The Return of Mahan, Mackinder, and Spykman

Russia and Germany are signed on to Beijing’s project. They are both cooperating as well as investing in the “One Belt, One Road” project (OBOR) announced in 2013. Does this portend the awakening of Mackinder’s powerful Heartland thesis? The possible tripartite world of Europe-China-Russia poses a huge challenge to U.S. foreign and trade policy. The road ahead for the Trump Administration is full of possible jarring potholes, which would be familiar to all three of our geopolitical theorists – Mackinder, Mahan, and Spykman. The future is being seen through a glass darkly, indeed!

By Morgan Norval l February 26, 2017


The Cold War has been over since 1991 making the globalist elites ecstatic. The threat of nuclear war had vanished and a “new world order” of globalization was supposed to usher in a long era of peace and prosperity.

That post-Cold War era ended on September 11, 2001 with al-Qaeda’s attack on the twin symbols of the post-Cold War globalization era – the World Trade Center in New York City. We responded, shortly thereafter, with a brilliant military campaign in Afghanistan utilizing U.S. Special Forces allied with the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance warriors to topple the Taliban and chase them and al-Qaeda into the border regions of Pakistan. Fifteen years later, and counting, our considerably larger forces than those who helped the Northern Alliance chase the Taliban and al-Qaeda out of the country, are still in Afghanistan costing us both blood and treasure.

Two years later, the Bush Administration sent U.S. forces into Iraq to overthrow the brutal Saddam Hussein regime. In three short weeks that goal was accomplished with few casualties. While Saddam was gone, peace and tranquility departed with him. The ancient bitter Islamic rivalry between Sunni and Shiite, which had been tamped down by the Ottoman Empire and Saddam’s regime, erupted in an orgy of bloodshed. Not only were the Shiites and Sunnis fighting each other, they were both fighting an unconventional war against U.S. forces as well. Today, our forces, although much reduced, remain in Iraq – again at precious cost in blood and treasure. It is estimated our cost for these continuing struggles are approximately $15 billion per month, or $24 million per hour.

We are living in a much changed and ever-changing world. States as political entities are collapsing in many parts of the world, especially in the Middle East-North Africa Muslim world. Even Europe is not totally immune. The most recent example is the breakup of former Yugoslavia, spilling a lot of blood in the process. Currently, there are several secessionist movements throughout the EU. So far, they have failed to attract enough public support to succeed in breaking up existing states. The Muslim refugee invasion of Europe has the potential to add emphasis and support to these movements.

In the October 2016 issue of the magazine Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy, Yoseff Bodansky points out: “These trends are the strongest and most pronounced in the hardest hit regions of the greater Middle East and Africa. The most important and lingering outcome of the so-called Arab Spring is the death of the modern Arab state. Libya, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon are no more, and Jordan and Yemen are not far behind. In their place have emerged entities based on ethnic and religious identities: the Sunni Arab Islamic Caliphate of the al-Jazeera heartland, the predominately Alawite-Druze entity of western Syria, the Shiite Hezbollah land, the Maronite-Druze bloc, the Shiite Arab entity of south-eastern Iraq and the Kurdish land. Yemen is being torn apart between Houthis, Hadhramites, and smaller groups.

“Libya is in the midst of a fratricidal orgy of violence between tribes, clans and other power seekers. These will never agree to lose self-control in favor of a return to the erstwhile states that failed them,” wrote Bodansky.

U.S. Internally Divided

The post-Cold War period has not been kind to the U.S. either. As a nation, we are more divided than we’ve been in a long time. Some cite our current division which seems to replicate the period before our Civil War. While that is debatable, the recent 2016 election showed those wide divisions while the Trump Administration faces fierce opposition no matter what it tries to do. It faces an entrenched bureaucracy that is staffed and run by unelected officials who seem to have callous disregard and little respect for the liberty and freedom of its citizens. The U.S. media establishment, not known for its objectivity, will continue to fan the flames of division as it tries to regain its self-proclaimed role as our fourth branch of government. Meanwhile, the U.S. government, under both Democratic and Republican rule, continues to import Muslim immigrants who seem disinclined at assimilation and accepting American values, as recent terrorist incidents demonstrate.

The Obama Administration secretly placed so-called Muslim refugees into all fifty states, further enriching the refugee resettlement industry, more often than not over the objections of state governors. Barack Hussein Obama worked overtime until leaving office to import as many Muslim refugees as possible into an overwhelming unwilling United States population. These unvettable refugees can, and probably will, become nuclei of terror cells plotting to continue their jihad against the infidel United States.

Turmoil is engulfing the region – Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Afghanistan – from whence these refugees come and with them they will bring their friction and ideological desire to kill and be martyred. Obama’s eight-year goal was to bring about the transformation of the United States of America. Having nests of violence-prone jihadis in every state sure carries with it the potential of altering the demographics the U.S. but not in a manner any thinking patriotic American would choose.

The future looks dark for our country, and there seems to be no turning back from the current destructive chaos plaguing the new world order today. Some say history repeats itself; perhaps, a glimpse of what may lie ahead is to re-examine the thesis of three past geopolitical theorists, two of whom were predominant in the last decade of the 19th Century until the outbreak of World War I. The third geopolitical strategist attempted to update the theory of the most prominent of the three, the British-born Sir Halford John Mackinder (1861-1947) was a geographer, academic and politician. The other two were the Americans Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840-1914) and Nicholas Spykman (1893-1943).

Land Power Supreme

Let us turn our attention to their theories to see how they may offer us clues to our unfolding future.

the-geographical-pivot-of-historyMackinder in his 1904 work, The Geographical Pivot of History, postulated the growing advantage of land power relative to sea power in shaping global events. His theory described the world as a “closed system” made up of three areas: a continental “Pivot Area” surrounded by a partly continental and a partly oceanic “Inner or Marginal Crescent” of Euro-Asia and that, in turn, is surrounded by an oceanic “Lands of Outer or Insular Crescent of the Americas, Africa, Australia and Japan.”

He envisioned that the Pivot Area, which he renamed the “Heartland” as that vast area of Euro-Asia, which is inaccessible to naval war fleets. He further believed that systems of internal railroad transportation nets were superior to external sea transport. The condition of this enhanced mobility by railroads would allow the Heartland to combine its vast military and economic power to create a very powerful possible global hegemony. This hegemony could produce a land power, based on the Heartland, that could then gain political control of the Inner or Marginal Crescent – the coastlands of Eurasia, and then be able to build a navy more powerful than the sea power of Britain and the United States. “The oversetting of the balance of power in favor of the pivot state,” he thought, “resulting in its expansion over the marginal lands of Euro-Asia, would permit the use of vast continental resources for fleet-building, and the empire of the world would be in sight.” His candidates at the turn of the 20th Century were Germany allied with Russia, or China allied with Japan. Today, one more readily can consider China allied with Russia, as befitting Mackinder’s potential Heartland coalition.

Naval Power Supreme

The American theorist we first consider, Alfred Thayer Mahan, had a different thesis. In 1890 he published a book, The Influence of Sea Power upon History. It stated that sea power had been the deciding factor in the world dominance of the British Empire. The ability to control the use of the sea depended on a nation’s possession of a productive, populous, easily defended homeland, coupled with strategically located overseas bases. This was undergirded by a powerful navy which could control the sea lanes. Mahan’s idea fit in with the fact at the time that the U.S. was a rising global economic power and needed access to foreign ports and markets, utilizing seagoing transport.

Sea transport has been the longest carrier of goods throughout recorded history. Water transport is highly cost effective. The industrial revolution took place best where cheap water transport by canal, ocean going shipping, etc. supported cost effective bulk transportation of goods and resources.

These required safe, secure sea lanes of communication. These sea lanes, stressed Mahan, “are the most important single element in strategy, political or military.” Crucial to effective sea power is the ability to control these sea lanes of communication. “The power, therefore,” said Mahan, “to insure the communications to one’s self, and to interrupt them for an adversary, effect the very root of a nation’s vigor.”

He also stressed that naval power comprises not only a military fleet but commercial shipping, a strong home base, as well as strategically located overseas bases. In his opinion, a nation denied the use of the seas, either through internal neglect or external force is doomed to eventual collapse.

Growing Power of the Rimland

Our third theorist is Nicholas Spykman, a professor of international relations at Yale University. Spykman owed much of his thought to Mahan’s stress of geographical position, especially on Mackinder’s Outer Crescent which Spykman renamed “Rimlands.” The Rimlands, according to Spykman, function as a vast buffer zone of conflict between sea power and land power. It then must defend itself from both. But what happens if a Rimland power becomes a sea power? That, in Spykman’s opinion, greatly undercuts Mackinder’s thesis of the prime importance of the Heartland. In his 1944 book, published the year after his death, The Geography of the Peace, he stated: “The Mackinder dictum, ‘Who controls eastern Europe rules the Heartland; who rules the Heartland rules the World Island; and who rules the World Island rules the World,’ is false. If there is to be a slogan for the power politics of the Old World, it must be ‘Who controls the Rimland rules Eurasia; who rules Eurasia controls the destinies of the world.’”

His Rimlands include the countries of Western Europe (NATO), the Middle East – currently a boiling pot of bloody conflict – Southwest Asia, and the Far East, and North America. Those areas were vital to the U.S.-led West’s policy of containment during the Cold War.

“A modern, vitalized, and militarized China of 400 million people,” Spykman wrote in 1942, “is going to be a threat not only to Japan, but also to the position of the Western Powers in the Asiatic Mediterranean.” The Asiatic Mediterranean, according to Spykman, was made up of marginal seas such as the Sea of Japan, the East China and South China Seas. These seas are vital to China’s sea lanes of communication. To protect them, Rimland China must go to sea by developing its sea power.


China, a Growing Rimland Power

China is moving forward with a sea-based strategy relying on its military capability to deny foreign forces a hostile approach to its coasts, as well as developing a modern blue water navy to protect their expanding overseas port access and bases, as well as being able to project power way beyond its Rimland geographical location.

Their sea denial tactics include building man-made islands in the South China Sea and arming them with both air-defense missile systems purchased from Russia and sea-denial missiles, such as the DF-21D anti-ship missile, which has a range of at least 810 nautical miles – some estimate a much longer range of up to 1900 nautical miles with a terminal velocity of Mach 10. Their sea denial strategy is designed to sink U.S. ships from a distance before they have any effect on Beijing’s forces during a battle in the South China Sea, or near the strait of Taiwan. Some claim the missile can target moving ships. If so, the DF-21D ballistic missile dubbed the “carrier killer” poses a clear and present danger to a United States Navy carrier strike group (CSG).

The success of any major military venture depends on the ability to freely move one’s forces into the theater of operations. Lacking that ability dooms the planned military operation. Chinese land-based ballistic and cruise missiles could force U.S. aircraft carriers to stay long distances away from effective and efficient use of carrier based air operations.

The Chinese Navy also has a deadly sub-launched anti-ship cruise missile, the YJ-18. Once launched, it has a cruising speed of 600 mph, a range of almost 800 miles, and skims the sea a few meters above the water in-route to its target. About 20 miles from its target, it kicks into overdrive, tripling its speed making it very difficult to hit with shipboard defensive guns.

Chinese global military presence, right now, is to protect its growing foreign business, advance its overseas political interests, as well as to ensure the safety of resources flowing back to China such as oil from the Persian Gulf and minerals from southern Africa. China is building an overseas base in Djibouti, a chokepoint located at the entrance to the Red Sea. This base enables China to protect, or threaten, traffic transiting the Suez Canal. China has also built repair and fueling facilities in Oman, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia. A Chinese fleet is currently deployed in the Gulf of Aden and Somali waters. It is positioned to safeguard their trade routes from the South China Sea to the Persian Gulf. China is also building a deep-water port on a 90-kilometer stretch of the Cambodian coastline. Its location on the Gulf of Thailand puts it in a strategic position to protect shipping to and from China, or enforce its claims to disputed territories in the South China Sea.

Chinese President Xi Jinping recently announced upgrades to the Chinese military for the purpose of transforming it into a high-tech military force capable of initiating operations – force projections – similar to those conducted for years by the United States. These upgraded forces would then be able to be rapidly deployed around the world to areas important to China’s economic and geopolitical interests. The Chinese have evidently read Mahan and Spykman.

China had a huge ocean-going fleet of ships in the first quarter of the 15th Century. In fact, some of these ships were huge – over 100 meters long. This was about 4-times the size of each of Columbus’ three ships that he sailed west in 1492. Their early ships were commanded by a court eunuch, Admiral Zheng He. The fleet made seven trips including stops in Sri Lanka and up and down the east coast of Africa. Some claim he even circumnavigated the globe long before Magellan. His fleet started their voyage in 1421, under the patronage of the Yong-li Emperor Zhui Di.

He returned to China in 1423 finding the country engulfed in political and economic turmoil. His fleet was mothballed, its records destroyed. China’s shipyards were shut down and the fleet rotted away never to set sail again. That ended China’s interest in maritime expansion for centuries. China then turned inward and westward to spread its interests toward Central Asia utilizing the ancient Silk Road to extend trade – Chinese silk fabrics in particular – through regions of Central Asia and, passing through many merchant’s hands, further west eventually reaching lands on the Mediterranean Sea.

Heartland – Rimland Alliance

Today, China has resumed its interest in the sea and is expanding its navy and merchant fleets at a fast and impressive rate. China is also resurrecting its ancient Silk Road trade connections westward through Europe with its One Belt, One Road project (OBOR) announced in 2013. This project has both a land component – the Silk Road Economic Belt – as well as a sea-going one, termed the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. The project aims to build a Silk Road Economic Belt made up of countries encompassing the ancient Silk Road through Central Asia, West Asia, the Middle-East, and Europe.

Without going into more detail, it should be noted that Russia and Germany, are signed on to Beijing’s project. They are both cooperating as well as investing in the One Belt, One Road project. Does this portend the awakening of Mackinder’s powerful Heartland thesis? The possible tripartite world of Europe-China-Russia poses a big challenge to U.S. foreign and trade policy.

The road ahead for the Trump Administration is full of possible jarring potholes, which would be familiar to all three of our geopolitical theorists – Mackinder, Mahan, and Spykman. The future is being seen through a glass darkly, indeed!

Morgan Norval is the founder and Executive Director of the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research and a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis of the online-conservative-journalism center at the Washington-based foundation.