Note: I have received a staggering number of comments from readers on the first two installments in this series. As most of you know, we at GPF try to answer all of the emails we get from our readers. In this case, that hasn’t been possible. So instead, I will devote next week’s installment to addressing some of the comments I received on the first two articles, particularly the second one (many were uncomfortable with my deterministic approach to geopolitics). Important points were made, and I will address as many as I can. Now on to today’s topic.
The purpose of a geopolitical model is to provide a framework for understanding how the international system works. The model doesn’t have to be global or formally mapped out. Thucydides’ model of how Greece worked drew a distinction between coastal cities like Athens and landlocked cities like Sparta and the way in which they interacted with each other. But who we are and when and where we live define our geopolitical views. For example, until the European age of exploration, those who lived in the Eastern Hemisphere didn’t know a Western Hemisphere existed. After the Europeans gained contact with the Americas, the geography of both hemispheres stayed the same, but the way people experienced that geography changed dramatically.
Discovering the underlying order in the geopolitical system gives order to the political decisions made by nations. But this order is not permanent. It shifts as power shifts. The most radical change in the 20th century so far has been the dramatic increase in the importance of North America, in general, and the United States, in particular. That shift has made the three prior models – formulated by Halford Mackinder, Nicholas Spykman and Karl Haushofer – obsolete. I’m proposing a fourth model that will provide a more useful perspective on the world.
But first, we need to outline the three theories that brought us to this point. Mackinder, an English geographer, established the most famous geopolitical model in 1905. His focus was in trying to explain how Eurasia (a combination of Europe and Asia) worked. He referred to it as the World Island, which was the center of the global system, and labeled the center of the World Island the Heartland, which was essentially the Russian Empire. The Heartland was surrounded by the Inner or Marginal Crescent (what Spykman later called the Rimland), which included the European Peninsula, the Middle East, India, parts of Southeast Asia and East Asia. According to Mackinder, whoever controlled the World Island would control the world.
The sea surrounding the World Island was a dimension over which the nations of the Rimland struggled, and in that struggle, they gained or lost power within the Rimland and, therefore, over the Heartland. This model explained Germany’s obsession with Russia, the competition in Europe among major powers, and the British and French concern with the Middle East, India and Indochina. What the model excluded was the United States, which was about to burst into the Rimland with a million troops to settle World War I.
During World War II, Spykman, an American geographer, created a model that countered Mackinder’s. He kept Mackinder’s core model intact but included the United States, which projected power over the Atlantic and Pacific, and de-emphasized the importance of the Heartland. The nations of the Rimland faced each other while the Heartland was passive. He also de-emphasized the Soviet Union, which was understandable considering when Spykman designed the model. The nations of the inner rim were forcing themselves outward, while those of the outer rim were trying to contain them. In effect, Spykman had accepted Mackinder’s model but modified it to account for the changing dynamics produced by World War II. The U.S. was projecting power into the World Island but was itself still marginal.
Spykman continued to assert that whoever controlled Eurasia would control the world. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, command of Eurasia was even harder than before and the U.S. strategy of containment (i.e. controlling the Rimland) no longer absorbed U.S. interests.
The third theory was developed by the German geographer Haushofer. His model had the advantage of trying to create a balanced view of the world and the disadvantage of being formulated by a Nazi as a rationale for German expansionism.
Haushofer’s model divided the world into four distinct blocs: the U.S. zone, which was essentially the Western Hemisphere; the German zone, which included the European Peninsula, Africa and much of the Middle East; the Russian zone, which stretched from Eastern Europe to Siberia but didn’t reach the Pacific; and the Japanese zone, which included East Asia, the Asian Archipelago and Australia. Interestingly, India is included in the Russian zone, but its status is ambiguous.
It was a model that Haushofer believed would form in the future, but it never did. Germany couldn’t hold Europe. Japan couldn’t control East Asia. Its biggest pitfall was the assumption that the United States was oriented toward its south and blocked from the Atlantic and Pacific. In fact, the U.S. came to dominate the Atlantic and Pacific, no European power retained a southern hegemony, the Soviet Union moved deep into Europe, and Asia fragmented.
With all these models now obsolete, a new, less ideological one is required.
The geopolitical challenge we have is to create a model that incorporates global power into a single system. The portion of the Northern Hemisphere between the Arctic Circle and the Tropic of Cancer incorporates the world’s major powers and the most significant nations. Some important regions, including Australia, Brazil, the southern part of India and parts of Southeast Asia, lay outside this band, but the boundaries I am drawing have some flexibility.
This model shows the east-west pattern of geopolitical interactions. The United States interacts with China to the west and Europe to the east. Russia and Europe interact with each other. It therefore moves away from the World Island model and allows the center of the system to shift as power balances change.
Most important, it elevates the oceans to an appropriate level of importance. In this model, the North Pacific and the North Atlantic are critical as they facilitate east-west trade and are arenas of potential conflict. For now, the U.S. is at the center of the model because of its access to and command of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The model is also faithful to dominant international trading patterns.
I want to emphasize that such models are useful but not critical. They don’t affect national strategies, since leaders are already aware of the shape of the global system. They do, however, make it easier to understand national strategy and the marginalization of some countries.