Wednesday, April 18, 2012

America: The Price of Supremacy

A complex and self-justifying mythology has grown up around the process by which, during and after the Second World War, the United States made the transition from regional power to global empire. That sort of thing is common enough that it probably belongs on the short list of imperial obsessions—Rome had its imperial myth, as did Spain, Britain, and just about any other empire you care to think of—but the American version of it deserves close attention, because it obscures factors that need to be understood as the American empire hurtles down the curve of its decline.

The mythology runs more or less like this: in the aftermath of the First World War, America withdrew from the international responsibilities it had briefly taken up during that war, refusing to join the League of Nations and distancing itself from global politics. In the vacuum thus formed, the coming of the Great Depression sent the conflicts that drove the world to war in 1914 spinning out of control again. As Japan invaded China and Germany prepared for war, the United States faced a sharp political conflict between isolationists, who more or less wanted to build a wall around the country and shut the rest of the world out, and those who recognized America’s responsibility to the rest of the world. That struggle only came to an end with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; thereafter the American people united to win the war. Once it was won, in turn, they refused to repeat the mistake of 1919, and took up the burden of global leadership that America retains to this day.

Thus the mythology. The reality was considerably more complex.

To begin with, the conflict between isolationists and internationalists was far less simple than the myth proposes. The isolationist Republican administrations of the 1920s saw no conflict at all between their rejection of the League of Nations and their enthusiastic use of the US Marines to impose puppet regimes and keep the wealth pump running at full roar all through Central America and the Caribbean. The isolation that the isolationists sought was simply a matter of distancing the US from the lethal quarrels of the Old World. Behind their policies stood a vision of the shape of global politics in the post-British era—a vision that divided the world into separate spheres of influence, each under the control of a major power. Latin America, according to this scheme, was the natural prey of the United States, and that’s where the isolationists focused their attention in the years between the wars. They weren’t the only influential group with that idea; the Japanese government, with its dream of a Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere that would subject east Asia to Japan’s wealth pump, were tracing out exactly such a sphere of influence.

The internationalists, by contrast, were Anglophiles rather than Anglophobes, and they also liked to imagine the American future on a larger scale, one in which Central American banana republics were hardly worth noticing. The dream of a global empire formed by a future US-British union had never really lost its hold in Anglophile circles, while others less enamored of Britain but no less ambitious had begun to imagine a future in which the United States would be the dominant force, Britain a favored but subordinate partner, and the entire planet would feed into the American wealth pump. Their vision of the post-British world was guided by a field of study you rarely hear discussed these days, the science or pseudoscience of geopolitics, which argued that the distribution of land masses, oceans, and resources could be read as a blueprint for a world empire.

You’ll have to look hard to find information on geopolitics today, unless you have the unusual luck to live near a university library that doesn’t follow the currently fashionable practice of purging its stacks of books tht contain insufficiently modern ideas. If you can find books on the subject, though, it’s worth doing, for much the same reason that rereading Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power on History is worth doing. In both cases, whether the theories are valid is a minor issue at best; what makes them important is that influential people believed them, and acted on them. In the case of geopolitics, American foreign policy from Pearl Harbor right up to the present is a good deal easier to understand if you grasp the basics of geopolitics.

In the writings of Halford Mackinder and Karl Haushofer, the two most influential geopoliticians of the first half of the twentieth century, the world can be imagined as a giant bull’s-eye, with a central zone surrounded by three (or, rather, two and a half) bands. The central zone is the Heartland or Pivot Area, and includes most of Eurasia from the eastern European plain straight across to the valley of the Lena River in eastern Siberia. Surrounding this on three sides is the Marginal Crescent, which extends from central Europe across Turley and the Middle East to India, China, and far eastern Siberia. Next are the Outer Crescents—this is the half a band—which consists of the islands and peninsulas around the fringes of Eurasia, one extending from Iceland through Britain to western Europe, the other from Japan through the islands and peninsulas of southeast and southern Asia. Furthest out, separated from the rest by oceans or the Sahara Desert, is the Insular Crescent, which consists of both Americas, Africa south of the Sahara, and Australasia.

The geopoliticians argued that this scheme showed the structure of the coming world empire. In the past, they pointed out, the major wars of the modern Western world had pitted a maritime power in the western Outer Crescent against a land power in the western part of the Marginal Crescent, with the land power gradually shifting east: first France, then Germany. So far, the maritime power (Spain, then Britain) was able to draw on the resources of the Insular Crescent to contain and defeat the land power. As the basis of the land power shifts further east into the Pivot Area, though, access to the resources of continental Eurasia—not to mention access to invasion routes giving access to the rich lands of the Marginal Crescent—would more than make up for the resources available to the maritime power, and allow the land power to become a universal empire. Mackinder put it this way in 1904: “The oversetting of the balance of power in favor of the pivot state, resulting in its expansion over the marginal lands of Euro-Asia would permit of the use of vast continental resources for fleet-building, and the empire of the world would then be in sight.”

Domination of the Pivot Area, in turn, depends on control of the eastern European plain, and this inspired a thesis of Mackinder’s that received a great deal of attention back in the day: “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; who rules the World-Island commands the world.” Mackinder was warning a British audience about the risk that a German empire that managed to seize control of Russia could supplant Britain’s global dominion; Haushofer, writing a couple of decades later, took Mackinder’s fears as a working plan for German world domination. Neither geopolitician seems to have considered the possibility that the Heartland might have imperial designs of its own, or that the insular crescent might turn out to be a far more secure base for the next great maritime power than a small island perched uncomfortably close to the shores of western Europe. Still, that’s what happened.

It probably bears repeating here that whether geopolitics is valid or not is a secondary question for our present purposes. Geopolitics is important here because its ideas seem to have had a major influence on the leaders who launched America along the final phase of its rise to empire, and still appear to govern the grand strategy of the American empire as it approaches its end. Over the weeks to come, we’ll be exploring the geopolitical side of American imperial strategy in a variety of ways, so a little attention to the paragraphs above may be useful. For now, though, what’s important is that the internationalists in American politics between the world wars saw geopolitics as a blueprint for world power,and wanted the structure raised on that blueprint to have “Made in America” written on it. That was a minority view in the 1920s, but it had wealthy and influential backers, who were well positioned to act when circumstances began to shift their way.

The first of these shifts was the Great Depression or, more precisely, the feckless response of both American mainstream political parties to the economic collapse that followed the 1929 stock market crash. In the crucial first years after the crash, Democrats and Republicans alike embraced exactly the same policies they are embracing in today’s economic troubles, with exactly the same lack of success, and showed exactly the same unwillingness to abandon failed policies in the face of economic disaster. Then as now, the federal government launched a program to bail out big banks and corporations—it was called the Reconstruction Finance Corporation in those days—and pumped dizzying amounts of money into the upper end of the economy in the belief, real or feigned, that the money would work its way down the pyramid, which of course it didn’t do. Then as now, politicians used the shibboleth of a balanced budget to demand austerity for everybody but the rich, and cut exactly those programs which could have helped families caught by hard times. Then as now, things got worse while the media insisted that they were getting better, and the mounting evidence that policies weren’t working was treated as proof that the same policies had to be pursued even more forcefully.

In many countries, this sort of thinking drove the collapse of democratic governments and the rise of dictators who won absolute power by doing what everyone outside the political establishment knew had to be done. In the United States, that didn’t quite happen. What happened instead was that a faction of dissident Democrats and former Republicans managed to seize control of the Democratic party, which hadn’t won a presidential race since 1916, and put Franklin D. Roosevelt into office in 1932. Roosevelt, like the dictators, was willing to do what the masses demanded: use public funds to provide jobs for the jobless, keep families from losing their homes to foreclosure, and reinvest in the nation’s dilapidated infrastructure. It didn’t end the Depression—that had deeper and largely intractable causes, which we’ll discuss later—but it was successful enough that Roosevelt won reelection in 1936 in one of the greatest landslides in American political history.

What made Roosevelt’s ascendancy crucial was that he was a passionate internationalist, and as Europe moved toward war, he and his administration did everything in its power to get America involved. That move faced fierce opposition, and not only among isolationists; a great many Americans believed at the time, and not without reason, that the United States had received essentially nothing in exchange for saving Britain and France in the First World War—neither of the latter two countries, for example, had ever gotten around to paying off their war debts to the US. All through 1940 and 1941, as a result, the Roosevelt adminstration played a high-stakes game of chicken with Germany and Japan, trying to lure one or both nations into a declaration of war or an attack on American interests drastic enough to give him the political momentum to counter the isolationists and launch a second American rescue of England. In the meantime, the US poured money, supplies and arms into the faltering British war effort, stopping just short of active involvement in the fighting until war finally came.

After Pearl Harbor, despite the myth, isolationism didn’t simply go away. Saturation propaganda and the arrest and trial of antiwar activists on a variety of charges, most famously the Great Sedition Trial of 1944, was needed to break the back of the peace movement in the US. Then much the same thing had to be done again on a bigger scale, via a series of Red scares, after Germany and Japan were defeated and the two Allied powers that mattered, the United States and the Soviet Union, started quarreling over the spoils. Still, the internationalists had won once the Soviet Union turned out to be America’s last remaining rival, because the isolationists—who were by and large old-fashioned conservatives—loathed Marxism even more than they loathed the thought of US involvement in Old World quarrels. The Republican Party, which had gone from the party of empire in the 1890s to the party of isolation in opposition to Wilson, proceeded to reinvent itself yet again as more international than the internationalists when it came to opposing “godless Russia.” Meanwhile the occupation forces in Germany and Japan, not to mention those in Britain and a good many of its former colonies, settled down for a long stay.

The official strategy of the US and its allies, as they consolidated their hold on half the world and looked out uneasily across the borders with the half controlled by Russia and its allies, was described by George F. Kennan in a famous 1947 essay as “containment.” What that meant in practice was that the United States established a massive military presence in both eastern and western Outer Crescents, while trying to pry loose Soviet allies and gain influence over neutral nations in the Marginal Crescent, and keeping the Insular Crescent under the control (and subject to the wealth pumps) of the US and its allies; Salvador Allende and Patrice Lumumba, among many others, paid the price of this latter policy.

Like every imperial system, this one has had its ups and downs. It avoided Britain’s successful but costly policy of bringing large regions under direct political control, preferring instead to install compliant local rulers who would keep the wealth pump running in exchange for a small share of the take. It faltered in the 1970s as America’s other empire, the empire of time that paid tribute by way of oil wells, reached its peak production and tipped into permanent decline, and then gambled everything in the next decade on a daring strategy of economic warfare. That gamble paid off spectacularly, wrecking the Soviet Union and fueling the 1990s boom by feeding the nations of eastern Europe into the business end of America’s wealth pump, stripping half a dozen nations to the bare walls under the euphemisms of economic reform and a market economy. For a few years it looked as though Russia itself might be fed into the wealth pump in the same way, before an efficient counterstroke by the Putin administration pulled that prize out of American hands. Meanwhile the rise of China hinted that Mackinder’s thesis might turn out to be overly Eurocentric, and the north China plain might prove to be just as effective a springboard to the resources of the Heartland as the eastern European plain.

Through all this, the basic structure of American empire has remained essentially the same as it was at the end of the Second World War: a global military presence positioned according to the concepts of geopolitics, whether these are relevant or not; a global political system run by local elites propped up by American aid and, when necessary, military force, tasked with keeping the wealth pump going but left mostly to its own devices otherwise; a global economic system that was designed to suck wealth out of the rest of the world and channel it into the United States, but has sprung large and growing leaks in various places and increasingly fails to do its job; and a domestic political system in which a fantastically bloated executive branch headed by an imperial presidency keeps the forms of constitutional government in place, while arrogating to itself most of the functions originally exercised by Congress, and most of the rights originally left to the states and the people. That’s where we are today—in the aging, increasingly brittle, effectively bankrupt, but still immensely powerful global empire of the United States of America.

That’s the empire that is sinking into its twilight as I write these words, and that faces dismemberment and dissolution in the decades ahead. The global supremacy Theodore Roosevelt dreamed of achieving has become a reality, and now the price of that supremacy has to be paid. We’ll begin talking about that next week.

End of the World of the Week #18

Nostradamus, whose inaccurate prediction of a “Great King of Terror” in the skies in July 1999 was the subject of last week’s End of the World of the Week, had another wowser to his credit. The first printed edition of his quatrains, which appeared in 1555, included a preface by the author which you won’t find repeated in the many later versions of his work. That’s because he announced that by the year 1732, Europe would be so completely depopulated by floods, alongside a variety of other catastrophes, that much of its farmland would remain untilled for centuries after that time. Two for two...

—story from Apocalypse Not


Sima said...

Dear JMG,
As a regular reader and long-time China resident with roots in the UK, I'm both thoroughly enjoying this sequence of posts and a little on-edge about where you're heading.

I don't suppose the following link will offer you many surprises, but might none the less be one to add to your scrapbook.

Joel Caris said...

Huh. While I've certainly heard the term geopolitics, I never knew it as the theory you described. I'm going to have to study up on it a bit, especially if it continues to be important in future posts.

This last week, I began to read John Sayles's new book, A Moment in the Sun. It's fiction, about a thousand pages set in 1897 and following a wide variety of characters in an effort to map out many of the events happening at that time. So it's up in the Yukon for the gold rush, features the USS Maine explosing and the building propaganda campaign against Spain, follows a Filipino joining the rebellion against Spain, and a myriad other number of characters. I'm only about 150 pages in so far, but I'm really enjoying it and it's providing me some inspiration to track down a nonfiction title or two on that period in the U.S. and the Spanish-American War. That fits well with your advice to me a few weeks back to read specific case studies rather than broad, general histories.

Greatly looking forward to next week's post and your thoughts on the crumbling of our empire. Should be fascinating.

Of The Hands

Rennaissance Man said...

Thank you. I learned something about geo-politics I didn't know before.
The way you phrase The Myth sounds a lot like Kipling's sarcastic poem "The White Man's Burden." America has always described itself, during my lifetime, as the World's Policeman and a lot of Americans I've spoken to over the years get very upset at the apparent ingratitude that the 'rest of the world' doesn't appear to appreciate the noble sacrifice of this great burden.
I note the Latin American Wealth Pump just laid a smack in the face last week to the U.S. & Canada over Cuba.
I suppose all Myths gloss over small, but telling, details (i.e. Sep 1941 - U.S. destroyers escort convoys as far as iceland; 18 Oct 1941 - U.S.S. Kearney is torpedoed. 11 dead. In November, as the battle for Stalingrad took shape, Goebbels made a speech saying "America has already declared war." Lend-lease made U.S. support for Britain about as overt as possible, short of a formal declaration.). Hence the "conspiracy" debates over Pearl Harbour &c.
"... before an efficient counterstroke by the Putin administration..."
10 May 2006 - Putin announces the creation of an oil bourse for the purchase of Russian oil in Rubles. 12 May (right on schedule) Time, Newseek, & MacLeans magazines all carry stories of Russian atrocities in Azerbaijan. Putin portrayed as one-step shy of the Devil incarnate.

DeAnander said...

In Murder, Suicide, and Financial Ruin, Mark Ames describes how things look at the intake end of a wealth pump (predatory lending), and the desperate and often violent responses of the USian victims. Frankly I don't buy his shifting of the blame for l'affaire Bales in Afghanistan onto the banksters (other than, of course, for their part in instigating and investing in wars in general); "poor pitiful Sergeant Bales" is not a tune I'm going to be humming along with anytime soon. But, nonetheless, the impunity with which the banksters have been misleading and defrauding the (largely innumerate and often functionally illiterate) public is pretty colonial in flavour, innit: extract the wealth and pump it back to head office. The imperial wealth pump turning on the empire's own citizens, including its own "valiant" soldiery... if indeed the working folk are considered real citizens any more by the "real people" (bizmen) who run the place.

It's interesting and a little scary how violence -- especially with guns -- is such an immediate and natural response among N Americans. In these stories they don't end up shooting banksters though -- they seem to end up shooting family members, themselves, random bystanders, and the cops (some of whom may also be struggling with bad mortgages and foreclosure and the like) -- thus once again proving that horizontal hostility is a great safety feature for aristocrats...

These tales seem to illustrate somehow the crumbling of an empire: lawlessness and greed running riot, massive corruption, the victims responding with futile, individual acts of rage. Colonial power relations spreading closer to the core with each passing year.

Reading collected essays by Wes Jackson recently and ran across another wealth pump reference: Because power gains so little from community in the short run, it does not hesitate to destroy community for the long run. The malls at the edge of town are a perfect example. We forget why they were built. Their designers did not say "Let's make them ugly, wasteful, and devoted to consumerism." They turned out a design to export wealth *away* to their stockholders, most of whom reside in distant cities. Malls are suction pipes, designed to export regional wealth.

I'm glad that my Dad drummed it into my head early and often that being in debt was a Baaaaad Thing. It wasn't really my vast financial smarts (I don't got none) that kept me personally out of the claws of the predatory lenders -- it was a near-superstitious persistence of that early childhood programming. Sometimes parental brainwashing does come in handy later in life :-) sorry to digress, but the theme of empire as wealth pump -- internal, external -- seems inescapable as the catabolic collapse continues and the empire eats its figurative young.

Another wealth pump story here about the race-to-the-bottom in wages and working conditions in N Am internet commerce.

Thijs Goverde said...

I love how you come up with these quaint, antiquated and mostly counterfactual books that somehow helped shape human history. I wonder what, in a century or so, will be the by-then-almost-forgotten, quaint and mostly counterfactual book that can be seen, by the very perceptive, to have shaped what will then be human history.

I can't help thinking it will be Huntingtons Clash of Civilisations.

And then I can't help thinking of Breivik.

And then I want to hide under my bed, which I will not do, because I am
A) quite brave, really,
and B) 250 km removed from my bed at present.
(when I get home tonight an early birthday gift, a gorgeous 400-litre rainbarrel, will be waiting in my garden. Just keep focusing on the the small steps, the little triumphs of the here and now, right?)

xhmko said...

I too had thought of geopolitics as more of a pseudonym for global politics but with an approach similar to the way a general assesses the terrain of the country in order to strategise. One feature of many of the writers that I've read, (most as far I recall being post "gasoline war"),who discuss geopolitics has been their detachment and their focus on the Cold War stalemate.

Their claim was that they viewed history and political ideas supposedly, (and that's a very questionable supposedly) without any bias. Thus they could discuss the assets and populations of nations and whether or not their resources and labour could be acquired without asking whether they should be acquired. While detached observation has its place, I don't think it's always suited to advising public or foreign policy. I found what I did read was more than a little reminiscent of social darwinism, whereby naturally the mega powers should suck the soul out of anything within reach (ie. everything) because its logical to do so and indeed, the natural order of things.

This sort of detached "egocentric utilitarianism", where it only matters how happy it makes the one doing the utilising, always scared me.

A similar frightening detachment can be found when listening to "experts" in interviews discussing politicians and their underhanded tactics. Saying: "If X is to win, then of course they'll have to say Y", as though they were discussing sports plays and not acts that are essentially attempts to hoodwink the population into a war or tax or personal payrise or what not. This way of trivialising deception, I feel is a part of the same phenomenon that lets people feel as though they are seperate from nature, but goes one up by encouraging people to feel comfortable about deceiving others for personal gain and seperated from "the people on TV" who deceive them.

If you have any suggested readings on the topic I'd be most grateful.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

I don't suppose that the concept of geopolitics influenced George Orwell's thinking? It was strange because in reading your essay and the references to geopolitics, I kept thinking about 1984.



Phil Knight said...

"It avoided Britain’s successful but costly policy of bringing large regions under direct political control, preferring instead to install compliant local rulers who would keep the wealth pump running in exchange for a small share of the take."

I think the invention of the AK-47 has made old-style direct political control impossible.

Mister Roboto said...

When I read the section of this post describing geopolitics, I couldn't help but think of George Orwell and his vision of a world divided between Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia, as well as a core of "disputed territories" which would constantly change hands between the dominant powers. The only thing that seemed to be missing was Big Brother and the Party!

jphilip said...

I wouldn't say that Roosevelt was pro American involvement in WW2, his cabinet/administration yes but FDR himself no. I have heard history programs where it was said that Roosevelt was a majority of 1 to keep America out of the war during 40-41. As well as statements that he considered the British Empire to be the greatest threat. As for providing military aid the British provided huge technological secrets and did pay for it. (and it could be viewed as a way of bleeding the British Empire)

My opinion of FDR is that had he still been in charge at the end of the war the cold war would never have happened. There would still be an American empire but it would be less military in character.

The cold war was kicked off by the British, Churchill/Stalin dividing up eastern europe and later providing the Russians with Jet engines to keep them in the race. And then taken up by US industrialists making military toys.

But at that time, it is all very complex to work out peoples motivations as everything was in flux.

Don Plummer said...

I like your comment about the imperial presidency. Recently a friend who intensely dislikes the current president commented to me about how he thinks he is above the law and wants to be a dictator. My immediate reaction was, haven't all recent presidents thought that and wanted to be that?

phil harris said...

ennally JMG
Good to be reminded of the origins of geopolitical theories. I have bandied the word around myself, only vaguely knowing of the kind of discussions going on among the powerful influential 'backers'. (Thanks also to Sima for the link that illustrates further the point that some people still think naval power is an ongoing factor in who's going to be 'up' and who's going 'down'.)

Glad you called it a 'quasi science'. Do we still need perhaps to keep our distance from the American Century people or even the bizarre End of History man, or are they now relegated old-hat? In the very old days that old cornucopian Herman Kahn always did look a bit barmy to some of us. He told us Limits to Growth was nonsense. Quaint, looking back, but horribly influential. These later 'geopoliticists' like to claim the real world as their territory. Dangerous stuff or confidence trick and counter-trick?

Steve said...

This series just gets better and better. Thanks for the lesson in what "geopolitics" has actually referred to for decades. I've heard it tossed around by foreign policy wonks, but I've never known that it referred to a specific theory of world power. If it's as central to the upcoming posts as you suggest, it's got to be worth at least studying a map or two and re-reading your summary with visual aids.

On the price to be paid for supremacy, I'm quite curious how that will shape up in your essays. I think that it's pretty clear socioeconomically what's in store on the stairsteps down, but I'm really interested to understand your thoughts on the contraction of the enormous military presence that the US maintains around the world as the bankruptcy begins to bite. I overheard a story in a bar once told by a man who'd served at a US base in Europe during a period of high inflation in the US. He found over time that his paycheck didn't go quite as far on leave as it used to. No doubt the experience of the military itself is beginning to seem like that - those supply contracts are getting pricier and pricier, and it's not clear how long the pentagon budget can keep pace if indeed it still is.

Jim Brewster said...

Great post, and I look forward to further analysis of the causes of the Great Depression. It is a topic that gets a lot of hot air in the political and economic spheres and could use some rational sorting out.

I've been using the term "geopolitics" in a more generic sense than what you present here. It seems very useful to apply geographic, historic, cultural, and economic aspects to political thought, so what would be a preferable term that doesn't include all the Eurocentric baggage?

DeAnander said...

The cold war was kicked off by the British, Churchill/Stalin dividing up eastern europe and later providing the Russians with Jet engines to keep them in the race. And then taken up by US industrialists making military toys.

Too true. There's a worthwhile book... Harry S Truman and the War Scare of 1948, by Kofsky. It's dry and tedious reading despite fairly sensational content... pretty solid documentary evidence of political machination by the aircraft industry (especially Boeing, iirc) to hype up the "Soviet Threat" so as to justify the continuing production of military aircraft at high prices. Same old crony capitalism, same old payola and secret meetings and so on. But at a pivotal moment and with huge impacts still felt today (how about those F35s then eh).

Speaking of war toys: I was told a story recently about the Canadian fighter jet "Arrow" which was "mysteriously" cancelled (and the prototype and documents actually destroyed!) ... afaict most Canadians of sufficient age to remember any of this think that someone in the US military/political hierarchy made a phone call, because the Canadian-designed and -built jet was too competitive with American models. Who knows, but it wouldn't be an unusual outcome for a colony (like Canada) lurching from British to American possession.

What's kind of depressing is that despite the existence of books like Kofsky's (and zillions of other investigative reports) people wilfully go on believing the same old BS. Which I guess tells us that thaumaturgy trumps fact every time. Which I guess tells us that as a species, we are not doing so well.

Nano said...

Would it be safe to assume then that the future role of the US when speaking of China, will be similar to the current arrangement between us and the UK?

Peak oil or not, I don't doubt "we" would use all military leverage to our advantage. Including Nukes, the Chinese surely know this. What also of the current change of power in China.

Scenario Earth politics is truly non-simultaneously comprehended.

In the end, I don't think I will see the worst of it, but my children will and that scares the shit out of me.

Kieran O'Neill said...

For those more visual than verbal, I found this copy of Mackinder's original map extremely useful for getting a mental picture of the Heartland theory.

(It's in the public domain, the copyright having expired. JMG, you could actually use it both on this blog and in any future published book if you wanted.)

I ween. said...

Great series. Thanks for taking the time to lay it all out bare as a newborn babe.

I look forward to reading how you see it playing out. From my perspective, Americans are blinded to the fact that they reside in the central power of an empire to such a degree that orderly withdrawal from it seems near impossible. The British were able to withdraw somewhat orderly due to its citizenry knowing full well that they were an empire.

Democracy and empire can never coexist.

escapefromwisconsin said...

This was probably more appropriate for a few posts ago, but it just came to light:

Britain destroyed records of colonial crimes Review finds thousands of papers detailing shameful acts were culled, while others were kept secret illegally (The Guardian)

John Michael Greer said...

Sima, the Chinese are following Mahan's playbook to the letter, and doing an extremely efficient job of it. (That's one of the reasons I brought up Mahan in an earlier post.) More on this as we proceed.

Joel, I'll have to look that one up -- it sounds interesting.

Rennaissance, got it in one.

DeAnander, that's one of the downsides of the wealth pump -- once it gets going, it's very hard to turn off, even when it starts cannibalizing the imperial nation and the infrastructure of empire.

Thijs, there's always a flurry of thinkers like Huntington trying to catch the imagination of the rich and influential. Sometimes, like Mahan and the geopoliticians, they succeed in a big way; sometimes, like Francis Fukuyama proclaiming George HW Bush as Hegel's welthistorische Individuum, they get their fifteen minutes of fame and then nobody cares. I'm hoping that Huntington becomes one of the latter.

Xhmko, a list of recommended readings on geopolitics in the older sense of the world isn't too useful, since they're all long out of print and hard to get outside of a good library. Look up the word in your local university library's catalog and see what you find.

Cherokee, that's a fascinating idea! I hadn't considered it, but you may well be right; geopolitics was well known while Orwell was writing, and may well underlie his future history.

Phil, not at all. You'll notice that it hasn't stopped China from maintaining control of Tibet, for example.

Mister R, that makes two of you who caught that. Many thanks -- that'll make a nice detail for the book these posts will become.

Richard Larson said...

I clearly remember a week of political news highlighting President Bush speaking to Congress closely followed by Putin speaking to the UN (methinks).

I was amazed at Putin's speaking ability in comparison to our President barely being able to read from a teleprompter.

No doubt Russia will gain influence over the coming decades as low population, a great amount of resources, and high tech economy may propel its people into increasing affluence. Not being part of the US wealth pump is key! Good point there.

Will be interesting to find out what Russia will do with it's coming international power.

Otherwise, the combination of the US Congress passing the Federal Reserve Act - with its ability to tap America's line of credit - and the power of newly found oil, together, is a terrific topic to discuss.

Sure, I agree some ideas one would otherwise oppose ought to be studied. That is a tough one though.

Was there any recent past US President(s) that weren't busy promoting Empire?

Tony Rasmussen said...

Greetings JMG,

Longtime fan of your weekly lessons, dig what you're saying and the way you say it -- Though this is not directly on the topic of this week's post, more aimed at the last several months' worth, in any case would like to alert you (and your merry band) to this tribute to The Archdruid Report:

A bit cheeky perhaps, but can't help but think that you and at least a few of the gang will find some amusement (plus a few nuggets of truth) in the post and comments. Irreverence is a form of reverence and all that. Anyway thanks for your attention and for fightin the good fight...

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

Thanks, like Mr Roboto, it was the breakup of the continents in the story that set off alarm bells regarding geopolitics.

I suspect that it may take unemployment levels to reach around the 20%+ (which is interestingly enough well above structural unemployment and you can read a lot into that and peoples belief systems about the unemployed!) before the national dialogue changes in a country.

Spain is around 22% - 23% with youth unemployment at around 50% and the government is pursuing an austerity agenda. Like you say, rinse and repeat. A very apt description, although it disturbs me.



Leo said...

do you think the current economic cycle will involve dictators this time around (historical precedent) or will something else happen (due to changes)?
as it is the reinvestment in infrastructure and redistribution of wealth downwards would help but can't save the current system from peak everything (heinberg). but could it help transition?
i assume it depends on what infrastructure they choose to invest in and how much they change the curretn system. i don't think thats likely tho.

phil harris said...

Your advice is well taken. If we are going to study history we should begin with cases, rather than too much generalisation. Get a better take on the myths we live by. I have been prompted to look at the (British) Balfour Declaration from WW1, 1917, and the British Empire’s subsequent dealings in Palestine. We walked away from Palestine when the long-held rationale of empire collapsed after WWII and Britain was broke. Palestine was a sideshow compared with the Indian sub-continent. In my roaming I came across this seemingly well-researched essay by Avi Shlaim
Britain at the time of Balfour was mired in the war in France, but the US had declared war on Germany earlier in April 1917. Dimly, perhaps, it was perceived we were not going to lose everything? The crucial decision on Palestine came 31st October 1917 from a divided British Cabinet. As a Brit I can still well recognise the mix that went into that fateful decision. It is a ‘good read’ in the above essay. The only Jewish member of the cabinet actually opposed the pro-Zionist declaration.
General conclusion? Well, there should not be one, really. Perhaps though, when the tide starts running the decision takers tend to think they still know what is important and make all sorts of often internally contradictory decisions (compromises) to preserve what is believed to be the necessary state of the world. In this case, it was probably in part still strategic thinking about the string of bases that kept the empire together, and partly the geopolitical vision regarding the ‘other powers’, even perhaps having regard to ‘big finance’ and US domestic politics. Ironically, 30 years later, post-WWII, nobody could see any British interest in holding on to the Palestinian mandate. (British military before WWII had broken Arab military capacity in Palestine and the result in 1947 was Israel. Perhaps a diminished only partly functioning empire uses its remaining teeth in fool errands, as Britain did between the wars, having seriously misread geopolitics, economics and the looming future? We just went on being British! Let that be a lesson for you.)
Israel? I would not put my money on anything, one way or another. Fingers crossed.
Thought it was worth sharing.

Brother Kornhoer said...

An interesting opinion piece relating to Chinese empire-building:

Meg said...

Seems someone else has noticed some of the same details as you:

Edward said...

"..stripping half a dozen nations to the bare walls under the euphemisms of economic reform and a market economy.."

So that would be loaning them money so they can buy Coca Cola, Big Macs, Marlboro cigarettes, and Lady Gaga CDs?

hogfanbrad said...

Last week you wrote "Since Britain and France both ended the war with huge debts to banks in the United States, quite a bit of that wealth flowed promptly across the Atlantic, where it helped put the roar into the Roaring Twenties" and this week you wrote "a great many Americans believed at the time, and not without reason, that the United States had received essentially nothing in exchange for saving Britain and France in the First World War—neither of the latter two countries, for example, had ever gotten around to paying off their war debts to the US"; I'm confused. Also, it's interesting that you stated it's basically unheard of for democracies to do the right thing in dire situations (transfer taxpayer money to the taxpayers, instead of to banksters and other members of the filthy rich club), that dictators can only get away with something like that. I've always wondered how FDR was able to do the things he did, seeing as how these days it would be a complete impossibility to do anything remotely like he pulled off in the thirties.

Ceworthe said...

Was in Virginia for Trillium(which you may know of, but probably no one else here;-)in the very peak of the state. Directed friendly energy and a wave in your direction as I went through the part of that area where you go from Virginia>West Virginia> >Maryland(for maybe 5 minutes)and then into PA in the space of maybe 20 miles. Lovely country

DeAnander said...

If memory serves, FDR almost didn't get away with it :-) and remarkably the animus and vindictiveness of the business elite (aka the republican leadership) towards the "class traitor" continued even unto the 21st century: business leaders want to replace FDR with Reagan on the US dime. (This dime thing reminds me of that fascinatingly horrible/hilarious book, The Commissar Vanishes -- about the removal of retroactively-discredited apparatchiks from official Soviet photos -- very early Photoshopping, laboriously and poorly done in the analogue realm!)

It's interesting that while Left analysists see FDR having pulled the teeth of any socialist movement in the US by making calculated concessions to buy off the working classes ["OK, you peasants -- here's some more consumer goods and some basic workplace regulation, but please sit down and shut up about ownership and representation and distribution of wealth"]... but the business elite of the US saw him as a mad Leveller who was stealing their stuff and giving it to those worthless working stiffs. They still haven't forgotten or forgiven, and today they seem to be rolling the calendar back as fast as possible.

Rita said...

The discussion of China's expansion reminded me of an article about China in Tibet. "Tibet Through Chinese Eyes" _The Atlantic Monthly_ Feb. 1999. The author interviewed Chinese working in Tibet and found that most of them felt they were doing necessary work by modernizing a formerly feudal society. From their point of view China is building infrastructure, schools, clinics, etc. and Tibetans should be grateful. An interesting article, especially those who pointed out the parallels with American treatment of the Native Americans.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)


FDR did not have a lot of fixed ideological convictions, and he was not dependent on any single faction to retain his power or to get re-elected. I believe his honeymoon period was longer than usual because Hoover had been widely perceived as a failed President by the end of his term.

The Left had more popular support and better organization than at any time since with the possible exception of the Sixties. In the Thirties, the Socialist and Communist parties of the U.S. had partially recovered from the Red scares of the Teens and Twenties, and the labor movement was pretty vigorous. Left wing organizations and ideas had wide support among the working class, intellectuals and parts of the middle class. FDR was receiving political pressure from the Left as well as the Right, and he responded to pressure.

While more recent Democratic Presidents like Clinton and Obama have appointed a couple of leftists to Cabinet and advisory positions and then ignored their advice, I think FDR actually paid some attention to the lefties in his inner circle, including his wife.

There were probably other factors I'm not aware of.

Kurt Cagle said...

Brother Komhoer,

Not coincidentally, there was a recent article in the NYT (no link) about the fact that India is facing severe power shortages and brownouts. While the Times pointed to India's reluctance to despoil its forests in order to get coal, it is notable that China is likely also exerting its oil distribution channels to reduce the overall oil availability to India. The Great Game is still being played, even if the players themselves have changed.

Glenn said...

Anyone wishing to understand China a bit more might wish to read Owen Lattimore. He underestimated Mao, in the end, which is _part_ of the reason he got into trouble with the McCarthy types in the U.S. But his historical overview of Chinese political evolution is spot on. I'm looking forward about 200 years to when places like Tibet and Mongolia re-assert themselves.

Marrowstone Island

Robert Mathiesen said...

This is a very good summary, I think, with one minor, but very important caveat.

Only about half of the internationalists in US politics before World War II were Anglophiles. The other half admired Germany more than any other European country, and many of them were very much inclined to hate and fear Britain as not only the current imperial power, but also as the United States’ determined adversary from the Revolutionary War down to the Civil War and beyond.

This is what knowledgeable people who lived through those years explained to me more than once in the ‘60s and ‘70s. They were insiders with high-level security clearances in the military-industrial complex (like my father and some of his friends) or who had very close connections to the major intelligence agencies of the era (like a number of senior faculty at Brown University, where I am a professor). I have found their commentary on our history to be reliable in all other respects, so I trust their testimony on this matter also.

If the Anglophiles dreamed of “a global empire formed by a US-British union,” the Germanophiles had a parallel dream of a global empire formed by a union of the United States and Germany. After all, Germany was, in those pre-Nazi days, highly respected everywhere in the US for its scientific, industrial, technological achievements, for its achievements in historical and humanistic scholarship and science, and for its dazzling works of art. Neither Britain nor France commanded anything like the same level of respect throughout the United States at the time. Indeed, the whole enterprise of graduate education almost everywhere in the United States was deliberately formed on the model of German universities, ignoring the rather different model provided by either British or French universities.

In terms, too, of geopolitics, either Germany, Austria or Russia was far better positioned than Great Britain to seize control of the so-called Heartland. Indeed, each of these three nations had already been attempting to do just that for centuries before the outbreak of World War I. Logically, a union of these three powers would be a firm foundation for the next global empire, but—as always in the history of Europe—religious quarrels trumped the logic of imperial power. The ancient animosity between Western (Roman) Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christendom, and the somewhat more recent animosity within the West between the Catholic and the Protestant Churches made it certain that any diplomatic or political union of the three nations as equal partners would always be a fragile thing. It would seem to make sense, therefore, for the United States to ally itself with one of the three, and not with Great Britain; but of the three, Germany (with the center of its power in the Protestant north of the country) was the nation most like the United States in its culture and its political history.

Pearl Harbor, of course, wrecked that American dream of a German-American world empire for the duration of the war; and the post-war revelation of all the Nazi atrocities wrecked it for the foreseeable future. But it was a very narrow thing. Our present empire, with its Anglophile slant, was not the inevitable outcome of the trends that the Archdruid has been tracing. It was a very fortunate accident of history.