Ordered Off the World-Island
Through the lens of Heartland/Rimland/Sea-Power Theory, a look at Moscow and Beijing's attempts to build a multipolar horizontal global order to displace the American-led unipolar Liberal World Order.
Eurasia is the metaphoric “chessboard” in Zbigniew Brzezinski’s 1997 geopolitical work, The Grand Chessboard. Today the “World-Island” of Eurasia contains nearly 70% of the world’s population and produces nearly 70% of global GDP (PPP). His work urged the newly unipolar American policy makers to continue playing geopolitical “chess” with their adversaries on the Eurasian landmass. Back during the Cold War, the diverse US-led order was agnostic since the only requirement was to be anti-communist. The US practised a realist approach and would happily overthrow a soft-on-communism democracy to install a right wing authoritarian if they thought it improved the balance of power between the US and USSR. But the fall of the Berlin Wall triggered America’s unipolar moment. An ideological approach ensued where, with Messianic zeal, the US spread its Liberal World Order (LWO) in an attempt to end history and convert all nations to the religion of free market capitalism, individual rights, and obedience to the US authority. But as the 21st century dawned, while the US was engaging in futile campaigns to impose democracy in the Middle East, China and Russia were quietly gathering together an anti-hegemonic order—a primal horde of nations—into several loose alliances.
In 1998 Brzezinski warned that the US reign over Eurasia would not be permanent.
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For America, the chief geopolitical prize is Eurasia. For half a millennium, world affairs were dominated by Eurasian powers and peoples who fought with one another for regional domination and reached out for global power. Now a non-Eurasian power is preeminent in Eurasia—and America's global primacy is directly dependent on how long and how effectively its preponderance on the Eurasian continent is sustained.
Obviously, that condition is temporary. But its duration, and what follows it, is of critical importance not only to America's well-being but more generally to international peace. The sudden emergence of the first and only global power has created a situation in which an equally quick end to its supremacy—either because of America's withdrawal from the world or because of the sudden emergence of a successful rival—would produce massive international instability. In effect, it would prompt global anarchy. (p. 18)
During the Cold War, US containment strategy sought to hold sway over Eurasia’s coastal area to surround the Soviet Union within its hinterland container. The US fought wars (Korea, Vietnam) and sought alliances (Japan, Indonesia, Iran, China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Western Europe) to build this littoral bulwark against the geographic spread of communist regimes. The Soviets faced a powerful NATO army on their western flank and 1.5 million of Mao’s soldier in the east: the potential for a two-front war severely restricted Soviet resources available for building naval power. The Soviet’s increasingly stifling ideology pushed many nations towards the American-led anti-communist order in reaction.
A short 23 years after apparent victory in the Cold War, America’s “unipolar moment” reached its zenith on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, off the coast of San Diego, under a Mission Accomplished banner. What followed—insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Global Financial Crisis, coup d'état in Ukraine, failed regime change operations in Syria and Libya—all eroded away the Liberal World Order’s foundations. Joe Biden’s 2022 State of the Union address was a tacit admission that the unipolar world was now broken down into two camps: democratic and authoritarian. Since then, from failed sanctions to ammunition shortages, the Ukrainian War has exposed the US-led unipolar Liberal World Order’s impotence.
Back in the 2000’s, while America was distracted chasing desert jihadis, China and Russia began assembling an impressive group of nations into what is evolving into an anti-hegemonic multi-layered Rest of the World global order:
It’s clear just glancing at the maps of the global extent of BRICS+ and China’s One Belt, One Road Initiative that the US risks not just getting kicked off the World-island of Eurasia, but also faces a form of geopolitical encirclement. America’s vassals such as the EU confront a choice being trapped within this encirclement or breaking with the US and joining the gathering horde. These China-Russia-led bounded international orders are “thin” in that they do not imply deep commitments from the individual nation states. These “friend-zone” type thin orders are easy to join and promise increased connectivity between nations with little internal meddling. The relations between members are horizontal. Thick bounded orders such as NATO or the EU require a deep commitment and a loss of sovereignty since these orders are hierarchical—power travels vertically from top to bottom—and hold substantial political sway over their member states.
Today the United States finds itself in a potential three-front shooting war on distant battlefields. The bleak eastern European battlefields of the Donbass region are roughly 8000 kilometres from Washington DC while Taiwan is nearly 13,000 kms away in the western Pacific. Tehran’s blossoming nuclear program is 10,000 kilometres away. How did the US go from masterful geopolitical wizards of the Cold War to their current predicament? Three powerful conceptual tools: Mackinder’s Heartland Thesis, Spykman’s Rimland Antithesis and Alfred Mahan’s Sea-Power Theory help grasp these changing fortunes.
Mackinder’s Heartland Thesis
The key conceptual inspiration to British geopolitical theorist Halford Mackinder’s Heartland Thesis is the ebbing and flowing of power between the land/sea binary discussed in Geopolitical Surf ‘n Turf. During pre-modern times Eurasia’s coastal areas (“inner crescent” in Mackinder’s terminology) were plundered from both land and sea. One century it would be massive barbarian hordes on horseback flowing like lava from the Eurasian heartland steppes towards these littoral areas. Other times it would be powerful groups of seaborne pirates or Vikings, operating from safe havens on peripheral islands (“outer crescent” in Mackinder’s terminology), striking like meteorites with devastating amphibious expeditions on Eurasia’s coasts. After centuries of being hemmed in by land and at sea, in 1500, maritime Europe (first inner and then outer crescents) mastered oceanic travel which gave them a forceful advantage over both Eurasia’s heartland core (aka “pivot area”) and the recently “discovered” New World portions of the outer crescent. Ships could now transport materiel, troops and commerce over vast distances much faster and cheaper than any land routes. Profits flowed in from merchant fleets which in short order allowed inner crescent Portugal, the Netherlands, and then outer crescent Britain to rise to global leadership status.
But in the decades following Britain’s victory in Global War 4 (Napoleonic wars), technological progress flowed from Britain’s industrial cities towards the Eurasian continent. New railway technology provided faster and more economical means to criss-cross the massive intercontinental distances of the Eurasian landmass. These powerful interior lines of communication began closing the gap between maritime and continental powers. Combined with advances in artillery and the revolutionary potential of the internal combustion engine, these technological innovations created anxiety for Mackinder. At the dawn of the 20th century, he warned British policy makers of the growing threat posed by a great continental power uniting the Eurasian hinterlands into a fortress empire untouchable by British naval power.
Mackinder’s strategy to check this continental menace gestating in Eurasia’s hinterlands was to both fragment the heartland core and to unify the rimland littoral against it. Given the vast spaces, huge natural resource deposits, and the fortress-like protection it afforded, if one great Eurasian continental power were to unite the Heartland, the glory years of the maritime power would soon end.
Following World War 1, Mackinder took part in the Treaty of Versailles negotiations . He feared the unstoppable Eurasian land power colossus could emerge from any combination of Germany, Russia, China, with the added risk that maritime power Japan would join the coalition. But his immediate vexation was a German-Russian alliance. Mackinder’s resulting thesis still drives the strategic thinking behind today’s war in Ukraine:
Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland
Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island
Who rules the World-Island commands the World.
Mackinder advised creating many small Eastern European statelets to act as a cordon-sanitaire to block any German-Russian combination. Mackinger’s ideas were influential in Nazi Germany and inspired their Lebensraums concept. Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union came relatively close creating the dreaded heartland geopolitical Leviathan. Instead a victorious Soviet Union emerged as the Eurasian land power, which triggered the US’s Cold War containment strategy. But to this day, as demonstrated by the terrorist destruction of the Nord Stream pipelines, there are still those in power in Washington DC who still fear a German-Russian alliance.
Spykman’s Rimlands Antithesis
Dutch-American Nicholas Spykman wrote from an New World perspective just before and during the Second World War. While Mackinder feared a united Eurasian heartland as a menace to Britain, Spykman feared the geopolitical encirclement of the United States coming from a united Eurasian rimland—a term he coined to replace Mackinder’s inner crescent.
Rimland nations are amphibian, and feature hybrid land-sea power capabilities. They both risk suffering or can launch heartland interior land invasions or peripheral island exterior naval assaults. Rimland states create an amphibious buffer zone between inner continental and outer peripheral island nations. Spykman noted that in the last three major wars of his lifetime, Napoleonic, WW1 and WW2 conflicts featured alliances between peripheral island nations (Britain and/or US) together with heartland Russia. The threat in all three of those wars emanated from rimland powers (France or Germany).
In his book America’s Strategy in World Politics from 1942, Spykman, after discussing three previous times the US had faced encirclement, elaborates on the most recent attempt:
The fourth threat has emerged since 1940 and this time it is in a form more serious than ever before. The German-Japanese Alliance, signed in that year, provided for co-operation against the Western Hemisphere. By the fall of 1941, Germany had conquered most of Europe; Japan most of the coastal regions of the Far East. Only Great Britain and Russia in Europe and China and the Dutch East Indies in Asia stood between them and the complete conquest of the Old World. Victory would have meant for Germany the realization of her dream of a great Euro-African sphere controlled from Berlin. Victory would have meant for Japan the transformation of her island state into a unit of continental dimensions. For the New World, such a situation would have meant encirclement by two gigantic empires controlling huge war potentials. (p. 449)
Spykman did not propose containment, which would entail a peripheral power unifying the rimlands as a protective wall against the core. He called for a balance of power and a fragmented rimlands. For example he was vehemently against European unity. He worried that unity in the rimlands would create new centres of power which could one day threaten US global leadership. Spykman’s anthesis aphorism is:
Who controls the Rimland rules Eurasia;
Who rules Eurasia controls the destinies of the world.
Britain and France’s invasion of Crimea in 1854 can be seen as an attempt to keep Russia penned into its continental container by conquering the port of Sebastopol, the only Russian warm water port. This attempt ultimately failed and so Russia does have some rimland characteristics. The primary goal of the current Ukrainian war is to once again try to deny Russia access to its Crimean port.
Mahan’s Sea Power and the Unified Heartland-Rimland-Periphery Island Aufhebung
Aufhebung is the third term of Hegel’s thesis-antithesis dialectic, which is often rendered incorrectly as “synthesis.” Aufhebung is difficult to translate since it contains three contradictory meanings: to preserve, to cancel, and to uplift. The word “upheaval” but without its negative connotation, would come closest in English. The three definition correspond to an affirmation (thesis), a negation (antithesis) and contradiction (both negation and affirmation which lifts the process to a higher level). Hegel’s dialectic is an important feature in Marxist thought and is a familiar conceptual framework for officials from the Communist Party of China to use.
In their attempt at global unification, China and Russia have developed a number of overlapping and thinly bound orders over the past decade: BRICS+, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, One Belt-One Road (OBOR) Initiative, Greater Eurasian Partnership, Eurasian Economic Union, Shanghai Security Organisation, and the Collective Security Treaty Organization.
Clearly, China’s OBOR initiative is diagrammatically an attempt to resolve the contradictions between Mackinder and Spykman. The “Silk Road Economic Belt” creates many continental arteries for the flow of goods, not to mention the various oil and gas pipelines under construction. These belts are exactly the type of infrastructure Mackinder predicted would be necessary to unite the Eurasian Heartland. China‘s The 21st Maritime Silk Road” winks at Spykman, acknowledging the power of the Eurasian rimlands, wrapping the entire Eurasian littoral zones on their eastern, southern, and western flank with a network of ports.
China, Russia and South Africa recently conducted naval exercises around the critical naval choke point of the Horn of Africa. In 2022, Iran, China and Russia conducted naval exercises in the northern Indian ocean and war exercises in Venezuela. Together with the numerous infrastructure contracts China is signing with many South American and African nations, is is patently obvious that China-Russia-led Collective Rest are looking to unite the periphery islands to the Eurasian world-island.
For this ambitious endeavour knowledge of late 19th century US maritime strategist Alfred Mahan is required. If Mackinder focused on the heartland, and Spykman on the rimland, Mahan’s object of study was the oceans of the world. Mahan’s view was simple, whoever controls the world’s oceans control the globe. China has grand plans to build a blue-water navy and to establish a presence at as many oceanic choke-points as possible.
Reading into these various BRICS+ and OBOR maps, one can see an multi-layered attempt, radiating from the China-Russia strategic partnership, to create a unified global order. If achieved it would resolve the contradictions of domination between the Heartland/ Rimland/Peripheral Islands triad. Oceanic power become the means to unite all three moving parts of the global order. If China-Russia were to ever issue their own aphorism, it would be something like:
Who unites the Rimland and Heartland rules Eurasia
Who controls the Oceans unites Eurasia and Peripheral Islands
Who unites Eurasia and Peripheral Islands controls the world
An important question becomes: who is “who” in a multipolar world? This “who” cannot be a great power single nation-state. “Who” can only be the global order itself—all of its interconnected members. Instead of a tree-like unipolar arraignment of vertical hierarchy where one great nation serves as the root or source of power, a multipolar order feature a horizontal rhizomatic organization like that of grass, whose members strike new roots downward as its connections multiply.
If US power continues to deteriorate, a crisis will ensue during any subsequent interregnum period. For the China Russia-led “Rest of the World” coalition, today their rebellion against the Primal Father Uncle Sam drives and unites the Collective Rest. But if the US were to retreat back into her continental fortress—flush with natural resources—the horde’s organizing principle of West vs. Rest will vanish and the rebellious band of brothers may turn on each other. Perhaps, as Brzezinski warned, global anarchy will indeed follow.
As for maintaining the multipolar global order’s horizontal organizing principle, it is deeply embedded within human nature for one group to desire to dominate the others. And so as the BRICS+ and other orders’ grassy rhizomatic pastures expand, there may be arborescent attacks on the system as one or another nation makes a bid for hegemonic power. For the time being, the fact that China or Russia are not seeking sole global leadership is not based on altruism or do-gooding. They understand history and know the numerous problems the global leader will face and how prone to instability such systems are. Perhaps such fears will check their darker impulses to one day take hegemonic control of the system?
US efforts to stop the spreading multipolar global order currently consist largely of smear campaigns against Chinese economic acumen and Russian military prowess. It is true that these devaluations are often amplifications of a kernel of truth. However the US lives in a virtual media messaging world of its own making, obstinately avoiding any reality-based approach. As George W. Bush advisor Ron Suskind declared, 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” While the US are still masters of “information war” distorting and blemishing the aura of its enemies through the weaving of powerful narrative taboos for domestic audience consumption—it seems casting these same spells upon a more cynical Rest of the World is a more difficult challenge.
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