by Francis P. Sempa
Classical geopolitics is making a comeback. China’s rise and increasing aggressiveness in the Asia-Pacific region, Russia’s aggression in Georgia and Ukraine, Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons, and radical Islamist gains in the Middle East are focusing the minds of international relations scholars and practitioners. Geography still matters.
Stratfor’s Robert Kaplan, in books and articles during the past few years, has popularized the works of Halford Mackinder, Nicholas Spykman, Alfred Thayer Mahan, and other classical geopolitical thinkers. There is a growing awareness that we have much to learn from classical geopolitical theorists who emphasized the importance of geography and its impact on international politics.
This growing awareness was evident at the recent 25th annual conference of the American Society for Competitiveness in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, which brought together business and economics scholars and professors from around the world and geopolitical scholars from the Mackinder Forum.
Keynote speakers included Dimitri Simes, the President of the Center for the National Interest which publishes the influential journal The National Interest; former British Rear Admiral Chris Parry, author of the recent book Super Highway: Sea Power in the 21st Century; and John Hillen, former Assistant Secretary of State and current Chairman of National Review. The keynote speakers and panelists from the Mackinder Forum explored the history of classical geopolitical thought and its continuing relevance to today’s world.
Admiral Parry analyzed the geopolitical implications of China’s expressed goal of eliminating U.S. influence from the Asia-Pacific region. He pointed to factors that should cause concern among U.S. policymakers, including China’s investment in sea power both in terms of military ships and economic control of key strategic areas; China’s increasing ties to Russia which could foreshadow the emergence of a Sino-Russian bloc reminiscent of the Sino-Soviet bloc of the 1950s; and China’s claims in the western Pacific and South China Sea which if realized would be tantamount to establishing China as the regional hegemon.
John Hillen criticized the Obama administration for its sanguine worldview that has ignored geopolitical realities around the world. The administration’s feeble responses to Russian aggression in Ukraine and pressures on the Baltic states, radical Islam’s gains in the Middle East, and China’s rise in the Far East demonstrate, according to Hillen, that an ad hoc approach to foreign policy is insufficient to protect long-term U.S. interests.
Panelists associated with the Mackinder Forum, including this author, provided classical geopolitical context for the discussion of contemporary events. Phil Kelly of Emporia State University presented a defense of classical geopolitics, noting the enduring nature of ideas and concepts associated with Mackinder, Spykman, and others.
Brian Blouet, professor at William and Mary College and a biographer of Mackinder, showed how Mackinder’s famous “Heartland” theory evolved from its 1904 conception in “The Geographical Pivot of History,” through its 1919 adjustment in Democratic Ideals and Reality, to its final revision in his 1943 “The Round World and the Winning of the Peace.”
Geoffrey Sloan, University of Reading professor, author of numerous works on geopolitics and British history, and the U.K. coordinator for the Mackinder Forum, discussed the influence of classical geopolitical thought on the Franklin Roosevelt administration during the Second World War. He noted that Mackinder’s book Democratic Ideals and Reality was reissued in 1942, and that same year Robert Strausz-Hupe’s book Geopolitics: The Struggle for Space and Power, Hans Weigert’s Generals and Geographers: The Twilight of Geopolitics, and Andreas Dorpalen’s The World of General Haushofer: Geopolitics in Action were also published. LIFE magazine reviewed Mackinder’s and Haushofer’s ideas during the war. Nicholas Spykman’s America’s Strategy in World Politics and The Geography of the Peace also were written during the war. The administration’s top wartime geographer, Isaiah Bowman, was familiar with all of these works. Professor Sloan pointed out that Mackinder’s ideas became even more influential after the war when the Soviet Union occupied much of Eastern and Central Europe and the Heartland of Eurasia, while the United States formed a maritime alliance with Great Britain, Canada, and the nations of Western Europe to prevent Soviet domination of what Mackinder called the “World-Island.”
This author discussed the geopolitical writings of James Burnham, author of a much neglected Cold War trilogy—The Struggle for the World, The Coming Defeat of Communism, and Containment or Liberation?—which used the ideas of Mackinder and Spykman to support an offensive strategy for defeating the Soviet Union. Burnham contended that unless the West changed from a policy of containment to liberation, Soviet control of Eastern Europe and its alliance with communist China would enable it to attain effective control of Eurasia, construct an overwhelming sea power, and achieve world domination. Burnham continued to advance this geopolitical argument in his column in National Review beginning in 1955. One loyal reader of that column, Ronald Reagan, became President of the United States and implemented an offensive policy—consistent with Burnham’s ideas—designed to undermine the Soviet Empire. Indeed, Robert W. Merry in a recent issue of The National Interest, called Burnham Reagan’s “geopolitical genius.” Burnham’s geopolitical worldview maintains its relevance to the struggle for the world in the 21st century.
Leonard Hochberg, the U.S. coordinator for the Mackinder Forum, summed-up by emphasizing the need to re-establish geopolitics as an independent field of study in colleges and universities. For far too long, he said, international relations courses and textbooks have either ignored classical geopolitics or treated it as a historical phenomenon with no relevance to today’s world. Our nation’s students, and its policymakers, would benefit from such a development.
American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy.
Francis Sempa is the author of Somewhere in France, Somewhere in Germany: A Combat Soldier’s Journey through the Second World War (2011), America’s Global Role (2009), and Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century (2002). He is a contributor to Population Decline and the Remaking of Great Power Politics (2012), and has written on historical and foreign policy topics for Joint Force Quarterly, the University Bookman, Presidential Studies Quarterly, Strategic Review, and the Washington Times. He is an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University, and a contributing editor to American Diplomacy.