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"The geopolitics of new Multipolarity"

Date de publication: 27.05.2014

 The Geopolitics of New Multipolarity


Srdja Trifkovic


IDC, Paris, May 27, 2014


In April 1904, the British geographer, Halford Mackinder, gave a lecture at the Royal Geographical Society. His paper, The Geographical Pivot of History, caused a sensation and marked the birth of geopolitics as an autonomous discipline. According to Mackinder, control over the Eurasian “World-Island” is the key to global hegemony. At its core is the “pivot area,” the Heartland, which extends from the Volga to the Yangtze and from the Himalayas to the Arctic. “My concern is with the general physical control, rather than the causes of universal history,” Mackinder declared.


Fourteen years later, at the end of the Great War, profoundly concerned with what he saw as the need for an effective barrier of nations between Germany and Russia, Mackinder summarized his theory as follows:


Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland;

Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island;

Who rules the World-Island controls the world.

This dictum helps explain the essence of the Ukrainian crisis, as well as the motivation behind the continuing ambition of some U.S. policymakers to expand NATO eastwards.

The model has undergone several modifications since Mackinder. In his 1942 book America’s Strategy in World Politics, Nicholas Spykman sought to “develop a grand strategy for both war and peace based on the implications of its geographic location in the world.” In the nineteenth century, he wrote, Russian pressure from the “heartland” was countered by British naval power in the “great game,” and it was America’s destiny to take over that role once the Second World War was over. Six months before the Battle of Stalingrad he wrote that a “Russian state from the Urals to the North Sea can be no great improvement over a German state from the North Sea to the Urals.” For Spykman the key region of world politics was the coastal region bordering the “Heartland” which he called the “rimland.” He changed Mackinder’s formula accordingly: “Who controls the rimland rules Eurasia; who rules Eurasia controls the destinies of the world.”

Spykman died in 1943, but his ideas were reflected four years later in Harry Truman’s strategy of containment. Holding on to the rimland, from Norway across central Europe to Greece and Turkey, was the mainstay of America’s Cold War strategy and the rationale behind the creation of NATO in 1949. Containment swiftly turned into a massive rollback, however, as soon as the Soviet Union disintegrated. In 1996 Bill Clinton violated clear commitment against NATO’s expansion made by his predecessor, and the Alliance reached Russia’s Czarist borders. In 2004 it expanded almost to the suburbs of St. Petersburg, with the inclusion of the three Baltic republics. All along Ukraine had remained the glittering prize, however, the key to limiting Russia’s access to the Black Sea, and a potential geostrategic knife in southern Russia’s soft underbelly.

The resulting, U.S.-led Drang nach Osten thus makes thalassocratic sense. From the point of view of the liberal globalist-neoconservative duopoly, there is no better way to ensure U.S. dominance along the European rimland in perpetuity than drawing Europe back into NATO (i.e. U.S.) security orbit in general and subverting the Russo-German telurocratic rapprochement in particular – a new version of the anaconda strategy.

PANDERING TO THE RUSSOPHOBES – The Washingtonian duopoly’s obsessions have resulted in policies that resonate with Russia’s former clients in Warsaw, Tallinn or Lvov, but they are ultimately detrimental to the security of both Europe and the United States. Further NATO enlargement has ensured that Russian missiles remain targeted on American cities – which may be of no consequence to the denizens of Riga or Bucharest, but should focus the minds in New York, Seattle, and Omaha. Playing geopolitical games in Ukraine resonates with many Eastern Europeans who have their own Russophobic axes to grind, and their Nazi proclivities will be duly overlooked and denied, just as the jihadist character of anti-Assad forces is denied. We can understand, if not approve, why the people in Galicia or Latvia have a vested interest, and an even more acute psychological need, to treat Russia as the enemy; but America and Western Europe now underwrite their obsessions. They all proclaim their devotion to various postmodern ideological assumptions (when they are not marching under the red-and-black SS Galizien banners, that is), but their real agenda is twofold: to have a Western, i.e. American, security guarantee against Russia, and to strengthen their own position vis-à-vis political opponents at home and against those neighbors with whom they have an ongoing or potential dispute.

Nowhere is this truer than in Ukraine. Western politicians and journalists refer to “the people of Ukraine,” but there is no unified Ukrainian nation. The linguistic divide also reflects a fundamental cultural and emotional division, not merely a difference of opinion on the issue of the EU or NATO. It is a division between two fundamentally incompatible identities. As such, it is comparable to the divide apparent in the electoral map of the 1860 U.S. presidential election.


Ukraine is likewise an evenly divided country, by territory and by population, than can be homogenized only by a civil war. The “unionists” (Galician ultranationalists) cannot hope to subjugate and “reconstruct” the Novorussians and convert them to an image of “Ukraine” defined by a visceral hatred of Russia and all her works. But just as the Novorussians will never become “Ukrainians” in the tradition of Bandera, they can never convert the Western Ukrainians to the paradigm of a Moscow-friendly “borderland” whose destiny is in a close association with Moscow. Ukraine is a pathetic non-country with lots of nasty people with guns, a failed state that could have made something of itself until last fall. Western meddling has turned it into a Hobbesian nightmare. Any great power that attempts to control the whole of this schisophrenic country will come to grief.


Equating “the people of Ukraine” with the Maidan regime is ridiculous, yet it is done systematically and deliberately all over the Western world in the fashion of that absurd, media-invented “Bosnia” in the 1990’s. There is nothing sacred and nothing permanent about Ukraine’s borders. Any attempt to uphold them with the force of arms will lead to bloodshed, as Tito’s equally arbitrarily drawn internal boundaries did lead in ex-Yugoslavia two decades ago. For the leading powers of the European Union, the status of Ukraine is a peripheral issue unless it is seen strictly through the prism of a geopolitical zero-sum game. For the United States it has always been, and still is, an optional crisis. For Russia, however, and for her supporters in eastern and southern Ukraine, the future of the Black Sea coast and of the eastern industrial basin is an existential issue. 

FOLLY OF OVERREACH – A sane Western relationship with Moscow demands acceptance that Russia has legitimate interests in her “near-abroad” and that they all face an existential long-term threat from jihad, mass immigration, and demographic decline. The proponents of a hard Western line with Moscow appear to have learnt nothing from Russia’s response to Mikhel Saakashvili’s attack on South Ossetia, when Moscow maneuvered Washington into a position of weakness unseen since the final days of the Carter presidency. They will now reap similar long-term benefits in the form of Putin’s Pivot to Asia.

The “foreign policy community” in Washington is not sane, however. Just look at Washington’s much-heralded Pivot to Asia… To a casual observer it would seem that President Barack Obama’ four-nation tour of East Asia last month, which took him to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines, came at a time of America’s undisputed global preponderance. The visit escalated existing U.S. military commitments to the region, created some new ones, deeply irritated China, and emboldened American allies and clients to play hardball with Beijing.


In Tokyo Obama inexplicably asserted that the Senkaku (Diaoyu) islands – over which Japan and China have been locked in a dispute for decades – were protected under the U.S.-Japan mutual security treaty. In Seoul Obama warned that the United States, South Korea and their allies would consider levying new sanctions against North Korea. The 28,000 U.S. troops will remain in South Korea indefinitely, with Obama telling a military audience that the United States “will not hesitate to use our military might” to defend allies. In Manila, a new defense pact was signed, allowing for the rotational deployment of U.S. troops, aircraft and ships in the Philippines – the biggest U.S. buildup in the region since Vietnam. Obama vowed that the U.S. “commitment to defend the Philippines is ironclad.” He supported Manila in the Philippines’ territorial dispute with China.


IT IS UNWISE for a great power to alienate two of its nearest rivals simultaneously. The crisis in Ukraine is going on, but the situation in Asia is potentially more volatile. Dealing with both theaters from the position of presumed strength and trying to dictate the outcomes is perilous, as many would-be hegemons, blinded by arrogance, have learned to their peril.


Philip II and his inept successors fought too many wars against too many enemies. By the time the Peace of Westphalia was signed in 1648, Spain – the most powerful country in the world a century earlier – was defeated-in-detail everywhere, thrice-bankrupted, and reduced to a second-rate status.

Louis XIV thought he could threaten and bully the Dutch, the Habsburgs, and the English, two at a time or even simultaneously. There was nothing le Roi-Soleil liked so much as flattery, according to Saint-Simon, “or, to put it more plainly, adulation; the coarser and clumsier it was, the more he relished it.” After a series of inconclusive but ruinously expensive wars, in the end the French state was bankrupted and Louis died a broken man.

The Wilhelmine foreign policy after Bismarck undermined the fruits of the Iron Chancellor’s brilliant efforts in the preceding two decades. Unpredictable, neurotic aggressiveness and shrill rhetoric – on display during the two Moroccan crises – replaced caution and even diplomatic temper. (Susan Rice’s condemnation of Chinese and Russian vetoes of the U.S.-supported UNSC resolution on Syria as “disgusting,” “shameful” and “unforgivable” comes to mind.) The Kaiserreich simultaneously pushed the Orthodox Tsar into an alliance with the Masonic republicans, and terminally alienated Britain by building the High Seas Fleet. In the end, the Berlin-Baghdad railway project helped turn Russia and Britain into allies.

The United States under Barack Obama has continued the hegemonist habit of instigating crises at different spots around the world, even though the management resources are scarce and the strategy is fundamentally faulty. An overtly anti-U.S. alliance between Russia and China is now in the making. It will be a belated equivalent of the Franco-Russian alliance of 1893 – the predictable result of an earlier great power basing its strategy on hubristic overestimation of its capabilities. U.S. overreach led to the emergence of a de facto alliance in the Eurasian Heartland, embodied in last week’s gas deal signed in Shanghai. Russia and China are not natural allies and they may have divergent long-term interests, especially in Central Asia, but they are on the same page when it comes to resisting U.S. hegemony.


In the early 1970’s Dr. Henry Kissinger wisely understood the benefits of an opening to Beijing as a means of pressuring Moscow on the Cold War’s central front. Back then the USSR was far more powerful than the People’s Republic. Today, by contrast, China is much more economically and demographically powerful than Russia, and for the United States the optimal strategy would dictate being on good terms with the weaker party in the triangle. America does not have a policymaker of Kissinger’s stature today, who would understand the potential of a long-term understanding with Moscow as a tool of curtailing Chinese ambitions along the Pacific Rim.

“This is the biggest contract in the history of the gas sector of the former USSR,” Putin said after the $400 billion gas deal was signed. It is much more than that. The contract and a host of associated cooperation agreements marked a new phase in the geopolitical balancing game, the emergence of a de facto Moscow-Beijing axis. Shanghai’s potential long-term significance may be compared to the fruits of Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China.

Energy provides a solid basis to expand Sino-Russian cooperation in other areas, in technology, industrial and commercial sectors and military hardware. President Xi framed the task in openly geopolitical terms: “Further facilitating the all-round strategic partnership based on common interests is a requirement for promoting international fairness and justice, maintaining world peace, and realizing prosperity in both countries. It is also an ‘inevitable choice’ for the development of a multi-polar world.” Without naming any nation, he added “Beefing up military alliances targeting a third party is not conducive to maintaining common regional security.”

Thanks to the deal, Putin has retained the global legitimacy that the Obama administration wanted to deny him, and enhanced his country’s geopolitical clout. Other BRICS countries (Brazil, India, South Africa) and “rising powers” (Indonesia, Nigeria, Argentina) may not follow China’s lead in establishing an outright alliance with Moscow, but it is an even bet that they will not support Washington either in condemning, let alone isolating Moscow.

“We don’t see any relationship whatsoever to an agreement with respect to gas and energy supplies between Russia and China that they’ve been working on for 10 years,” Secretary of State John Kerry told a news conference on May 21. This means that he is deluded or obtuse. Either way, it also means that U.S.-initiated global confrontations will continue as before. Instead of de-escalating the bloody mess to which she has made a hefty contribution, Victoria Nuland will continue encouraging her blood-soaked protégés in Kiev to seek a military end-game in the East. Instead of calming the South China Sea, Washington will continue encouraging its clients to be impertinent. And Putin and Xi will draw their conclusions: that they do have a powerful common enemy, a rogue regime not amenable to reason or rational calculus. 

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