The end of the American project in Afghanistan may fade fast from the news here — yet it couldn’t be more significant in ways few in the US can even begin to grasp let alone understand fully…
Famous last words: “Remember, this is not Saigon”…
This was what Secretary of State Antony Blinken told a television audience on August 15th, the day the Taliban swept into the Afghan capital, pausing to pose for photos in the grandly gilded presidential palace.
He was dutifully echoing his boss, President Joe Biden, who had earlier rejected any comparison with the fall of the South Vietnamese capital, Saigon, in 1975, insisting that: “There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States from Afghanistan. It is not at all comparable.”
Yet, that exactly what happened…
Because both men were woefully wrong.
Dead wrong, by an order of magnitude… as we saw the disaster of the Fall of Kabul unfold in plain sight.
Indeed, the collapse of Afghanistan and the capture of its capital Kabul by the Taliban — was not comparable to the collapse of South Vietnam’s capital Saigon — because this was a far worse nightmarish scenario, a huge loss of power and a volta-face for this country, its armies and of course for the hapless “can’t shoot straight” administration.
Indeed, it has been an incomparable disaster that will shame for ever, both the American ideal of a democratic nation building project across the world., but also the very idea of American Exceptionalism.
And the implications for the future of global power and world hegemony — are far worse and far more serious than the loss of Vietnam & its southern capital, Saigon by the United States.
Yet, on the surface of this analysis — the similarities abound, because in both South Vietnam and Afghanistan, Washington spent 20 years and countless billions of dollars building up massive, conventional armies, convinced that they could hold off the enemy for a decent interval after the U.S. departure. But presidents Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam and Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan both proved to be incompetent leaders who never had a chance of retaining power without continued fulsome American military backing, wasted treasure and eroding US global influence.
In a like manner to today’s Afghanistan, back in the day, and amid a massive North Vietnamese offensive in the spring of 1975 — President Thieu panicked and ordered his army to abandon the northern half of the country, a disastrous decision that precipitated Saigon’s fall just six weeks later. As the Taliban swept across the countryside this summer, President Ghani retreated into a fog of denial, insisting his troops defend every remote, rural district, allowing the Taliban to springboard from seizing provincial capitals to capturing Kabul in just 10 days.
With the enemy at the gates, President Thieu filled his suitcases with clinking gold bars for his flight into exile, while President Ghani (according to Russian reports) snuck off to the airport in a cavalcade of cars loaded with cash. As enemy forces entered Saigon and Kabul, helicopters ferried American officials from the U.S. embassy to safety, even as surrounding city streets swarmed with panicked local citizens desperate to board departing flights.
So much for similarities between the two major retreats from countries that we ostensibly tried to save from the menace of communism, islamic fundamentalism and worse.
Yet, as it happens, the differences in these two instances of defeats, are deep and portentous.
By every measure, the U.S. capacity for building and supporting allied armies has declined markedly in the 45 years between Saigon and Kabul. After President Thieu ordered that disastrous northern retreat, replete with dismal scenes of soldiers clubbing civilians to board evacuation flights bound for Saigon, South Vietnam’s generals ignored their incompetent commander-in-chief and actually began to fight.
On the road to Saigon at Xuan Loc, an ordinary South Vietnamese unit, the 18th Division, fought battle-hardened North Vietnamese regulars backed by tanks, trucks, and artillery to a standstill for two full weeks. Not only did those South Vietnamese soldiers take heavy casualties, with more than a third of their men killed or wounded, but they held their positions through those long days of “meat-grinder” combat until the enemy had to circle around them to reach the capital.
In those desperate hours as Saigon was falling, General Nguyen Khoa Nam, head of the only intact South Vietnamese command, faced an impossible choice between making a last stand in the Mekong Delta and capitulating to communist emissaries who promised him a peaceful surrender. “If I am unable to carry out my job of protecting the nation,” the general told a subordinate, “then I must die, along with my nation.” That night, seated at his desk, the general shot himself in the head. In South Vietnam’s last hours as a state, four of his fellow generals also committed suicide. At least 40 more lower-ranking officers and soldiers also chose death over dishonor.
On the road to Kabul, by contrast, there were no heroic last stands by regular Afghan army units, no protracted combat, no heavy casualties, and certainly no command suicides. In the nine days between the fall of Afghanistan’s first provincial capital on August 6th and the capture of Kabul on August 15th, all of the well-equipped, well-trained Afghan soldiers simply faded away before Taliban guerrillas equipped mainly with rifles and tennis sneakers.
After losing their salaries and rations to graft for the previous six to nine months, those hungry Afghan troops simply surrendered en masse, took Taliban cash payments, and handed over their weapons and other costly U.S. equipment. By the time the guerrillas reached Kabul, driving Humvees and wearing Kevlar helmets, night-vision goggles, and body armor, they looked like so many NATO soldiers. Instead of taking a bullet, Afghanistan’s commanders took the cash—both graft from padding their payrolls with “ghost soldiers” and bribes from the Taliban.
The difference between Saigon and Kabul has little to do with the fighting ability of the Afghan soldier. As the British and Soviet empires learned to their dismay when guerrillas slaughtered their soldiers in spectacular numbers, ordinary Afghan farmers are arguably the world’s finest fighters. So why wouldn’t they fight for Ashraf Ghani and his secular democratic state in far-off Kabul?
The key difference would seem to lie in the fading of America’s aura as the planet’s number one power and of its state-building capacities. At the peak of its global hegemony back in the 1960s, the United States, with its unequalled material resources and moral authority, could make a reasonably convincing case to the South Vietnamese that the political mix of electoral democracy and capitalist development it sponsored was the way forward for any nation. Today, with its reduced global clout and tarnished record in Iraq, Libya, and Syria (as well as in prisons like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo), America’s capacity to infuse its nation-building projects with any real legitimacy—that elusive sine qua non for the survival of any state—has apparently dropped significantly.
In 1975, the fall of Saigon did indeed prove a setback to Washington’s world order. Still, America’s underlying strength, both economic and military, was robust enough then for a partial rebound.
Adding to the sense of crisis at the time, the loss of South Vietnam coincided with two more substantial blows to Washington’s international system and the clout that went with it. Just a few years before Saigon’s collapse, the German and Japanese export booms had so eroded America’s commanding global economic position that the Nixon administration had to end the automatic convertibility of the dollar to gold. That, in turn, effectively broke the Bretton Woods system that had been the foundation of U.S. economic strength since 1944.
Meanwhile, with Washington mired in its self-made Vietnam quagmire, that other Cold War power, the Soviet Union, continued to build hundreds of nuclear-armed missiles and so functionally forced Washington to recognize its military parity in 1972 by signing the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and Strategic Arms Limitation Protocol.
This simple sentence might have been the most influential single utterance of the Cold War era voiced by George F. Kennan, the U.S. chargé d’affaires in Moscow, at a moment when the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was just gaining traction: “In these circumstances it is clear that the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.”
With the weakening of the economic and nuclear pillars on which so much of America’s paramount power rested, Washington was forced to retreat from its role as the great global hegemon and become a mere first among equals.
Almost half a century later, the sudden, humiliating fall of Kabul threatens even that more limited leadership role.
Although the U.S. occupied Afghanistan for 20 years with the full support of its NATO allies, when President Biden walked away from that shared “nation-building” mission, he did so without the slightest consultation with those very allies.
America lost 2,461 soldiers in Afghanistan, including 13 who died tragically during the airport evacuation. Its allies suffered 1,145 killed, including 62 German soldiers and 457 British troops. No wonder those partners held understandable grievances when Biden acted without the slightest notice to or discussion with them. “There is serious loss of trust,” observed Wolfgang Ischinger, the former German ambassador to Washington. “But the real lesson… for Europe is this: Do we really want to be totally dependent on U.S. capabilities and decisions forever, or can Europe finally begin to be serious about becoming a credible strategic actor?”
For Europe’s more visionary leaders like French President Emmanuel Macron, the answer to that timely question was obvious: build a European defense force free from Washington’s whims, and so avoid “the Chinese-American duopoly, the dislocation, the return of hostile regional powers.”
In fact, right after the last American planes left Kabul, a summit of European Union officials made it clear that the time had come to stop “depending on American decisions.” They called for the creation of a European army that would give them “greater decision-making autonomy and greater capacity for action in the world.”
In short, with America First populism now a major force in this country’s politics, assume that Europe will pursue a foreign policy increasingly freed from Washington’s influence.
And Europe may be the least of it. The stunning capture of Kabul highlighted an American loss of leadership that extended into Asia and Africa, with profound geopolitical implications for the future of U.S. global power. Above all, the Taliban’s victory will effectively force Washington out of Central Asia and so help to consolidate Beijing’s already ongoing control over parts of that strategic region. It, in turn, could prove to be the potential geopolitical pivot for China’s dominance over the vast Eurasian land mass, home to 70% of the globe’s population and productivity.
Speaking at Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan in 2013 (though nobody in Washington was then listening), China’s President Xi Jinping announced his country’s strategy for winning the twenty-first-century version of the deadly “great game” that nineteenth-century empires once played for control of Central Asia. With gentle gestures that belied his imperious intent, Xi asked that academic audience to join him in building an “economic belt along the Silk Road” that would “expand development space in the Eurasian region” through infrastructure “connecting the Pacific and the Baltic Sea.” In the process of establishing that “belt and road” structure, they would, he claimed, be building “the biggest market in the world with unparalleled potential.”
In the eight years since that speech, China has indeed been spending over a trillion dollars on its “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) to construct a transcontinental grid of railroads, oil pipelines, and industrial infrastructure in a bid to become the world’s premier economic power. More specifically, Beijing has used the BRI as a geopolitical pincers movement, a diplomatic squeeze play. By laying down infrastructure around the northern, eastern, and western borders of Afghanistan, it has prepared the way for that war-torn nation, freed of American influence and full of untapped mineral resources (estimated at a trillion dollars), to fall safely into Beijing’s grasp without a shot being fired.
To the north of Afghanistan, the China National Petroleum Corporation has collaborated with Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan to launch the Central Asia–China gas pipeline, a system that will eventually extend more than 4,000 miles across the heart of Eurasia. Along Afghanistan’s eastern frontier, Beijing began spending $200 million in 2011 to transform a sleepy fishing village at Gwadar, Pakistan, on the Arabian Sea, into a modern commercial port only 370 miles from the oil-rich Persian Gulf. Four years later, President Xi committed $46 billion to building a China–Pakistan Economic Corridor of roads, rails, and pipelines stretching nearly 2,000 miles along Afghanistan’s eastern borderlands from China’s western provinces to the now-modernized port of Gwadar.
To the west of Afghanistan, Beijing broke through Iran’s diplomatic isolation last March by signing a $400 billion development agreement with Tehran. Over the next 25 years, China’s legions of laborers and engineers will lay down a transit corridor of oil and natural gas pipelines to China, while also building a vast new rail network that will make Tehran the hub of a line stretching from Istanbul, Turkey, to Islamabad, Pakistan.
By the time these geopolitical pincers pull Afghanistan firmly into Beijing’s BRI system, the country may have become just another Middle Eastern theocracy like Iran or Saudi Arabia. While the religious police harass women and troops battle festering insurgencies, the Taliban state can get down to its real business—not defending Islam, but cutting deals with China to mine its vast reserves of rare minerals and collect transit taxes on the new $10 billion TAPI gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan (which desperately needs affordable energy).
With lucrative royalties from its vast store of rare-earth minerals, the Taliban could afford to end its current fiscal dependence on drugs. They could actually ban the country’s now booming opium harvest, a promise their new government spokesman has already made in a bid for international recognition. Over time, the Taliban leadership might discover, like the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Iran, that a developing economy can’t afford to waste its women. As a result, there might even be some slow, fitful progress on that front, too.
If such a projection of China’s future economic role in Afghanistan seems fanciful to you, consider that the underpinnings for just such a future deal were being put in place while Washington was still dithering over Kabul’s fate. At a formal meeting with a Taliban delegation in July, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi hailed their movement as “an important military and political force.”
In response, Taliban head Mullah Abdul Baradar, displaying the very leadership that American-installed President Ashraf Ghani so clearly lacked, praised China as a “reliable friend” and promised to foster “an enabling investment environment” so that Beijing could play “a bigger role in future reconstruction and economic development.” Formalities finished, the Afghan delegation then met behind closed doors with China’s assistant foreign minister to exchange what the official communiqué called “in-depth views on issues of common concern, which helped enhance mutual understanding”—in short, who gets what and for how much.
China’s capture of Eurasia, should it be successful, will be but one part of a far grander design for control over what Victorian geographer Halford Mackinder, an early master of modern geopolitics, called the “world island.” He meant the tricontinental land mass comprising the three continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa. For the past 500 years, one imperial hegemony after another, including Portugal, Holland, Britain, and the United States, has deployed its strategic forces around that world island in a bid to dominate such a sprawling land mass.
While for the last half-century Washington has arrayed its vast air and naval armadas around Eurasia, it generally relegated Africa to, at best, an afterthought—at worst, a battleground. Beijing, by contrast, has consistently treated that continent with the utmost seriousness.
When the Cold War came to southern Africa in the early 1970s, Washington spent the next 20 years in an arm’s-length alliance with apartheid South Africa, while using the CIA to fight a leftist liberation movement in Portuguese-controlled Angola. While Washington spent billions wreaking havoc by supplying right-wing African warlords with automatic weapons and land mines, Beijing launched its first major foreign-aid project. It built the thousand-mile Tanzania-to-Zambia railway. Not only was it the longest in Africa when completed in 1975, but it allowed landlocked Zambia, a front-line state in the struggle against the apartheid regime in Pretoria, to avoid South Africa when exporting its copper.
From 2015 on, building upon its historic ties to the liberation movements that won power across southern Africa, Beijing planned a decade-long trillion-dollar infusion of capital there. Much of it was to be designated for commodities-extraction projects that would make that continent China’s second-largest source of crude oil. With such an investment (equaling its later BRI commitments to Eurasia), China also doubled its annual trade with Africa to $222 billion, three times America’s total.
While that aid to liberation movements once had an ideological undercurrent, today it’s been succeeded by savvy geopolitics. Beijing seems to understand just how fast Africa’s progress has been in the single generation since that continent won its freedom from a particularly rapacious version of colonial rule. Given that it’s the planet’s second most populous continent, rich in human and material resources, China’s trillion-dollar bet on Africa’s future will likely pay rich dividends, both political and economic, someday soon.
With a trillion dollars invested in Eurasia and another trillion in Africa, China is engaged in nothing less than history’s largest infrastructure project. It’s crisscrossing those three continents with rails and pipelines, building naval bases around the southern rim of Asia, and ringing the whole tricontinental world island with a string of 40 major commercial ports.
Such a geopolitical strategy has become Beijing’s battering ram to crack open Washington’s control over Eurasia and thereby challenge what’s left of its global hegemony. America’s unequalled military air and sea armadas still allow it rapid movement above and around those continents, as the mass evacuation from Kabul showed so forcefully. But the slow, inch-by-inch advance of China’s land-based, steel-ribbed infrastructure across the deserts, plains, and mountains of that world island represents a far more fundamental form of future control.
As China’s geopolitical squeeze play on Afghanistan shows all too vividly, there is still much wisdom in the words that Sir Halford Mackinder wrote over a century ago: “Who rules the World Island commands the World.”
To that, after watching a Washington that’s invested so much in its military be humiliated in Afghanistan, we might consider adding the following caveat:
“He who does not command the World Island cannot command the World.”
Yet that too is a misnomer, because the old Imperialists just knew better and expressed it fully when they realized that in the long term, all history is a muddle — so it befits us to recall that when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and the Soviet Union collapsed and disappeared from the face of the Earth in 1991, that was that. Along with the former Communist world, containment as policy was dispatched to the dustbin of history.
Or maybe not…
Maybe not, because if you look at Washington’s military bases (which, if anything, were expanded in the post-Soviet era), its conflicts, and the focus of its foreign policy, American attempts to “contain” the heartlands of Eurasia, especially Russia and China, have never ended. Given the passage of almost a quarter of a century since the Cold War era, the map of those garrisons and the conflicts that go with them still looks eerily familiar.
And here’s an even stranger thing: the U.S. was not the first imperial power to put its energy into “containing” Eurasia. In 1945, when World War II ended with Great Britain and its empire hollowed out and in a state of exhaustion, the U.S. inherited a no-name version of “containment” policy from the British; well before Kennan even thought to use the term.
Indeed, it is odd to realize that “containment” as imperial policy has a history that is now, in a sense, more than two centuries old.
It’s strange enough — yet it is necessary to know this if we want to make sense of the edgy U.S.-China relationship for the remainder of this century…
Yet it is worth noting that for even the greatest of empires — geography is often destiny. You wouldn’t know it in Washington, though, because America’s political, national security, and foreign policy elites continue to ignore the basics of geopolitics that have shaped the fate of world empires for the past 500 years.
Consequently, they have missed the significance of the rapid global changes in Eurasia that are in the process of undermining the grand strategy for world dominion that Washington has pursued these past seven decades, largely unsuccessfully and in flat footed ways that belie its general complacency of purpose.
So looking back, we can see what the old Brits saw as beneficial when on a cold London evening in early January of 1904 — Sir Halford Mackinder, the director of the London School of Economics, “entranced” an audience at the Royal Geographical Society on Savile Row by speaking and introducing a “white paper” boldly titled “The Geographical Pivot of History.”
This presentation evinced, said the society’s president, “a brilliancy of description … we have seldom had equaled in this room.”
Mackinder argued that the future of global power lay not, as most British then imagined, in controlling the global sea lanes, but in controlling a vast land mass he called “Euro-Asia.” By turning the globe away from America to place central Asia at the planet’s epicenter, and then tilting the Earth’s axis northward just a bit beyond Mercator’s equatorial projection, Mackinder redrew and thus reconceptualized the world map.
His new map showed Africa, Asia, and Europe not as three separate continents, but as a unitary land mass, a veritable “world island.” Its broad, deep “heartland” — 4,000 miles from the Persian Gulf to the Siberian Sea — was so enormous that it could only be controlled from its “rimlands” in Eastern Europe or what he called its maritime “marginal” in the surrounding seas.
Mackinder’s Concept of the World Island, From The Geographical Journal (1904)
The “discovery of the Cape road to the Indies” in the sixteenth century, Mackinder wrote, “endowed Christendom with the widest possible mobility of power… wrapping her influence round the Euro-Asiatic land-power which had hitherto threatened her very existence.” This greater mobility, he later explained, gave Europe’s seamen “superiority for some four centuries over the landsmen of Africa and Asia.”
Yet the “heartland” of this vast landmass, a “pivot area” stretching from the Persian Gulf to China’s Yangtze River, remained nothing less than the Archimedean fulcrum for future world power. “Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island,” went Mackinder’s later summary of the situation. “Who rules the World-Island commands the world.” Beyond the vast mass of that world island, which made up nearly 60% of the Earth’s land area, lay a less consequential hemisphere covered with broad oceans and a few outlying “smaller islands.” He meant, of course, Australia and the Americas.
For an earlier generation, the opening of the Suez Canal and the advent of steam shipping had “increased the mobility of sea-power [relative] to land power.” But future railways could “work the greater wonder in the steppe,” Mackinder claimed, undercutting the cost of sea transport and shifting the locus of geopolitical power inland. In the fullness of time, the “pivot state” of Russia might, in alliance with another power like Germany, expand “over the marginal lands of Euro-Asia,” allowing “the use of vast continental resources for fleet-building, and the empire of the world would be in sight.”
For the next two hours, as he read through a text thick with the convoluted syntax and classical references expected of a former Oxford don, his audience knew that they were privy to something extraordinary. Several stayed after to offer extended commentaries. For instance, the renowned military analyst Spenser Wilkinson, the first to hold a chair in military history at Oxford, pronounced himself unconvinced about “the modern expansion of Russia,” insisting that British and Japanese naval power would continue the historic function of holding “the balance between the divided forces… on the continental area.”
Pressed by his learned listeners to consider other facts or factors, including “air as a means of locomotion,” Mackinder responded: “My aim is not to predict a great future for this or that country, but to make a geographical formula into which you could fit any political balance.” Instead of specific events, Mackinder was reaching for a general theory about the causal connection between geography and global power. “The future of the world,” he insisted, “depends on the maintenance of [a] balance of power” between sea powers such as Britain or Japan operating from the maritime marginal and “the expansive internal forces” within the Euro-Asian heartland they were intent on containing.
Not only did Mackinder give voice to a worldview that would influence Britain’s foreign policy for several decades, but he had, in that moment, created the modern science of “geopolitics” — the study of how geography can, under certain circumstances, shape the destiny of whole peoples, nations, and empires.
That night in London was, of course, more than a long time ago. It was another age. England was still mourning the death of Queen Victoria. Teddy Roosevelt was president. Henry Ford had just opened a small auto plant in Detroit to make his Model-A, an automobile with a top speed of 28 miles per hour. Only a month earlier, the Wright brothers’ “Flyer” had taken to the air for the first time — 120 feet of air, to be exact.
Yet, for the next 110 years, Sir Halford Mackinder’s words would offer a prism of exceptional precision when it came to understanding the often obscure geopolitics driving the world’s major conflicts — two world wars, a Cold War, America’s Asian wars (Korea and Vietnam), two Persian Gulf wars, and even the endless pacification of Afghanistan. The question today is: How can Sir Halford help us understand not only centuries past, but the half-century still to come?
In the age of sea power that lasted just over 400 years — from 1602 to the Washington Disarmament Conference of 1922 — the great powers competed to control the Eurasian world island via the surrounding sea lanes that stretched for 15,000 miles from London to Tokyo. The instrument of power was, of course, the ship — first men-o’-war, then battleships, submarines, and aircraft carriers. While land armies slogged through the mud of Manchuria or France in battles with mind-numbing casualties, imperial navies skimmed over the seas, maneuvering for the control of whole coasts and continents.
At the peak of its imperial power circa 1900, Great Britain ruled the waves with a fleet of 300 capital ships and 30 naval bastions, bases that ringed the world island from the North Atlantic at Scapa Flow through the Mediterranean at Malta and Suez to Bombay, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Just as the Roman Empire enclosed the Mediterranean, making it Mare Nostrum (“Our Sea”), British power would make the Indian Ocean its own “closed sea,” securing its flanks with army forces on India’s Northwest Frontier and barring both Persians and Ottomans from building naval bases on the Persian Gulf.
By that maneuver, Britain also secured control over Arabia and Mesopotamia, strategic terrain that Mackinder had termed “the passage-land from Europe to the Indies” and the gateway to the world island’s “heartland.” From this geopolitical perspective, the nineteenth century was, at heart, a strategic rivalry, often called “the Great Game,” between Russia “in command of nearly the whole of the Heartland… knocking at the landward gates of the Indies,” and Britain “advancing inland from the sea gates of India to meet the menace from the northwest.” In other words, Mackinder concluded, “the final Geographical Realities” of the modern age were sea power versus land power or “the World-Island and the Heartland.”
Intense rivalries, first between England and France, then England and Germany, helped drive a relentless European naval arms race that raised the price of sea power to unsustainable levels. In 1805, Admiral Nelson’s flagship, the HMS Victory, with its oaken hull weighing just 3,500 tons, sailed into the battle of Trafalgar against Napoleon’s navy at nine knots, its 100 smooth-bore cannon firing 42-pound balls at a range of no more than 400 yards.
In 1906, just a century later, Britain launched the world’s first modern battleship, the HMS Dreadnought, its foot-thick steel hull weighing 20,000 tons, its steam turbines allowing speeds of 21 knots, and its mechanized 12-inch guns rapid-firing 850-pound shells up to 12 miles. The cost for this leviathan was £1.8 million, equivalent to nearly $300 million today. Within a decade, half-a-dozen powers had emptied their treasuries to build whole fleets of these lethal, lavishly expensive battleships.
Thanks to a combination of technological superiority, global reach, and naval alliances with the U.S. and Japan, a Pax Britannica would last a full century, 1815 to 1914. In the end, however, this global system was marked by an accelerating naval arms race, volatile great-power diplomacy, and a bitter competition for overseas empire that imploded into the mindless slaughter of World War I, leaving 16 million dead by 1918.
As the eminent imperial historian Paul Kennedy once observed, “the rest of the twentieth century bore witness to Mackinder’s thesis,” with two world wars fought over his “rimlands” running from Eastern Europe through the Middle East to East Asia. Indeed, World War I was, as Mackinder himself later observed, “a straight duel between land-power and sea-power.” At war’s end in 1918, the sea powers — Britain, America, and Japan — sent naval expeditions to Archangel, the Black Sea, and Siberia to contain Russia’s revolution inside its “heartland.”
Reflecting Mackinder’s influence on geopolitical thinking in Germany, Adolf Hitler would risk his Reich in a misbegotten effort to capture the Russian heartland as Lebensraum, or living space, for his “master race.” Sir Halford’s work helped shape the ideas of German geographer Karl Haushofer, founder of the journal Zeitschrift für Geopolitik, proponent of the concept of Lebensraum, and adviser to Adolf Hitler and his deputy führer, Rudolf Hess. In 1942, the Führer dispatched a million men, 10,000 artillery pieces, and 500 tanks to breach the Volga River at Stalingrad. In the end, his forces suffered 850,000 wounded, killed, and captured in a vain attempt to break through the East European rimland into the world island’s pivotal region.
A century after Mackinder’s seminal treatise, another British scholar, imperial historian John Darwin, argued in his magisterial survey “After Tamerlane” that the United States had achieved its “colossal Imperium… on an unprecedented scale” in the wake of World War II by becoming the first power in history to control the strategic axial points “at both ends of Eurasia” (his rendering of Mackinder’s “Euro-Asia”). With fears of Chinese and Russian expansion serving as the “catalyst for collaboration,” the U.S. won imperial bastions in both Western Europe and Japan. With these axial points as anchors, Washington then built an arc of military bases that followed Britain’s maritime template and were visibly meant to encircle the world island.
Having seized the axial ends of the world island from Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in 1945, for the next 70 years the United States relied on ever-thickening layers of military power to contain China and Russia inside that Eurasian heartland. Stripped of its ideological foliage, Washington’s grand strategy of Cold War-era anticommunist “containment” was little more than a process of imperial succession. A hollowed-out Britain was replaced astride the maritime “marginal,” but the strategic realities remained essentially the same.
Indeed, in 1943, two years before World War II ended, an aging Mackinder published his last article, “The Round World and the Winning of the Peace,” in the influential U.S. journal Foreign Affairs. In it, he reminded Americans aspiring to a “grand strategy” for an unprecedented version of planetary hegemony that even their “dream of a global air power” would not change geopolitical basics. “If the Soviet Union emerges from this war as conqueror of Germany,” he warned, “she must rank as the greatest land power on the globe,” controlling the “greatest natural fortress on earth.”
When it came to the establishment of a new post-war Pax Americana, first and foundational for the containment of Soviet land power would be the U.S. Navy. Its fleets would come to surround the Eurasian continent, supplementing and then supplanting the British navy: the Sixth Fleet was based at Naples in 1946 for control of the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea; the Seventh Fleet at Subic Bay, Philippines, in 1947, for the Western Pacific; and the Fifth Fleet at Bahrain in the Persian Gulf since 1995.
Next, American diplomats added layers of encircling military alliances — the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (1949), the Middle East Treaty Organization (1955), the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (1954), and the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty (1951).
By 1955, the U.S. also had a global network of 450 military bases in 36 countries aimed, in large part, at containing the Sino-Soviet bloc behind an Iron Curtain that coincided to a surprising degree with Mackinder’s “rimlands” around the Eurasian landmass. By the Cold War’s end in 1990, the encirclement of communist China and Russia required 700 overseas bases, an air force of 1,763 jet fighters, a vast nuclear arsenal, more than 1,000 ballistic missiles, and a navy of 600 ships, including 15 nuclear carrier battle groups — all linked by the world’s only global system of communications satellites.
As the fulcrum for Washington’s strategic perimeter around the world island, the Persian Gulf region has for nearly 40 years been the site of constant American intervention, overt and covert. The 1979 revolution in Iran meant the loss of a keystone country in the arch of U.S. power around the Gulf and left Washington struggling to rebuild its presence in the region. To that end, it would simultaneously back Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in its war against revolutionary Iran and arm the most extreme of the Afghan mujahedeen against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
It was in this context that Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, unleashed his strategy for the defeat of the Soviet Union with a sheer geopolitical agility still little understood even today. In 1979, Brzezinski, a déclassé Polish aristocrat uniquely attuned to his native continent’s geopolitical realities, persuaded Carter to launch Operation Cyclone with massive funding that reached $500 million annually by the late 1980s. Its goal: to mobilize Muslim militants to attack the Soviet Union’s soft Central Asian underbelly and drive a wedge of radical Islam deep into the Soviet heartland. It was to simultaneously inflict a demoralizing defeat on the Red Army in Afghanistan and cut Eastern Europe’s “rimland” free from Moscow’s orbit. “We didn’t push the Russians to intervene [in Afghanistan],” Brzezinski said in 1998, explaining his geopolitical masterstroke in this Cold War edition of the Great Game, “but we knowingly increased the probability that they would… That secret operation was an excellent idea. Its effect was to draw the Russians into the Afghan trap.”
Asked about this operation’s legacy when it came to creating a militant Islam hostile to the U.S., Brzezinski, who studied and frequently cited Mackinder, was coolly unapologetic. “What is most important to the history of the world?” he asked. “The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?”
Yet even America’s stunning victory in the Cold War with the implosion of the Soviet Union would not transform the geopolitical fundamentals of the world island. As a result, after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Washington’s first foreign foray in the new era would involve an attempt to reestablish its dominant position in the Persian Gulf, using Saddam Hussein’s occupation of Kuwait as a pretext.
In 2003, when the U.S. invaded Iraq, imperial historian Paul Kennedy returned to Mackinder’s century-old treatise to explain this seemingly inexplicable misadventure. “Right now, with hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops in the Eurasian rimlands,” Kennedy wrote in the Guardian, “it looks as if Washington is taking seriously Mackinder’s injunction to ensure control of ‘the geographical pivot of history.’” If we interpret these remarks expansively, the sudden proliferation of U.S. bases across Afghanistan and Iraq should be seen as yet another imperial bid for a pivotal position at the edge of the Eurasian heartland, akin to those old British colonial forts along India’s Northwest Frontier.
In the ensuing years, Washington attempted to replace some of its ineffective boots on the ground with drones in the air. By 2011, the Air Force and the CIA had ringed the Eurasian landmass with 60 bases for its armada of drones. By then, its workhorse Reaper, armed with Hellfire missiles and GBU-30 bombs, had a range of 1,150 miles, which meant that from those bases it could strike targets almost anywhere in Africa and Asia.
Significantly, drone bases now dot the maritime margins around the world island — from Sigonella, Sicily, to Icerlik, Turkey; Djibouti on the Red Sea; Qatar and Abu Dhabi on the Persian Gulf; the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean; Jalalabad, Khost, Kandahar, and Shindand in Afghanistan; and in the Pacific, Zamboanga in the Philippines and Andersen Air Base on the island of Guam, among other places. To patrol this sweeping periphery, the Pentagon is spending $10 billion to build an armada of 99 Global Hawk drones equipped with high-resolution cameras capable of surveilling all terrain within a hundred-mile radius, electronic sensors that can sweep up communications, and efficient engines capable of 35 hours of continuous flight and a range of 8,700 miles.
Washington’s moves, in other words, represent something old, even if on a previously unimaginable scale. But the rise of China as the world’s largest economy, inconceivable a century ago, represents something new and so threatens to overturn the maritime geopolitics that have shaped world power for the past 400 years. Instead of focusing purely on building a blue-water navy like the British or a global aerospace armada akin to America’s, China is reaching deep within the world island in an attempt to thoroughly reshape the geopolitical fundamentals of global power. It is using a subtle strategy that has so far eluded Washington’s power elites.
After decades of quiet preparation, Beijing has recently begun revealing its grand strategy for global power, move by careful move. Its two-step plan is designed to build a transcontinental infrastructure for the economic integration of the world island from within, while mobilizing military forces to surgically slice through Washington’s encircling containment.
The initial step has involved a breathtaking project to put in place an infrastructure for the continent’s economic integration. By laying down an elaborate and enormously expensive network of high-speed, high-volume railroads as well as oil and natural gas pipelines across the vast breadth of Eurasia, China may realize Mackinder’s vision in a new way. For the first time in history, the rapid transcontinental movement of critical cargo — oil, minerals, and manufactured goods — will be possible on a massive scale, thereby potentially unifying that vast landmass into a single economic zone stretching 6,500 miles from Shanghai to Madrid. In this way, the leadership in Beijing hopes to shift the locus of geopolitical power away from the maritime periphery and deep into the continent’s heartland.
“Trans-continental railways are now transmuting the conditions of land power,” wrote Mackinder back in 1904 as the “precarious” single track of the Trans-Siberian Railway, the world’s longest, reached across the continent for 5,700 miles from Moscow toward Vladivostok. “But the century will not be old before all Asia is covered with railways,” he added. “The spaces within the Russian Empire and Mongolia are so vast, and their potentialities in… fuel and metals so incalculably great that a vast economic world, more or less apart, will there develop inaccessible to oceanic commerce.”
Mackinder was a bit premature in his prediction. The Russian revolution of 1917, the Chinese revolution of 1949, and the subsequent 40 years of the Cold War slowed any real development for decades. In this way, the Euro-Asian “heartland” was denied economic growth and integration, thanks in part to artificial ideological barriers — the Iron Curtain and then the Sino-Soviet split — that stalled any infrastructure construction across the vast Eurasian land mass. No longer.
Only a few years after the Cold War ended, former National Security Adviser Brzezinski, by then a contrarian sharply critical of the global views of both Republican and Democratic policy elites, began raising warning flags about Washington’s inept style of geopolitics. “Ever since the continents started interacting politically, some five hundred years ago,” he wrote in 1998, essentially paraphrasing Mackinder, “Eurasia has been the center of world power. A power that dominates ‘Eurasia’ would control two of the world’s three most advanced and economically productive regions… rendering the Western Hemisphere and Oceania geopolitically peripheral to the world’s central continent.”
While such a geopolitical logic has eluded Washington, it’s been well understood in Beijing. Indeed, in the last decade China has launched the world’s largest burst of infrastructure investment, already a trillion dollars and counting, since Washington started the U.S. Interstate Highway System back in the 1950s. The numbers for the rails and pipelines it’s been building are mind numbing. Between 2007 and 2014, China criss-crossed its countryside with 9,000 miles of new high-speed rail, more than the rest of the world combined. The system now carries 2.5 million passengers daily at top speeds of 240 miles per hour. By the time the system is complete in 2030, it will have added up to 16,000 miles of high-speed track at a cost of $300 billion, linking all of China’s major cities.
China-Central Asia Infrastructure Integrates the World Island (Source: Stratfor)
Simultaneously, China’s leadership began collaborating with surrounding states on a massive project to integrate the country’s national rail network into a transcontinental grid. Starting in 2008, the Germans and Russians joined with the Chinese in launching the “Eurasian Land Bridge.” Two east-west routes, the old Trans-Siberian in the north and a new southern route along the ancient Silk Road through Kazakhstan are meant to bind all of Eurasia together. On the quicker southern route, containers of high-value manufactured goods, computers, and auto parts started travelling 6,700 miles from Leipzig, Germany, to Chongqing, China, in just 20 days, about half the 35 days such goods now take via ship.
In 2013, Deutsche Bahn AG (German Rail) began preparing a third route between Hamburg and Zhengzhou that has now cut travel time to just 15 days, while Kazakh Rail opened a Chongqing-Duisburg link with similar times. In October 2014, China announced plans for the construction of the world’s longest high-speed rail line at a cost of $230 billion. According to plans, trains will traverse the 4,300 miles between Beijing and Moscow in just two days.
In addition, China is building two spur lines running southwest and due south toward the world island’s maritime “marginal.” In April, President Xi Jinping signed an agreement with Pakistan to spend $46 billion on a China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Highway, rail links, and pipelines will stretch nearly 2,000 miles from Kashgar in Xinjiang, China’s westernmost province, to a joint port facility at Gwadar, Pakistan, opened back in 2007. China has invested more than $200 billion in the building of this strategic port at Gwadar on the Arabian Sea, just 370 miles from the Persian Gulf. Starting in 2011, China also began extending its rail lines through Laos into Southeast Asia at an initial cost of $6.2 billion. In the end, a high-speed line is expected to take passengers and goods on a trip of just 10 hours from Kunming to Singapore.
In this same dynamic decade, China has constructed a comprehensive network of trans-continental gas and oil pipelines to import fuels from the whole of Eurasia for its population centers — in the north, center, and southeast. In 2009, after a decade of construction, the state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) opened the final stage of the Kazakhstan-China Oil Pipeline. It stretches 1,400 miles from the Caspian Sea to Xinjiang.
Simultaneously, CNPC collaborated with Turkmenistan to inaugurate the Central Asia-China gas pipeline. Running for 1,200 miles largely parallel to the Kazakhstan-China Oil Pipeline, it is the first to bring the region’s natural gas to China. To bypass the Straits of Malacca controlled by the U.S Navy, CNPC opened a Sino-Myanmar pipeline in 2013 to carry both Middle Eastern oil and Burmese natural gas 1,500 miles from the Bay of Bengal to China’s remote southwestern region. In May 2014, the company signed a $400 billion, 30-year deal with the privatized Russian energy giant Gazprom to deliver 38 billion cubic meters of natural gas annually by 2018 via a still-to-be-completed northern network of pipelines across Siberia and into Manchuria.
Sino-Myanmar Oil Pipeline Evades the U.S. Navy in the Straits of Malacca (Source: Stratfor)
Though massive, these projects are just part of an ongoing construction boom that, over the past five years, has woven a cat’s cradle of oil and gas lines across Central Asia and south into Iran and Pakistan. The result will soon be an integrated inland energy infrastructure, including Russia’s own vast network of pipelines, extending across the whole of Eurasia, from the Atlantic to the South China Sea.
To capitalize such staggering regional growth plans, in October 2014 Beijing announced the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. China’s leadership sees this institution as a future regional and, in the end, Eurasian alternative to the U.S.-dominated World Bank. So far, despite pressure from Washington not to join, 14 key countries, including close U.S. allies like Germany, Great Britain, Australia, and South Korea, have signed on. Simultaneously, China has begun building long-term trade relations with resource-rich areas of Africa, as well as with Australia and Southeast Asia, as part of its plan to economically integrate the world island.
Finally, Beijing has only recently revealed a deftly designed strategy for neutralizing the military forces Washington has arrayed around the continent’s perimeter. In April, President Xi Jinping announced construction of that massive road-rail-pipeline corridor direct from western China to its new port at Gwadar, Pakistan, creating the logistics for future naval deployments in the energy-rich Arabian Sea.
In May, Beijing escalated its claim to exclusive control over the South China Sea, expanding Longpo Naval Base on Hainan Island for the region’s first nuclear submarine facility, accelerating its dredging to create three new atolls that could become military airfields in the disputed Spratley Islands, and formally warning off U.S. Navy overflights. By building the infrastructure for military bases in the South China and Arabian seas, Beijing is forging the future capacity to surgically and strategically impair U.S. military containment.
At the same time, Beijing is developing plans to challenge Washington’s dominion over space and cyberspace. It expects, for instance, to complete its own global satellite system by 2020, offering the first challenge to Washington’s dominion over space since the U.S. launched its system of 26 defense communication satellites back in 1967. Simultaneously, Beijing is building a formidable capacity for cyber warfare.
In a decade or two, should the need arise, China will be ready to surgically slice through Washington’s continental encirclement at a few strategic points without having to confront the full global might of the U.S. military, potentially rendering the vast American armada of carriers, cruisers, drones, fighters, and submarines redundant.
Lacking the geopolitical vision of Mackinder and his generation of British imperialists — America’s current leadership has failed to grasp the significance of a radical global change underway inside the Eurasian land mass.
And thus we are now faced with the real global dominance dilemma — that if China succeeds in linking its rising industries to the vast natural resources of the Eurasian heartland, then quite possibly, as Sir Halford Mackinder predicted on that cold London night in 1904, “the empire of the world would be in sight.”
After America’s hasty retreat from Afghanistan — who do you think controls the “World Island” today?