The Russian Bear and 21st Century Geopolitics

Published May 26, 2017 in Warp & Woof


The Russian Bear and 21stCentury Geopolitics

William Sundwick


Many of us are old enough to remember a mid-century exposure to national security, and the “way the world worked,” reinforced not just by the competition with the Soviet Union (“The Communists”), but also by our understanding of World War II, and modern world history, in general. 
The planet was divided into big geographic zones, and the Great Powers, throughout history, had always contested for control of these zones. This was what was called “geopolitics.” Both our high school social studies curricula and real national security policy (i.e., military contingency planning) were governed by geopolitical considerations in those days.
The roots of what we knew as geopolitics went back to the age of 19th century European imperialism. The growth of capitalism in Europe and the United States required access to resources, both natural and human (labor). Nations with means could develop colonial empires to satisfy those needs. Much like the Roman Empire, inhabitants of any given location in the world had a choice of being dominated by a resource-rich Great Power, maintaining their independence through a successful defensive war with the Great Power, or striking a delicately balanced autonomy via alliances with one or another Great Power. This was, we thought, the way the world had worked through most of its history.
Mahan, Mackinder, and 20th Century Geopolitics

The first writer to codify this world system was Alfred Thayer Mahan, a Captain in the U.S. Navy. He was a student of modern European history and published his monumental work, “The Influence of Sea Power on History, 1660-1783,” in 1890. Enormously influential throughout the imperialist world for the next hundred years, Mahan’s thesis was that free trade, hence access to those colonial resources (and markets), could only be secured by conscientious attention to control of the world ocean. If a Great Power cannot maintain that control, it will soon be reduced to merely regional importance … limited to overland communications channels. Ultimately, its masters will be those who can freely conduct trans-oceanic commerce with it. Mahan was a fan of the British Empire, and saw the United States, if it were to prioritize the building of an ocean-going navy, as clearly capable of the same level of greatness.
His views became accepted national strategy in the United States for nearly a century, and in Great Britain, albeit reluctantly, for at least half a century. It became the aspirational national strategy for the German Empire, leading Tirpitz to construct his “High Seas Fleet” to fight the British in the First World War. The other colonial empires — France, Italy, and Japan — also relied on sea power, but in a more minimalist way (“we’ll protect what is necessary, but we won’t compete for dominance on the world ocean”).
An alternative strategic paradigm emerged in Great Britain around the turn of the 20th century. Its main proponent was Halford Mackinder, of the Royal Geographical Society. Mackinder published his paper “The Geographical Pivot of History” in 1904. He maintained that there was a world island, where most of the world’s population lived, not just a “world ocean” as Mahan observed. He was obsessed with overland communication through Eurasia, facilitated by railroads, whereas Mahan was impressed more by the development of steamships.
Mackinder’s pivot was based on a Mercator projection of the world, with its core (he called it the “heartland”) being north central Eurasia. This was an area dominated for at least 200 years by the Russian Empire, at the time symbolically depicted in European cartoons as a bear, crouching over that Eurasian land mass.
Russia didn’t even deserve a mention by Mahan! Being essentially land-locked, it would never achieve Great Power status, reasoned the U.S. Naval officer.
Mackinder believed that whoever could control this strategic center of the world island could ultimately control the world – control over sea lines of communication would naturally follow expansion out from the land-locked center, and include most great ports, for navigation. He explained the British Empire’s success in the previous century was due mostly to alliances with Russia (Crimean War notwithstanding?).
While Mahan overlooked Russia, Mackinder could be accused of overlooking the United States. He considered the Americas peripheral islands, part of an “outer crescent” … not central to the human drama. Nicholas Spykman, at Yale, attempted to synthesize the two competing geopolitical theories with his “Rimland” hypothesis. Rimland was comparable to Mackinder’s “inner marginal crescent” of central and western Europe, the Middle East, India, and Japan. He postulated (1942) that it was in this belt that control of the world truly rested. Unfortunately, the diversity of interests vying for dominance in those areas remain, today as much as in his time, way too fuzzy to generalize in a single geostrategic theory.
So, Mahan seems to imagine a world dominated from the sea, probably by the United States, astride its two protective oceans, and Mackinder envisions a central core of strength, dominated by Russia, with tentacles reaching out and ultimately encompassing the rest of the world. 20thcentury geopolitics was dominated by one or the other of these competing theories.
Globalization and Geopolitics

But, something else happened in the second half of the twentieth century. Whether through explosive developments in telecommunications and information technology, or the worldwide acceptance of transnational control of capital, we appear to have entered a post-geopolitical age in the 21st century. Neither Mahan nor Mackinder hold much sway in our current thinking.
Undeniably, most world citizens are concerned more with their own families and communities than they are with remote imperial (or capitalist) authority. It has always been so — something conveniently ignored by all military geostrategic planning over the past two centuries. Save for proxy wars waged between the Western powers and Communist powers during the Cold War (Greece, Korea, Malaya, Vietnam), it seems that war between Great Powers has become obsolete.
Globalization allows an interconnected world to be easily influenced by advertising from any source — so long as it is selling something desirable. Aspirations can be monetized, or related back to knowable cultural values of different populations. The age of global marketing, amplified by “big data,” is upon us.
The mountains, deserts, oceans — geographic barriers for earlier geopolitical thinkers — gone.
Globalization seems to have neutralized the imperialist ambitions of would-be Great Powers. If capital and labor can both move freely around the world, what good is imperialism? 
There remains one important caveat: capital and labor reside in different countries around the world, and those nation states have the power to pass and enforce laws restricting that free flow within and between nations. The polity in each sovereign nation still maintains some independence, even if the political leaders may have a financial stake in one transnational capitalist entity over another, their allegiance is seldom to another country, per se.
The state, then, persists. A new geopolitics emerges in the 21st century, based on national political frameworks, and individual leaders’ ties, rather than features of physical geography. Cultural geography becomes predominant. And, economic geography separates the rich from the poor, within a given nation, as well as between them.
What About the Islamic State?

It is the combination of cultural and economic geography which enables entities like the Islamic State to gain a foothold. They rule by fear and intimidation. Their reach is enhanced, not by organized armies, but by the global Internet, and the ability to play upon cultural and economic sensibilities to “recruit” certain marginalized individuals to carry out terrorist attacks — often in the heart of the former imperialist powers — ostensibly to further the goals of the Islamic State.
The declared “War on Terror,” waged against these groups by the former imperialist powers, is an attempt to cast the struggle in geopolitical terms. Yet, the usual understanding of geopolitics doesn’t quite fit a semi-organized group holding a small, discontinuous, strip of territory in parts of Syria and Iraq. The Islamic State’s hold on the populations of the territories it occupies will always be weak.
Studies have indicated that, as horrifying as deadly terrorist attacks are, they have little impact on the real value of capital, worldwide (markets recover quickly). It is certainly not a “war”, in the geopolitical sense of the 19thcentury colonial wars, or either World War of the 20th century.  If global capitalism is the true “Great Power” of the 21st century, it is not even fazed by terrorist groups like ISIS or Al Queda.
But, what of that cultural motivation? Affiliations with the world’s great religions are of great cultural consequence to many. And, if a group, terrorist or not, can successfully inspire large numbers of people, scattered throughout the world, by using cultural symbols, is that group not wielding geopolitical  power? There may be only a few thousand “members” of ISIS, but they can certainly get a lot of attention through terrorist acts! They are engaging in what nineteenth century European anarchists called “propaganda of the deed.”
Can it be that such acts will raise the political stature of the group, versus its competitors? In the case of ISIS, it could be following a systematic plan to make the populations of the former imperialist powers feel unsafe, unprotected by their own governments. In the case of a would-be Great Power (or former Great Power, like Russia?), might not an organized psy-opsplan aimed at disheartening the population of an adversary, causing it to lose confidence in its own government, accomplish a similar goal? This sort of action may well be a salient characteristic of the “new geopolitics.”
 Russian Psy-Ops

Imagining the possibilities of a coordinated Russian cyber-attack on U.S. and west European democratic institutions, following much recent speculation in the media, is clearly consistent with this new definition of geopolitics. And, Russia has a history of expansion which tends to support such methods. From the 15thcentury onwards, the Principality of Moscow (Muscovy to the West) depended largely on the cunninig of its diplomats, combined with treachery and bribes, to cajole neighboring states into alliances, or vassal status.
It seldom resorted to war to accomplish its goals. Its primary early threats were from less organized armed bands of raiders, Tatars and Cossacks. Contrary to Mackinder’s thesis, the “heartland” of Russia never succeeded in subduing a power as well organized, and resourceful, as itself. It never conquered the Ottoman Empire, China, or Germany. Its expansion to the north and east was essentially expansion into a vacuum. In the case of the 18thcentury partition of Poland, and the 20th century emergence of Communist Parties throughout Europe, it sewed weakness and dissension within its rivals, leading to a favorable diplomatic outcome – ultimately, expansion of the Russian sphere of influence. At the culmination of the Soviet period, it had even produced its own follower of Mahan: Admiral Sergei Gorshkov, who thought the time was ripe to pursue mastery of the world ocean. This, however, proved to be an unwelcome import from the West, very un-Russian. The Voennyi Morskoi Flot, built by Gorshkov, was left to rust in Russian ports after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. 
But, a stealthy cyber-attackon the political process in the U.S. or France is entirely within the tradition of Russian history. It, in many ways, is the same old geopolitics of previous centuries, which the Russians have developed into a science. Let’s remember that Russia’s current oligarch-in-chief, Vladimir Putin, cut his professional teeth, before entering politics, as a practitioner of that scientific dark art of geopolitical strategy. He was a KGB agent. And, increasingly, it seems that his “useful idiot” in the White House is entirely naïve about this history.
We, in the United States, as well as the citizens of the EU, China, South America and all other countries in Mackinder’s inner and outer “marginal crescents” should be alert to the persistence of geopolitics from that former Great Power, the once-and-future imperial Russia.
Sometimes, a sense of “history interrupted” can be a powerful incentive for aggressive geopolitical action plans. We’ve seen several cases of this syndrome, over the last century, motivating profound political change. Vulnerable target populations were instrumental in the growth of European fascism after the humiliating defeat of the Central Powers in World War I, again in the “radicalization” of some segments of Islam who feel they were handed a raw deal by former colonial powers. And, some say that the humiliating toll of globalization on much of the world’s working poor is creating the same opportunity for a “history interrupted” movement.
Perhaps, it is even a motivator right here in the United States. Make America Great Again!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: