2006-08-03,11:27 AM

The New Geopolitics of Empire (I)

by John Bellamy Foster

Today’s imperial ideology proclaims that the United States is the new city on the hill, the capital of an empire dominating the globe. Yet the U.S. global empire, we are nonetheless told, is not an empire of capital; it has nothing to do with economic imperialism as classically defined by Marxists and others. The question then arises: How is this new imperial age conceived by those promoting it?

The answer, I am convinced, is to be found in the dramatic resurrection of geopolitics as an imperial philosophy. What Michael Klare has called in these pages “The New Geopolitics” has become a pragmatic means of integrating U.S. imperial goals in the post-Cold War world while avoiding all direct allusions to the “economic taproot of imperialism.”1

As Franz Neumann indicated in Behemoth, his classic 1942 critique of the Third Reich, “geopolitics is nothing but the ideology of imperialist expansion.”2 More precisely, it represents a specific way of organizing and advancing empire—one that arose with modern imperialism, but that contains its own peculiar history that is reverberating once again in our time.

Geopolitics is concerned with how geographical factors, including territory, population, strategic location, and natural resource endowments, as modified by economics and technology, affect the relations between states and the struggle for world domination. Classical geopolitics was a manifestation of interimperialist rivalry and emerged around the time of the Spanish–American War and the Boer War. It constituted the core ideology of U.S. overseas expansion articulated in Alfred Thayer Mahan’s Influence of Sea Power upon History (1890), Frederick Jackson Turner’s “The Frontier in American History” (1893), and Brooks Adams’s The New Empire (1902)—as well as in Theodore Roosevelt’s “Rough-Rider” policies.3 The term “geopolitics” itself was coined in 1899 by the Swedish political scientist Rudolf Kjellén, after which it quickly emerged as a systematic area of study. The three foremost geopolitical theorists in the key period from the Treaty of Versailles through the Second World War, were Halford Mackinder in Britain, Karl Haushofer in Germany, and Nicholas John Spykman in the United States.

Classical Geopolitics

Mackinder was a geographer, economist, and politician. He was Director of the London School of Economics from 1903 to 1908 and a Member of Parliament from Glasgow from 1910 to 1922. He began to develop his geopolitical ideas in 1904 with his essay “The Geographical Pivot of History.”4 Mackinder was a strong advocate of British imperialism, arguing that colonies in Africa and Asia constituted a safety valve for European society, and that a closure of the world to European imperialist expansion would lead to the unleashing of uncontrollable class forces within European societies. Central to his analysis was the recognition that the frontiers of the world were closed, resulting in heightened interimperialist rivalry.

“The great wars of history,” Mackinder wrote in Democratic Ideals and Reality (1919), “are the outcome, direct or indirect, of the unequal growth of nations.” Geopolitical reality was such as “to lend itself to the growth of empires, and in the end of a single World-Empire.”5 A primary concern motivating Mackinder’s theoretical contributions was the decline of British economic hegemony, leading him eventually to conclude that British capital needed protectionism and military power to back it up. Britain “no less than Germany,” he claimed, “became ‘market-hungry,’ for nothing smaller than the whole world was market enough for her in her own special lines....Free-trading, peace-loving Lancashire has been supported by the force of the Empire....Both Free Trade of the laissez-faire type and Protection of the predatory type are policies of Empire, and both make for War.”6

Mackinder is best known for his doctrine of the “Heartland.” Geopolitical strategy was about the endgame of controlling the Heartland—or the enormous transcontinental land mass of Eurasia, encompassing Eastern Europe, Russia through Siberia, and Central Asia. The Heartland, together with the remainder of Asia and Africa, made up the World Island. The Heartland itself was defined by its inaccessibility to sea, making it “the greatest natural fortress on earth.”7 The Columbian Age dominated by sea power, Mackinder argued, was coming to an end to be replaced by a new Eurasian age in which land power would be decisive. The development of land transportation and communication meant that land power could finally rival sea power. In the new Eurasian Age whoever ruled the Heartland, if also equipped with a modern navy, would be able to outflank the maritime world—the world controlled by the British and U.S. empires.

In Democratic Ideals and Reality Mackinder designated Eastern Europe as a strategic addition to the Heartland—the key to the command of Eurasia. Thus arose his oft-quoted dictum:

Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland:
Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island:
Who rules the World-Island commands the World.8
Mackinder insisted that the most immediate foreign policy objective for the British Empire was to prevent any kind of alliance or bloc between Germany and Russia, and to keep either one from dominating Eastern Europe. Hence strong buffer states needed to be formed between these two great powers.

In 1919 the British government appointed Mackinder high commissioner for south Russia to help organize British support for General Denikin and the White Army in the Russian Civil War. Following the Red Army’s defeat of Denikin, Mackinder returned to London and reported to the British government that, although German industrialization was rightly feared by Britain, Germany could not be allowed to collapse economically and militarily since it constituted the chief bulwark against Bolshevik control of Eastern Europe. Mackinder was knighted for his efforts on behalf of the empire.9

Mackinder’s geopolitical analysis was to have an even greater impact on German than on British war planning. The founder of the German school of Geopolitik was Friedrich Ratzel, whose most important works appeared in the 1890s. Ratzel sought to connect the Darwinian struggle for existence with the geopolitical struggle for space through an organic theory of the state. States were not static but naturally growing, borders were simply a skin that could be shed. It was Ratzel who first introduced the term “lebensraum” (or living space) as an imperative for the German polity. “There is in this small planet,” he wrote, “sufficient space for only one great state.”10

The foremost German geopolitical thinker, however, was Karl Haushofer, who drew upon both Ratzel and Mackinder. Haushofer insisted that Germany needed to enlarge its lebensraum, the requirements of which were evident in the disproportion between the German population and the natural geographic space necessary to accommodate it. He regarded the United States, with its ideology of Manifest Destiny, as the country that had most successfully employed geopolitics within its region. In this regard he saw the Monroe Doctrine, which stipulated that the United States had hegemony in the Americas and would not suffer the competition of any foreign power (along with the 1904 Roosevelt Corollary through which the United States claimed “international police power” in the Western Hemisphere) as the greatest practical implementation of geopolitics, pointing to the need for a parallel German Monroe Doctrine. Haushofer and his followers viewed Pan-Americanism as a geopolitical grouping through which the United States exercised its regional hegemony. He argued that similar regional hegemonies could be established around other great powers, notably Pan-Germanism or a Pan-Europe dominated by Germany.11

British imperialism was for Haushofer the greatest threat to German power. One of his books included a world map showing a giant octopus located in the British Isles with its tentacles stretching out into every corner of the globe. The development of German strength to counter the British and American maritime world, he argued, lay in the creation of a great Eurasian intercontinental power bloc with Russia and Japan, in which Germany would be the senior partner. The alliance with Japan would counter British and American naval power in the Pacific. With the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact in 1939 he wrote: “Now finally, the collaboration of the Axis powers, and of the Far East, stands distinctly before the German soul. At last, there is the hope of survival against the Anaconda policy [the strangling encirclement] of the Western democracies.” Although relying primarily on geopolitics, Haushofer was to unite his ideas with the Nazi doctrine of “master-races.”12

Haushofer served as a brigade commander in the First World War, with Rudolf Hess as his aide-de-camp. He retired from the military with the rank of major general and took up a position as a lecturer at the University of Munich in 1919, where Hess continued as his student and disciple. Through Hess, Haushofer had direct contact with and served as an adviser to Hitler. After the failure of the Nazi Beer Hall Putsch in 1923 Hitler and later Hess were confined in the Fortress of Landsberg. As Hess’s mentor, Haushofer frequently visited Hitler there while the latter was dictating Mein Kampf to Hess. Many of Haushofer’s ideas, including his treatment of lebensraum, were thus adopted by Hitler and incorporated into Mein Kampf. In 1933 after the Nazi rise to power a professorship of defense geography was created for Haushofer at the University of Munich where he directed his Institute of Geopolitics. In the following year Hitler appointed him president of the German Academy. After Hess’s flight to Britain in 1941 Haushofer’s influence with Hitler waned. He was consigned briefly to the Dachau concentration camp. His son, Albrecht (also a leading Nazi geopolitical analyst) was executed by the SS for involvement in the 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler. Haushofer committed suicide after being interrogated by the Allies in 1946.13

Nicholas John Spykman was a Dutch-American political scientist, sociologist, and journalist. Spykman wrote two major geopolitical works: America’s Strategy in World Politics (1942), completed just before the U.S. entry in the Second World War, and his posthumous work, The Geography of the Peace (1944). He opposed a “rimland” thesis to Mackinder’s Heartland doctrine, arguing that by controlling the amphibious rimlands of Europe, the Middle East, and the East Asia-Pacific Rim region, the United States could limit the power of the Eurasian Heartland. Spykman insisted that the United States should build North Atlantic and trans-Pacific naval and air bases, encircling Eurasia. Responding to Mackinder, Spykman wrote: “If there is to be a slogan for the power politics of the Old World, it must be ‘Who controls the rimland rules Eurasia; who rules Eurasia controls the destinies of the world.’”14

In America’s Strategy in World Politics Spykman insisted that U.S. policy must be “directed at the prevention of hegemony,” defined as “a power position which would permit the domination of all within its [the hegemon’s] reach.” But in practice this meant the promotion of U.S.-British dominance.15 By 1942 with the British Empire weakening and the U.S. Empire growing, an “American-British hegemony” of the globe, Spykman contended, was in the offing—provided that the German-Japanese attempt at world hegemony could be defeated. Although the Soviet Union was then an ally of the United States and Britain, Spykman nevertheless suggested in The Geography of the Peace that the primary goal must be to ensure that the Soviet Union not “establish a hegemony over the European rimland.” The Soviet Union’s “own strength, great as it is,” he observed, “would be insufficient to preserve her security against a unified rimland” under U.S. hegemony, the existence of which would give the United States global supremacy.16

Spykman’s views were widely read in U.S. policy circles, but beginning in 1942 the term “geopolitics,” if not the concept itself, was increasingly off limits in the United States due to the alarms that had been raised in the U.S. media about German geopolitical thinking and Haushofer’s influence on Hitler. It would be a quarter-century or more before the term would re-enter public discourse. Although Spykman’s rimland concept is often seen as providing the intellectual background behind George Kennan’s notion of “containment,” explicit references to Spykman’s ideas in this context were notable by their absence.

The Geopolitics of Pax Americana

In 1939 State Department planners in conjunction with the Council on Foreign Relations initiated under conditions of extreme secrecy a high level War and Peace Studies (WPS) program, which continued to meet for the remainder of the war. The Rockefeller Foundation provided $44,500 in funding for its first year of operation. The WPS envisaged a geopolitical region that it designated as the “Grand Area,” and which consisted initially of the British and U.S. empires. “The Geopolitical analysis behind” the Grand Area, Noam Chomsky has explained, “attempted to work out which areas of the world have to be ‘open’—open to investment, open to the repatriation of profits. Open, that is, to domination by the United States.”17

The new Grand Area was thus to constitute an informal empire, modeled after U.S. domination of Latin America, involving the free flow of capital, under the economic, political, and military hegemony of the United States. Since Germany then occupied Europe, the Grand Area was at first conceived as restricted to the U.S. imperial region, the British Empire, and the Far East (assuming the U.S. defeat of Japan in the Pacific). By the end of the war it had expanded to encompass all of Western Europe as well. Isaiah Bowman, a leading U.S. political geographer (sometimes referred to in the press at the time as “the American Haushofer”), and a key figure in the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in 1941: “The measure of our victory will be the measure of our domination after victory.”18

In 1943 Mackinder published an article entitled “The Round World and the Winning of the Peace” in the Council on Foreign Relations’ journal Foreign Affairs, which stated that “for our present purpose, it is sufficiently accurate to say that the territory of the USSR is equivalent to the Heartland.”19 For the first time, he argued, the Heartland was fully garrisoned and dangerous. The goal for the United States was therefore to counter the Soviet Heartland power. As Colin Gray observed in his Geopolitics of the Nuclear Era (1977), viewed in geopolitical terms, the Cold War was essentially a contest “between the insular imperium of the United States and the ‘Heartland’ imperium of the Soviet Union....for control/denial of control of the Eurasian-African ‘Rimlands.’”20

Although explicit references to geopolitics were rare from the late 1940s to the 1970s, an exception to this was to be found in the work of James Burnham. Formerly a prominent leftist, Burnham played a major role in developing a geopolitics of anticommunism in the Cold War era. His postwar anticommunist blockbuster, The Struggle for the World (1947), was originally drafted as a secret study for the Office of Strategic Services (the precursor to the CIA) in 1944, and was intended for use by the U.S. delegation to the Yalta Conference. It was, he insisted, “an axiom of geopolitics that if any one power succeeded in organizing the [Eurasian] Heartland and its outer barriers, that power would be certain to control the world.” Following Mackinder, Burnham claimed that the Soviet Union had emerged as the first great Heartland power, with a large, politically organized population, that was a threat to the World Island and hence the entire world. “Geographically, strategically, Eurasia encircles America, overwhelming it.” The United States was an empire, yet refused to call itself such; therefore various euphemisms needed to be found. “Whatever the words, it is well also to know the reality. The reality is that the only alternative to the communist World Empire is an American Empire, which will be, if not literally world-wide in formal boundaries, capable of exercising decisive world control.” Henry Luce actively promoted The Struggle for the World in Time magazine, and urged President Truman’s political aide, Charles Ross, to get Truman to read it. Ronald Reagan presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Burnham in 1983, declaring that he had “profoundly affected the way America views itself and the world.”21

Geopolitics was to owe its resurrection as an explicit, even official, doctrine of U.S. foreign policy in the 1970s to the influence of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Faced with the debacle in Vietnam and the need to restore U.S. power in the context of a growing imperial crisis, Kissinger and President Nixon reached out to the concept of geopolitics. The thawing of the Cold War relations with China following the Sino-Soviet split and the initiation of détente with the Soviet Union were both presented as “geopolitical necessities.” Kissinger’s references to geopolitics were pervasive throughout his 1979 memoirs, The White House Years.22

The 1970s witnessed along with the Vietnam defeat, economic stagnation and declining U.S. economic hegemony. By 1971 the U.S. empire had created such a huge dollar overhang abroad that Nixon was forced to decouple the dollar from gold, weakening the position of the dollar as the hegemonic currency. The energy crisis associated with the Arab oil boycott in response to the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the rise of the OPEC oil cartel demonstrated the growing dependence of the U.S. automobile-petroleum complex on Persian Gulf oil. The recession of 1974–75 initiated a secular slowdown of the U.S. economy that has continued with minor interruptions for three decades.

With the entire U.S. empire in crisis beginning in the 1970s, and with its war machine effectively immobilized due to what conservatives labeled the “Vietnam Syndrome” (the unwillingness of the U.S. population to support military interventions in the periphery), countries throughout the third world sought to break out of the system. Much of the attention during this period was directed at Washington’s attempts to counter revolutions and revolutionary movements in Central America and the Caribbean, the “backyard” of the U.S. empire. But the biggest defeat experienced by the U.S. empire in the years following the Vietnam War was the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which overthrew the Shah of Iran, hitherto the lynchpin of U.S. strategy in the Persian Gulf. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—against which the CIA immediately launched the greatest covert war in history, recruiting fundamentalist Islamic forces (including Osama Bin Laden) for a modern jihad—only served to reinforce the view within U.S. national security circles that control over the Middle East and its oil was in jeopardy.

A massive attempt was therefore made in the 1980s and ’90s to reconstitute overall U.S. hegemony, especially the position of the United States in the Persian Gulf. The signal event was the Carter Doctrine, issued by President Carter in his State of the Union speech in January 1980, in which he declared that, “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” Modeled after the Monroe Doctrine, the Carter Doctrine was meant to extend the umbrella of direct U.S. military hegemony over the Persian Gulf.

All of this was intended to meet the geopolitical imperatives of U.S. multinational corporations. For Business Week in January 28, 1980, it was crucial that the United States develop a “geopolitics of minerals,” in response to the forces challenging U.S. power around the world: “In the 1980s, beset by demands among the post-colonial regimes for a ‘new international economic order’ and a related antagonism toward the multinational resource corporations,” the United States was increasingly “vulnerable” to loss of strategic materials and “world oil and raw material routes.” This, Business Week contended, would “force Washington to make some painful compromises between idealistic foreign policy goals and the revival of geopolitics.”23

In 1983 the Reagan administration responded to such demands by establishing the U.S. Central Command (Centcom). Centcom is one of five regional “unified commands” governing U.S. combat forces around the globe. Its authority covers twenty-five nations in south-central Asia (including the Persian Gulf) and in the Horn of Africa. Its primary responsibility from the start was to keep the oil flowing. In the two decades of its existence, Klare notes, “Centcom forces have fought in four major engagements: the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88, the Persian Gulf War of 1991, the Afghanistan War of 2001, and the Iraq War of 2003[—].”24

1. Michael Klare, “The New Geopolitics,” Monthly Review, vol. 55, no. 3 (July–August 2003), 51–56. The phrase “economic taproot of imperialism” is taken from John Hobson’s classic 1902 work Imperialism: A Study (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1965), 71.
2. Franz Neumann, Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1942), 147.
3. Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783 (London: Sampson, Low, Marston, 1890); Brooks Adams, The New Empire (London: Macmillan, 1902); Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier in History (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1921). The Turner book contains his original 1893 article and his 1896 Atlantic Monthly analysis in which he extended the argument to encompass the need for U.S. overseas expansion—see The Frontier in History, 219.
4. Halford Mackinder, “The Geographical Pivot of History,” Geographical Journal, vol. 23, no. 4 (April 1904), 421–44.
5. Halford Mackinder, Democratic Ideals and Reality (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1919), 1–2.
6. Mackinder, Democratic Ideals and Reality, 179–81. For the evolution of Mackinder’s economic views see Bernard Semmel, Imperialism and Social Reform (Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1960), 157–68.
7. Halford Mackinder, “The Round World and the Winning of the Peace,” Foreign Affairs, vol. 21, no. 4, (July 1943), 601.
8. Mackinder, Democratic Ideals and Reality, 186.
9. Brian W. Blouet, Halford Mackinder (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1987), 172–77.
10. Ratzel quoted in Robert Strausz-Hupé, Geopolitics: The Struggle for Space and Power (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1942), 31.
11. Strausz-Hupé, Geopolitics, 66, 227; Neumann, Behemoth, 156–60.
12. Haushofer quoted in Strauz-Hupé, Geopolitics, 152; Neumann, Behemoth, 144.
13. Derwent Whittlesey, “Haushofer: Geopoliticians,” in Edward Mead Earle, ed., Makers of Modern Strategy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1948), 388–411; German Strategy of World Conquest (New York: Farrar & Rinehart, Inc., 1942), 70–78; Andreas Dorpalen, The World of General Haushofer (New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1942), 70–78; David Thomas Murphy, The Heroic Earth: Geopolitical Thought in Weimar Germany, 1918–1933 (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1997); Saul B. Cohen, Geopolitics in the World System (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003), 21–22.
14. Nicholas John Spykman, The Geography of the Peace (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1944), 43.
15. Nicholas John Spykman, America’s Strategy in World Politics (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Co., 1942), 19, 458–60.
16. Spykman, Geography of the Peace, 57.
17. Noam Chomsky, “The Cold War and the Superpowers,” Monthly Review, vol. 33, no. 6 (November 1981), 1–10; Neil Smith, American Empire: Roosevelt’s Geographer and the Prelude to Globalizaton (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 325–31.
18. Smith, American Empire, 287, 329.
19. Mackinder, “The Round World and the Winning of the Peace,” 598.
20. Colin S. Gray, The Geopolitics of the Nuclear Era (New York: Crane, Russak, and Co., 1977), 14.
21. James Burnham, The Struggle for the World (New York: John Day, 1947), 114–15, 162, 182; Gary Dorrien, Imperial Designs: Neoconservatism and the New Pax Americana (New York: Routledge, 2004), 22–25; Francis P. Sempa, Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 2002), 25–63. Like Burnham, Raymond Aron referred to the Soviet Union as a danger to the World Island in his Century of Total War (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955), 111.
22. Leslie W. Hepple, “The Revival of Geopolitics,” Political Geography Quarterly, volume 5, no. 4 (October 1986), supplement, S21–S36.
23. “Fresh Fears that the Soviets Will Cut Off Critical Minerals,” Business Week, January 28, 1980, 62–63; Noam Chomsky, Towards a New Cold War (New York: The New Press, 2003), 180–81.
24. Michael Klare, Blood and Oil (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2004), 2.
25. “Excerpts from Pentagon’s Plan: ‘Preventing the Re-Emergence of a New Rival,’” New York Times, March 8, 1992; “Keeping the U.S. First,” Washington Post, March 11, 1992; Dorrien, Imperial Design, 40–41.
26. Eugene V. Rostow, A Breakfast for Bonaparte (Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, 1993), 14; Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994), 814.
27. Renewed interest in Mackinder’s work in this context led to the reprinting of Democratic Ideals and Reality by the National Defense University in 1996.
28. Mackubin Thomas Owens, “In Defense of Classical Geopolitics,” Naval War College Review, vol. 52, no. 4 (Autumn 1999), http://www.nwc.navy.mil/press/review/1999/autumn/art3-a99.htm.
29. Zbigniew Brzezinski, The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and its Geostrategic Imperatives (New York: Basic Books, 1997), 3, 10, 30, 38–39.
30. See John Bellamy Foster “‘Imperial America’ and War,” Monthly Review, vol. 55, no. 1 (May 2003), 1–10.
31. Alan Larson, “Geopolitics of Oil and Natural Gas,” Economic Perspectives, May 2004 http://usinfo.state.gov/journals/ites//0504/ijee/larson.htm.
32. Klare, “The New Geopolitics,” 53–54.
33. “The New Geopolitics,” Economist, July 31, 1999, 13, 15–16.
34. Robert Kaplan, Imperial Grunts (New York: Random House, 2005), 3–15.
35. Strausz-Hupé, Geopolitics, 101.
36. “The Fearful Drift of Foreign Policy,” Business Week, April 7, 1975, 21.
37. István Mészáros, Socialism or Barbarism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001), 38.
38. G. John Ikenberry, “America’s Imperial Ambition,” Foreign Affairs vol. 81, no. 5 (September–October 2002), 44, 50, 59.


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