For most of history, geography represented an inescapable, deterministic phenomenon that controlled how, when, and where nations and peoples lived out their short lives. Where you lived, the climate, access to outside, barriers from outside, etc. were factors that pre-technology could not overcome. If you were born in a closet, you lived in the dark. If you were born in a field, you ran. If you were born in the sea, you swam.

Is geography a definitive cause for world events?

I often asked my classes, what are good examples of that reality in history? The answers often came in the form of questions:

  • Why doesn’t Switzerland have a navy?
  • Why did England need a navy?
  • Why did Germany need an army?
  • Why did Japan expand into the Pacific Ocean?
  • How could the U.S. afford isolationism?
  • Why was the Monroe Doctrine confined to the Western Hemisphere?
  • Why was Poland invaded so often and from every direction?
  • Why was the northern U.S. industrial before the Civil War, the south agrarian?
  • Why did the northern U.S. give up slavery voluntarily, the south only after defeat?
  • Why aren’t Ecuador, Croatia, or Indonesia great powers?
  • Why did German soldiers freeze inside Russia while Russian soldiers didn’t (1941)?
  • Why did “General Winter” defeat Napoleon in 1812 Russia?
  • In 1962, why did Premier Khrushchev of the Soviet Union place ballistic missiles inside Cuba, a small island 90 miles south of Florida?

These samples illustrate the nature of a geopolitical assessment in history. At first glance, they seem “deterministic,” i.e. as if no other cause could possibly explain. Yet, logic demands that there can be no one single causation of human reality, even if one cause clearly dominates. For example, one cannot “blame” geopolitics alone for the Civil War: there are human elements – sociology, psychology, and political factors (“states rights”) – that have to be considered.

In today’s cultural climate, single factors, mingled with a Marxist dialectic, offer single-factor “thought” (the expression may be pardoned): a host of “-isms,” placed arbitrarily into every situation, are sufficient as cause. Since “racism” is universal, it causes everything, from slavery to civil war, to segregation to prejudice, crime, disease, wealth, and poverty.

Racism exists; so does land and water. Neither can cause everything.

If geography alone was decisive, consider these questions:

When geography can’t explain everything

Canada and Australia are both democratic and as large as the United States. Why aren’t they “superpowers”?

China is larger than the U.S. and has seven or more times the population. Why isn’t China a superpower?

The Soviet Union (USSR) had more people than the U.S., had a larger military, a “blue water” navy, thousands of ballistic missiles, a larger area, and a single party in control. Why did the USSR collapse almost overnight and without a single shot fired?

Brazil is larger than the rest of South America combined. Portuguese is spoken more than Spanish in South America. Why doesn’t Brazil control the rest of the continent?

How could Great Britain, an island in northern Europe with an average population and almost no resources, once control about twenty-five percent of the world?

With the same location, a larger army, navy and air force, and the same people, why did the British Empire collapse almost overnight?

With the same size, population, and effectively no military (1941), why did the United States go from an insignificant country to history’s greatest superpower almost overnight (1945)?

By 1942, Germany had the greatest military in history, controlled Europe, bombed England, and led a global “Axis.” Four years later, Germany was in total ruin, occupied, and destitute, with its leaders either dead or on trial. Compared to the great empires of history, that often lasted several centuries, what happened to Germany?

Why did the American superpower fail to win a war in tiny, backward Vietnam after more years than the Civil War, both world wars, and Korea combined and after dropping more bomb tonnage than all sides in World War II combined?

Realities of geopolitics in history

These samples are not meant to deny geopolitical analysis but to put it into perspective. If one examines the main elements of geopolitical theories, however, it is difficult to deny the deterministic content of the subject.

The “subject” was European in origin and become important shortly before the First World War (1914). In 1904, Halford Mackinder gave the inaugural geopolitical sermon to the Royal Geographic Society.  His lasting insight has remained a classic maxim of that century:

“Who controls eastern Europe controls the Heartland.
Who controls the Heartland controls the World Island.
Who controls the World Island controls the world.”

In 1907, British civil servant, Eyre Crowe, gave the Foreign Office his classic memorandum on “The State of British Relations with France and Germany.” This became the basis for British efforts in the war and subsequent British policy. It began as follows:

“The general character of England’s foreign policy is determined by the immutable conditions of her geographical situation on the ocean flank of Europe as an island state with vast overseas colonies and dependencies…”

During World War II the Dutch-transplanted geopolitician, Nicholas J. Spykman, teaching at Yale, answered Mackinder with a perspective on the nature of the war based upon American geopolitical realities:

“Who controls the rimlands controls Eurasia.
Who controls Eurasia controls the world.”

In effect, the differences between these two competing forces are simply the same between continental and insular geopolitical perspectives. Mackinder was expressing the potential of “land” power from inside the European continent, i.e., Russia or Germany. Spykman emphasized “rimland,” i.e. the maritime “edges” of vast continents, both Europe and Asia, i.e. the U.S. and Britain. Both have merit, to a degree.

Indeed, if one looks quickly at the Twentieth Century, the realities of both viewpoints become clear. Essentially, both world wars and the Cold War bore strong resemblances to the views of Mackinder and Spykman and world geopolitics.

All three involved conflicts between “Heartland” vs. “Rimland” coalitions: either Germany alone or Russia/Soviet Bloc combinations against the maritime/airpower of America and Great Britain. NATO vs. the Warsaw Pact became the essential rivals of the entire Cold War, from Western Europe to the island allies in Asia.

The Western alliance system even rhymed, NATO, SEATO, CENTO. Now there is only one left, but it has doubled in size.

Does geopolitics still matter?

With the Cold War itself long gone (1991), how do we assess geopolitics in an air/space age? If missiles can fly in seconds over borders, if globalization ignores boundaries, if the world can talk and watch all together, if a virus can cripple humanity, if man goes to the moon and Mars … then why does ground, water, or land matter?

The answer can also come with questions. Two, in fact.

  1. What was the only real national security issue in the 2016 presidential race? Answer: the Rio Grande River and the southern border.
  2. There are about 5,000 aircraft in the skies of the world at any given time. What about that? Answer: sooner or later, they all must land.

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