Colin Gray and the Revival of Classical Geopolitics

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Colin S. Gray, who died in late February after a long battle with cancer, was one of the great strategic thinkers of our time. He authored more than 30 books and 300 articles, founded the National Institute for Public Policy, served as a defense advisor to American Presidents and British Prime Ministers, and taught international relations and strategic studies at the University of Reading in England.

His greatest contribution to Anglo-American strategic thought was to revive interest in, and apply and update to the contemporary analysis of international politics, the ideas and concepts of the great classical geopolitical thinkers, such as Britain’s Halford Mackinder, and America’s Alfred Thayer Mahan and Nicholas Spykman.

He began that process in 1977, with the publication of The Geopolitics of the Nuclear Era: Heartland, Rimlands, and the Technological Revolution. The date of publication is important. In 1977, the new U.S. President Jimmy Carter told the world that the United States had lost its “inordinate fear of communism,” at a time when the Soviet Union was engaged in a massive military (conventional and nuclear) build-up and was on the geopolitical offensive around the world in the wake of America’s defeat in the Vietnam War. The only member of Carter’s national security team who understood classical geopolitics was Zbigniew Brzezinski (who later wrote several books on the subject, including Game Plan and The Grand Chessboard), but Carter listened more to the dovish Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, at least until the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

The domestic divide as a result of the Vietnam War shattered the Cold War foreign policy consensus. The national Democratic Party, with a few notable exceptions such as Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson, sat out the remaining years of the Cold War. Throughout the 1980s, Democratic leaders, for the most part, opposed the Reagan Administration's strategic offensive policy vis-à-vis the Soviet Union—a policy that won the Cold War. 

 Colin Gray, in The Geopolitics of the Nuclear Era, framed the U.S.-Soviet struggle as the latest contest between a great Eurasian land power and the world’s leading insular sea power. He insisted that the era of nuclear weapons had not rendered geography and geopolitics obsolete. The Soviet Union, he explained, occupied what Mackinder called the Heartland of Eurasian landmass, the northern-central core of the continent. Western Europe, the Middle East, Southwest Asia, and East Asia occupied what Spykman called the Rimland. The United States, England, and Japan were allied outer or insular sea powers that applied the lessons of history as taught by the works of Mahan, especially in his book The Problem of Asia (1901). The Cold War in its geopolitical essentials was a contest for control of the Rimland.

In the 1980s, the Reagan administration, under the leadership of Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and Navy Secretary John Lehman (an intellectual disciple of Mahan), expanded the Navy to 600 ships and formulated a maritime strategy for victory in the event of war. Simultaneously, the administration embarked on a build-up of strategic nuclear forces at home, at sea, and in Western Europe, and launched the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI)—Colin Gray advised the President on such matters. Reagan also solidified America's alliances with the nations of Western Europe and Japan and continued the de facto strategic alliance with China.

In 1986, Gray wrote Maritime Strategy, Geopolitics, and the Defense of the West, which he called an “extension” of The Geopolitics of the Nuclear Era. He praised the U.S. naval build-up and its Rimland alliance strategy. “Rimland Eurasia,” he wrote, acts “as a barrier against the Soviet Union, [and] protects North America through its ability to deny Moscow the means and the opportunity to use preponderant landpower as the basis for a bid for preponderant seapower (and air-seapower).” Here, Gray, like Mackinder and Spykman before him, recognized that land-air and sea-air power could each be translated into the other. Mahan’s analysis in 1901, Mackinder’s analysis 1904 and 1919, and Spykman’s analysis in 1942 and 1944, taught the same lesson to strategists in the 1980s: the United States could thwart Soviet plans for victory in the Cold War by denying Soviet control of major Rimland power centers.

Two years later, Gray synthesized the arguments he made in both of those books in The Geopolitics of Super Power. The two earlier books were 70 and 80-page monographs. The Geopolitics of Superpower was 270 pages.  The book’s focus was on what Gray called “the strategic meaning of geography.” He used classical geopolitics to examine the Cold War. Containment, he believed, coincided with a Mackinder-Spykman worldview. The policy sought to contain the Soviet Union within its Heartland base by using Mahanian sea power, strategic nuclear superiority, and alliances to maintain the independence of the Rimland. Although Gray did not foresee immediate victory for the West in the Cold War, he argued for a policy of “dynamic containment” that included an effort to politically “rollback” the Soviet Empire, especially in Eastern Europe. Such a policy, he wrote, could “shake the edifice of the entire power structure of the Soviet state.”

In 1990, Gray expanded on this argument in War, Peace, and Victory: Strategy and Statecraft for the Next Century. The Cold War was ending, but Gray saw the need for the United States to be guided by classical geopolitics in the emerging post-Cold War world. He followed that book with The Leverage of Sea Power (1992). Here Gray was at his neo-Mahanian best, noting that “[g]reat sea powers or maritime coalitions have either won or, occasionally, drawn every major war in modern history.” This book was a tour de force in which Gray analyzed conflicts between Persia and the Greeks in the ancient world, the Peloponnesian War, the struggle between Rome and Carthage, the wars of the Byzantine Empire, the rise and fall of Venice, the Anglo-Spanish wars of the 16th century, the struggles between Britain and France between 1688 and 1815, the First and Second World Wars, and the Cold War. These conflicts proved to Gray that the “connecting and isolating value to strategy of superior sea power is a persisting fact of physical and political geography.”

In 2004, Gray called upon the United States to use its preponderant military power to protect the world order it had fashioned since the end of the Cold War. The book was called The Sheriff: America’s Defense of the New World Order.  If America retreated from the world, he argued, the resulting geopolitical vacuum would invariably be filled by another power or no power, leading to international anarchy.

China’s rise and Russia’s resurgence, however, convinced Gray that a tri-polar geopolitical world was emerging. In an article for the National Institute for Public Policy in February 2019, Gray urged the United States to act as a “balancer” between China and Russia, reminiscent of the Nixon-Kissinger strategy of the early 1970s. For this reason, he wrote, the United States needed to remain committed to Europe and Asia.

America and the West owe a debt of gratitude to Colin Gray. He used his brilliant intellect and persuasive writings to empower the United States and its allies to approach the world with realism based on an understanding of the “strategic meaning of geography.” He explained in The Geopolitics of the Nuclear Era, that “the leitmotiv of the geopolitical perspective enables one to discern trends, and even patterns, in power relations.” He did that exceedingly well to our benefit.

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.

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