sabato 31 gennaio 2015

Kaplan and the “revenge of geography”. A survey on the geopolitical evolution of international relations. Part One.

Robert Kaplan’s recent book “The Revenge of Geography. What the map tells us about the coming conflicts and the battle against fate” (2012) represents a truly remarkable overview of the international relations during the past years as well as an astonishing outline of the main geopolitical theories of the late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries. The author follows the history of the world’s pivotal areas showing that timeless geographical truths and natural facts do exist and cannot be overthrown by human forces or globalization. Interestingly, Kaplan deviates from the common view that considers globalization as the key for understanding the new world order and instead proposes geography as the main factor leading to the changes in world events.
In the preface to his book, the author exposes the main thesis that lays behind it, which is the acknowledgment that despite globalization and the global free market economic model, geography still maters when considering the international relations. His explanation of geography’s relevance uses several examples related to the physical characteristics of a country and to elements like climate, topography or distance from the sea, displaying how these affect the foreign policy of States. For instance, Kaplan underlines how mountains represent a conservative force often protecting within their defiles indigenous cultures against the fierce modernizing ideologies that have too often plagued the flatlands: the historical struggle between hill-peoples and valley-peoples is here investigated and summarized. Likewise, the author already contemplates several concrete scenarios such as the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Significantly, he introduces Germany by using the comparison of the “big prison” to clarify that historical Germany always lacked of defined borders on the East and thus was compelled to move eastwards to seek for wider spaces for her crammed population (Drang nach Osten). Indeed, a clear geographic history of Germany is set out in the preface, highlighting the ever vulnerability of man-made borders.
After this short introduction, the book carries on the study in Part 1. First of all, Kaplan describes when was the sense of geography lost in international relations. To understand this loss, he quotes political thinkers like Francis Fukuyama and President Woodrow Wilson. He also tries to explain the limits of liberal universalism and wilsonianism after 9/11. To prove his idea on how illogical can borders be, he describes the fakeness of the Balkan borders after the 1992-95 war in former Yugoslavia and of the African countries that arose from decolonization. The consideration of the idea of Mitteleuropa seen as a shrine for human social and political progress is likewise particularly enlightening and thrilling. In these pages, the author already introduces Mackinder, a thinker constantly cited throughout the whole book: the British geographer did not consider as realistically existing the idea of Mitteleuropa, as revealed by W.P. Parker in his work “Mackinder: Geography as an Aid to Statecraft”. Moreover, the two world wars and the Cold War are interpreted through Mackinder’s thesis on the Heartland, or geographical pivot of history, because the former were all about whether or not Germany would dominate the Heartland of Eurasia whereas the latter whether the United States would manage to contain the Soviet expansion into the Marginal Crescent, beyond the USSR-controlled Heartland. The following pages describe well Prussia’s eastward orientation and portray significant remarks on Germany’s historical frontiers: Western Germany would belong to maritime Europe whereas Eastern Germany to the continental land power realm. Thus, within Germany herself we are able to see the struggle between sea power and land power, or, say, between the European Rimland and the Eurasian Heartland. The geographical features of Germany appear to be of the utmost strategic importance in demarking the Heartland from the coastland; indeed, Germany played a relevant role in making either the maritime or the continental realm of Europe prevail. The German awareness of geography and strategy as tools for survival was the main thrust of German foreign policy over the last centuries. After further considering the situation in the Balkans, Kaplan introduces realism by considering it a political idea in seek for the lesser evil rather than the utter good (cf. Hans Morgenthau). The weakness of the German frontiers has represented a never-ending threat for Eastern Europe, Russia and France and the overall German consolidation and expansion has influenced a lot the political evolution of the neighboring States. Furthermore, Kaplan underlines how geography can affect the political system of a country by setting the examples of Great Britain and Germany. Geography can explain the historical and current conditions of a State: land-lock can be the most notable reason for underdevelopment, the peculiar Sub-Saharan climate and landscape may explain African poverty, American freedom-mentality may be due to oceanic isolation and to the quasi-islander status, latitudes exist that seem to assure better development conditions. The periphery of the balance of power, as exposed by Morgenthau, which means the colonialist expansion unto the peripheral world by great powers, avoided total wars between world powers during the nineteenth century: only as soon as almost all of the peripheries had been already subdued and controlled did a chief conflict break out in 1914. However, what do we mean by considering a geopolitical approach to the study of history? Briefly, nothing more than the relevance of geography for the studying of the history and strategy of nations. Geography is the very basis for strategy and statecraft and, as above said, it leads a State towards a specific foreign policy and towards its own peculiar destiny.
Sir Harold J. Mackinder
All of Chapter 4 is dedicated to Mackinder’s thought. Understandably, the main attention focuses on his famous theory on the “Heartland” or “Geographical pivot of history”. Shortly, the location of Central Asia within the Eurasian Heartland represents the pivot on which the fate of great empires lays. Mackinder thoroughly analyzes the history of Eurasia paying greater attention to the struggle between sedentary and nomadic peoples. The whole birth of the European civilization is an outcome of the combat against Asia. Geography contributed to the origin of the European nations against the wide flatland of Russian steppes. Southward the historical Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Principality of Muscovy laid the heartland steppes and for by far the longest part of its history, Europe had to fight against the land-power hordes coming out from the Heartland on one hand and against the sea-power raiders coasting its shores on the other. The Mongolic invasions of Genghis Khan and descendants left an indelible mark in European mentality. For instance, after the Mongolic subjugation Russia had nourished a sense of insecurity that compelled her to expand in order to feel safe. On the other hand, the European political rise is a consequence of a lesser Mongolic domination. Kaplan keeps closely in mind Mackinder’s model to unfold his analysis. Eurasia holds four main marginal pan-regions: Europe. the Greater Middle East, the Far East, the Indian subcontinent. Each of these are somewhat geographically vulnerable: for instance, the Middle East is vulnerable to sea powers, although at the same time gaining benefits from them. The discovery of the route to India via Cape of Good Hope, bypassing the Muslim-geopolitical barrier, not to mention the discovery of the New World, procured incalculable advantages for Europe. Whilst considering the historical events that occurred in Eurasia, Kaplan describes Russia’s expansion on land as a need to police the steppe, which surprisingly then led to Russian control over the enormous spaces of Siberia. Europe and Russia embodied throughout the centuries the struggle of a liberal sea power against a reactionary land power. Indeed, there seems to be a connection concerning the role of the sea for the birth of liberalism and democracy through the example of the United States. The Eurasian Heartland pivotal region represents a landlocked area, whereas the outer Eurasian regions that lay on top of the Rimland, or Marginal Crescent, do have access to the seas: think of Finland, Poland, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Persia, India and China. The railways guaranteed Russian control over the greater part of the Heartland. Furthermore, the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) embodied the example of a sea power (Japan) winning over a land power (Russia), in a similar fashion as the following victory of Great Britain against Germany during World War 1. In addition, what to say about the two world wars? What else were they if not mere struggles for the control of the Eurasian Rimland, from Eastern Europe to the Himalayas? Similarly, the US containment of the USSR over Caucasia and Central Asia during the Cold War exemplified once again the tensions for the control of the Central Asian pivot, the key for the hegemony on Eurasia (the World-Island) and the rest of the world. We must remember that Mackinder’s pivot thesis dates back to the year 1904; still it already depicted the idea of a global interactive system despite the Euro-centric vision of the time grounded on the continental organization consequent to the Congress of Vienna (1814-15). In his “Democratic Ideals and Reality” of 1919 Mackinder updates his “Geographical pivot of history” view of 1904. This new book describes the history of the contraposition between land powers and sea powers starting from ancient Egypt. The book also introduces the notions of World-Island and dry land; the Eurasian thesis and the World Island’s unicity are furtherly exposed. There is a quick description of the British rule over the so-called “World Promontory”, the entire breadth of Eurasia and Africa represents one organic unit (Eurafrasia), the Heartland again incarnates the area that affects the fate of the World-Island. Finally, Kaplan quotes Mackinder’s well-known statement concerning his geographical pivot of history: “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland: Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island: Who rules the World-Island commands the world”. We may add that the entire structure of this thought follows slightly the shape of a Russian matreshka, with inner smaller parts hidden underneath the bigger ones. It is not until the end of World War 1 that the British geographer introduces the vital need that there should be a tier of States between Germany and Russia: this idea will help forging Clemenceau’s Cordon sanitaire strategy meant to contain the spread of communism through the birth of buffer states between Western Europe and Soviet Russia. The British opposition to the German kaiserdom, the Russian tsardom and the Soviet Union is a consequence of their will to control Eastern Europe and the Heartland. In 1919, Mackinder considered Eastern Europe as the key to gain possess of the Heartland and the area from which the power of Germany and Russia derived. Once again, Eastern Europe was conceived as a “crush zone” liable to be overrun by either a land power originating from the Heartland or by a sea power coming from Western Europe. Notably, the idea of a bulwark of Eastern European States in order to avoid an imperial expansion brought to the birth (or rather re-birth) of those countries that emerged out of the demise of the USSR: Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Only after 1989 has hope arisen that an independent Central Europe could survive, standing between the two land powers of Germany and Russia. Moreover, Mackinder’s international overview somehow foresaw the birth of NATO. In 1919, Mackinder enlarged the pivotal area’s width, thus including the entire Soviet empire in the years of its heyday plus Norway, Northern Turkey, Iran and Western China. As far as the Middle East is concerned, its extension represents a “passage-land” from Europe to the Indies and from the northern part of the Heartland to the southern, and its location, making it the crossroad of the World-Island, is necessarily strategic. The possession of Greece too has a predominant role due to her closeness to the Heartland. Likewise, it is very interesting to consider that India and China, both sited beside the Heartland, managed to self-develop autonomously. Adding the final remarks on Russia, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 denoted a quest of sea power, and the secession, after 1991, of Belarus, Ukraine, Caucasia and Central Asia represented a loss of important parts of the Heartland.
Karl Ersnt Haushofer
After considering Mackinder, Kaplan’s book illustrates German Geopolitik. To start with, the first thinker cited is Friedrich Ratzel. The German geographer focused mainly on the idea of Lebensraum, or vital room, on the belief that a country’s borders are ever shifting, on the doctrine of space and soil and on Darwinist biology applied to geography. The following thinker mentioned is Rudolf Kjellén, a Swedish political scientist that coined the word “geopolitics”. He opposed the idea of Russian expansionism towards the Baltic Sea and starkly supported the birth of a Greater German empire, adding to geographical issues racial and biological concerns over peoples and nations. Another tremendously important German geographer cited in the book is Karl Haushofer. He too stressed his attention on the struggle between land powers and sea powers. He describes in his own words Mackinder’s Heartland, and Kaplan refers to his examinations by calling them the “Nazi distortion”: indeed Haushofer’s ideas influenced National socialist geopolitics and Hitler’s personal foreign policy agenda. Haushofer proposed the dissolution of Eastern Europe into small buffer States, the demise of the British Empire and the crash of Soviet Russia, whilst supporting the birth of a Greater German empire. He also coveted to partition the world into several pan-regions, ruled respectively by the United States, Germany, Italy and Japan (this plan was somehow the theoretic basis from which the idea of the Tripartite Pact came out). He likewise offered the Germans (specifically the Nazis) a coherent imperial doctrine, overturning Mackinder’s balance of power geopolitics and considering the need to wipe out all frontiers and to build roads for the master folk instead. In Haushofer’s point of view, German Geopolitik was obliged to serve the purpose of leading an unending warfare in seek for room for the crammed Teutonic nation. Nonetheless, Haushofer approved the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and was skeptical towards the successive German invasion of the USSR, although he was clearly aware of the importance for Germany to gain control over the Soviet-controlled Heartland. Believing in a never-ending state of war amongst nations, Haushofer’s political thought can be somewhat linked to that of Hobbes and Darwin. His whole analysis takes the move from idea that nations suffer from a crisis of room that compels them to expand in order to survive: a lack of expansion and a territorial stagnation would then lead a folk to its natural death.
The study of Nicholas J. Spykman’s Rimland thesis follows the chapter on German Geopolitik. Once again, geography is the central pivot for the Dutch-American thinker. Indeed, he considers the American location as the world’s best. He begins his speculation with the idea that international relations rely on anarchy and therefore the quest for power incarnates little more than a mere need to survive. Unlike Haushofer, however, Spykman does not believe in domination but rather in the safety of equilibrium and thus seeks for a balance of powers in international relations. He believes that only in temperate latitudes can history advance, by which he means the Northern Hemisphere between the 20th and 60th parallel north. Whereas Mackinder bared a Eurasian-centric view, Spykman uncovered a worldwide one. In considering the regional hegemony of the US in the Western Hemisphere, he reminded that America built her hemispherical power through controlling the Caribbean basin. Mackinder considered the struggle for the Heartland as a contraposition between land power and sea power, with a Heartland-based land power in the better position; instead, Spykman believes the opposite: it is the sea power laying in a far better position, he states. Spykman writes about Russian encirclement and describes his own personal view of the Heartland, seeing it contained within a belt of mountains that run from the Carpathians to the Korean peninsula: people would have always fought over this area. Thence, Spykman states that outside the Heartland lays the Rimland and that the control of it opens the door to world power. This depends on the fact that whereas Mackinder’s Heartland can only irradiate power over Eurasia, the maritime-oriented Rimland can over both Eurasia and the outside marginal world. Accordingly, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan epitomizes the attempt to combine land power and sea power, when a Heartland-dominating superpower tried to control gradually the Rimland and its seashores starting from the Afghan pivotal land. In fact, during World War 2, the USSR had full control over the Heartland and the Axis powers an increasing dominion over the Rimland at the expenses of Britain and the United States, until the latter re-affirmed on it their own hegemony by stopping the Axis territorial expansion in North Africa, the Pacific Ocean and Indochina. After that conflict, the competition for the Rimland continued throughout the Cold War. Under these circumstances, the containment was an attempt of sea powers (USA and UK) to marginalize USSR’s land power. To oppose the containment strategy, the Soviets interacted with Rimland countries, going so far as to support militarily filo-Soviet governments in the Greater Middle East, in the Korean Peninsula, in Indochina, etc. Containment is the name used by peripheral sea powers for what the Heartland powers call encirclement. Helping us with a scheme, we may affirm as follows:

Sea power = Containment                 vs.                    Heartland power = Encirclement

In relation to the control over the Rimland

Sea power’s interest = to avoid that Heartland and Rimland are under the same ruler and thus controlling bridgeheads on the Rimland

Heartland power’s interest = to break the sea power encirclement by gaining control over parts of the Rimland

Spykman opposed all kinds of European unification for the sake of safeguarding the balance of power: the idea of a federal Europe would have altered the United States’ predominance over the Atlantic Ocean and weaken its position in the whole Western Hemisphere. Briefly, we can assert that both Mackinder and Spykman’s concerns were two:

That of a single land power dominating Eurasia by joining the Rimland to the Heartland;

That of a single sea power dominating the Eurasian Rimland from its Motherland headquarters and through the rule over the seas.

Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan
Finally, Chapter 7 of Kaplan’s book introduces American Admiral Alfred T. Mahan’s studies and the effect of sea power over geopolitical thought. According to Mahan, sea power represents a lesser threat to freedom because the mastery over the sea spontaneously lead to less autocratic political systems and to a predominance of trade over economic autarchy. The hinges of geopolitical interest lay not in the Heartland of Eurasia but rather in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans: through their control, a maritime nation can project power around the Eurasian Rimland. Consequently, a nation like Russia appears to be particularly vulnerable because of her distance from the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. Indeed, the nations sited underneath Russia and above the Indian Ocean characterized the debatable ground of Asia: not per chance, this area was the core of the contraposition between czarist Russia and imperial Britain during the nineteenth century. As we can see, all of Mahan’s thought relies upon an ocean-centric view. Notwithstanding, his sea power doctrine ultimately underestimated a land power’s sudden rise and expansion through land, as occurred with Nazi Germany. Still, the control of the seas is the way through which a nation can gather wealth and richness via trade and exchanges, but to become possible it implied the birth of a maritime fellowship: only a multilateral system of maritime alliances could afford to defend the global commons such as free trade. There is no doubt that Mahan’s book “The Influence of Sea Power upon History” helped the hasty naval buildup prior to World War 1, that we know being one of the main reasons for the conflict’s breakout.
To conclude, Kaplan’s book first part contains very accurate descriptions and examples on what has been the geopolitical thought of yore. The author does not neglect the major thinkers that contributed to the enrichment of this discipline. The geopolitical theories that up to now we have tried to illustrate are not just something belonging to the past but are indeed very current in today international relations. Kaplan’s statement is correct when he clinches that globalization did not eradicate the overwhelming power of geography.         

Haushofer's pan-regional world



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