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The New Geopolitics

Michael Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, and the author, most recently, of Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict (Henry Holt/Metropolitan, 2001).


The war in Iraq has reconfigured the global geopolitical landscape in many ways, some of which may not be apparent for years or even decades to come. It has certainly altered the U.S. relationship with Europe and the Middle East. But its impact goes well beyond this. More than anything else, the war reveals that the new central pivot of world competition is the south-central area of Eurasia.

The term “geopolitics” seems at first to come from another era, from the late nineteenth century. By geopolitics or geopolitical competition, I mean the contention between great powers and aspiring great powers for control over territory, resources, and important geographical positions, such as ports and harbors, canals, river systems, oases, and other sources of wealth and influence. If you look back, you will find that this kind of contestation has been the driving force in world politics and especially world conflict in much of the past few centuries.

Geopolitics, as a mode of analysis, was very popular from the late nineteenth century into the early part of the twentieth century. If you studied then what academics now call international relations, you would have been studying geopolitics.

Geopolitics died out as a self-conscious mode of analysis in the Cold War period, partly due to echoes of the universally abhorred Hitlerite ideology of lebensraum, but also because there were a lot of parallels between classical geopolitical thinking (which came out of a conservative wing of academia) and Marxist and Leninist thinking, which clashed with the ideological pretensions of Cold War scholars. So it is not a form of analysis that you see taught, for the most part, in U.S. universities today.

Geopolitics was also an ideology in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—a self-conscious set of beliefs on which elites and leaders of the great powers acted. It was the thinking behind the imperialism of that period, the logic for the acquisition of colonies with specific geographical locations. The incidents leading up to the First World War came out of this mode of thinking, such as the 1898 Fashoda incident over the headwaters of the Nile River that gave rise to a near conflict between Third Republic France and late Victorian Britain.

In the case of the United States, it became the dominant mode of thinking at the time of Teddy Roosevelt and led very self-consciously to the decision by Roosevelt and his cabal of associates to turn the United States into an empire. This was a conscious project. It was not an accident. The Spanish-American War was an intentional device by which the United States acquired an empire. The Spanish-American War and the occupation of the Philippines were followed quickly by the seizure of Panama, openly justified by geopolitical ideology. To see just how self-conscious this process was, I recommend Warren Zimmermann’s First Great Triumph (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002). The parallels to the current moment are striking.

Geopolitical ideology was later appropriated by Hitler and Mussolini and by the Japanese militarists to explain and to justify their expansionist behavior. And it was this expansionist behavior—which threatened the geopolitical interest of the opposing powers—that led to the Second World War, not the internal politics of Germany, Italy, or Japan.

This ideology disappeared to some degree during the Cold War in favor of a model of ideological competition. That is to say, geopolitical ideology appeared inconsistent with the high-minded justifications (in which “democracy” and “freedom” largely figured) given for interventions in the third world.

But really, if you study the history of the Cold War, the overt conflicts that took place were consciously framed by a geopolitical orientation from the American point of view. The United States had to control the Middle East and its oil. That was the basis of the Truman Doctrine and the Eisenhower Doctrine and the Carter Doctrine. The United States had to control parts of Africa because of its mineral wealth in copper, cobalt, and platinum. That’s why the United States backed the apartheid regime in South Africa. And the reason for both the Korean War and the Vietnam War was understood at the highest levels in terms of the U.S. interest in control of the Pacific Rim.

Today, we are seeing a resurgence of unabashed geopolitical ideology among the leadership cadres of the major powers, above all in the United States. In fact, the best way to see what’s happening today in Iraq and elsewhere is through a geopolitical prism. American leaders have embarked on the classical geopolitical project of assuring U.S. dominance of the most important resource areas, understood as the sources of power and wealth. There is an ideological consistency to what they’re doing, and it is this geopolitical mode of thinking.

Perhaps there is some question as to exactly how conscious this is, but you can see this way of thinking in the overt discourse of many contemporary leaders. Dick Cheney and some prominent neoconservatives especially, but also Democrats such as Zbigniew Brzezinski, speak in this manner. They openly state that the United States is engaged in a struggle to maintain its power vis-à-vis other contending great powers and that America must prevail.

Now, you might ask, what contending great powers? From our point of view it is far from obvious that any exist. But if you read what these folks write and hear what they say, you will find that they are absolutely obsessed by the potential emergence of rival great powers; Russia, China, a European combination of some sort, Japan, and even India.

This is the essence of the Wolfowitz Doctrine, first articulated in the Pentagon’s Defense Planning Guidance document for 1994–1999, first leaked to the press in February 1992. This document calls for proactive U.S. military intervention to deter and prevent the rise of a contending peer (or equal) competitor, and asserts that the United States must use any and all means necessary to prevent that from happening. At the time this statement was met with such howls of outrage from U.S. allies that then President Bush had to squelch the document, and it was revised to take out this language.

But this doctrine lingered in the think-tank writings of the 1990s, re-emerging as the official global military policy of the Bush II administration. It has now been incorporated as the core principle of the document known as the National Security Strategy of the United States of America (September 2002), available for download from the White House website. This document states explicitly that the ultimate purpose of American power is to prevent the rise of a competing great power, and that the United States shall use any means necessary to prevent that from happening, including preventive military force when needed, but also through spending so much money on defense that no other peer competitor can ever arise.

Against this background, it can hardly be questioned that the purpose of the war in Iraq is to redraw the geopolitical map of Eurasia so as to insure and embed American power and dominance in this region vis-E0-vis these other potential competitors.

Now let us step back for a minute and return to the classical geo-political thinking of the early part of the last century, particularly the views of Sir Halford Mackinder of Great Britain. This perspective held that Eurasia was the most important part—the “heartland” of the civilized world, and that whoever controlled this heartland by definition controlled the rest of the world because of the concentration there of population, resources, and industrial might. In classical geopolitical thinking, world politics is essentially a struggle over who will control the Eurasian heartland.

The strategists of the turn of the twentieth century saw two ways through which global dominance could arise. One was through the emergence of a continental power (or a combination of continental powers) that dominated Eurasia and was, therefore, the master of the world. It was precisely this fear—that a German-controlled continental Europe and Russia, together with a Japanese-dominated China and Southeast Asia, would merge into a vast continental power and dominate the Eurasian heartland, thereby reducing the United States to a marginal power—that galvanized American leaders at the onset of the Second World War. Franklin D. Roosevelt was deeply steeped in this mode of analysis, and it is this ideological–strategic view that triggered U.S. intervention in the Second World War.

The other approach to global dominance perceived by early twentieth century geopolitical strategists was to control the “rimlands” of Eurasia—that is, Western Europe, the Pacific Rim, and the Middle East—and thereby contain any emerging “heartland” power. After the Second World War, the United States determined that it would in fact maintain a permanent military presence in all of the rimlands of Eurasia. This is what we know of as the “containment” strategy. And it was this outlook that led to the formation of NATO, the Marshall Plan, SEATO, CENTO, and the U.S. military alliances with Japan and Taiwan. For most of the time since the Second World War, the focus was on the eastern and western ends of Eurasia—Europe and the Far East.

What is happening now, I believe, is that U.S. elites have concluded that the European and East Asian rimlands of Eurasia are securely in American hands or less important, or both. The new center of geopolitical competition, as they see it, is South-Central Eurasia, encompassing the Persian Gulf area, which possesses two-thirds of the world’s oil, the Caspian Sea basin, which has a large chunk of what’s left, and the surrounding countries of Central Asia. This is the new center of world struggle and conflict, and the Bush administration is determined that the United States shall dominate and control this critical area.

Until now, the contested rimlands of Eurasia were the base of U.S. power, while in the south-central region there was but a very modest presence of U.S. forces. Since the end of the Cold War, however, the primary U.S. military realignment has entailed the drawdown of American forces in East Asia and Europe along with the buildup of forces in the south-central region. U.S. bases in Europe are being closed, while new military bases are being established in the Persian Gulf area and in Central Asia.

It is important to note that this is a process that began before 9/11. September 11 quickened the process and gave it a popular mandate, but this was entirely serendipitous from the point of view of U.S. strategists. It was President Clinton who initiated U.S. military ties with Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, and who built up the U.S. capacity to intervene in the Persian Gulf / Caspian Sea area. The U.S. victory in Iraq was not a victory of Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld; it was Clinton’s work that made this victory possible.

The war against Iraq was intended to provide the United States with a dominant position in the Persian Gulf region, and to serve as a springboard for further conquests and assertion of power in the region. It was aimed as much, if not more, at China, Russia, and Europe as at Syria or Iran. It is part of a larger process of asserting dominant U.S. power in south-central Eurasia, in the very heartland of this mega-continent.

But why specifically the Persian Gulf/Caspian Sea area, and why now? In part, this is so because this is where most of the world’s remaining oil is located—approximately 70 percent of known petroleum reserves. And you have to think of oil not just as a source of fuel—although that’s very important—but as a source of power. As U.S. strategists see it, whoever controls Persian Gulf oil controls the world’s economy and, therefore, has the ultimate lever over all competing powers.

In September 1990, then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Saddam Hussein would acquire a “stranglehold” over the U.S. and world economy if he captured Saudi Arabia’s oilfields along with those of Kuwait. This was the main reason, he testified, why the United States must send troops to the area and repel Hussein’s forces. He used much the same language in a speech last August to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. I believe that in his mind it is clear that the United States must retain a stranglehold on the world economy by controlling this area. This is just as important, in the administration’s view, as retaining America’s advantage in military technology.

Ten years from now, China is expected to be totally dependent on the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea area for the oil it will need to sustain its economic growth. Europe, Japan, and South Korea will be in much the same position. Control over the oil spigot may be a somewhat cartoonish image, but it is an image that has motivated U.S. policy since the end of the Cold War and has gained even more prominence in the Bush-Cheney administration.

This region is also the only area in the world where the interests of the putative great powers collide. In the hotly-contested Caspian Sea area, Russia is an expanding power, China is an expanding power, and the United States is an expanding power. There is no other place in the world like this. They are struggling with one another consciously and actively. The Bush administration is determined to dominate this area and to subordinate these two potential challengers and prevent them from forming a common front against the United States. (For more on the emerging power struggle in the Caspian Sea basin, see my Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict [Henry Holt/Metropolitan, 2001].)

What then are the implications of this great realignment of U.S. geo-political strategy made possible by the Cold War defeat of the Soviet Union?

It is obviously much too early to draw any definitive conclusions on this, but some things can be said. First, Iraq is just the beginning of a U.S. drive into this area. We will see further extensions and expressions of U.S. power in the region. This will provoke resistance and self-conscious opposition to the United States by insurgent groups and regimes. But the United States will also become enmeshed in local conflicts that arose long before America’s involvement in the region. For example, the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and that between Abkhazia and Georgia—both of which have a long history—will come to impact on U.S. security as the United States becomes dependent on a newly-constructed trans-Caucasian oil pipeline. The Chechen and Afghani wars continue and bracket the region. In all such disputes there is a likelihood of indirect or direct, covert or overt intervention by the United States and the other contending powers.

We are at the beginning, I believe, of a new Cold War in south-central Eurasia, with many possibilities for crises and flare-ups, because nowhere else in the world are Russia and China directly involved and supporting groups and regimes that are opposed to the United States. Even during the height of the Cold War, there wasn’t anything quite comparable to this. American troops will be there for a long time, with a high risk of violent engagement and the potential for great human suffering. It appears, then, that the U.S. and international peace movement will have a lot of work ahead!

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