Maintaining that effective national strategy rests on an understanding of its geographic setting, Francis Sempa uses this insightful study to sketch the evolution of geopolitical thought and, from that perspective, review the history of international relations, with special emphasis on U.S. national strategy in the 20th century. According to Pennsylvania’s senior deputy attorney general and well-published adjunct professor of international affairs, the Eurasian balance of power being of everlasting concern to the United States, it must retain a military presence in Europe and an overwhelming capacity to project military power wherever American interests demand.
Because the writings of British geographer Halford John Mackinder continue to influence geopolitical thought, Sempa begins his study there. For as long as humans have kept records, Mackinder observed, the locations of continents, oceans, and large islands have remained essentially the same. As a consequence, changes in population, natural resources, political systems, and technology cannot match geography as an enduring influence on world history.
Though Mackinder’s delineation and terminology evolved during a sixty-year career, his central concept was that of the Heartland. Near the center of a World Island consisting of Eurasia and Africa, the Heartland’s boundaries approximate those of the former Soviet Union. A vast unbroken and resource-rich plain whose rivers empty into the inaccessible Arctic or the plain’s inland seas, the Heartland is an impregnable fortress for whatever land power controls it.
Around the Heartland lie the Rimlands—peninsular Europe, North Africa, the Mideast, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and China—all of which link the Heartland to the World Ocean. Beyond the World Island lay Japan and Mackinder’s native Britain as well as three “islands” of continental size—Australia, and North and South America. In the midst of the seas and dependent upon them, the island states have potential as sea powers.
Though no geographic determinist, Mackinder maintained that control of the Heartland could lead to global empire. If well served by industry and modern means of communication, a land power controlling the Heartland could exploit the region’s interior lines to acquire control of portions of the Rimlands, gain access to the sea, and build a navy sufficient to overcome the insular sea powers. The geopolitician’s mantra, one that suggested a bleak future for Britain, became: “Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island: Who rules the World Island commands the World.”
Mackinder’s other key concepts emphasized the historic struggle for dominance between land and sea powers. By achieving access to the sea, land powers have usually initiated that struggle: peninsular Greece versus insular Crete; peninsular Rome versus insular Britain; peninsular Europe (as under Napoleon and Germany) versus insular Britain. Looking to the future, Mackinder contended that any state dominating the World Island would ultimately become the opponent of North America and might use Eurasia’s vast resources to overcome the maritime states.
Employing Mackinder’s insights and the works of James Burnham, Nicholas Spykman, and Alfred Thayer Mahan, Sempa also offers readers an insightful geopolitical analysis of the 20th century’s titanic struggles. In World War I, Germany foolishly focused its efforts westward rather than first conquer Eastern Europe and gain dominion over the Heartland. Had it done so, Mackinder observed shortly after war’s end: “The British and American insular peoples would not have realized the strategical danger until too late.”
When the peace settlement failed to secure Eastern Europe, Mackinder warned that the insular powers would soon face a renewed attempt to dominate the Heartland. That came in 1939 when Germany seized part of Eastern Europe and two years later invaded the Soviet Union. Allied with Japan, beginning its efforts to conquer China, Southeast Asia, and India, Germany seemed likely to dominate the World Island and defeat the British Empire and the United States.
The Allied victory in World War II gave the Soviet Union control of the Heartland and East Europe, a position of strength soon enhanced by an alliance with China. Anticipating another global struggle, Mackinder introduced a new geopolitical concept: the Midland Ocean, defined as the North Atlantic Basin and its four adjacent seas—Mediterranean, Baltic, Arctic, and Caribbean. Only if the nations surrounding that basin–Canada, the United States, Britain, and France—united could they resist the challenge coming from the Soviet Heartland.
Though NATO ensured that unity, Mackinder, James Burnham, and Colin Gray regarded containment as a doomed strategy: It would allow the Soviets time to consolidate their hold on Eastern Europe, strengthen their alliance with China, probe the remaining Rimlands, prepare a overpowering navy, and force the insular alliance to accept a Soviet world empire. To prevent that, the sea powers must quickly confront the Soviet Union with a strong NATO land force and a superior U.S. nuclear strategy, including an effective air and missile defense.
During the Cold War, the US put in place the alliances joining the Rimlands to NATO, encouraged the Sino-Soviet split, and resisted Soviet attempts to expand in the Mideast, Africa, and the Western Hemisphere. Reagan then moved the U.S. to the offensive, putting nuclear-tipped missiles in Europe, threatening to build a missile defense, and giving moral support to the Soviet empire’s many internal dissidents. Unable to match the power of the Midland Ocean, the Soviet Union receded and then shattered.
Looking to the post-Cold War future, Sempa urges the United States to maintain the political division of the World Island and bear in mind that Russia, a state with nuclear weapons and a great military potential still controls much of the Heartland. To the west, a continued U.S. military presence, an expanded NATO, and the European Union must contain a united Germany and keep Russia out of Eastern Europe. Close cooperation with Japan and India, reinforced by America’s capacity to project its military power, should contain China, which poses the same threat to the Far East as 1930s Japan. As Spykman warned: “The United States must recognize that the power constellation in Europe and Asia is of everlasting concern to her, both in time of war and in time of peace.” Renewed isolation is not an option; nor is allowing the emergence of more nuclear-armed regional hegemons.
Although readers will wish that Sempa had offered a more detailed description of an American strategy for this century, the book’s principal shortcoming derives from the fact that many chapters first appeared as journal articles; consequently, they repeatedly summarize Mackinder’s writings. Better editing would have eliminated that repetition.
Even so, Geopolitics should be read by all those charged with U.S. military and foreign policy and by every professor of history and world politics. The nation dare not rely on leaders and a public blind to the influence of geography on American national security.
Dr. James L. Abrahamson, a member of the board of directors of American Diplomacy Publishers, is a retired army colonel who previously taught history and government at the United States Military Academy, the Army War College, and Campbell University. The author of works on military reform, the impact of war on society, and the coming of the Civil War, his most recent book is Vanguard of American Atomic Deterrence: The Sandia Pioneers, 1946-1949 (2002).