Geopolitics analyses politics, history and social science with reference to geography. The term was coined by Rudolf Kjellén , a Swedish political geographer, at the end of the 19th century. Kjellén was inspired by the German geographer Friedrich Ratzel, who published his book "Politische Geographie" (political geography) in 1897. The term was popularized in English by US diplomat Robert Strausz-Hupé , a faculty member of the University of Pennsylvania.
The discipline gained attention largely through the work of Sir Halford Mackinder in England and his formulation of the Heartland Theory in 1904. This theory involved concepts diametrically opposed to the notion of Alfred Thayer Mahan about the significance of navies (he coined the phrase, "sea power") in world conflict. The Heartland theory, on the other hand, hypothesized the possibility for a huge empire to be brought into existence which didn't need to use coastal or transoceanic transport to supply its military industrial complex, and that this empire could not be defeated by all the rest of the world coalitioned against it.
The basic notions of Mackinder's theory involve considering the geography of the Earth as being divided into a variation on the notion of the "old world" (most of the Eastern Hemisphere) and the "new world" (the Western Hemisphere and what was called Oceania). The difference was that the archipelagoes which could traditionally were able to defend themselves by naval power - historically, Great Britain and prospectively, Japan - were taken from the former, which was renamed the "World Island". They were added to the other part of the world, renamed the "Periphery", along with Philippines, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Madagascar. Australia and New Zealand were already part of the "new world".
Not only was the Periphery noticeably smaller than the World Island, it necessarily required much sea transport to function at the technological level of the World Island, which contained sufficient natural resources for a developed economy. Also, the industrial centers of the Periphery were necessarily located in widely-separated locations. The World Island could send its navy to destroy each one of them in turn. It could locate its own industries in a region further inland than the Periphery could, so they would have a longer struggle reaching them, and would be facing a well-stocked industrial bastion. This region Mackinder termed the "Heartland". It was essentially comprised of Ukraine, Western Russia, and Mitteleuropa.
The Heartland contained the grain reserves of Ukraine, and many other natural resources. Mackinder's notion of geopolitics can be summed up in his saying "Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland. Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island. Who rules the World-Island commands the world."
Though the theory was first imagined before the First World War, developments in that war did not disprove it. Vast systems of trenches were not envisaged as part of the antagonism, but their appearance, as well as the demonstration that submarines could destroy convoys, made geopolitics appear even more frightening. The development of mechanized military transport needing petroleum fit right into the theory, for Russia's major oil reserves are located on the western shore of the Caspian Sea. Also, it was imagined before the industrial development of Russia herself. Thus it was as much a "thought experiment" as Schlieffen's plan to conquer France.
Some influential Germans, both before and during the Third Reich, found this theory compatible with their desire to control Mitteleuropa and to take the Ukraine. The intention to take the latter was indicated by the slogan Drang nach Osten, or "drive to the east".
Although the fascists took much of Ukraine in the Second World War, nonetheless they were defeated. Another point which Mackinder missed was that the Soviets could actually move their factories out of the Heartland. For a time it seemed as though the theory was defunct, at first because conventional Air Power had been falsely touted as capable of destroying industries thousands of miles from the seacoast, and shortly afterward with the appearance of nuclear weapons. But with the coming of the Cold War, Mackinder's theory regained a bit of plausibility when instead of war, influence upon other nations was considered. This would be projection of power in other terms.
The Soviet Union accomplished the domination of both Ukraine and Mitteleuropa. It was industrial, technically competent, and militarily able. Some anti-communists in the West who had heard of Mackinder gained additional fear of them from of his theory. What ended the plausibility of this form of geopolitics was the rise of Japan, a country without natural resources, yet which could surpass the Soviet Union without dealing with anything military at all.
Since then, the word "geopolitics" has been applied to other theories, most notably the notion of the "clash of civilizations". In a peaceable world, neither sea lanes nor surface transport are threatened; hence all countries are effectively at the same distance from one another other physically. It is in the realm of the political ideas and workings that there are differences, and the term has shifted to this arena.
After WWI Kjellen's thoughts and the term were picked up and extended by a number of scientists: in Germany by Karl Haushofer, Erich Obst, Hermann Lautensach and Otto Maull; in England, Mackinder and Fairgrieve; in France Vidal de la Blache and Vallaux. In 1923 Karl Haushofer founded the "Zeitschrift für Geopolitik" (magazine for geopolitics), which developed as a propaganda organ for Nazi-Germany.
In the abstract, geopolitics traditionally indicates the links and causal relationships between political power and geographic space; in concrete terms it is often seen as a body of thought assaying specific strategic prescriptions based on the relative importance of land power and sea power in world history. . . . The geopolitical tradition had some consistent concerns, like the geopolitical correlates of power in world politics, the identification of international core areas, and the relationships between naval and terrestrial capabilities.—Oyvind Osterud, The Uses and Abuses of Geopolitics, Journal of Peace Research , no. 2, 1988, p. 191
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