Liquefying the Heartland: an experiment in wild geopolitical speculation

The Great Game, an expression popularized by Rudyard Kipling, was the geopolitical competition which existed between the British and Russian Empires over Central Asia during much of the 19th century. Russia was in the middle of its southward and eastward continental expansion. Britain, on the other hand, was making important advances from India. The two powers had clashed elsewhere, in the Crimean War (1853-1856), and an atmosphere of mutual distrust was prevalent. Britain intended to turn Afghanistan into a protectorate and set the Khiva Khanate, the Emirate of Bukhara, and the Ottoman and Persian Empires as buffer states between its Asian possessions and Russia’s. At the same time, and just as today, Russia was looking to get access to a warm water seaport in the Persian Gulf. The various Anglo-Sikh and Anglo-Afghan Wars of the 1800s were a direct result of these tensions.

Halford Mackinder’s life was spent during the Great Game and its aftermath. He is considered to be the father of geography, and specifically geopolitics. According to his theories, there were three concentric regions in the world (here’s a map). The combined landmass of Asia, Europe and Africa, he called the World Island. At its center there was a “pivot area” or Heartland. Encircling the Heartland was the Rimland, or Inner Island Crescent. It comprised peninsular Europe, Northern Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. Out of this area, an Outer Island Crescent could be found, encompassing the Americas, Sub-Saharan Africa and Oceania. The Heartland concentrated most of the world’s population and resources. It was its natural power center, especially with the advent of a new technological marvel: the railroad. Mackinder thought the British Empire, as a naval power, had to avoid at all costs the consolidation of a continental power block within it. His most famous quote is: Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; Who rules the Heartland commands the World Island; Who rules the World Island commands the World“. In practice, this meant antagonizing any effort made by the Russian Empire to establish itself as the main power in the Heartland.

Mackinder’s ideas were further developed, and sometimes contested, by American strategists such as Alfred Mahan and Nicholas Spykman. Spykman especially contradicted the notion of continental vs. naval power dynamics being the main factor shaping the World’s conflicts; a notion Carl Schmitt also reflected on in The Nomos of the Earth. According to Spykman, History’s greatest battles had instead been fought to prevent any single power from controlling the Rimland. Heartland and Outer Crescent powers always tried to avoid the Rimland falling into the other’s hands; they also readily joined forces when the Rimland became too powerful itself. Spykman’s adaptation of Mackinder’s aphorism was:Who controls the Rimland rules Eurasia; Who rules Eurasia controls the destinies of the world”. This view was itself heavily influenced by the 20th century experience of Germany and Japan (both Rimland countries) becoming too strong to control. As such, it shaped the US Cold War strategy and influenced other thinkers like George Kennan, John Foster Dulles, Henry Kissinger or Zbigniew Brzezinski. NATO is a typical, now deteriorating, product of such thinking.

A more nuanced version of this geographical determinism still runs strong in International Relations. Perhaps one of the most influential modern writers on this topic is Robert D. Kaplan (b. 1952), an American reporter (and IDF veteran) who has written extensively on the American Empire and its vicissitudes. His 2012 book, The Revenge of Geography, is a great example of contemporary geopolitical theory. As happens with the authors referenced above, Kaplan’s portrayal of conflict is a product of his time; thus, he sees it as primarily involving civilization against primitive societes. Having come of age in an era of American quasi-hegemony and overseas interventionism, an added element of cultural confrontation to his thinking was almost impossible to avert. Samuel Huntington’s concept of the Clash of Civilizations is another good example of this line of thinking.

So what has the spirit of The Current Year™ contributed to geopolitical perspectives? The first generations of geostrategists lacked a dynamic conception of geographical characteristics. Theirs was a static, stable world: plate-tectonic theory was only accepted in the early 1960s; climate change is still debated nowadays. The impact of revolutionary technologies in the way Humanity navigates its physical environment was unforeseeable aswell. If you have checked the About page, you will already know that here at The Outpost we’re all about wild speculation. Let us take, then, some modern projections of what Earth might look like in the future, and apply to them the logic of Mackinder & Co. The North Pole seems a good place to start as any.

Arctic is derived from the Greek word ἄρκτος, “bear”, a reference to the Ursa major constellation. Whatever be the cause, it seems to be melting. Even if it doesn’t melt completely, an ice-free Arctic Summer in the 21st century is possible and likely. Nowadays, it takes a ship 15 days to reach China from Yamal (Russia), by crossing the Northern Sea Route (NSR) through the Bering Strait. The traditional route, bordering Europe and crossing the Suez Canal, is twice as long. It is also more vulnerable to security concerns and consequently rising costs, be it due to tension in the Middle East, Somali pirates or Indian Ocean cyclons. At the same time, the Transpolar Sea Route  is everyday closer to becoming a thing. It links the Pacific to the Atlantic, directly crossing the North Pole instead of following the coastline like the NSR, and it is the shortest possible route between both bodies of water. The whole area is full of mostly unexploited natural resources and possibilities.

The Russian Federation boasts the world’s longest Arctic coastline. It’s also a traditional settler there: its medieval predecessor, the Republic of Novgorod, was already collecting taxes from the natives at Kola Peninsula (now Murmansk oblast) as early as the 13th century. In Western eyes, Russia’s Arctic policy is mostly seen as an intent to expand and secure its continental shelf; this concept speaks volumes to the country being perceived as a typical land power, even in spite of its powerful navy. To use Alexandr Dugin’s expression, Russia is a tellurocracy, with all of the spiritual connotations Eurasianism assigns to it: a traditionalist, sedentary culture; a tendency to build centralist, authoritarian bureacuracies; and an appreciation for hierarchy and military values.

But perhaps Russia is not trying to solidify its control of the Arctic continental shelf; Russian activity in the Arctic is about advancing the ground as much as it is about engaging with its dark waters. If geography dictates the character of a people, the liquefaction of the Arctic can bring about the liquefaction of Northern Russia. Could the melting process turn Russia into a trading thalassocracy, a culture of merchants? A warmer Russian North Coast and an increased commercial activity there could promote the development of a new, amphibious geopolitical character. The ice now blocking the North of Russia is a strain, a corset which has forced the region to always gravitate towards Europe or the Far Eastern wilderness. Historically, Eastern Europe has always been the focus of Russia’s energies, be it in the form of armored divisions or gas ducts. A more open and liquid Northern horizon would dissipate this fixation. Around the 1860s, America was an isolationist nation of farmers and homesteaders, with the railroad as its lifeblood. In the 1940s, now a bicoastal country, it had taken the crown as Ruler of the Waves. A century from now, will the barren Arctic litoral host a new generation of Sea Peoples, from Murmansk to the Hudson Bay?

Were this to happen, another corollary of classical geopolitics becomes apparent: the displacement of the pivot area of the World Island. If the Rimland starts including the Arctic coasts, then the pivot area shifts. A new balance would have to be established, and other powers would have to strive for the role of land hegemon. Both China and Turkey seem particularly well positioned for this role in terms of their geography. China has bought 5% of Ukraine. The New Silk Road, the largest infrastructure project in History, pierces the deserts of the Middle East, still burning from the West’s “Forever Wars”. The tracks are bound towards a fracturing Europe. Meanwhile, Russian gas giant Novatek, perfects its new natural liquefying technology: it’s called “Arctic Cascade” It’s no wonder some people care less about Global Warming than others. A New Great Game is underway.