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April 25, 2009

Whatever Happened to Geopolitics?

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Remember Geopolitics?

Probably not unless you're, say, 60 and older or have delved fairly deeply into early 20th century history. A pretty good summary can be found on Wikipedia here.

What I'll call "Classical Geopolitics" from the period 1920-1950 contended that whoever controlled or was based in an ill-defined area that included part of historic Russia and a chunk of north-central Asia extending from the Urals east three or four thousand miles had the potential for world dominance. This area was termed the Heartland by British geographer Halford John Mackinder who originated the idea of Geopolitics.

By controlling this area it (the nation, imperial power, whatever kind of political entity might apply) could then control or dominate the surrounding belt of territory (different geopolitical theorists differed as to what constituted this belt or rim) and enough resources that would allow domination of peripheral lands.

This line of thinking had some popularity in Germany thanks to thinkers such as Karl Haushofer, and might have been a factor in Hitler's decision to attack Russia in June, 1941. I should add that Hitler had been thinking of lebensraum and a drang nach osten (the Germanification of Poland, White Russia and the Ukraine) for years, both concepts having no necessary connection to Geopolitics. But Geopolitics was definitely in the air when he was formulating his ideas.

As an impressionable kid during the first decade of the Cold War who had heard of Geopolitics, it was a bit scary to see all sorts of maps where Communist nations were painted in a swath of bright red extending from central Germany to the Bering Strait and down through China. Might the West be doomed by virtue of its geography?

As the link to Mackinder indicates, his concept of Geopolitics was more subtle than pure determinism. Nevertheless, a deterministic interpretation could be easy to make, especially if one were a general such as Haushofer who would appreciate its relationship to the military concept of interior lines of communication. This is the presumed advantage a country has if it is fighting on more than one front; it can quickly move troops and other military resources from one front to another whereas its enemies, operating on exterior lines, are forced to make redeployments in a roundabout manner.

I admit that I haven't studied Geopolitics more than superficially. Having said that, I'll assert that the theory has yet to prove itself. It is clear to me that geography indeed affects the fate of nations. Think of Germany and Poland with little in the way of defensible boundaries to their east and west. Or of Russia, whose vast land area has made it virtually impervious to outside subjugation since it became a unified state. But this does not validate Classical Geopolitics.

In fact, most successful powers in modern times (say, since the Renaissance) have tended to be peripheral or island powers whose extraterritorial might was based on sea power. Examples include Spain, the Netherlands, Portugal, France and, of course, Britain and the United States.

This experience does not prove theories of Geopolitics wrong; the future will be what it will be. But I, for one, am a lot less worried about who controls Siberia than I once was.



posted by Donald at April 25, 2009


What happened? The United States conquered the world. I'm just disappointed we never got the nice victory sequence at the end.

Posted by: Devin Finbarr on April 25, 2009 1:59 PM

Check out Alexander Durgin.

Posted by: GB on April 25, 2009 5:20 PM

I meant, check out Alexander Dugin

Posted by: GB on April 25, 2009 5:21 PM

The Mackinder theory is bizarrely wrong on several levels:

1) North America and South America are "outlying islands"??

2) Africa, India, and China are part of the world island?

3) The Heartland is basically the unpopulated swaths of Siberia?

I kept waiting for a counterintuitive theory to become more intuitive -- but it was just wrong. I mean, the same kinds of peoples can't even inhabit that "world island" landmass without substnatial terraforming, for h-bd reasons -- there's a reason that Europeans died in Africa from malaria, and that they imported Africans to work in the South.

Posted by: asdf on April 25, 2009 10:09 PM

The problem with the "Heartland" theory is that the so-called "Heartland" is largely cut off from "Rimland", and thus not able to dominate it.

For instance, the Middle East is separated by the Caucasus mountains, the deserts of central Asia, and the mountains of Afghanistan.

South Asia is cut off by Afghanistan and Tibet.

East Asia is cut off by the Gobi Desert and the mountains of Sinkiang.

There is no water communication in and out of the "Heartland". Much of it is Asia's "Great Basin" analog: the Caspian and Aral Sea watersheds, or drains into the Arctic Ocean.

It isn't a dominant position so much as a dead spot.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on April 26, 2009 12:11 AM

Why anyone would think the "Stans" mattered is odd. Sure, his logic made sense in the days of the Golden Horde, but once people figured out how to build ships (not to mention planes), the seas came to "matter" more than a bunch of mountains and deserts in central Asia.

There is one country who pays close attention to this sort of thing: China. This is why Tibet will never be turned loose, especially since it would become an Indian satellite if China let it go.

Posted by: Foobarista on April 26, 2009 12:43 AM

Wow, not a great theory.

But I think it does point to something unhealthy about Russian existence. Countries with lots of natural resources (Bolivia, Russia, most African countries) without access to good ports causes a lot of unrest.

Posted by: thehova on April 26, 2009 1:17 AM

I had no idea Geopolitics had such a specific meaning or history. I thought had a more general meaning, like "diplomacy" or something. Seems like a completely daffy theory to me. But I'm someone who thinks most wars and diplomacy have more to do with entertaining rulers, feeding their egos, and giving them something to distract their subjects with than with anything sensible.

Thanks for the info, most interesting.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 26, 2009 9:38 AM

The meeting that occured between Churchill and von Ribbentrop in 1937 sheds more light on the German intentions. It explains Hitler's reluctance to dispatch England in 1940, when it was most vulnerable. The war in the west was a sideshow. See Churchill's account from his WWII history.

Posted by: Fredösphere on April 26, 2009 3:37 PM

Off-topic, but this discussion made me think: whatever happened to Ramesh Ram? Haven't seen him around here in ages.

Like MB, I'd never been familiar with any grand unified theory of geopolitics, purporting to explain everything, such as this one; I only knew the term 'geopolitics' as meaning world politics in general. But then, I am a long ways from 60, so I'll use that as my excuse for my ignorance of this. :)

Posted by: Will S. on April 26, 2009 11:28 PM

"Geopolitics" was coined by Rudolf Kjellén, a student of Friedrich Ratzel-- who himself coined "Lebensraum". I read up on these guys as a senior college, as a segue from undergraduate German study to graduate geography. I even attempted a translation of Ratzel's 1901 "Lebensraum", which was unavailable in English as late as 25 years ago. (In that book, Ratzel comes off more like a tree-hugger than a Blitzkrieger.)

A closely related issue at the time, among both German and Anglo-Saxon geographers, was environmental determinism. Among the most important figures in establishing academic geography in the United States was Ellen Churchill Semple, who absorbed that worldview (!) as a student, or actually "auditor", in Germany.

(Miss Semple had to stand outside the lecture hall, as women had not yet been accepted as students at Leipzig. Yet she became America's most prominent geographer-- basically disproving environmental determinism with her own CV.)

By the 1980s, however, American geography was vehemently opposed to ED. (Though not to ECS; she was still held in high regard, even if no one agreed with her slant.)

The sea is a much greater advantage than the Heartland, for sure. But there's no need to be deterministic about it!

Posted by: Reg Cæsar on April 28, 2009 2:28 AM

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