In 1904 Halford Mackinder, professor of geography at the London School of Economics, presented an article titled “The Geographical Pivot of History” to the Royal Geographical Society. During the century which had passed prior to its publication, owing to the Hegelian revolution in historiography, the near-dominant philosophical interpretation of “Big History” (apart from Marxist emphases on economics) had been premised on the assumption that History was primarily the history of ideas, and that its essential driver was culture.
Mackinder counterpointed this widely held assumption with an insight which today we would regard as obvious – namely, that culture and the history of ideas, and for that matter economic fundamentals, didn’t explain everything. The driving factors behind the trajectory of human history were at least partially geographical.
“The Geographical Pivot of History” has since come to be seen as perhaps the most centrally foundational work of the disciplines which we today call “geo-politics” and “geo-strategy.” The entire “realist” school of geo-politics, including Brzezinski’s entire corpus of work, has Mackinder’s fingerprints all over it. Mackinder’s obsession with the geo-strategic “containment” of the Eurasian interior constituted the core-logic of George Kennan’s 1946 “long telegram” from Moscow.
Of course, Mackinder was primarily concerned with the task of maintaining British hegemony. He saw the potential for the Russian Empire’s internal infrastructural development, not least because this created a potential for the Russian Empire to eventually become a naval power in the Pacific, as a major threat to British long-term interests.
As he developed his theory in later years, Mackinder identified a geographical belt which formed a crescent around the “pivot-area” (the Eurasian interior, largely the Russian Empire) which would be vital in a policy of containment. This crescent included “offshore-islands” such as Japan. Mackinder saw the island-nations of both Britain and Japan as geo-strategic padlocks at either end of the Eurasian land-mass which could contain Eurasian expansionist impulses. He repeatedly refers to Japan in “The Geographical Pivot of History.”
He writes “Britain, Canada, the United States, South Africa, Australia, and Japan are now a ring of outer and insular bases for sea-power and commerce, inaccessible to the land-power of Euro-Asia.”
In the age of ballistic missiles and missile-defence systems, for technological reasons which Mackinder himself could not have envisaged, his “padlock” thinking in relation to Japan remains as relevant today as it has ever been. Technology and culture change, geography doesn’t. This is the defining methodological insight of geo-strategy as a distinct discipline.
Many readers will already be aware that, on August 2nd, the INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) Treaty was terminated by the United States and Russia, a move initiated by the United States last year. President Trump had announced the United States’ intention to withdraw from the treaty in October 2018, the treaty was suspended in February 2019, and finally mutually terminated last Friday. The United States had alleged that tests of Russia’s 9M729 cruise-missile conducted from the Kapustin Yar launch-site in Astrakhan last year exceeded ranges permitted under the treaty, an allegation which the Russian government has repeatedly denied.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on August 5th that the Russian government had refrained from raising any concerns about the United States’ compliance with the treaty since 2000, as it understood that the treaty’s collapse would have extremely serious implications for global security, but that one of the major reasons for Russia’s decision to finally terminate the treaty was the United States’ plans for the deployment of MK-41 missile launch-pads in Japan, which would constitute a flagrant violation of the INF Treaty. The MK-41 can launch a wide range of missiles, including Tomahawk Cruise missiles. The MK-41 is already deployed as a component of the Aegis Ashore missile-defence system in Poland and Romania.
So the United States accuses Russia of a marginal violation of the INF Treaty without bringing any verifiable evidence of a violation into the public domain, and suspends the INF treaty on February 1st.
One day later, the State Department approves a $2.15 billion sale of the Aegis Ashore system to Japan.
I will leave the reader to draw their own conclusions.
Deputy Minister Ryabkov said that Russia would have to “balance” any possible deployment of US missile-systems in the Asia-Pacific region:
“We will analyze the developments in this sector very carefully and will take retaliatory steps in order to counter threats, which may hypothetically emerge for Russia from various directions….If new US systems’ development begins in Asia, we will make certain steps balancing these actions in order to counter the above mentioned threats.”
Deputy Minister Ryabkov also said that, in the wake of the collapse of the INF Treaty, US diplomats were now attempting to steer arms-control discussions away from intermediate-range weapons.
"And now they say there is a need to make a broader comprehensive nuclear agreement, though it seems the wording doesn’t cover intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles, which makes us think that the US is unwilling to touch upon the issue. On the contrary, it points to Washington’s wish to build up its military potential," he said.
So regarding arms-control, the US is willing to discuss everything, except for the missiles which it quite openly plans to park immediately off Russia’s eastern seaboard.
I see, I see….
As a component of the practical necessity of balancing these American moves, and now that Russia officially no longer has any INF treaty-obligations, maybe President Putin should get on the phone to Miguel Díaz-Canel, and ask if perhaps the Republic of Cuba might be interested in siting a missile-base. Generous concessions on energy could be dangled.
I know – that’s just the Dr. Strangelove in me coming out again.