The role of geography in strategic culture

This article is adapted from an essay set for first year War Studies students. Enjoy…

The theory that geography affects a state’s strategic culture means that it is inherently linked to politics. Clausewitz suggests that “war is nothing but the continuation of political efforts by other means” and thus “the plan for the war results directly from the political conditions of the two belligerent states, as well as from their relations to other powers.”   This concept has led to the development of Geopolitics, which is concerned with how geographical factors of territory, population, strategic location, and natural resources, affect the relations between different states and their struggle for world supremacy. Although Clausewitz touched upon the idea of geopolitical strategy it was not until Halford J. Mackinder in his article titled “The Geographical Pivot of History” that geography began to grow in importance in influencing a state’s strategic culture. However, have Mackinder’s theories been proven to be correct, both in history and in the modern world? Can a theory produced over a century ago still hold much credence in a world that has seen a huge amount change? This article will examine how geography and in particular Mackinder’s thoughts have affected national strategic cultures in the twentieth century with particular emphasis on Russian and American strategy and how these have been influenced by technological, economic and ideological elements.

Map illustrating Mackinder’s ‘Heartland’ thesis.

Mackinder’s best known and perhaps most influential work is on the concept of the ‘Heartland’ and his hypothesis that “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland: Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island: Who rules the World-Island commands the World”  The ‘Heartland’ that Mackinder refers to can be defined as the land mass that roughly encompasses Eurasia, from Eastern Europe, Russia through to Central Asia.  Whilst the ‘World-Island’ includes the remainder of Asia and Africa along with the ‘Heartland’. The Heartland excludes Africa and parts of Asia due to “its girdle of broad natural defences” which consist of an “ice-clad Polar Sea, forested and rugged Lenaland, and Central Asiatic mountain and arid tableland.” Making it “the greatest natural fortress on earth”  therefore cutting it off from these areas.

Mackinder’s theory stems from his belief that “Every civilised nation is related in two ways to the land which it occupies… [that] may be roughly indexed under the terms economic and strategic.”  He contended that maritime powers have historically benefited more from their geographic location because their sea frontage provided them with greater strategic security and allowed them to trade on a far larger scale than land powers were capable of.  The British Empire of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is an excellent illustration of a state exploiting their natural geographic strengths to develop a power base capable of projecting their force on a global scale as well as be the centre for world trade. In essence British political, military and economic strategies were reflections of Britain’s island geography. But, according to Mackinder the era of maritime supremacy over land powers was coming to an end and that in the future land power would determine the world powers. This was due the development of land transportation, in particular the train meant that a land power could now fully exploit the resources it possessed. This would provide it with the strength to defeat a sea power and then direct there vast resources towards the production of a powerful navy capable of defeating the rimland maritime powers of Britain, Japan and the United States of America.

However, some commentators disagree with Mackinder and see flaws in his argument. One flaw that has been suggested is that Mackinder assumes that superior resources and their deployment to the creation of a large armed force will result in victory.  This therefore implies that wars will be won by attrition and so consequently the larger of the belligerents will inevitably succeed and will apply their strategy accordingly. Critics of this have argued that this is not the case, Edward Luttwak contests that “those who view themselves as materially weak… will adjust their priorities to the vulnerabilities they see in others.”  This strategy known as “relational manoeuvre,” which looks not to destroy the entire substance of the enemy, but rather to “incapacitate by systematic disruption – whether the system is the command structure… their mode of warfare and combat array… or even an actual technical system (the deception of a radar, as opposed to its brute force jamming or outright physical destruction).”  An example of a state having a strategic culture based on achieving victory through relational manoeuvre is Israel and its “emphasis on a high-tempo style of conflict with an emphasis on armoured attacks”  that resulted in successive victories for the Israelis over their larger Arab opponents.

It has been argued that although the Israeli model provides an example of the successful use of relational manoeuvre it cannot, however, be applied to the heartland. This is because it does not account for its geographic and strategic location. The failure of relational manoeuvre with regards to the heartland can be seen by how the Nazis were defeated in Russia despite developing a strategic culture that had been successful through the rest of Europe. The Nazis Blitzkrieg strategies were designed to negate their numerical inferiority with tactics that relied upon “surprise, speed, and overwhelming and dynamic force at the chosen point of contact.”

Yet, in Russia the Nazis strategy betrayed a significant flaw in relational manoeuvre as an effective counter the Heartland being “the greatest natural fortress on earth” . The Blitzkrieg strategy failed in Russia due to the nation’s geography which provided it with an open gateway of such sheer breadth that it compelled the Nazis “to make a broad deployment of his manpower.”  Rather than concentrate it as was necessary for the Blitzkrieg to succeed. Moreover, the size and scale of Russia meant that it was able to have defence in depth, enabling them to “swap space for time” , allowing them to absorb the early onslaught of the German invasion forcing them to remain in Russia through into the freezing winter that they were not prepared for whilst also providing the Soviets with the time to have their Five Year Plans fully mobilized to effectively counter. Thus it could be suggested that the foundations of the Soviet strategic culture was a product of the geography it found itself in. With good organization and the ability to effectively exploit the lands resources Soviet Russia had made the heartland into a near impregnable fortress that was “for the first time in history manned by a garrison sufficient in both number and quality… [to] rank as the greatest land power on the globe” . According to Mackinder’s theory that who rules the heartland will rule the world, the realization of the heartlands potential by the Soviets meant world domination was now a reality that could be achieved.

Many critics feel that Mackinder was fundamentally wrong to believe that the heartland was genuinely capable of world domination. These critics are concerned with Mackinder’s failure to recognise the strategic importance of the Rimland and the Offshore Islands. The Rimland is defined by Nicholas Spykman as being the outskirts of Europe, the Middle East, and the East Asia-Pacific Rim region. While he defines the Offshore Islands as consisting of North and South America, Britain Japan and Australia.  Spykman held that “the Rimland is more important than the heartland” and claimed that “who controls the rimland controls Eurasia.”  This consequently implies that they are capable of preventing the heartland from gaining world domination even if it is not capable of taking the heartland. Certainly Spykman has a point, the United States of America, which has vast resources of its own was capable of preventing the USSR in the heartland from achieving world domination. The Americans achieved this through the use of a number of different strategies, with perhaps the most significant being the policy of containment. This is where the United States attempted “prevent the USSR gaining the resources needed to become fully equal if not more powerful than the U.S.”  The policy can be seen through the Americans use of military (such as in Korean and Vietnam Wars) an economic (such as the Marshal Plan) coercion.

Although American and Soviet strategy was influenced by the works of Mackinder and Spykman it was not the true driving force behind their strategies. The determining factor was structural. It was caused by “competition and friction between the systems of the two superpowers.”  And was amplified by the opposing aggressive and expansionist ideologies that they adopted. The line of reasoning behind this is that if both states are defensible ‘fortresses’ that provide security to their citizens why do they need to expand and act aggressively? Let us take the example of another fortress nation, albeit significantly smaller. Switzerland is a nation that has been surrounded by warring states for much of its history, yet for much of this time it has remained an independent and autonomous state. This is because it is near impossible to invade due to its geographic location in the heart of the Alps, therefore surrounding it by mountains. This has historically been very difficult terrain for an invading army to take. Despite having the security of knowing that their homeland is not threatened the Swiss have not attempted to provoke a war and have “chosen to remain neutral.”  Even when technology capable of threatening Swiss territory like that which became available in World War Two the Swiss did not chose an aggressive stance or chose to ally themselves with another state, rather they remained neutral.  This strategy has evidently worked for Switzerland since they remain an independent state that has kept their own traditions, beliefs and culture.

This therefore begs the question as to why America and Russia chose such aggressive stances towards one and other? The answer originates with the paradox that “the growth of American power did not lead to a greater sense of assuredness, but rather to an enlargement of the range of perceived threats.” Thus the “Soviets were not a threat because of their actions but because they existed”  which in turn led to the “Russians basing their strategy around the Americans” creating a vicious circle escalating to the Cold War.

In conclusion geography certainly plays a fundamental role in the developing of national strategic cultures. However, geography is not the sole determining factor, rather it is a synthesis of several other elements that interact and impact upon one and other, most notably technology, economics and ideology. This can be seen from how economics affects the quality of technology available, whilst technology can also improve the economic situation of a state, as trains did in facilitating the ability of a state to fully exploit its resources, highlighting the link between economics and geography. In addition economic capabilities limit the scale of the strategies states can employ, demonstrating how these are inter-related and should not be considered in isolation. Strategic cultures particularly in the twentieth century are products of the unique characteristics and ideology of a state and their relations to other states. These are defined by a multitude of different facets which include but are not exclusively products of the theories produced by Mackinder and Spykman. They are but one part of an array of different factors that when combined mould a states ideology which in turn governs its strategic culture.

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