REEXAMINING OLD CONCEPTS ABOUT THE CAUCASUS AND CENTRAL ASIA door Igor TORBAKOV op Eurasianet.org
The growing economic rivalry between the United States and Russia for influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia is prompting policy-makers to turn to century-old notions for guidance as they develop responses to geopolitical developments. One such idea, advanced by a prominent player in the so-called Great Game of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, holds that the Eurasia region is the "geographic pivot of history."
The so-called "heartland" theory was first advanced in January 1904 lecture delivered by Sir Halford Mackinder, then the director of the London School of Economics and one of the most prominent British geographers of the era. In his lecture, Mackinder asserted that the ability to efficiently administer the Eurasian heartland would give the controlling state decisive influence over the global development agenda. Concurrently, maintaining stability in the Eurasian heartland would go a long way towards determining global security conditions, Mackinder argued.
At the time that Mackinder developed the heartland theory, Russia stood on the verge of completing Trans-Siberian railroad. To Mackinder, world history was essentially the story of an eternal struggle between what he called the "seaman" and the "landman." The emergence of railroads, he argued, allowed land powers to be almost as mobile as naval powers. By using "interior lines," the state occupying the "central position" on the so-called Eurasian island could project power more rapidly than could naval powers, such as Britain.
For Mackinder, a staunch supporter of the British imperial system, the ‘heartland’ concept was designed to help London defend its interests against Russian expansionism. "The balance of power," he noted in his 1904 lecture, is now "in favor of the pivot state [i.e. Russia]." As such, he said, Britain’s paramount strategic task at the outset of the 20th century was to prevent Russia from gaining access to the coast of Persia.
Later, following the Russia’s collapse during World War I, Mackinder urged that London pursue policies that would prevent Bolshevik authorities from consolidating their grip over the outer reaches of the empire. Accordingly, Mackinder wanted the West to promote the independence of countries including Ukraine and other Central European countries, along with Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. At the time, the British government did not follow Mackinder’s advice, and the Bolsheviks eventually managed to restore control over most of the lands controlled by their Romanov predecessors.
Over subsequent decades, strategic challenges have shifted and modernization has drastically changed the way a country can project its power. Yet, Mackinder’s basic ideas about the Eurasian heartland remain pertinent. The heartland thesis helped provide the intellectual groundwork for Western policy towards Soviet expansionism, especially in the formulation of the US Cold War-era containment policy. Following the 1991 Soviet collapse, Mackinder’s concepts influenced Western efforts to promote "geopolitical pluralism" in the Commonwealth of Independent States.
In a somewhat paradoxical twist, Mackinder’s geopolitical thinking also appears to have left a deep imprint on his ideological opponents. For example, a Russian "Eurasianist School" -- which urged Eurasian unity under Russian leadership -- emerged in émigré circles in the 1920s and borrowed extensively from Mackinder’s ideas.
At the outset of the 21st century, the heartland thesis continues to contain lessons for political scientists. Economic and political developments over the past decade, including the September 11 terrorist tragedy, have served to dramatically increase the Eurasian region’s profile. Islamic radicalism, taking advantage of the region’s largely stagnant economic conditions, have established a strong presence in the region, which is now viewed by both Russian and the West as the fulcrum of the struggle against global terrorism. At the same time, the regional security picture is growing increasingly complex, with Pakistan in possession of nuclear weapons, and Iran striving to develop its nuclear capabilities.
The Eurasian heartland is also the scene of an intensifying economic struggle, driven in large part by a desire to control the region’s abundant energy reserves. The United States, Russia and China all have extensive interests in the region.
Some experts view the regional economic rivalry as a new Great Game, drawing a rough comparison to the competition a century ago between the British and Russian empires for control over Central Asia – a struggle in which Mackinder himself took an active part.
"In this rerun of the first great game -- the 19th-century imperial rivalry between the British Empire and Tsarist Russia -- players once again position themselves to control the heart of the Eurasian landmass," argues Lutz Kleveman, the author of a recently published book The New Great Game: Blood and Oil in Central Asia.
Today, instead of Britain, the United States is leading the Western effort to limit the revival of Russian influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus. To help project its power, Washington has established military bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, while US military advisors are in Georgia helping to retrain Georgian military personnel.
Mackinder’s ideas influenced the post-Cold War thesis -- developed by prominent American political scientist Zbigniew Brzezinski -- which called for the maintenance of "geopolitical pluralism" in the post-Soviet space. This concept has served as the corner-stone of both the Clinton and Bush administration’s policies towards the newly independent states of Central Eurasia.
Meanwhile, Brzezinski’s opposite numbers in Russia, drawing upon classic Eurasianist thinking, are calling for Russia to develop a special Eurasian strategy. In their recent book, Geopolitics and Political Geography, V.A. Kolosov and N.S. Mironenko, contend that Russia must develop a "geopolitical code" or strategy that would foster volunteer "economic, cultural, and communication integration" within the former Soviet region. Kamaludin Gadzhiyev’s study, Introduction to Geopolitics, also argues for both economic and politico-military "integration of the former Soviet space."
Moscow’s efforts to create a core economic group among CIS states underscores the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin is striving to put the Eurasianist concepts into practice. Those efforts have hit snags, however, as most CIS remain wary Russia’s heavy-handed leadership style.
Heading into the future, the new Great Game easily can take unexpected twists, driven more by social factors in the Eurasian heartland than by economic considerations. For example, Central Asian states, especially Uzbekistan, are experiencing tremendous social pressures, fueled by poverty and the lack of opportunity. At the same time, regional governments are responding by tightening control, instead of addressing the root causes of discontent. As a result, Islamic radical ideas, spread by groups such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir, are finding a broader audience in Central Asia. In turn, there appears to be no shortage of recruits for international terrorist organizations, many of which are linked to Islamic radicalism.
The possible spread of instability in the Eurasian heartland threatens the interests of both Russia and the West. A deterioration of regional security conditions would exert growing pressure on Moscow and Washington to cooperate, rather than compete in the region. Already, the United States and Russia profess to be allies in the campaign against terrorism. Yet the actions of both countries in recent years, most notably the Bush administration’s precipitous attack on Iraq, belie all such talk about an alliance.
Mackinder, in an essay published in the journal Foreign Affairs in 1943, raised the possibility that the West and Russia could one day develop into genuine partners. Writing in the midst of World War II, Mackinder indicated that cooperation between Russia and the West would probably be needed to prevent Germany from ever again posing a threat to the global order. Were he living today, some scholars believe Mackinder would urge cooperation to contain the largest current threat to the world order: global terrorism.
Editor’s Note: Igor Torbakov is a freelance journalist and researcher who specializes in CIS political affairs. He holds an MA in History from Moscow State University and a PhD from the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. He was Research Scholar at the Institute of Russian History, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow; a Visiting Scholar at the Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington DC; a Fulbright Scholar at Columbia University, New York; and a Visiting Fellow at Harvard University. He is now based in Istanbul, Turkey.