US NATIONAL SECURITY STRATEGY AND CLASSICAL GEOPOLITICS

On January 9, 2018, leading American geopolitical expert Francis P. Sempa in RealClear Defense argued that geopolitics ought to play a greater role in US National Security Strategies. Excerpts below:

What is crucial is that the nation’s foreign and defense policies be rooted in an appreciation and understanding of classical geopolitics. This means that U.S. policymakers should have a knowledge of history in its geographical settings and a familiarity with the works of the greatest geopolitical scholars: Alfred Thayer Mahan, Halford Mackinder, and Nicholas Spykman.

Alfred Thayer Mahan graduated from the Naval Academy in 1859, served in the Union Navy during the American Civil War, and ended up teaching at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, between the 1880s and his death in 1914. He authored 20 books and hundreds of articles on history and naval strategy. He achieved world renown for his book “The Influence of Sea Power upon History” (1890).

His most important geopolitical work was “The Problem of Asia” (1901), but his geopolitical insights can also be found in “The Influence of Sea Power Upon the French Revolution and Empire” (1892), “The Interest of America in International Conditions” (1910), and “Naval Strategy” (1911).

Mahan understood that the United States was effectively an island or insular continental power with no potential peer competitor in the Western Hemisphere but with several such potential competitors in the Eastern Hemisphere. Because the U.S. was separated from the Old World by two great oceans, sea power was essential to its national security.

Mahan viewed the United States as the geopolitical successor to the British Empire. He studied how insular Britain repeatedly used its sea power and economic might to support coalitions of powers on the Eurasian landmass against potential continental hegemons such as the Austrian-Spanish Hapsburgs, Louis XIV’s France, and Napoleon’s empire.

Halford Mackinder was a British geographer, lecturer, and statesman who wrote three of the most important and influential geopolitical analyses between 1904 and 1943. The first, “The Geographical Pivot of History” (1904), was an address to the Royal Geographical Society in London, which later appeared in the Geographical Journal. The second, “Democratic Ideals and Reality” (1919), was written immediately after the end of the First World War and urged the statesmen of the world to construct a peace based on geopolitical realities rather than utopian ideals. The third, “The Round World and the Winning of the Peace,” appeared in Foreign Affairsin 1943 in the midst of the Second World War.

His geopolitical map of the world consisted of the Eurasian-African continent that he called the “World-Island,” because it potentially combined insularity with unmatched population and resources; the surrounding islands, including North America, South America, Great Britain, Japan, Australia and lesser islands; and the world ocean.

The Eurasian landmass or “great continent,” contained most of the world’s people and resources. The “pivot state” or “Heartland” of Eurasia was the inner core region stretching east-to-west from the Lena River in Siberia to the edge of Eastern Europe between the Black and Caspian Seas and north-to-south from just below the arctic circle to Inner Mongolia and the northern Central Asian republics. The Eurasian Heartland was geographically impenetrable to sea power but suitable for mobile land power.

Abutting the Heartland or pivot state on the Eurasian landmass, according to Mackinder, was a vast crescent-shaped region or coastland, which included Western Europe, the Middle East, Southwest Asia, India, China, and the continental nations of the Far East, all of which was accessible to sea power.

Mackinder rounded-out his map with an outer or insular crescent of powers, which included Britain, Japan, Africa south of the Sahara Desert, Australia, Indonesia, North America, and South America.

In 1919, he colorfully suggested that some “airy cherub” should whisper into the ear of Western statesmen: “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland: Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island: Who rules the World-Island commands the world.”

In 1943, Mackinder suggested that a Heartland-based power could be contained by a coalition of powers based in the “Midland Ocean,” which included the United States and Canada, Great Britain, and the nations of Western Europe, a remarkable and prescient description of the NATO coalition that formed six years later in response to a Heartland-based Soviet empire’s expansionist policies. In this latter paper, Mackinder hoped for a “balanced globe of human beings, [a]nd happy because balanced and thus free.”

Nicholas Spykman taught international relations at Yale University in the 1930s and 1940s. He wrote two geopolitical masterpieces, “America’s Strategy in World Politics” (1942) and “The Geography of the Peace” (1944), that latter of which was published posthumously. Spykman accepted the geopolitical division of the world as described by Mackinder, but differed with Mackinder about the power potential of the world’s regions.

For Spykman, the world’s most powerful region was not the landlocked Heartland, but the crescent-shaped area bordering the Heartland that he renamed the “Rimland.” In “The Geography of the Peace”, he issued a counter-dictum: “Who controls the Rimland rules Eurasia, who rules Eurasia controls the destinies of the world.”

Spykman nevertheless agreed with Mackinder that the postwar struggle would potentially pit a Heartland-based Russia against the maritime power of the United States for control of the Rimland, and so it turned out to be. Spykman even foresaw that China would one day be a “continental power of huge dimensions,” and her size, geographic position, natural resources and population would force the United States into an alliance with Japan to preserve the Asian balance of power.

Indeed, Mahan, Mackinder and Spykman all understood that China’s geographical position, resources, immense population, and access to the sea made her potentially a formidable power on the Eurasian landmass. All three scholars understood that American and Western national security depended on the political pluralism of Eurasia—what Mackinder called a “balanced globe of human beings.”

President Trump’s first formal National Security Strategy speaks of the need to preserve a favorable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region, Europe, and the Middle East, which roughly approximates Spykman’s Rimland. It recognizes that the two most likely global competitors of the United States are China and Russia, both continental-sized powers situated in or near Mackinder’s Heartland. It expresses the need for greater investment in naval power in order to maintain and increase our access to allies and bases on the Eurasian landmass, consistent with the teachings of Mahan. In these ways, it reflects an understanding of classical geopolitics.

History and experience always trump theory…An understanding of classical geopolitics will not enable U.S. policymakers to shape the world to their liking, but it may enable them to, in Bismarck’s words, “float with and steer” the “current of events.” The best we can and should hope for is a prudent National Security Strategy that seeks geopolitical balance based on the political pluralism of Eurasia.

American Francis P. Sempa is the author of “Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21stCentury”, “America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War”,…. He has written lengthy introductions to two of Mahan’s books, and has written on historical and foreign policy topics for [various journals and magazines]. He is an attorney, an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University…

Comment: Sempa is correct in his view that classical geopolitics should be the basis of US national strategy. Varldsinbordeskriget has since 2009 numerous times pointed out the importance of meeting the challenge of China, Russia and Iran/Persia poses to the United States and the rest of the West. These totalitarian and authoritarian empires are based on Mackinder’s World Island. If they combine the challenge would be even graver. From time to time Russia and China declare that they will cooperate to challenge American influence. At present it seems as if Russia, Iran/Persia and Turkey is forming an alliance to guide the future of Syria. Sempa correctly argues in his article that the Trump administration recognizes China and Russia as the two most likely comnpetitors. He should have added Iran/Persia.

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