Sunday, 2 February 2014

The pursuit of geopolitical power in an emerging multi-polar world

In this essay I discuss the role of geopolitics in the emerging world order. For the first time in decades we see a multi-polar world emerging and various world powers (especially China, Russia and the EU) are challenging the old order. But what are their strategies? And how do they try to realize them? Although technology plays an important role, the old game of geopolitics is back in town. I discuss the most important geopolitical strategies and how these world powers are incorporating them in their thinking. I also show how this help us to understand the current situation in Ukraine.

There are longs periods during which the international political landscape in the world is quite stable. And then there are periods in which it is extremely unstable (typically ending in great wars). At this stage in the history of the world we are moving from a stable to an unstable situation. Although the world is not yet in the precarious situation of being unstable, it is changing fast and the signs are clear that a new phase in the political history of the world has began. There is a sense that the playing field has opened up and that opportunities are presenting themselves. The other important players (other than the US) sense that the Great Recession has damaged the financial power of the West and with it its ability to project power. And they are preparing strategies to assert themselves in ways unthinkable a few years ago.

Stability in the international political landscape always has its origin in a stable balance of power between world powers. This can include a situation where one superpower rules (a mono-polar world) or where two great powers are more or less evenly balanced in various parts of the world (bi-polar-world). Generally, these are periods of peace when commerce flourishes. During the last few centuries this happened during the period of the British empire in the eighteenth century, during the long period when the West and the USSR were evenly balanced in power (before the Cold War came to a climax during the last part of the 1980's) and again during the period of US dominance over the last few decades.

But there are also periods during which the world was very unstable. This typically involves a multi-polar world in which various players actively participate in the pursuit of power - when the great powers try to maneuver themselves into positions of power. This happened when Imperial Germany challenged British power just before the First World War and again when Nazi Germany challenged the Anglo-American power just before the Second World War. It also happened when Communism spread all over the east and the West tried to block that in the period before and during the Vietnam War. And it is happening again - in the period since the Great Recession.

The great powers follow various strategies in their pursuit of power. These could include an effort to try and out-sprint each other in military capability, both regarding new technologies and brute power. This can typically be measured in military spending. At the end of the Cold War the West out-sprinted the USSR for the simple reason that it became overstretched and did not had the economic and innovative ability to keep competing (that is why China combined its communism with a form of open economy). But there are another important factor in the power game. Although it is not often mentioned, it played a very important role in the thinking of the great military powers of the past and the present. This is geopolitical concerns. Various geopolitical strategies for world domination have been developed which involve control of certain strategic geographic areas of the world. The use of such strategies depend on a country's own geographic position.

Classical geopolitical strategies

There are essentially three major geopolitical strategies. The first was developed by Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840-1914), a US naval officer. He studied the British Empire and concluded that its navy was the basis for its success. He developed the concept of "sea power" according to which countries with greater naval power will have greater worldwide impact. He presented his ideas in his famous book The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1600-1793 (1890). His ideas had a great impact on the thinking of many strategists since that time and even today it is important in US Naval Doctrine. This strategy seems to be especially well suited for trading countries like Britain or the US, which need large navies to protect their financial interests. Although such countries were historically island countries which was in some sense protected from enemies by the sea which surrounds it (even the US can be viewed as a large island away from the large world mass of Euro-Asia), this advantage has diminished due to technological developments over the last century. Nowadays trade moves along sea, air, land and advanced communication routes.

The second strategy was developed by Sir Halford Mackinder (1861-1947), a British geographer. He viewed history as a constant battle between sea power and land power. Whereas sea powers have the ability to control the sea, land powers have the ability to control the major crossing points on land (railroads, oil pipelines etc.). He studied the world's land mass to establish which part of it is of central importance for any land power to effectively control the world. In his view this involves controlling the "World Island", which includes Europe, Asia and Africa (i.e. two-thirds of the available land). The other smaller "islands" like North and South America or Australia are less important. Furthermore, to control this large land mass (especially the "Heartland" which includes Europe and Asia) one have to control eastern Europe. Traditionally the European powers and Russia came into conflict over this area. If the area between the Black and Caspian Seas is included in "eastern Europe", this means effective control of all the routes going from Russia to Europe and the Middle East.

The third important strategy was developed by Nicholas Spykman (1893-1943), a US scholar of international politics. He brings Mahan and Mackinder's strategies together. In his view the most important geographical area to be controlled, is not so much eastern Europe, but the "rimland". This includes the area surrounding the "Heartland" of Euro-Asia and consists of various sections, namely the European Coastal areas, the Arabian-Middle Eastern desert land and the Asiatic monsoon, by which he means the civilizations surrounding the Chinese cultural sphere. Anyone who controls the "rimland", be it land powers in Euro-Asia or Sea powers, controls the world. His view greatly influenced the US containment strategy, of both the USSR and China.

Current power games

Countries have no control over the geographical area where they are situated. The US is an "Island" country, and China, Russia and the EU (the only ones to be discussed in this essay) are land powers in Euro-Asia. Since large deserts divide Russia and China, and the possibilities for power expansion in these areas are restricted, it is easy to see why Russia have traditionally projected its power to the west and south (i.e. towards Europe and the Middle East) and China have projected its power towards the seas to the south and east. For China any effective projection of power would first of all involve control of those areas. During the Cold War, when the power of the US and  the USSR were quite evenly balanced, the US controlled the seas as well as a large part of the rimland (but lost control in Vietnam), whereas the USSR controlled eastern Europe as well as parts of the rimland. At the end of the Cold War, the USSR lost control over those areas, but the US held and strengthened theirs.

There are mainly two reasons why the international political situation in the world is changing. The one is the rise of China. Over the last few decades the Chinese rulers have come to the conclusion that the only way to effectively grow their power is through rapid technological and economical development and that involves trade. Furthermore, they have concluded that the best strategic geopolitical model suited for their circumstances, is the one associated with trade, namely of sea power as envisioned by Mahan [1]. The Chinese have built a powerful navy and are challenging US containment. They have tense relations with nearly all their neighbors to the east and south, including Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan (things have calmed somewhat due to Taiwan's current policy of appeasing China). In November 2013 China even proclaimed a new air defense zone in the East China Sea of which about half overlaps with Japan's own air defense zone. The Senkaku islands (called Diaoyu by the Chinese) are in this area. In reaction the Japanese have increased their military budget for the first time in more than a decade.

The other reason for the changing world situation is the geographical rise of the EU, which now includes 28 countries. Although the rise of the EU has not really drawn much attention because the EU is not viewed as a strong military power and some have taken the economic crisis in the EU to signify its decline, in geographical terms the EU has dramatically expanded its reach. It is exactly this eastern expansion of its influence which has brought it into conflict with Russia over the Ukraine. Before its independence, the Ukraine has been part of the Soviet-Union. What we have seen, is that the EU has effectively expanded its control over a very large part of eastern Europe which, according to Mackinder, is needed for any ambitions to have eventual control of the world. Would the ex-Soviet states of Ukraine and Armenia have signed association agreements with the EU as part of the eastern partnership program at the end of 2013 (together with Moldavia, Georgia and Azerbaijan), it would have been the first step to contain Russia beyond the Ural mountains. Such a Russia is effectively stripped of all geopolitical possibilities to expand its power - no wonder that the Russian president, Putin, has used strong arm tactics to prevent them from signing.

The Arab Spring could play an important role in shaping this emerging world. If all the Arab countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea would eventually, maybe after some decades, turn into democracies (some expected that to happen overnight!), their natural home would be the EU. From a geopolitical point of view, this would give the EU control of a large part of the rimland. If it ever happens that other Arab countries in the Middle East, like Syria and Iraq would also move in this direction, the EU could in principle become the most powerful country in the world (This is because of such possibilities that Spykman was very much against the unification of Europe). Since its rise is so peaceful, nobody expects it to become such a superpower. But that can change if some EU countries proceeds to form a political union (become politically integrated) and have strong military capabilities at their disposal.

The outcome of the war in Syria could also have a major impact on the emerging world order. The reason why Russia is supporting the Syrian regime, is simply because it is one of their last allies in the Middle East. If Syria becomes democratic, Russia would be excluded from the Middle East (except for its alliance with Iran). Together with the EU's eastern partnership (if that ever comes to full fruition), this would reduce Russia to a large but impotent country. So, Putin's cunning power games is not a sign of Russia's rise, but rather of its struggle to keep some of its prospects for power open. 

On the other hand, the US's reluctance to bomb the Syrian regime in 2013 after it used chemical weapons against the rebels, has been taken by many Middle Eastern countries as a sign that the US does not have the same motivation as in the past to become involved in conflicts in the region. Although it is clearly a good strategy to first get rid of Syria's chemical weapons before any direct Western participation in the conflict, it none the less seemed to countries like Saudi-Arabia and Israel (and probably Iran and Russia) that the war-weary US is becoming an unreliable partner. Since the US will become self-sufficient in fuel-production in the near future, it clearly does not have the same motivation than in the past to secure Western fuel supplies in the Middle East. The US has also stated that they have the intention to focus more on securing their strategic interests in the east, with the rise of China in mind. It is possible that the US will eventually need all their resources to contain a rising China in the east. This will open a strategic space in the Middle East which will most probably be filled by the EU (although Iran, together with Russia, will do all in their power to resist this).

The US has spend a lot of effort in promoting peace in the Middle East. They got the Israeli-Palestinian peace process going again, are trying to bring the Syrian regime and the rebels to the negotiation table and are also trying to force Iran to let go of its nuclear ambitions. Although such an effort to promote peace seems noble, there are some problems associated with this approach, namely 1) it seems that the Obama administration is trying to promote peace at all costs (or avoid war at all costs?), and 2) lasting peace has historically only been achieved when the world moved from an unstable political landscape towards a more stable one (typically after great wars), never when the world is moving from a stable to an unstable situation, from an uni-polar world to a multi-polar one. The result is that the major players see this as an opportunity to enhance their positions in the intermediate period before everything becomes extremely unstable. They try to maneuver themselves to outplay the others.


The world is changing fast and a new multi-polar world is emerging in which China, Russia, the US and the EU are the major players. In (classical) geopolitical terms, the US has been using the ideas of Mahan and Spykman for about a century to enhance its own power. They have controlled the seaways and the rimland. But this situation will not stay static. Their control of both the sea as well as the rimland (especially in the east) are challenged by China, who is also seriously considering implementing Mahan's strategy. Although China has not yet made any major move in this regard, it seems quite possible that they will eventually do so - especially when they think they are in a position to succeed (maybe with fast, land-grabbing military exercises). It is possible that the containment of China will eventually force the US to apply all its resources in this regard. 

The alliance between the US and the EU within the framework of NATO, and the free-trade zone that is being negotiated, implies that the US could (and probably would eventually have to) leave the European borderlands to the EU as primary  (but maybe not sole) defender thereof. This will only happen once the EU has developed into a major military player as well. In the meantime it has used its soft power to enhance its own interests to such an extent that it has effectively secured eastern Europe and could very well eventually include the countries around both the Black and Mediterranean Seas in its sphere of influence. This will give them control over large parts of the rimlands bordering Europe and the Middle East. If Russia is effectively excluded from this zone, the EU could become the new and final (?) unipolar superpower in the world. Although this seems improbable at this point in history, this is exactly what geopolitical analysis predicts.

[1]  Part1-3: Inside China's military buildup (Reuters investigates).

Author: Dr Willie Mc Loud (Ref.

See also: The rise of the final world empire: the different views
 The euro countries move towards a fiscal union: an eschatological perspective