WHAT THE HELL’S GOING ON?! As events in the Middle East spiral out of control, and the prospect of a shooting war between the United States and Russia moves from possible to probable, that’s the question more and more people are asking.
Part of the answer lies embedded in the “geostrategic” model of the world reproduced above. The area shaded in blue, designated “Rimland”, corresponds remarkably closely to the area which, since the end of World War II, the United States and its allies have expended vast quantities of blood and treasure to bring under their control. The area shaded in red (old habits die hard!) is known as the “Heartland”. It belongs to the Russian Federation.
Outside the thin blue line which from descends from the Arctic Circle, sweeps south past Europe and Africa, then east across the Indian Ocean, turning north through the Indonesian archipelago and then north again into the Western Pacific, lie North and South America, Australia, New Zealand and the island nations of the Pacific. Inside the thin blue line lies the greatest geostrategic prize of all – the “World-Island”. Whoever controls the World-Island, controls the world.
That, at least, was the contention of Sir Halford Mackinder, the nineteenth century British geographer and founder of what came to be known as “geopolitics”. Mackinder’s ideas would inspire imperialists the world over. They inspired Adolf Hitler and, following Germany’s defeat in 1945, captured the imaginations of the elite advisers to the new kid on the imperial block – the United States.
Mackinder summarised his “Heartland Theory” in the following oft-quoted formula:
Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland;
who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island;
who rules the World-Island commands the world.
Russia – whether in the form of the Romanov Empire, the Soviet Union, or the Russian Federation – has always been the problem-child of geopolitics. Its location, at the heart of the World-Island, has, from the very beginning, strongly suggested that the struggle for global hegemony would eventually be won by the Russians. With the Heartland under its control, Russia (at least theoretically) can “pivot” west, into Europe; east, into China; and south, into India and Africa. That’s a hard hand to beat!
It was in order to forestall this geopolitically predetermined Russian victory, that the United States developed its post-1945 policy of “containment”. The Soviet domination of Eastern Europe (1945-1989) gave this policy a desperate urgency. A complex network of alliances was constructed, binding as many of the Rimland nations as possible to the task of keeping the Russians hemmed in on every side.
President Richard Nixon’s successful outreach to Communist China in the early 1970s represented a crucial geopolitical win for the United States, and with the collapse of the Soviet Union’s Eastern European “empire” in 1989, the Americans celebrated their hard-won release from Mackinder’s daunting spell. If Russia no longer controlled Eastern Europe, then it could not control the Heartland. And if it could not control the Heartland, then it could not control the world. The long-coveted role of global hegemon had been won by the United States.
To keep that role, however, the United States had to do two things: it had to keep its own position in the Rimland permanently strong; and Russia’s position in the Heartland permanently weak.
This was achieved by calving-off the constituent republics of the old Soviet Union (especially Ukraine and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) and advancing an expanded Nato as far as possible into Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, complementing this geographical dismemberment, was the break-neck deconstruction and sell-off of the Soviet Union’s economic assets and infrastructure. The all-too-brief flowering of liberal democracy which followed the collapse of Russian communism in 1991 was swiftly strangled by the poisonous weeds of a rapacious criminal kleptocracy. The fig-leaf president presiding over this gangster-capitalist nightmare, Boris Yeltsin, was a hopeless drunk, kept in power by a bevy of US-supplied election-fixers. (Oh yes, the Americans invented that particular game!)
The United States’ success in weakening the Heartland was, however, undermined by developments in the Rimland. China’s turn towards the US was not just diplomatic but economic. In the late-1970s, the Communist Party of China ditched Mao’s iron rice-bowl for an authoritarian variant of capitalism “with Chinese characteristics”. The phenomenal success of the Chinese communists’ idiosyncratic embrace of the market was paradoxical. Yes, it tied them to US capitalism – but in ways which strengthened its own economy at the long-term expense of America’s. By the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century China was snapping at the USA’s heels. Not only as an economic challenger, but also as a rapidly expanding military power.
The collapse of Soviet power impacted on the US in another way. In the years following World War II, many of the Arab states had adopted the Soviet model of national development and built up strong quasi-socialist and secular political movements to give it effect. But, for the Americans, driving Soviet influence out of the Muslim nations of the Rimland proved to be a double-edged sword. In Islam, American-led global capitalism met a force it could not suppress, whose ruthless use of asymmetric warfare tactics was to both derail and derange American policy in the Rimland.
As the United States embarked on its trillion-dollar wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the fast-declining Boris Yeltsin was succeeded by the former KGB officer, Vladimir Putin. An avid student of geopolitics, Putin was determined to rebuild Russia’s position in the Heartland. Keeping Ukraine out of the European Union and Nato was absolutely crucial to this project. He was also happy to take opportunistic advantage of the rapidly deteriorating situation in the Muslim nations of the Rimland. Russia’s staunch support for the Assad regime in Syria and its outreach to the Iranians runs directly counter to US intentions in the Middle East.
The drumbeat of US hostility towards Putin’s Russia, which has been rising in both volume and tempo since the US-backed fascist takeover of Ukraine in January 2014, and Putin’s subsequent annexation of the Crimea, is driven by America’s determination to prevent the reconstitution of decisive Russian power in the Heartland, and to put an end to Putin’s increasingly disruptive impact on the United States’ position in the Rimland.
The movement of Nato troops to Russia’s borders with the Baltic states. The determination to separate the Assad regime from its Russian ally. The ceaseless calls for the imposition of economic sanctions on the Russian Federation. (Boris Johnson, take a bow!) All are proof that Halford Mackinder’s “Heartland Theory” continues to drive the greatest and most dangerous geopolitical game of all – the game to decide who will rule the world.