Competing Maps of Eurasia: Mackinder vs Barnett & the US Asian ‘Shift’
It is a slow fall for Asian stuff. China is behaving better; Japan and SK are quiet; NK always seems like its building a new military installation somewhere, but it’s fairly quiet too. If you missed KJI’s birthday though, click here. The big recent new is the US decision to ‘shift’ toward Asia and the placement of US forces in Australia. Last year, I predicted that the US would lead a containment ring around China (yes, I realize that that is not a very gutsy ‘prediction’ at this point in the game). I see this as the first step. So here are some big geopolitics thoughts on the US shift, because I was re-reading Mackinder for work.
Halford Mackinder practically founded the field of geopolitics single-handedly with his famous article and the above map. It became the informal basis of US strategy in WWIIand to certain extent, justified Cold War containment: keeping the Soviets penned into Northeast Eurasia. So it’s easy to roll this over to China. Mackinder’s map privileges land power. Mackinder thought the center of Eurasia constituted the ‘heartland’ that would be the pivot of global dominance. (China could arguably be a part of that, as it is far more populous than Siberia.) His famous quote was: Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; Who rules the Heartland commands the World Island; Who rules the World Island commands the World.” Generations of German, Russian/Soviet, and (to a much lesser extent) American cold war strategists, took this as established wisdom. And indeed, I argue similarly in my Geopolitics article. The US is safe behind two big oceans, so long as no one controls all of Eurasia. If Napoleon, Hitler or Stalin had managed to control that whole stretch though, then a transoceanic invasion of the US might actually be possible. (Inter alia, it was Mackinder who coined that term ‘Eurasia.’) Probably the most famous exposition of the heartland theory’s importance for the US was from Frank Capra (yes, the guy who made It’s a Wonderful Life.)
Barnett comes more from the traditional American school privileging seapower, best known from the work of A T Mahan. Mahan thought (and Teddy Roosevelt agreed) that a powerful US navy was a the shield of the nation against the chaos of Eurasia. There is no need to get into long wars about the heartland; off-shore balancing is possible. The long US naval tradition is why the heartland school was never as dominant in the US as in Eurasia. Even though the US invented the nuke and has fought a land war in Asia for a decade now, the US is still firstly a naval power. I also think Barnett’s map reflects the American infatuation with technology and capitalism. Mackinder’s image is very traditional or realist: big states with big industries build big armies to conquer big spaces. This is a recipe every land strategist from Sun Tzu to Clausewitz could love. Barnett goes around all that to re-write geopolitics politically not militarily. In post-industrial economies, the control of land isn’t so important anymore (people’s brains are a lot more important than their manual labor in the fields of Ukraine). The critical divide is then between those states that function and those that do not. The functioning ones join globalization, get rich in the process, and then can use their wealth to set the rules. The nonfunctioning ones can’t grasp the benefits of globalization, generate all sorts ofasymmetric problems, and are therefore the locus of military conflict. Policing failing statesas spaces is more important the conquest of strategic territory. In Barnett’s world, Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, etc. are the threats of the future; in Mackinder’s China should start bullying central Asia and maybe Russia soon.
Has Barnett’s vision of Eurasia divided into functioning and failed states replaced Mackinder’s land-power realism? It seems to me that this is a good test of whether or not globalization is really changing a lot. If China and Russia become status quo powers, then yes. Then the only big issues will be integrating the periphery and rogues into the world economy. In this environment, salafism and other ‘remnants of war’ becomes the biggest challenger (headache really) to the US. But Russia, and especially China, pursue major changes in the land order in Asia, then score one for the realists. And America’s decision to base in Australia now too says Obama is leaning against Barnett-Mahan offshore balancing, toward forward deterrence of Asia domination.
I would add to other factors to this macro-musing:
1. A strong test of these competing maps is Chinese and Russian behavior if US power weakens. Radical Islamists, driven by the fear of God, will assault the West regardless of the chances of victory. So in that sense, Barnett will always be correct. But Russia and China are more rational. If US unipolarity holds, they are not likely to challenge the US, so then we’ll never know if the Russians and Chinese have changed because of globalization or were just deterred. But if the US declines, if military power genuinely disperses, and multipolarity emerges, then look for a challenge. As Beinart notes, “Offshore balancing, by contrast, reemerges when the money and bravado have run out.”
2. Global warming will raise the importance of the Heartland. In 1943, Mackinder noted the importance of the river basins in the Heartland. Fortunately for the West, those that flowed into the Arctic were blocked mostly be ice. Russian/Soviet naval power was forced to the fringes – Vladivostok, Leningrad, Odessa. If the Arctic truly meets permanently, perennial land power Russia will immediately become a sea power too. This would be an unprecedented shift, as geographic obstacles like the Arctic ice pack have generally been understood to be permanent, immovable features of geopolitics.
Robert E Kelly
Department of Political Science & Diplomacy
Pusan National University