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EMPIRE LESSON ONE: Who Controls the Heartland, Controls the World

Andrew_McKIllop-2Andrew McKillop

21st Century Wire

The battle for Syria, Iraq and Iran has a lot to do with controlling energy markets, but there is a bigger chessboard at play here. 

American Trilateralist and central planner, Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote the book, The Grand Chessboard, just after the conclusion of the cold war era, and laid out the case for a Eurasian geostrategy where the United States, with no real Eurasian challenger, would eventually emerge as the dominating power. But that outcome is far from certain now.

To understand where the geopolitics of the region is heading, and whether or not the current EU and BRICS formations will be able to hold their shape, it’s important to look back at recent history and previous imperial masterplans for dominating Europe and Asia.

Why Nazi Germany Went East

By 1919, an English geographer named Halford Mackinder had refined his “World Island Theory” to a few precepts, including the title of this article. At the time, his heartland/world island was young Soviet Russia, East Europe, Arabia and North Africa, outside of which were the “outlying islands and continents”. The first category included the UK and Japan, the second included North and South America.  India, China and Persia had a special status.

Very influential German thinkers such as Karl Haushofer, the tutor of Rudolf Hess, reacted to Kaiser Germany’s defeat (allied with Ottoman Turkey in World War I),  by arguing that Hitler’s Third Reich must march East and control eastern Europe, and then take the ‘Pivot Area’ heart of the World Island – Russia. This geopolitical imperative was formalized by the Nazi war slogan “Drang nach Osten!”.

Image Source: Wikipedia

Haushofer, whose role in setting Nazi war policy was important, was however not considered a war criminal by the Allied victors in 1945, but he and his wife committed suicide shortly after being interrogated by Nuremburg trial staff, in 1946. His main role in world geopolitics was to have defined German geopolitik as a military-economic strategy, unlike the more-theoretical geopolitics of Halford Mackinder, or his American counterpart Alfred Mayhan.

The World Island Since 1900

Mackinder, Mayhan and other originators of geopolitics such as Oswald Spengler or Rudolf Kjellen were less interested in processes, than final states left on the map.

The German, Karl Haushofer (image, left), was just the opposite. He argued that all public policy and national politics can be shaped and decided on the basis of planetary-scale geopolitical goals. His previous experience as a military analyst and adviser, shortly before World War I in Japan, where he was received by the Emperor then deciding how Japan would act in the coming war, convinced him that Japan had misunderstood its “outlying island” status.

Haushofer’s Geopolitik, adopted by the ascending German Nazi party, was easily, rapidly and radically condensed into a set of policies for world dominance. The UK, being another outlying island like Japan, had compensated this weakness by creating a British imperial Pan Region, but for Haushofer the ‘World Island State’ would go much further. The ‘pivot area’, especially Russia after a Nazi conquest, would forcibly transform and unite previous pan regions through the process of ‘Lebensraum’ – a new form and type of European colonialism. This was comparable, for him, to Genghis Khan’s massive and rapid conquest and colonization originating from the Mongols’ world island base. At its peak about 1275, the Mongol empire stretched from Korea to eastern Europe and Siberia to the Arabian peninsula, making it the largest, as well as fastest-ever world colonization event.

In the early days of the Ottoman Empire, then modern Turkey was a mere “relic state” of the Mongol empire, as were other northern Ottoman territories. The Ottoman Empire had no set economic policy, and had employed a policy of selective adoption of prevailing religions and creeds in its conquered lands, unlike the Mongols had no official “state religion”.

Economic organization was set by Haushofer’s geopolitik, as firstly Autarky using tariff protection, operated during the transition period before total control by the World Island State broke down all previous national, and then ethnic and racial identities, creating a one-only “Volk”. Mass population movement by the Volk, Haushofer said, would unify resource endowments and equalize incomes as less densely populated, more resource-rich regions were later colonized. Concerning the outlying continents of North and South America, both classic geopoliticians like Mackinder, and Haushofer believed their future would be isolationist, like that of India and China. They would sue for peace with the all-powerful World Island. Black Africa would forever be dominated.

Communism and Islam

Both of these doctrines or political and religious philosophies, and sets of precepts for international relations and economic organization, originated inside The World Island. Both proclaim the unity of Mankind and the elimination of all national, ethnic, racial or class differences. Enemies of these doctrines declare that both Communism and the Islamic faith are conquest-based and -oriented.

While Marxism is often called a “shadow form” of Christianity and Judaism, and cannot be called a racist doctrine, whereas radical forms of Islam including Hanbalism, Salafism and Wahabism can easily be called race-based and pro-Arab, and certainly in the case of 18th century Wahabism, an Arabist reaction to Turkish Ottoman conquest and rule. Both doctrines however converge in being radically-opposed to classic and conventional Western liberal and humanist values. As two examples, the competitive market economy and democracy have no place in either doctrine.

The Nazi Geopolitik of Haushofer, like Communism and Islam, defined culture itself as the main tool for wielding control over large, continent-sized areas far surpassing the role and potential of commercial or military power, which he defined as only able to provide short-term conquest and control. In other words, Official Culture and Religion, using brainwashing would become obligatory.

Other linkages between these three doctrines – Nazi geopolitics, Communism and Islamism – are found in precepts such as the critical need for high and constant birthrates but conversely not the growth of very large cities – due to the Lebensraum goal of wide area coverage and control.

Published in 1916 by John Buchan, his best-selling thriller ‘Greenmantle’, which Tsar Nicholas of Russia had as bedside reading, until he was assassinated in 1918, used the plot line of Germany’s Kaiser rousing the eastern legions of Islam against the embattled British Empire and its then-one hundred million Muslim subjects. Although serving as a British intelligence officer, critics say it is unlikely Buchan had special knowledge of Kaiser Wilhelm’s intentions, but the Kaiser’s goal of fomenting an anti-British Muslim revolt was clear by at latest 1898. That year he made a state visit to Jerusalem, at the invitation of Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II. His pact with the Ottomans included an early version of Drang nach Osten, extending German imperial reach for counterparty German support to the Ottomans’ own pre-1917 goal – of an Islamic Ottoman march westward – Drang nach Westlich!


The German-Turkish alliance was therefore in no way a Clash of Civilizations, but an alliance of geostrategic interests making their mutual and combined action in World War I very rational.

Certainly for German strategists of World War I, and probably for Nazi strategists later, the Persian Empire was always included as a goal for conquest, but Persia’s large population incited care and discretion in proclaiming that goal. Like the Hindu or post-Moghul Empire, and the Chinese power zone, this was a de facto limit or boundary for the World Island, which in the German-Ottoman version was essentially a German European-Turkish Islamic compact for geopolitical power.

Today, Nobody Controls the Heartland

Great powers abhor power vacuums – and this has been proven many times in human history. Taking the case of “outlyer island” Britain and its huge but short-lived Empire or Pan Region, this was a classic example of overreach. Continuous expansion absorbing “non-performing” lands, resources and peoples was often purely to exclude rivals, but the costs of expansion cut short the life expectation of the Empire. Russia’s outreach in the Caucuses can be seen as possibly comparable, the costs always outweighing the gains, but as with Nazi Germany this geopolitical imperative has always been strong for Russian ideologists, from long before the 1917 Revolution.

This geopolitical urge to expand, ignoring economic realities, drives Saudi Arabia’s Wahabite ideologists of today, dreaming of a new Islamic Empire or Grand Caliphate, funded by a seemingly endless supply of petro-dollars.

In the key region for this “imperial dreaming” since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1917, the Middle East North African (MENA) region has been up for grabs for a near-century. It draws in rivals on a continuing basis, but the role of oil and gas has obscured the other geopolitical drivers. One thing is sure – nobody wields complete unshared power in this region.

On a superficial basis, it is all too easy to place Saudi Arabia as the new would-be Ottoman power, and the US, plus or minus its European allies as Saudi’s Kaiser-Germany surrogate, with these two allying to seal the southern gateway to the northern pivot area of the World Island, still controlled and owned by Russia.

As far as these Empire Games go, Russia is the enemy, but this quick readout is light years away from the real picture, however. Asia’s two giant super-economies and super-nations, China and India, have recently become countervailing powers outside of the World Island. The US has (been forced to) become more isolationist. South American geopolitical reach, and ambitions are non-existent. Both Russia and Europe are engaged in demographic and economic downsizing. Apart from atavistic “calls for colonial glory” such as France’s small wars in Africa, future expansion by Russia or Europe is unlikely – and will always be opposed on the ground. The current EU expansion attempt to absorb the Ukraine is a good example of this, and some argue that this is essentially the new EU Soviet with Germany at the center, who trying to encircle Russia, in an attempt to gradually grind away at its dominant position at the heart of Eurasia.

This resets the playing field to historical precedents such as the world before the Mongol expansion, the British empire, Marxist communism and the recent recrudescence of Islamic empire-dreaming.

The pre-imperial “multi-polarity” process and system of world power is likely to dominate.

Also, the reemergence of city states, or even monarchies may be on the uptick again.

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