By Michael Finch
This might be a good time for us to reacquaint ourselves with the ideas and thoughts of Sir Halford MacKinder. The best place to start is to read Robert Kaplan’s superb book “The Revenge of Geography.” Written just under 10 years ago, Kaplan spans the globe and offers a tour de force in geopolitics and geography and how it shapes the world. There are few better than Kaplan at this kind of study, and this, among the many books he has written, is a must read for those who want to understand the world, both in reaching back to the distant past and the coming calamitous future.
The recent events spiraling out of control from our sudden and haphazard withdrawal from Afghanistan drew me to reread Kaplan’s book and more specifically study MacKinder’s “Heartland” thesis. And no, by “Heartland” he is not referring to Iowa, but instead, the vast steppes, grasslands and sweep of Central Asia; of Marco Polo’s spice road, the lands that conquerors from Attila the Hun, Tamerlane, Genghis Khan and the Seljuck Turks rode roughshod over in many centuries past.
But first a brief background into Sir Halford MacKinder. He was a British geographer who lived and wrote at the beginning of the last century. Are not the British always the masters at these things? The author of several major books, he is perhaps best-known for an article published in 1904 in The Geographical Journal of London, titled “The Geographical Pivot of History.”
As Kaplan writes, “MacKinder’s thesis is that Central Asia, helping to form as it does the Eurasian Heartland, is the pivot on which the fate of great world empires rests. MacKinder both begins and sums up his thinking with this oft-quoted grand and simplistic dictum:
“Who rules Eastern Europe commands the Heartland:
“Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island:
“Who rules the World-Islands commands the World.”
One must pause here and try and grasp exactly what MacKinder is saying. Was this British geographer trying to tell us that whoever controls Tajikistan rules the world? Not quite, but he was making an historical argument that ran completely against the thinking of his day. The early 20th century was the time of sea power and the British Empire. Reading and understanding this thesis even today, while of great interest, is still hard for us to grasp. Most of us can’t even locate the “Stans” and this region on a map, and we reflexively know there are other, much more critical regions of the world to obsess and worry over.
Such a perspective, however, comes from a Western or American reading of the world. The Chinese, Russians, Iranians, Indians and others all view the world from a different perspective. And when one allows themselves to see the world from an adversary’s perspective, the world all the sudden appears wholly different.
The area of Central Asia has indeed almost always been the great pivot. And it is returning now with a driving force. The world power map has shifted, and as many historians, including Niall Ferguson, have recently noted, the over 500-year reign of Western seafaring dominance, from 1492 until our current day, is ending.
So, what to make of this part of the world that we know so little about, except for our mad rush to leave it? Just one example suffices: the nation of Kazakhstan. As Kaplan himself proclaimed, “Kazakhstan is MacKinder’s Heartland.” It’s incredibly rich in oil and gas reserves and one of the largest producers of uranium in the world. The neighboring countries of Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan are awash in a multitude of national resources as well. It is the crossroads between China to the East, Russia to the North and into the Middle East and Europe to the West. And now we come to find that Afghanistan has one of, if not the largest reserves of lithium in the world, a critical national resource in the latest drive toward a “green energy” future. To no one’s surprise, China is already there negotiating with the Afghans, with its funding and expertise, to set up mining operations.
Does anyone still wonder why the Chinese are so aggressively pursuing its “Belt and Road” Initiative? The Chinese have spent the past couple of decades invested in operations across this vast region, into Iran, Turkey, all the way to the Mediterranean Sea with port operations set up in Greece and Israel. Indeed MacKinder himself, well over 100 years ago, closed his article with a warning about the Chinese, who, due to their advantageous geographic position, could someday be poised to dominate the “Heartland” region.
Russia and China will continue to vie for control over Central Asia, and while they are natural rivals and seemingly sure to clash at some point over dominance of this region along with Siberia and the Far East, for now they will cooperate and make mutually beneficial deals. Meanwhile, America continues to stagger and blunder. Biden’s first months have been chaotic and, frankly, idiotic, calling out Vladimir Putin as a “murderer,” this after four years of obsessing over the hoax concerning Russia collusion.
Our approach to China has also been incredibly weak, supplicating and kowtowing to Chinese leaders with our virtue signaling, moral preening and empty pronouncements about Chinese human rights violations. We appear pathetic to a part of the world whose leaders recognize and respect only one thing – strength.
Where does America go from here? This is not an appeal for another surge into Afghanistan; it was time to leave, at least at some level. But was there no other way? Was there a third way between this total reckless withdrawal and the stationing of 100,000-plus troops in the attempt of a total occupation of an unconquerable land? Nation building and bringing “democracy” to a tribal Islamic land was a totally misguided and naïve concept that ended in disaster. Hopefully, we have learned that lesson, but our Biden led cut-and-run plan is even worse.
We can all be for an America First policy and not clamor for an “American Empire,” but do we not have some strategic interests around the world? Are we planning to leave a vacuum everywhere for the Chinese or Russians or some even worse nefarious actor to fill?
Let’s forget, for the moment, what happens to Afghanistan in the aftermath of our withdrawal. We just walked away from Bagram Air Base, a critical base that allowed America to have air supremacy over a vast area of that part of the world, not only to interdict against potential terrorists but also as a sign to the Chinese and the Russians and others that we will have a presence and not abandon our strategic interests.
There are greater issues at stake here. The United States needs a strategy, and we desperately need a realist foreign policy that puts our interests first and foremost. Give us a Bismarck if need be, for the current disaster that occupies the White House will not only lead us down a path of humiliation and further calamity; this cabal will lead us into war, a war started out of desperation and panic and a need to show strength when it is far too late.
Maybe this was all foreordained; after all, it is not our part of the world, so perhaps China’s rise to dominance is inevitable. But if the British geographer MacKinder was truly prophetic in his essay written almost 120 years ago, we have just conceded, in fact, we have gifted the pivot, the region that one can rule the world from with nary a whisper. After this nightmare of a withdrawal, we can be assured of one thing.
Darker days lie ahead.
Michael Finch is the president of the David Horowitz Freedom Center. His new book of poetry is “Wanderings in Place.”
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