domenica 1 febbraio 2015

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

If the first part of Kaplan’s book focuses its attention on the theoretic geopolitical models of the past, the second and third parts describe specific present-day international scenarios, exploring them through the pattern pointed out before.
The first chapter of Part 2 is dedicated to the European Union. After proposing some general reflections over the present status of the EU, Kaplan wishes to analyze more accurately the influence of Asian invading hordes throughout European history, along a line of continuity that binds the first Cimmerian invaders of the II millennium B.C. to the final Mongolic ones of the XIII century A.D. Once again, the author underlines the impact of climate and geography for Europe’s development and rise. The landscape of the European continent abounds with mountains, forests, productive fields, jagged shorelines and natural harbors and docks. The multiplicity of European civilization and the variety of the peoples that here dwell hinge upon the natural richness and diversity of the continent’s geography. Diversity, dynamism and particularism have been the key words for the birth of a common “idea of Europe”, which still holds the record of having bestowed the highest contributions to world civilization. The notion of Europe as a sole political unity, as the EU now pretends to be, dates back to the time of Charlemagne, the founder of the Holy Roman Empire. After Charlemagne, other statesmen endeavored to unify Europe into a single polity once again: the Hohenstaufen emperors, emperor Charles V of Hapsburg, Louis XIV of France, Napoleon, Kaiser Wilhelm and, ultimately, Adolf Hitler: shortly, all of them failed. The European integration process, started with the Treaty of Paris (1951) and the Treaties of Rome (1957), aims at a similar purpose: to forge a political unified Europe through economic ties. Indeed, there are some resemblances between Charlemagne’s Europe and the current EU; for instance, the present EU ruling regions stand where once laid the core lands of the Frankish Holy Roman Empire of old: Burgundy, Flanders, the Netherlands, the Rhineland, Alsace, Lotharingia, Lombardy and Catalonia. Undoubtedly, in the contemporary EU the central, northern and northwestern regions overlay supremacy over the southern (Mediterranean), southeastern (Balkan) and eastern (Eastern European) ones. To be more precise, within this general pattern Germany enjoys the status of hegemonic EU power. Besides, the Balkan countries play a crucial role: first, it is towards these regions, along with the others in Eastern Europe, that the European Union wills to expand and to establish her control; then, the Balkan whole range is just outside Mackinder’s Eurasian Heartland and lays right on top of Spykman’s Rimland. In this context, the roles of Greece and of Turkish Eastern Thrace are particularly significant.
The book then continues speaking of Russia. Actually, Russia is to consider mainly as a land power. By so being, she naturally expresses all of the uncertainties and insecurities typical of land powers that are usually landlocked or semi-landlocked. Historically, Russia was a semi-landlocked country until the XVIII century: in fact, as we know, the Arctic Ocean froze during the winter and trades towards Europe or Eastern Asia stopped. This geographical condition, as well as the need to protect the frontiers, gave birth to Russian territorial expansionism. The imperatives of Russian historical foreign policy were two: on one hand, that of defending the steppes from the ever raids of the nomadic horse-riding Turkish-Mongolian tribes (the continuous struggle between Cossacks and Tatars exemplifies the matter), and on the other, that of seeking for warm waters from which carrying on trading during wintertime. Interestingly, Kaplan believes to find the spring of both tsarist autocracy and soviet totalitarianism in the climate and landscape of the Russian country, showing once more how geographical determinism affects the evolution of political systems. Summarizing Russian history, the author points out the prominence of Ukraine, whose relevance is already contained in the name she bares: “borderland”. The reason for Ukrainian past and present territorial crises rely on the fact that this crammed flatland lays exactly in-between the Eurasian Heartland and the European Rimland. Moreover, the author cites once again the rivalry between tsarist Russia and the British Empire for the control of Eurasia during the nineteenth century also known as “Great Game” or “Tournament of Shadows”. The Russian strategic interest to reach the warm waters could de facto threaten the British communication lines with the Indian Raj and with the English areas of influence in the Orient. As for the conquest of Siberia, her climate and natural conditions implied the birth of a coercive and centralized kind of government. The building of railways helped joining the vast Siberian widths, though suggesting a sense of unsafety and insecurity typical of Russian historical mentality. In Siberia, rivers play a relevant role: the Yenisei splits Western from Eastern Siberia and the Lena Eastern Siberia from the Russian Far East; meanwhile, the Ussuri forms the natural border between the Russian Far East and Chinese Manchuria. The conquest of Siberia obliged Russia to participate to the Pacific geopolitical contest, leading her to compete with Japan, China and, later, the United States for the hegemony over the area: think of the wars fought by tsarist Russia against Qing (Manchu) China or against the Japanese Empire of the Rising Sun. When the Soviet Union replaced imperial Russia, the Bolsheviks had to face the evidence that a land power always suffers the threat of an attack on its outskirts: the gruesome years of the civil war and of foreign interventionism (1918-23) reestablished the difficulty of defending the Russian borders. Bolshevik imperialist realism was able enough to consider moving the back the capital to Moscow rather than Saint Petersburg, a core region from which the Eurasian control would be easier to foster. Later, the United States perceived the birth of the great Soviet empire onto the ashes of the shattered German Third Reich as the happening of Mackinder’s prophecies on the control of the World-Island (i.e. Eurasia). Indeed, after World War 2 appeared two main superpowers: on one side the USSR, that almost encompassed the whole of Mackinder’s Heartland, and on the other the United States of America, that embodied the perfect example of Mahan’s great sea power. Since then, the Eurasian Rimland (including the Greater Middle East, Western Europe and Southeastern Asia) would feel jeopardized both by the spread of Soviet land power and by the pressure of American sea (and air) power. After the USSR’s demise and the outburst of newly discovered nationalistic feelings amongst the variegated former Soviet subjects, vulnerability was again Russia’s keyword, deriving mainly from the unbalanced ratio between Russian demographic rates and geographic extensions of the country. Things have changed now in Eurasia. It seems to be that China is gaining always quicker a hegemonic role on the Eurasian continent. So being things, should Russia focus her attention more on the Eurasian Heartland or on her fringes like the European peninsula and the Pacific Rim? What would Russia need to attract back to her former USSR subjects? Unfortunately, Russia still needs to face the never-ending issue of being, in fact, borderless. Furthermore, Ukraine plays a strategic role for the relationships between the European Union and the Russian Federation: it is throughout the Ukrainian flatland that superpowers currently confront each other and within the present crisis, as foreseen by Brzezinski, Poland could play a pivotal role, for better or for worse. Paradoxically, the Soviet subdivision of Central Asia survived to the downfall of the USSR; despite feeble political movements like pan-Turanianism or pan-Iranianism, Central Asian republics are relatively stable though their ethnic composition does not often coincide with the borders of the existing sovereign Turkestan States. For instance, Kazakhstan, a significant portion of Mackinder’s Heartland, finally returned to its native inhabitants. To conclude the chapter, the author dedicates some space to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), described as a group of Eurasian powers in anti-US fashion whose effectiveness over international politics is still uncertain and in progress. 
The chapter dedicated to China opens with Mackinder’s view over this demographic and geographic giant. China is even more threatening than Russia, because not only does the country possess direct access to the Eurasian Heartland and its resources, but in addition to this enjoys a strategic frontal position towards the Pacific Ocean: this makes China a potential blend of land power and sea power and gives full meaning to her Mandarin name of “Middle Kingdom”. Only now, is this double role of Chinese power arising clearly and becoming a worrisome truth. The concept of Inner Asia, including the lands of Manchuria, Mongolia, Eastern Turkestan and Tibet, appears to be of fundamental geopolitical interest when considering the huge Chinese landscape. In Eastern Turkestan dwell the Muslim Turkic Uighurs that have been continuously struggling for secession from China, finding moral support in other Turkic nations. In Inner Mongolia live the Mongols, unfairly separated by their kinsmen of Outer Mongolia. In Tibet are the Lamaist Tibetans who still oppose as they best can Beijing’s communist regime, attempting to call back from his Indian exile the Dalai Lama.  Finally, Manchuria, a land from where the last Chinese imperial dynasty originated (the Manchus), represents a border region that has been historically claimed by Chinese, Russians and Japanese (think of the birth of the Japanese puppet-State of Manchukuo in 1932). China still suffers in remembering her dishonorable historical break up between the nineteenth and twentieth century, when European powers snatched coercively Chinese territorial concessions, trade deals and juridical capitulations, before the Japanese would start their own continental expansion against China. Beijing conceives its international affairs as a mean to avoid any new possible Chinese loss of sovereignty, reflecting it on its relationships with Taiwan and Hong Kong. Indeed, Russia has to fear the risk of a re-population of Eastern Siberia by Chinese pioneers and settlers, considering that the demographic ratio between Russians and Chinese in the Far East is completely unbalanced making future scenarios in the area uncertain. Historically, the Nixon administration, with the aid of Kissinger’s advice, took the advantage of both Brezhnev’s detent strategy towards the US and of the Sino-Soviet split in order to open diplomatically to communist China within the framework of a truly realistic strategy, devoid of ideology and emotionality. China has been opposing the ethnical diversity within her territory by colonizing the sensitive zone, say, Tibet or Xinjiang, with ethnic Hans. However, the real grand strategy of a Greater China would consist in penetrating Mackinder’s Eurasian Heartland. A Greater China implies a Chinese preponderant over Afghanistan, Pakistan, Central Asia, Southeastern Asia and the Chinese First Island Chain (which, going from north to south, comprises Japan, the Ryuku Islands, the so-called half-island of the Korean Peninsula, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Australasia). As we can imagine, the very idea of a Greater China, with her preponderant influence over almost half of Asia, finds a natural rival in the parallel Indian rise. Evidently, the rivalry between China and India will be a leitmotiv for the future international internationals, among which the Dalai Lama’s exile issue is just the tip of the iceberg, if not a mere casus belli. Besides the enmity for Tibet, an Indo-Chinese “Great Game” is taking place, embracing countries like Nepal and Bhutan (the two Himalayan buffer States) on one side and Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka on the other. The projection of sea power over the city-State of Singapore expresses a risk of a Chinese dominion over the Indian and Pacific Oceans through the trade routes that track the Strait of Malacca. The international relations in the Far East cannot neglect the significant role that North Korea covers for being the pivot of East Asia: the possible reunification of the Korean peninsula under a single State could alter the entire balance of power in Eurasian Eastern Rim. As said above, China is leading a double penetration both in Mackinder’s Heartland and in Spykman’s Rimland: her new task consists in transforming a traditional continental power into a mixed land-sea power. China is trying to absorb the nature of sea power also by building a mighty fleet but still lacks of self-confidence in rushing towards the oceanic challenge. Anyways, through its projection of power over all Eastern Asia, Beijing is newly shaping the Western Pacific’s geographic strategy and altering the balance of power of the region: this could lead in the near future to the need for reconsidering the diplomatic alignments and the strategic alliances for all actors here entangled.
As far as India is concerned, Mahan and Spykman considered this country’s position as critical for being a Rimland power naturally oriented towards the Middle East and China from her maritime subcontinental position. As we have already seen, Eurasia consists of a landmass, which encompasses the former USSR, and greatly populated fringes (Europe, India, Indochina and China): amongst the latter, the Indian subcontinent represents one of the most heavily populated and various from an ethnic, linguistic and religious point of view. Mackinder found India’s vulnerability on her northwestern frontier, from which historical invasions came crossing the Khyber Pass. Describing India’s landscape, her mainland embodies two geographical facts: it appears to be a standing-alone subcontinent on one side, and a vibrant extremity of the Greater Middle East on the other. Moreover, from a linguistic and ethnic point of view India appears to be as split into two areas: the Indo-European north and the Dravidian south. Unlike China, India grew as a democratic and pluralist political system thanks to the British rule of yore, which commenced through the creation of small English footholds on the Indian shores. Britain introduced in India the parliamentary mentality, the common-law juridical system, the European administrative model and, of course, the English language. Thanks to British-built railways, the English governors managed for the first time in history to unite the Indian subcontinent into a single polity. Besides, the countries that neighbor India present a lack of geographical coherence. Pakistan was hastily born in 1947 for unraveling the Indian Muslims from the Hindu majority. Bangladesh was born in 1971, seceding from Pakistan for political reasons. Nepal and Bhutan symbolize two buffer states between India and China. The Afghan borders descend from the Russo-British imperial rivalry in Central Asia (think of the Wakhan Corridor, that currently separates Tajikistan from Pakistan, conceived to keep a bumper zone between the Russian and the British empires). Indeed, Afghanistan holds a strategic position for being a buffer between the Iranian Plateau, the Central Asian steppes and the Indian Subcontinent; verily, it is the crossroad of the entire Asian continent. Today, the Eurasian Heartland is vast landscape where the interests of Russia, China, India and Iran intertwine and where the Central Asian strips, including Afghanistan, play a major role. A stable Afghanistan could become the hub of Eurasia, and all nearby countries would benefit from that. Actually, after the Greater Middle East region, the Greater Indian subcontinent represents one of the least stable geopolitical areas in the world. One of the reason for the somewhat tarnished relations between India and China relies on the fact that the Chinese regime upholds military and political support to India’s regional rivals, significantly Pakistan: India feels somehow surrounded by China. The issue of Kashmir, a land partitioned between Pakistan, India and China, keeps the tensions high amongst them.
For what concerns the Middle East, this pan-region represents a vast quadrilateral where Europe, Russia, Asia and Africa intersect: with the Mediterranean Sea and the Sahara Desert to the west; the Black sea, the Caucasus, the Caspian Sea, and the Central Asian steppe-land to the north; the Hindu Kush and the Indian Subcontinent to the east; and the Indian Ocean to the south. One of its main distinguishing features is that it lacks of a single State that has hegemony over the area. In fact, which country should gain the rule of the Middle East? Turkey has a vast population, but is not Arabic. Iran has a vast population too, but it neither Arabic nor Sunni. Saudi Arabia controls the Holy Shrines of Mecca and Medina, but has a small population. Egypt has a large population, but its African location turns it away from the Asian Near East. The weakness of all the Middle East depends on the lack of unity among its countries. Pan-Arabism once embraced the idea of unification of all Arab nations, but even if it had reached the goal, countries like Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan would have stayed out from the union. Within the Middle East, there are three main ethnic strains: the Arab, the Iranian, and the Turkic: each of them declare its respective superiority over the others. The Arabic Islamic world divides in three parts: the Maghreb (Northern Africa), the Mashreq (the Near East) and the Khalij (the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf). All of the Mashreq is instable mainly due to European colonization (keep in mind the British and French mandates over the former Ottoman Near East after World War 1) on one hand and the presence of the Zionist State of Israel on the other. Furthermore, Wahhabism influences greatly the Saudi Arabian view of politics and religion. Its fanatical interpretation of the Quran originated from the central Arabic region of Najd where the society’s backbone consisted in camel-based nomadism; thus, Najd represents the core of Wahhabi rule and Saudi sovereignty. As for Iran, it embodies the Middle Eastern universal juncture, just as the Middle East incarnates the quadrilateral of the World-Island (Eurafrasia). Can Iran become a new geographical pivot despite its reactionary theocracy and its nuclear enrichment program? Though Iran is much smaller than India and China, or Russia or Europe for the matter, it is merely because it is in possession of the key geography of the Middle East in terms of position, population and energy resources that is fundamental to global geopolitics. Indeed, the originality of the Iranian revolution of 1979 lies in the alliance between the clergy and the Islamist intelligentsia. The Iranian state has been stronger and better organized than any others in the greater Middle East, save for turkey and Israel, and the Islamic Revolution did not dismantle the Iranian State, but, rather, attached itself to it. It is also true that the somewhat suffocating Shiite clergy of Iran dispirits an allure of Central Asian, Caucasian or Arabian Muslims towards the country. In addition, Iraq’s destiny is deeply dependent on that of Iran, being a country that hosts a numerous number of Shiite Muslims. Undoubtedly, for better or for worse, Iran will affect the Eurasian future fate. Also, what to say about Turkey? Turkey’s geographical nature is that of a natural land bridge, or almost of an island: it links the Middle Eastern core land with the southeastern European gate. In being one of the most secular and open-minded nations among the Islamic world, Turkey has the opportunity, due to her Kemalist past, to interact effectively with the European nations and the West. Although the current Turkish leadership seems to yield somehow from the Kemalist laicism, the overall positive condition of Turks, the concrete respect for human rights and the membership within NATO make Turkey a good interlocutor for the US, and who knows if this Islamic overpopulated republic will one day join the EU. For sure, Turkey still projects a relevant shadow-power both in the Balkans and in Caucasia, and stands as a gifted opponent to Iranian hegemony over the Muslim world.
Finally, Kaplan dedicates Part 3 of his book to the Americas, particularly North America. Mackinder calls the outlying area that includes the Americas the Outer Crescent in order to differentiate it from the Marginal Crescent or Rimland. As we already know, the entire North American continent comprises the most crucial of the continental satellites around the World-Island and a land from which sea power and air power projects over the Marginal Crescent. Kaplan introduces here some thought-provoking ideas. He highlights that the United States, having dropped down the material barriers towards the Canadian border, stay vulnerable in their southeastern frontier with Mexico. The US own an Anglo-Protestant backbone that the Hispanic Catholic immigration from Mexico may put at stake in the future. American Protestantism closely aligns with nationalism; it helped releasing a typical American mentality based upon dissent, individualism, republicanism and patriotism. This entire scale of values, as well as the white race predominance, is endangered by the risk of a Mexican “Reconquista” of the American southeastern States due to the surprising demographic augmentation of Hispanic individuals and to a difficult containment of illegal immigration from Mexico. Now, Kaplan’s suggestion is very simple and smart: he asks why the US government should worry so much of starting expensive wars in far lands like Afghanistan, entangling in extremely complicated crises and circumstances, when it would be so more useful to fix the problems on the southern border. In other words, the United States of America should care less of foreign countries that lay out of their territorial range and should instead focus the attention on its own mainland. Not only would this political strategy bring closer the public opinion of all those extra-American countries where the US somehow intervened, but also it would utterly mean to uphold the very American-born Monroe Doctrine.                                                                  

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