Needed: A National Security Strategy Rooted in Geopolitics
Presidential National Security Strategies, like the one recently unveiled by President Trump, are usually the product of multiple executive branch agencies under the coordination of the president’s National Security Advisor. They are important documents, but they do not determine or even necessarily guide a president in responding and reacting to specific events around the globe. While such strategies manifest to some extent the worldviews of the president and his top advisors, prudent statesmen steeped in history recognize that, as Bismarck said, “man cannot control the current of events, he can only float with them and steer.”
The specifics of a National Security Strategy, therefore, are not as important as the underlying worldviews of the president and his key advisors. What is crucial is that the nation’s foreign and defense policies be rooted in an appreciation and understanding of classical geopolitics. This means that U.S. policymakers should have a knowledge of history in its geographical settings and a familiarity with the works of the greatest geopolitical scholars: Alfred Thayer Mahan, Halford Mackinder, and Nicholas Spykman.
Alfred Thayer Mahan graduated from the Naval Academy in 1859, served in the Union Navy during the American Civil War, and ended up teaching at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, between the 1880s and his death in 1914. He authored 20 books and hundreds of articles on history and naval strategy. He achieved world renown for his book The Influence of Sea Power upon History (1890).
His most important geopolitical work was The Problem of Asia (1901), but his geopolitical insights can also be found in The Influence of Sea Power Upon the French Revolution and Empire (1892), The Interest of America in International Conditions (1910), and Naval Strategy (1911).
Mahan understood that the United States was effectively an island or insular continental power with no potential peer competitor in the Western Hemisphere but with several such potential competitors in the Eastern Hemisphere. Because the U.S. was separated from the Old World by two great oceans, sea power was essential to its national security.
Mahan viewed the United States as the geopolitical successor to the British Empire. He studied how insular Britain repeatedly used its sea power and economic might to support coalitions of powers on the Eurasian landmass against potential continental hegemons such as the Austrian-Spanish Hapsburgs, Louis XIV’s France, and Napoleon’s empire. When Napoleon had effectively achieved control of most of continental Europe, Mahan understood that it was the British Navy (“those far distant, storm-beaten ships”) that stood between France and the “dominion of the world.”
Halford Mackinder was a British geographer, lecturer, and statesman who wrote three of the most important and influential geopolitical analyses between 1904 and 1943. The first, “The Geographical Pivot of History” (1904), was an address to the Royal Geographical Society in London, which later appeared in the Geographical Journal. The second, Democratic Ideals and Reality (1919), was written immediately after the end of the First World War and urged the statesmen of the world to construct a peace based on geopolitical realities rather than utopian ideals. The third, “The Round World and the Winning of the Peace,” appeared in Foreign Affairs in 1943 in the midst of the Second World War.
It is impossible in a short article to fully explain the breadth and depth of Mackinder’s analyses in these three works. His grasp of history unfolding in its geographical settings is unparalleled. His geopolitical map of the world consisted of the Eurasian-African continent that he called the “World-Island,” because it potentially combined insularity with unmatched population and resources; the surrounding islands, including North America, South America, Great Britain, Japan, Australia and lesser islands; and the world ocean.
The Eurasian landmass or “great continent,” contained most of the world’s people and resources. The “pivot state” or “Heartland” of Eurasia was the inner core region stretching east-to-west from the Lena River in Siberia to the edge of Eastern Europe between the Black and Caspian Seas and north-to-south from just below the arctic circle to Inner Mongolia and the northern Central Asian republics. The Eurasian Heartland was geographically impenetrable to sea power but suitable for mobile land power.
Abutting the Heartland or pivot state on the Eurasian landmass, according to Mackinder, was a vast crescent-shaped region or coastland, which included Western Europe, the Middle East, Southwest Asia, India, China, and the continental nations of the Far East, all of which was accessible to sea power.
Mackinder rounded-out his map with an outer or insular crescent of powers, which included Britain, Japan, Africa south of the Sahara Desert, Australia, Indonesia, North America, and South America.
In 1904, he warned Western statesman that if a great power or coalition of powers achieved effective political control of the key power centers of Eurasia, it could use the resources of the great continent to build a powerful navy and thereby overwhelm the world’s other insular powers—“the empire of the world would then be in sight.”
In 1919, he colorfully suggested that some “airy cherub” should whisper into the ear of Western statesmen: “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland: Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island: Who rules the World-Island commands the world.”
In 1943, Mackinder suggested that a Heartland-based power could be contained by a coalition of powers based in the “Midland Ocean,” which included the United States and Canada, Great Britain, and the nations of Western Europe, a remarkable and prescient description of the NATO coalition that formed six years later in response to a Heartland-based Soviet empire’s expansionist policies. In this latter paper, Mackinder hoped for a “balanced globe of human beings, [a]nd happy because balanced and thus free.”
In these three works, Mackinder succeeded in his quest to “measure the relative significance of the great features of our globe as tested by the events of history . . . and then to consider how we may best adjust our ideals of freedom to these lasting realities of our earthly home.”
Nicholas Spykman taught international relations at Yale University in the 1930s and 1940s. He wrote two geopolitical masterpieces, America’s Strategy in World Politics (1942) and The Geography of the Peace (1944), that latter of which was published posthumously. Spykman accepted the geopolitical division of the world as described by Mackinder, but differed with Mackinder about the power potential of the world’s regions.
For Spykman, the world’s most powerful region was not the landlocked Heartland, but the crescent-shaped area bordering the Heartland that he renamed the “Rimland.” In The Geography of the Peace, he issued a counter-dictum: “Who controls the Rimland rules Eurasia, who rules Eurasia controls the destinies of the world.”
Spykman nevertheless agreed with Mackinder that the postwar struggle would potentially pit a Heartland-based Russia against the maritime power of the United States for control of the Rimland, and so it turned out to be. Spykman even foresaw that China would one day be a “continental power of huge dimensions,” and her size, geographic position, natural resources and population would force the United States into an alliance with Japan to preserve the Asian balance of power.
Indeed, Mahan, Mackinder and Spykman all understood that China’s geographical position, resources, immense population, and access to the sea made her potentially a formidable power on the Eurasian landmass. All three scholars understood that American and Western national security depended on the political pluralism of Eurasia—what Mackinder called a “balanced globe of human beings.”
The most astute observers of global politics today, such as Robert Kaplan, Henry Kissinger, and Colin S. Gray, stand on the intellectual shoulders of giants like Mahan, Mackinder, and Spykman. Kaplan and Gray, in particular, have updated the classical triumvirate’s geopolitical insights to the 21st-century world of nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, space-power and cyber-power. Kaplan’s The Revenge of Geography, Monsoon, and “The Return of Marco Polo’s World,” Kissinger’s Diplomacy, and Gray’s The Geopolitics of the Nuclear Era, Maritime Strategy, Geopolitics, and the Defense of the West, The Geopolitics of Superpower, and The Leverage of Sea Power, should be on the reading lists of our national security policymakers.
President Trump’s first formal National Security Strategy speaks of the need to preserve a favorable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region, Europe, and the Middle East, which roughly approximates Spykman’s Rimland. It recognizes that the two most likely global competitors of the United States are China and Russia, both continental-sized powers situated in or near Mackinder’s Heartland. It expresses the need for greater investment in naval power in order to maintain and increase our access to allies and bases on the Eurasian landmass, consistent with the teachings of Mahan. In these ways, it reflects an understanding of classical geopolitics.
History and experience always trump theory. The realities of world politics seldom lend themselves to neat formulas or models. The so-called “lessons” of history have frequently been misused with dangerous and deadly results. Political leaders often have to react to events without the benefit of complete knowledge and information. An understanding of classical geopolitics will not enable U.S. policymakers to shape the world to their liking, but it may enable them to, in Bismarck’s words, “float with and steer” the “current of events.” The best we can and should hope for is a prudent National Security Strategy that seeks geopolitical balance based on the political pluralism of Eurasia.
Francis P. Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21stCentury, America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War, and Somewhere in France, Somewhere in Germany: A Combat Soldier’s Journey through the Second World War. He has written lengthy introductions to two of Mahan’s books, and has written on historical and foreign policy topics for The Diplomat, the University Bookman, Joint Force Quarterly, the Asian Review of Books, the New York Journal of Books, the Claremont Review of Books, American Diplomacy, the Washington Times, and other publications. He is an attorney, an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University, and a contributing editor to American Diplomacy.