigm of sea power. And China seems to be operating on this paradigm of maybe controlling the Heartland or even controlling the Rimland, I think that’s open for conversation.

You know, some people are saying well One Belt, One Road is really just China trying to control the Rimland. And if you look at you know the different places that One Belt, One Road is supposed to go, there is some credence to that. Another argument would be that you know China is pushing into Central Asia, it’s increasing its influence you know out that way, that’s really them trying to control the Heartland.

I generally come down on the side of sea power but I think it’s important to just think in terms of what some of the most powerful countries are doing and how it fits in with some of these geopolitical theories, whether these theories still apply, whether technology has changed them, things like that. So we thought we might talk a little bit about that.

Xander, I am going to ask you a question that has been bothering me, which is that, do you think China thinks this way, do you think that China looks out at the world and do you think that One Belt, One Road is sort of attempt to conquer the Rimland and to solidify control over Mackinder’s Heartland? Or do you think that China really you know wants to be a sea power and is blockaded by the United States and the most important thing that China is doing is not One Belt, One Road but it’s really its advances in its naval technology and until it can break out of the box in the South China Sea, it’s fundamentally constrained? What do you think of that?

XS: Man that’s a good question. I mean I am immediately inclined to say it’s probably a little bit of both and I know that’s kind of a copout. But ultimately, you know China is trying to develop its interior. A big reason that historically its empires have fallen is because there always persists some degree of inequality that’s not really solvable even during successful times. And that’s been occurring now and even though the interior, there are fewer people in poverty in the interior of China now.

The question is they’re basically playing a catch up game. Will they be able to solve that problem sufficiently before some sort of unrest forms? So the interior matters. You mentioned both Mackinder and Spykman talking about China’s approach. I think China does fit more within the Rimland theory with Spykman right? Because Mackinder in the Heartland was further north like where Russia is.

JLS: Yeah I think one thing that has been bothering me about this is to try to and explain the differences between some of these individual countries because as is often the case when you start to get theoretical, you start to want to fit things into these beautiful categories and you sort of forget reality. So you know, in an abstract world where one country could dominate the Heartland let’s say or could dominate the entire Rimland, yeah I could definitely see the argument for that country being powerful. But if you just look at a map, it’s completely impossible to dominate the Rimland. The Rimland in Spykman’s sort of imagination you know sort of starts in southern Russia and northern China, goes all the way down through all of Southeast Asia, India, through the Middle East, through some of the Caucasus, like Europe, like forget about the Rimland, like we can’t even get the European Union to function as a whole let alone the rest.

When I look at the major global powers that have existed you know since the 14- and 1500s, they have all been naval powers. And they’ve also all been powers that were unified internally that were basically of developing as or of the same type of nation. You know the British Empire is a good example. Of course, they dominated a large part of the world and had a bunch of colonies, but the locus of British power was an island. And they were all sort of the same on the island and you could control that. The Spanish, the same type of thing, they had a navy that went all over the world but the locus of power was this one strong country that was able to project a bunch of different things.

The thing that makes the United States I think so powerful in some ways is that it basically got to clear the deck. You know the Native American tribes that were here when the English settlers got here are no more and the United States was basically able to create country with none of the baggage that a lot of these countries in the Rimland and the Heartland have and so the United States is both a large country that is situated on both oceans that can project power into the seas and then also is way more internally unified than any power would be in Asia or in Europe. So we might say sure theoretically if you could control all of the Heartland and all of the Rimland, yeah you probably would be able to beat out a naval power or perhaps you’d already be a naval power yourself.

XS: Yeah I mean to just finish answering your question I think China is certainly concerned with the interior. I think that’s part of the Rimland which you guys will see when we post this map up. It will help contextualize everything we are talking about. At the same time, so much of what makes China what it is today is based on sea trade. I mean if China were to be blocked at you know the South China Sea where the Philippines sit or the Strait of Malacca and either its imports or its exports were blocked, you’d find itself in dire straits, no pun intended. Actually the pun was obviously intended.

So, I don’t think it’s appropriate necessarily to look at China and say all of their moves fit neatly within one category and I think that’s especially the case because I’m not convinced that China’s goal is global domination, right? I mean we’re talking about geopolitical theories that specifically have to do, that concern themselves with global domination.

Again, you talked about Spain and Portugal and England and now the United States, depending on their naval power. And all of these countries to a degree having a relatively smaller land military as well including the United States. I mean it’s still very, very big but China and Russia have more people in their military, right? It seems to mean that China doesn’t need to dominate the world to be secure. It just needs to have a large sphere of influence carved out in its world and I think it’s probably gonna focus on that before it ever tries to ever go beyond that with whatever theory you know its leaders pursue.

Now, I think you bring up the issue of theoretical, the issues with theory right and the issues are good. The purpose of models, political theories is to simplify reality sufficiently so that you can analyze one aspect of it in greater detail and draw insights from it, right? This is true of economic models as well.

But they necessarily by introducing assumptions exclude many aspects of reality. So if you try to lump everything that’s going on in the world into any single one of these theories, I think you’re going to run into problems which is what, these theories are meant to cast their light on as aspects of how nations react with one another, interact with one another and not necessarily explain everything. So there are lessons to be learned from all of them and we’ll probably find in practice none of them are entirely accurate, although you know to your point in terms of global domination goes, it seems like sea power has generally been more important. I mean the Soviet Union occupied the Heartland and it was not able to dominate the world but again Spain, Portugal, Britain, the U.S. have to a certain degree because of their naval power.

JLS: Yeah, I want to take it back and maybe apply it a little more directly to something you were saying which is you were positing that you know China doesn’t really want control of the world and to be, I hear this all the time especially from Chinese colleagues when I see them you know speaking at conferences or talk to them. They sort of say like look this is a false thing like China is not trying to take over the world. But so how do you like something that’s in the news right now that maybe we could contextualize a little bit and hack into is so China is reported to be seeking to buy the 5 percent of Aramco that is for sale before it goes to an IPO.

And we have also seen China and they’re throwing money at different places all over the world. They’re throwing money at Eastern Europe to try to build infrastructure and they’re throwing perhaps flirting with Iran, maybe even Turkey, they’re throwing money at Southeast Asia. How do you explain those moves from China’s perspective? How is it in China’s interest to buy 5 percent of Aramco? How is it in China’s interest to create a random naval base in Djibouti for example?

XS: Yeah well the naval base in Djibouti is not something that I can claim that I fully understand yet. But as it relates to rest of the issues and the investments that China is making, I don’t think that you can equate foreign investments with desire for global domination. I mean that seems like a little bit of a leap for me.

As far as Saudi Aramco goes for folks not familiar with this, Saudi Arabia was planning to IPO Saudi Aramco which is the big state-run oil company and as far as we know, they’re still planning that. The whole China thing has come from some rumors that have been surfacing but it’s certainly not the official plans as of today.

But you know, I can certainly imagine if you think about that deal in strictly economic terms, you know it might not make a lot of sense. Saudi Arabia seems to be a struggling country and you know if they run into enough political problems obviously that country is going to suffer as well. But if you look at that deal from a political economic perspective, you know I can imagine China getting concessions from the Saudi royal family in exchange for the purchase of 5 percent stake and in return Saudi Arabia doesn’t have to go through the transparency requirements that are involved with listing a company publicly on the stock exchange, like the London Stock Exchange or what not.

So that’s one explanation for Saudi Arabia in particular. I mean we can go country by country but I don’t see investments like that as indicating any sort of long-term or well, medium-term desires of domination or hegemony.

JLS: What about and I know that you’ve done some thinking about this I think and this seems to be an issue that comes up more and more when I go to places, what about you know China’s desire to make its currency, the reserve currency, a reserve currency in the world? What about their desire to try and you know push their renminbi to new heights? Do you view that as a challenge as a preeminence of the dollar or is that sort of a fool’s errand and when people are talking about this, they’re not recognizing that you know even ten, twenty years from now, people are going to want dollars way more than they’re going to want Yuan if you just look at the inherent rationalities of China’s economy right now.

XS: Yeah I think there’s a couple things to say about that. For starters, there is no such thing as the global reserve currency. Reserve currency just means that it is a currency that countries that do not issue that currency hold for different reasons. So the Yuan is already a reserve currency to a degree but not as much as the dollar. I forget the exact numbers but if you look at global reserve currencies, the dollar is something like 70 percent of all foreign reserves held globally. I think the euro is next and the yuan is next.

So you know it’s happening to a degree already now. But this is not black and white, it’s all shades of grey. And the point you make about the irrationality of China’s economy is an appropriate one because ultimately the strength of a reserve currency comes from the strength of the political economy of a country. So if it looks like something drastic is going to happen either in the economy or in the political system in a country, then obviously there’s risk that that currency loses strength and if that sort of risk prevails for too long. Then you are no longer looking at a stable currency and that’s really kind of what you need in a reserve currency.

And I know a lot of people will look at what’s going on in the U.S. now and say there’s all this political instability, but the fundamentals are all still good. You know we’ve talked about the degree of diversification of the U.S. economy. We’ve talked about why despite some short-term signs that politics may not be trending in the direction that some would like, the long-term fundamentals are nevertheless there. Why do you think this isn’t the case with China?

So as far as the reserve currency goes, again I think it’s one of those things that China would certainly like to have because having more Yuan around the world goes to a greater degree of control over its own currency and therefore certain aspects of its economy. But wishes do not make reality.

JLS: Yeah another thing that if you look at this map and it just sort of jumps out at you. There’s a lot of fear of China in the world right now I think. And also just a lot of desire for people to get Chinese checks because the Chinese are paying. But if you look at China and you look at necessarily the European peninsula and what the E.U. is supposed to represent, these are actually similar entities in terms of G.D.P. for example. China has a greater population but a lot more poor people.

In terms of population, Europe is pretty large, certainly larger than the United States. You never hear people concerned that the EU is about take over the world. There’s some kind of sense that oh well China is going to take over the world, but the EU is not. You know Europe would never want to do such a thing where it would try to project power all across the world. So I think that the point that you’re making really has to be driven home.

When we think about China right now and when we think about what China looks like in the next 5, 10, 15 years, it really isn’t about China becoming a global hegemon or even challenging the United States for global hegemonic status. That might be sort of a long-term imperative way down the road. But everything that China is doing right now is internally focused. It’s about trying to fix the economy. It’s about trying to redistribute wealth, it is about trying to create political relationships and different types of physical infrastructures so that they don’t have to rely completely on the oceans because they don’t control the oceans and their Navy despite having made you know huge improvements in the last decade, two decades, is not really ready to play at the same level as the United States Navy let alone let’s say the Japanese Navy or some of these other things.

So yeah I just, it’s strange to me when people think of China wanting to be a world dominant power. I think in the United States you know people were freaking about this in the 1950s too and I think that misunderstands the situation a little bit.

XS: Well I’ll play devil’s advocate real quick because your comment about Europe’s not playing for domination or people thinking they are versus China and you know of course the difference there is there is no cohesive or single European state right, it’s still a collection of nation states so there’s no coherent policy. But nevertheless, you don’t see that.

I kind of want to bring this back to what we’re talking about at the beginning and kind of turn one of these questions back at you. You know, I know you referenced Steve Bannon talking about these theories. And you know as an aside I think it’s interesting any time political theory takes you know a front and center focus in sort of more mass media outlets, I mean I think it’s interesting. It provides for interesting conversation. It doesn’t necessarily mean that what’s been said is always right.

So how would you summarize what Steve Bannon said? How would you react to it? Do you think China’s actions fit more closely to one of these three geopolitical theories that we’ve outlined?

JLS: Yeah so it’s not just you know Bannon which is the one that I heard most recently but I’ve been hearing these names pop up all over the place. Any time you read or listen to somebody talking about geopolitics, they will at some point you know mention these theorists in some ways to drop that they have some knowledge.

But I think that, and you’re point about when political theory enters the mainstream is an important one I think, and I think that’s really, it’s a telling point because I think what’s happening here is that the U.S. has no real overall strategy and has not had a real overall strategy really since the Soviet Union collapsed. Nobody in the United States or I shouldn’t say nobody. There are very few people in the United States who thought the Soviet Union was about to collapse when it was about to collapse. And for a period of something like you know 40-50 years, the dominant strategy had been containment.

And so everything that the United States did, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, it was all about containing the Soviet Union and when the Soviet Union collapsed upon itself and the United States was left this sort of victor, it looked around and we had the heady 90s and everybody was optimistic and everybody was all these other things. And then 9/11 hits right? And the United States realizes that it’s still dangerous and it goes to war in Afghanistan and then it goes to war in Iraq and it’s still in Afghanistan and it’s still in Iraq.

The point there being is that the United States is still casting about for a strategy and I don’t think that the United States has really conceptualized this strategy. And I think when people bring in these theories, they’re bringing in these theories because they are trying to find some kind of unifying strategy that the United States as an empire, and I use that word very intentionally, will use. The United States is not, you know the prototypical empire, it doesn’t have colonies all over the place.

But the power of the United States is imperial and no matter what the United States wants to do, it has that kind of role to play in the world. And if you don’t have a sort of overarching strategy, you’re going to get drawn into conflicts that aren’t important. You’re not going to correctly assess when a conflict is important and when it’s not important.

What’s going on with North Korea right now is case in point. What’s going on in North Korea is really all tactical. The United States doesn’t want to be threatened by nuclear weapons from North Korea. But if you’re just looking at it from an objective point of view, Pakistan has nuclear weapons, India has nuclear weapons. There are a lot of different countries in the world that acquired nuclear weapons and the United States did not freak out.

So either the United States thinks that North Korea actually could use the nuclear weapons, which I personally don’t think that and I don’t know anyone who actually thinks they would use them, or you think that you know there is some strategic reason for the United States to block North Korea. In reality, there is no real strategic reason for the U.S. to block North Korea.

Yes, the United States needs to protect South Korea. North Korea is not invading the South, it’s not doing anything except starving its own people and creating these missiles that it can shout around at parades. I do think that China has a strategy and in some ways, it’s – I don’t want to say easier – but perhaps it’s simpler to articulate a strategy when you have a smaller space within the play.

When the United States thinks about its strategy now, it has to think of itself as a global power. China, I think doesn’t have to do that yet. I think Chinese strategy is really about first of all solidifying the control of the communist party, of redistributing wealth from the coast of the interior, of creating a government and a state that is strong enough to withstand some of the convulsions that earlier Chinese regimes were not able to withstand. And then slowly over time to try and give China its own foreign policy.

So this means that you know China doesn’t want any U.S. troops stationed on mainland Asia, it probably doesn’t like them in Japan very much either. China still does not like the fact that Taiwan has not been reunited with the Chinese mainland from their perspective. China does not like that the Philippines has a defense treaty with the United States and it needs to flip the Philippines if not into an ally, at least into a neutral party.

So you know I think that all of China’s moves are about A: strengthening itself domestically and then B: establishing some sort kind of independence of action within its own sphere of influence. And every action that China takes is about doing that. The United States has not conceptualized that kind of strategy so when you listen to U.S. politicians, I think they are all casting about for that kind of strategy and nobody has found it yet.

XS: I think that’s right. There’s one more point that’s kind of become one of my pet causes that I bring up because we’re talking about geopolitical theories, theories for grand strategy, entering the mainstream again as people begin to try to conceptualize what the point is, what our goals are. And that’s what’s called the Thucydides Trap, which at one point even just a couple of years ago was kind of like this relatively arcane concept that people in academia or think tank land would maybe be aware of but sort of you know normal people who like to stay informed of world events wouldn’t.

And now it’s just into the mainstream, I’ve seen it in Politico and all that. Well the Thucydides Trap was this guy who was a historian. He wrote the history of the Peloponnesian War, which is this war in the 5th century B.C. between Sparta and Athens. And the basic premise and I’m boiling down like a 500 page, you know really intense history here, is that the ultimate cause of the war was the rise of Sparta challenged Athens. They went to war because of the declining power differential between the two countries.

So people take that idea and say well China is growing in strength and the U.S. is the dominant power today so per the Thucydides Trap, we’re running a great risk of war between the two countries. And the problem with this interpretation is two-fold, and I think it highlights the importance of remaining skeptical when you read about geopolitical theories and ideas of grand strategy in the media. You need to not only take what’s being presented and find the similarities in the historical comparisons but also the differences because there are plenty of historical differences between the U.S. and China today and Sparta and Athens. For starters, Sparta was on the Peloponnesian peninsula in Greece, that’s why it’s called the Peloponnesian war. It was attached to the rest of Greece by the Isthmus of Corinth.

So Sparta, which was a land power, Athens, which was a naval power. Sparta could threaten Athens in a very unique way on the land. It could walk to Athens. China cannot walk to the United States and that sounds comical but that geographical distinction is really important for starters. The second is Sparta didn’t declare war on Athens, Athens declared war on Sparta in fear of its rise. And it did so in part through naval blockades and ultimately sending more land forces but it was far more effective at least in the beginning of the war, it was at least a 30-year-long war with its navy. So again for that comparison to apply to U.S. and China, the U.S. would have to be the one declaring war on China.

And in almost none of the analyses that reference the Thucydides Trap, at least in most media outlets, they say that China is going to be the aggressor and they will inevitably bounce into the U.S. So I mean the point here isn’t necessarily that you know the idea that the Thucydides Trap but that they’re, when you think about these things, remember you have to look for the differences as well as the similarities, otherwise you are going to misinterpret the lessons to be learned from that historical example.

JLS: Yeah I think that’s a great point and I would just add on to it you know in trying to think through some of what this is, I mean you did a great job of talking about what specifics we need to think about. One of the big differences between the United States and China is that the United States is a naval power and China is really a land-based power.

And we might say that there is you know something to be said for there are sea-based powers that behave in similar ways and there are land-based powers that behave in ways that are particular to land-based powers. So perhaps if we’re thinking about the world, countries like the United States, Great Britain, Australia, Japan, these countries have things in common. They even share challenges in common whereas a country like China. And I know China has a long coast but when you look at China, it really hasn’t been able to bust out of its box in the South China Sea and historically has never really been a naval power. The things that its doing are brand new. You might think of China much more like a landlocked country. Like a Russia or something else like that.

Turkey might be an interesting case study there because Turkey can sort of claim to be both although Turkey has really not developed a navy even though the Bosphorus and the Mediterranean are so important to any power which would try to roam Turkey.

But I guess the point I am trying to make there is like you said. You said somebody couldn’t walk from Sparta to attack Athens. You can’t walk from the United States to attack China and you can’t walk from China to attack the United States. I think the real moment to think about the United States and China coming into conflict, it’s not North Korea and I don’t think it’s trade and it’s not the South China Sea, the moment at which China could even think about you know martialing the forces necessary to take Taiwan, is the moment that I think all this changes.

And I think long term, that’s really the place to watch and I think long-term that’s the place to go. Because if China has the ability to take Taiwan, then you could say that you could walk from China to maybe the United States or at least maybe to the United States’ interests and severely threaten them. The fact of the matter is though we’re not there yet.

And China has so many things that it has to take care of before it gets there that its sort of premature to think about it. But long-term I think Taiwan is the thing that comes up over and over and over again. And the United States will I think have a choice to make, whether it’s going to make a stand and defend Taiwan or eventually let China have it.

XS: Yeah I think those are some interesting thoughts Jacob and the focus on Taiwan, I think is important to keep in mind especially with the reasonable but nevertheless outside focus on North Korea right now because ultimately Taiwan is a greater interest that North Korea. So we’ll see how that plays out. But anyways, this was an interesting conversation. Hope you folks out there learned something, found it interesting. Jacob, thanks for the riveting conversation.

JLS: Thanks Xander, hope you can get out of your car now and get back to a desk.

XS: I’ll talk to you next time.

FREE E-Book:

Geopolitics
101

By Jacob Shapiro
Understanding Geopolitics Starts Here.

Get your FREE copy:




    Please leave this field empty.




Please leave this field empty.

We value your thoughts and opinions. If you have a comment on this article, drop us a note in the window above. Your comments will not be published and will only be shared with our team of analysts.



Related Articles on Podcast

Geopolitical Futures tells you what matters and what doesn’t.

People say you can’t predict geopolitics.

We have.

Subscribe Now
Learn More About Site Licenses