The Elite’s Playbook of Geopolitical and Ideological Quests

Andrew_McKIllop-2
Andrew McKillop

21st Century Wire

In 1992, globalist academic Francis Fukuyama speculated in his book, The End of History, how the end of the Cold War would usher in a new and permanent prevailing paradigm. 

“What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such”, said Fukuyama.

But in 2014, the world has become more dynamic and complex than ever, and likewise, the global playbook for geopolitics is changing rapidly.

In this new multi-polar world, understanding what geopolitical architects in history had in mind back then, is essential to reading the tea leaves for what is to come…

Air power, Sea power, Land power

In a Dec 4, 2013 editorial, Bloomberg reported US military analysts saying that China’s action to control the airspace around several small uninhabited islands and sub-sea rocks it claims “are only a prelude to more action”.  They say China wants to enable wide-area cover for warships to operate along what China calls the First Island Chain. These lie across one of the two direct channels between China’s coast and the blue-water Pacific. Recent air-zone declarations by President Xi Jinping’s government show its determination to firstly obtain Air Supremacy, then move on to exerting maritime power, with a blue-water navy capable of operating across all deep oceans. 

US Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan

History tells us that there have been differing schools of thought on this… 

US Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840-1914)  is credited with Sir Halford Mackinder (1861-1947) as being one of the key original geopolitical thinkers. Throughout his life, Mahan argued for US sea power, and on several occasions sharply disagreed with Mackinder – who claimed that sea power would be trumped and replaced by land transport and mass population movements across borders, deciding who would be the world’s master or Hegemon.

Mahan disagreed. He said that from the 17th century era of European expansion, called the Age of Exploration, only the nation-states that firstly mastered sea power achieved great power status. He backed this contention by arguing that trade power and mercantile trade surpluses – enabling economic dominance – depended on sea transport more than land. Seaborne transportation was not only critical during wartime, he said, but also in times of peace. For Mahan, the first country able to build a warfleet that could destroy an enemy’s main force in a single battle would become the world Hegemon.

As we know, China is already the undisputed master of world trade, with the world’s biggest trade surplus and biggest FX reserves. It already has extensive and growing land route access to all-Asia, Logically therefore, if global power was decided as the early geopolitical thinkers, especially Mahan said it would be, China must now become a major naval military power.

Erasing Borders and Nations

Critic’s of Mahan’s “traditional geopolitics” revert to Mackinder’s also-traditional theories, arguing that while commercial maritime assets remain a major factor in global economic power, the scramble for overseas markets has diminished – despite the economic growth and globalisation of the past few decades. World economic change and technology change, they say, have not only changed the relation of markets to transport, but have erased the role and concept of geographic borders and the need for control over maritime access.

China almost certainly disagrees. India probably also disagrees. Rather certainly the US and Russia disagree. Commercial expansion through physical trade of any kind, and the political-economic goal of running either or both mercantile trade surplus and capital surplus, remain major drivers for national trade policy, economic policy and military strategy in today’s world. The globalising ‘No Border’ concept underlying sea power was essential in Mahan’s 19th century theory of hegemonic power, but Mahan saw this seaborne hegemony as the exact opposite of a zero-sum game. Under the Hegemon – for Mahan it would be the US -  its future undisputed sea power would also enable it to share and spread economic success.

He on occasions went further by arguing that competing rival navies could, or might, bring about the same final state of free and permanent global access for civil maritime fleets. This would be due to permanent stand-off between “second-rank” naval powers.

Where Mahan agreed with MacKinder was that both believed in the concept of The World Heartland, basically Eurasia, with constantly changing and disputed western and southern frontiers. Mahan believed the US could overcome its geographic weakness of being “an outlying continent”, distant from the Eurasian Heartland, through building and maintaining massive naval military power. Along with other contemporary, and later geopolitical theorists, both Mahan and Mackinder believed that human population growth, plus economic growth, would always result in border conflicts and the quest for Lebensraum or “lifespace”, by the Hegemon.

Supporting the argument for always increasing a nation’s naval military power, geopolitical theorists like German thinkers Friedrich Ratzel – and Karl Haushofer whose theories were totally adopted by the German Nazi party – argued that sea power, unlike land power was self-sustaining. These advocates of naval military hegemony maintained it could easily be paid for by maritime trade and hinterland colonial development in conquered lands.

Demographic and Technology Shock

The 19th and early 20th century geopolitical theorists developed their concepts at a time of strong economic growth and continued population growth. European geopoliticians like Ratzel were heavily influenced by traveling through America in the late 19th century, whose population tripled in less than a century. They were also impressed by the growth of industrial power and scientific theory – notably including Darwin’s evolution theory and its quick mutation, by social scientists such as Herbert Spencer, into “Social Darwinism”.

The motor roles of population growth and economic growth were fundamental to them. The early geopoliticians, and also the German school of economic geography argued that “robust population growth”, and what they saw as directly linked and dependent economic growth, were essential in a perpetual struggle for survival between competing nations and states. Nation states, they said, could either grow or die, in the second case losing influence in direct proportion to their declining capacity for militarily defeating rivals.

This ideology was later be instrumental in Imperialism, Nazism, Fascism and Stalinism.

As we know all of the western nations, including the former great powers, have experienced sometimes radical decline in birthrates, and economic growth, for the past 30 years. In some cases, like Japan, the lack of interest by a growing number of persons below 40 years age in pastimes and activities like sex, marriage and childrearing has reached epidemic proportions. On current trends, Japan is losing about 1 million of its national population every 4 years. Russia is losing population at about twice the Japanese rate, and Germany at about one-half that rate. US birthrates, in 2013, reached their lowest rate since national fertility data started being compiled in 1919. All European nations excluding recent immigrant cohorts, have birthrates far below the needed average of 2.2 children per female person during her reproductive life to assure a stable, neither declining nor rising, national population.

Maritime commercial power is logical where industrial production capacities need to be centralized and localized – but when industry becomes “footloose” or “go anywhere” the model loses credibility. This technology-driven change of the global economy, making China’s present trade hegemony only due to its now declining industrial labor cost advantage against OECD countries – and not due to any intrinsic Chinese industrial or technological superiority -  also erases the key role of what geopolitical theorists call ‘Centrality’.


The geopolitical concept of “Mittel-Europa” (see map, above), for example, argued that Europe had a central core-entity composed of the Germanic countries at the western extremity of the Eurasian Heartland, and these countries could be united to create a formidable force. Arguments for this concept (eg. by Neumann) said this entity had always been the target for attack from outside Europe, and was also the key defence of Europe. German geopoliticians argued Mittel Europa had the economic, political and ideological capacity to stave off all attacks – for example by the Ottoman Empire, then seen as the biggest external threat to, and potential ally for Mittel-Europa.

Removing central core-entities like Mittel Europa, for any reason and by any process of change, strips away the logic this concept might have originally had.

Lands, Borders, Peoples in a Complex Future

Nineteenth century geopolitical theory was like Darwin’s theory quickly used to serve political-ideological quests, including British Imperialism, German Nazism, Italian Fascism, Russian Stalinism, Israeli Zionism and other ethnic-based centralized nation state concepts and doctrines. The idea of an ethnic or racial center of the world, for example in Central Europe, also generated the fear that the world center was always under attack by inferior or jealous races and nations.

The exact opposite model is ‘nationless’ regions with ever-moving, ethnically mixed population masses, called the ‘Complexity Paradigm’. This second model is much closer to (for example) today’s concept of a Federal Europe formed by bringing together the present EU28 member states, destroying their national identities, and enabling and encouraging the maximum-possible amount of population movement inside Europe. The earlier, exactly opposing concept of “Volk”, first defined by Swedish geopolitician Rudolf Kjellen in 1917, necessarily had a counterparty of “living space” for the Volk, but when or if neither the volk, nor its living space exist, no strategic military defence or strong centralized governmental systems will be needed.

For several early geopolitical theorists, there could be no state without nationalism, and the easiest or quickest way to build nationalist sentiment is by racism.  Consequently, to promote the interests of the nation-state was also to promote the interests of a particular people or specific racial group, making geopolitics into “ethno-politics”. This race-based concept was underlain by the constant paranoid fear of racial elimination or racial disappearance through competitive breeding.

With little surprise, the Volk theory of hegemonic dominance favored and favors the cult of very strong central government which will always advance the interest of the state against all other interests.

Even in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, critics of “ethno-geopolitics” pointed out that creating extremely orthodox authoritarian states in which all power was held by the central government and in which no dissent was tolerated would necessarily need an ‘Autarkic’, or self sufficient) economy. Self reliance would become the supreme economic goal. Trade dependence would be treated as a sign of weakness, due to trade creating the risk of trade deficits, monetary devaluation and capital loss.

Used in the original version of Keynesianism (by Keynes himself in the 1920s and 1930s), and by Neo-Keynesians of today in 2014, the exact opposite is preached as the way to go. Keynes observed that in the 1920s and 1930s, a form of economic autarchy was operated by most developed countries, seeking to reduce their trade deficits to zero and if possible obtain a mercantile trade surplus, but this did not take place in a vacuum or level playing field. At the time, and a somber warning of what was to come for the Liberal Democracies both Germany, Italy, Japan and the USSR were pursuing global hegemonistic policies with a totalitarian command economy. Crushing trade deficits to zero was a goal to be achieved by any means, for example by establishing “the siege economy’.

Imperialism versus Complexity

Certainly by the early 1920s, Halford Mackinder, then a professor of geography at Oxford University had defined his concept of the World Heartland. He said this was the geographical pivot of history, which also made it certain that national frontiers are subject to change and flux – Mackinder said the map of the world was and will be continually redrawn. He warned that any German alliance with Russia, or a China-Japan alliance, would signal the end of west European-US or “Atlantic” hegemony, adding the forecast that the new and more-powerful hegemonic alliances would reflect a world shift east, towards Asia, for future global dominance.

Today, both in the US and Europe, and in Japan, the fear of Chinese and possibly Indian economic dominance and ‘permanent’ trade surplus status runs alongside the fear of Chinese military dominance of Asia. In the past, the geopolitical defensive action was Imperialism.

IMAGE: Well organised pro-EU protesters in the Ukraine are demanding entry into Europe.


MacKinder’s theory of the Eurasian Heartland is arguably still dominant in strategic thinking in the West today. It implies that the “Atlantic states” of the US and western Europe must ally with Russia, inheritor of the Heartland area formerly occupied by the Soviet Union. Yet at this moment in early 2014, an epic political and ideological struggle pits the European Union and the US, against Russia for control of Ukraine.

When, or if, the Ukraine “falls into the western sphere”, Russia will suffer another loss of its southern “buffer zone”, and be forced further back into the remains of its ex-Soviet heartland – further weakening it’s power. As we know, Russia’s southern frontiers are also threatened by the Islamic revolt, fanned by Saudi Arabia. Putin’s Russia “hangs tough” concerning the Bashr al-Assad regime in Syria for reasons including Russia’s Tartus naval base on the Syrian coast – its only access to “warm waters”.

For Mackinder, the world has and will experience three unique geopolitical periods. The closed Heartland of Eurasia was the previous – and future – geographical pivot of Humanity. Control of this Heartland was obligatory for establishing global control. He argued the seaborne stage of hegemonic power was the age of maritime exploration, which began with Columbus, but drew to a close with the 19th century – for reasons which included industrial development and transport technology. Mackinder argued that the following stage would feature land transportation technology and would reinstate land-based power, as opposed to sea power, as essential to global political dominance.

Eurasia would be resurgent because it was adjacent to the borders of so many important countries, although Mackinder did not specifically mention either China or India. For him, the Eurasian mega-region was strategically and economically buttressed by an inner and outer crescent of land masses, resources and peoples. He therefore proposed an evolutionary process or cycle of geopolitical dominance starting with land-based, moving to sea-based, and then back to land-based power. For American geopolitical theorists, including the present, this reading of the process shaping global dominance directly leads to the theory of ‘Containment’.

Limits to Containment

Containment Theory can be called a neo-imperalist strategy, or surrogate for Imperialism. It is still highly current, and certainly underlays US and Russian posture relating to the Syrian civil war, among other issues. As we know, NATO was created with the main goal of containing the Soviet threat to the “Atlantic states”. The US-USSR cold war of 1948-1991 was often described by American military strategists as Soviet Asian containment.  Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, any number of senior advisers to presidents of the United States, such as the Dulles brothers, Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski were committed to maintaining the containment policy.

Nicholas Spykman is considered to be the founding theorist of containment, along with other political scientists such as George F. Kennan. These analysts utilised concepts such as the heartland, the disputed frontier rimlands, the isolated or offshore continents, and the dynamics of Eurasia – now obligatorily including China and India.

Although the vocabulary of Mahan and Mackinder is still used, the containment theorists reject the argument that the Eurasian Heartland can and will be unified, even politically united, firstly through a dense and wide-area land transport system. One main argument of the containment school is that the frontier zones, disputed by Eurasia and the isolated continents and especially the US/North America, will inevitably be more innovative and more flexible to economic, technological and social change, than the Heartland. Some rimland zones, especially the Arab Middle East and North Africa (MENA), rich in resources but low in population, would according to containment theorists arbitrate critical stages of the conflict for world hegemony.

Other rimlands rich in resources, especially Sub Saharan Africa and Australia, would also play an over-sized role in shaping world geopolitics relative to what Mackinder believed possible. However, Spykman recognized that these rimland regions or isolated continents had not achieved anything of significance in terms of great power status, politics or reach. Spykman focused the United States, Great Britain and Japan as the key containment powers opposing Eurasian dominance. Along with some other containment geopoliticians, Spykman argued that a sort of “coalition of the willing” including the US, Russia, Japan and the EU would at some stage form one alliance, in order contain Chinese and-or Indian expansion.


Spykman was in 1942, able to predict before World War II came to a close – that Japan and Germany would lose the war and China would emerge as a major power in Asia and oppose Japan, finally by war, and that there would be ongoing conflict between the United States and the USSR. He was convinced that conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union was inevitable, because both countries had inevitably conflicting geopolitical destinies.

Karl Haushofer, whose geopolitical theories were adopted by the German Nazi party in 1938, developed a special form a containment theory for the Third Reich, whereby the “Aryans” must pre-emptively invade and colonize the USSR, before this Eurasian Heartland devours Germany and Europe. The Haushofer theory was ‘Kill or Be Killed’ approach. His approach to Lebensraum can be said to have gone beyond previous concepts of race-based colonial expansion, due to his theory that the European Volk, enabled by German Nazi victory, would break down and replace all former concepts of nation, race, ethnic identity and religion.

This special form of containment theory represented a new approach to colonial imperialism. Inside the new Eurasian Heartland, both resources and population densities would be leveled and evenly divided, but the initial stages of creating the new Heartland would necessarily utilise economic autarchy. Haushofer defined autarky as a system in which a country used its economic power to protect itself from aggression by others through imposing tariffs on them, obtaining trade surplus for the Hegemon.

Gateways and Shatterbelts

Since the 1970s, geopolitical theory has moved to consider post-Imperial complex power systems which by definition are transient.

Former hegemonic strategy, always finally military, was defined by geopoliticians like Haushofer as including key goals such as winning strategic control over key geographic areas and transport corridors. Examples included control over the Suez or Panama Canals, needing either colonial occupation or permanent military resources in-zone. To be sure, these two cited sea transport corridors remain strategic along with others such as the Straits of Hormuz and Malacca, but present and future hegemonic dominance also requires the imposition of the Hegemon’s economic and ideological will on others levers of power, with proven dominance in other key areas, such as science and technology.

The former “static model” of geopolitical power was for example, symbolized by the British Empire, the Soviet Union and the sphere of influence for the US defined by the Monroe Doctrine.

This previous model, which held until about the 1970s, did not incorporate “Shatter Belt regions”, where enormous and endemic political volatility exist, but defined them as mostly-passive “rimlands”. Modern theory accepts the reality that world shatter belts have their own internal dynamic and share the common feature of treating dominant world powers as threatening entities which must be resisted. This is a more realistic approach to the ongoing MENA-Middle East and North African process of regional shattering, which can easily spread outside the region. At the same time, several shatter belts are also gateways, points of entry to autonomous or semi-autonomous regional heartlands. The eastern Europe and the Balkans of Mittel-Europa theorists, for example, are both shatter belts and gateways. Also, the two states or categories are interchangeable.

Put another way, when a local or regional heartland destabilizes, its gateways will also destabilize, and vice versa. When the Cold War ended in 1989, large-area destabilization was in no way forecast, but geopoliticians of today argue that the 1948-1989 cold war had only stifled or frozen large-area geopolitical dynamics across a vast area of the world. These forces are now free, generating new conflicts in the world. Lines of fracture are complex and multivariate, from culture and ideology to economic and monetary power. Single-theme theories such as Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” have already been weakened or disproved, due to complexity. The potential, for example, of shatter belts becoming semi-autonomous and durable entities, with local industrial capability, is no longer fanciful as another direct consequence of the end of the Cold War, technology change and the rise of economic globalisation.

‘Peace in the Feud’

Former Israeli leader Ariel Sharon (right), and Oded Yinon (left).

Defined and published as a geopolitical doctrine for Israel by then-foreign ministry adviser Oded Yinon (photo, left) at the time of Ariel Sharon’s disastrous invasion of Lebanon and occupation of Beirut, the ‘Yinon Plan’ called for the decapitation of Arab state governments, in order to create what ethnologists call “the peace in the feud” within and between smaller, localised powers – all unable to oppose Israel. Hegemons applied a form of this doctrine, for example by traditional colonial rule using “divide-and-rule”, but the present and emerging de facto world geopolitical context of shatter belts and gateways lends itself to a forecast of this becoming a global paradigm.

The decline of nationalism and national identities, mass migration population movements and economic globalisation all hinder or prevent previous or “classic” hegemonic rivalry and conflict, and create an outlook for possibly rapid change of existing national borders and territories. Examples certainly include the MENA region but may also include entities such as the European Union – as one current example, the partition of Ukraine into a pro-EU western segment, and a pro-Russian eastern segment forming two new countries is logically possible, of course with conflict. Several EU member states, such as the UK, Spain and Belgium also face democratic-based and powerful separatist movements inside their national territories. In “classic” hegemonic theory, the Hegemon wielded major economic and monetary power and controlled a large contiguous land area with essentially no internal frontiers – but this final state is also possible by ongoing processes of change, but without a World Hegemon. Extreme high debt levels for the central power of Russia, similar to the US debt crisis, also favor the loss of regional power for Russia and increasing isolationism for the “outlying continent” USA.

The link between the present geopolitical state of flux and the early geopolitical theories of Mahan and Mackinder is found in the current process being a continuous state of change. As Mahan said, maritime power enabled permanent go-anywhere access, and large-area hegemonic power across land areas enabled the same access, but as Mackinder was able to accept, from the 1920s there will always be disputed rimlands and frontiers. In today’s world, these are radically expanding, and the 19th and 20th century hegemons are forced back into smaller heartlands, which for example makes it extremely difficult to imagine that China can become the 21st century Hegemon.

Modern geopolitcal theorists note that the “cold war bipolar model” was only transient, and will be succeeded by other models and processes. As entities like G-20 and the WTO prove, the world is now multi-polar, but relics of previous hegemonic entities act like icebergs for the new multi-polar Titanic, which will inevitably generate new multi-polar forms and types of conflict.

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