to Alternative Reader Index
war in Iraq has reconfigured the global geopolitical landscape in many ways,
some of which may not be apparent for years or even decades to come. It has
certainly altered the U.S. relationship with Europe and the Middle East. But its
impact goes well beyond this. More than anything else, the war reveals that the
new central pivot of world competition is the south-central area of Eurasia.
term “geopolitics” seems at first to come from another era, from the late
nineteenth century. By geopolitics or geopolitical competition, I mean the
contention between great powers and aspiring great powers for control over
territory, resources, and important geographical positions, such as ports and
harbors, canals, river systems, oases, and other sources of wealth and
influence. If you look back, you will find that this kind of contestation has
been the driving force in world politics and especially world conflict in much
of the past few centuries.
as a mode of analysis, was very popular from the late nineteenth century into
the early part of the twentieth century. If you studied then what academics now
call international relations, you would have been studying geopolitics.
died out as a self-conscious mode of analysis in the Cold War period, partly due
to echoes of the universally abhorred Hitlerite ideology of lebensraum,
but also because there were a lot of parallels between classical geopolitical
thinking (which came out of a conservative wing of academia) and Marxist and
Leninist thinking, which clashed with the ideological pretensions of Cold War
scholars. So it is not a form of analysis that you see taught, for the most
part, in U.S. universities today.
was also an ideology in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—a
self-conscious set of beliefs on which elites and leaders of the great powers
acted. It was the thinking behind the imperialism of that period, the logic for
the acquisition of colonies with specific geographical locations. The incidents
leading up to the First World War came out of this mode of thinking, such as the
1898 Fashoda incident over the headwaters of the Nile River that gave rise to a
near conflict between Third Republic France and late Victorian Britain.
the case of the United States, it became the dominant mode of thinking at the
time of Teddy Roosevelt and led very self-consciously to the decision by
Roosevelt and his cabal of associates to turn the United States into an empire.
This was a conscious project. It was not an accident. The Spanish-American War
was an intentional device by which the United States acquired an empire. The
Spanish-American War and the occupation of the Philippines were followed quickly
by the seizure of Panama, openly justified by geopolitical ideology. To see just
how self-conscious this process was, I recommend Warren Zimmermann’s First
Great Triumph (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002). The parallels to
the current moment are striking.
ideology was later appropriated by Hitler and Mussolini and by the Japanese
militarists to explain and to justify their expansionist behavior. And it was
this expansionist behavior—which threatened the geopolitical interest of the
opposing powers—that led to the Second World War, not the internal politics of
Germany, Italy, or Japan.
ideology disappeared to some degree during the Cold War in favor of a model of
ideological competition. That is to say, geopolitical ideology appeared
inconsistent with the high-minded justifications (in which “democracy” and
“freedom” largely figured) given for interventions in the third world.
really, if you study the history of the Cold War, the overt conflicts that took
place were consciously framed by a geopolitical orientation from the American
point of view. The United States had to control the Middle East and its oil.
That was the basis of the Truman Doctrine and the Eisenhower Doctrine and the
Carter Doctrine. The United States had to control parts of Africa because of its
mineral wealth in copper, cobalt, and platinum. That’s why the United States
backed the apartheid regime in South Africa. And the reason for both the Korean
War and the Vietnam War was understood at the highest levels in terms of the
U.S. interest in control of the Pacific Rim.
we are seeing a resurgence of unabashed geopolitical ideology among the
leadership cadres of the major powers, above all in the United States. In fact,
the best way to see what’s happening today in Iraq and elsewhere is through a
geopolitical prism. American leaders have embarked on the classical geopolitical
project of assuring U.S. dominance of the most important resource areas,
understood as the sources of power and wealth. There is an ideological
consistency to what they’re doing, and it is this geopolitical mode of
there is some question as to exactly how conscious this is, but you can see this
way of thinking in the overt discourse of many contemporary leaders. Dick Cheney
and some prominent neoconservatives especially, but also Democrats such as
Zbigniew Brzezinski, speak in this manner. They openly state that the United
States is engaged in a struggle to maintain its power vis-à-vis other
contending great powers and that America must prevail.
you might ask, what contending great powers? From our point of view it is far
from obvious that any exist. But if you read what these folks write and hear
what they say, you will find that they are absolutely obsessed by the potential
emergence of rival great powers; Russia, China, a European combination of some
sort, Japan, and even India.
is the essence of the Wolfowitz Doctrine, first articulated in the Pentagon’s Defense
Planning Guidance document for 1994–1999, first leaked to the press in
February 1992. This document calls for proactive U.S. military intervention to
deter and prevent the rise of a contending peer (or equal) competitor, and
asserts that the United States must use any and all means necessary to prevent
that from happening. At the time this statement was met with such howls of
outrage from U.S. allies that then President Bush had to squelch the document,
and it was revised to take out this language.
this doctrine lingered in the think-tank writings of the 1990s, re-emerging as
the official global military policy of the Bush II administration. It has now
been incorporated as the core principle of the document known as the National
Security Strategy of the United States of America (September 2002),
available for download from the White House website. This document states
explicitly that the ultimate purpose of American power is to prevent the rise of
a competing great power, and that the United States shall use any means
necessary to prevent that from happening, including preventive military force
when needed, but also through spending so much money on defense that no other
peer competitor can ever arise.
this background, it can hardly be questioned that the purpose of the war in Iraq
is to redraw the geopolitical map of Eurasia so as to insure and embed American
power and dominance in this region vis-E0-vis these other potential competitors.
let us step back for a minute and return to the classical geo-political thinking
of the early part of the last century, particularly the views of Sir Halford
Mackinder of Great Britain. This perspective held that Eurasia was the most
important part—the “heartland” of the civilized world, and that whoever
controlled this heartland by definition controlled the rest of the world because
of the concentration there of population, resources, and industrial might. In
classical geopolitical thinking, world politics is essentially a struggle over
who will control the Eurasian heartland.
strategists of the turn of the twentieth century saw two ways through which
global dominance could arise. One was through the emergence of a continental
power (or a combination of continental powers) that dominated Eurasia and was,
therefore, the master of the world. It was precisely this fear—that a
German-controlled continental Europe and Russia, together with a
Japanese-dominated China and Southeast Asia, would merge into a vast continental
power and dominate the Eurasian heartland, thereby reducing the United States to
a marginal power—that galvanized American leaders at the onset of the Second
World War. Franklin D. Roosevelt was deeply steeped in this mode of analysis,
and it is this ideological–strategic view that triggered U.S. intervention in
the Second World War.
other approach to global dominance perceived by early twentieth century
geopolitical strategists was to control the “rimlands” of Eurasia—that is,
Western Europe, the Pacific Rim, and the Middle East—and thereby contain any
emerging “heartland” power. After the Second World War, the United States
determined that it would in fact maintain a permanent military presence in all
of the rimlands of Eurasia. This is what we know of as the “containment”
strategy. And it was this outlook that led to the formation of NATO, the
Marshall Plan, SEATO, CENTO, and the U.S. military alliances with Japan and
Taiwan. For most of the time since the Second World War, the focus was on the
eastern and western ends of Eurasia—Europe and the Far East.
is happening now, I believe, is that U.S. elites have concluded that the
European and East Asian rimlands of Eurasia are securely in American hands or
less important, or both. The new center of geopolitical competition, as they see
it, is South-Central Eurasia, encompassing the Persian Gulf area, which
possesses two-thirds of the world’s oil, the Caspian Sea basin, which has a
large chunk of what’s left, and the surrounding countries of Central Asia.
This is the new center of world struggle and conflict, and the Bush
administration is determined that the United States shall dominate and control
this critical area.
now, the contested rimlands of Eurasia were the base of U.S. power, while in the
south-central region there was but a very modest presence of U.S. forces. Since
the end of the Cold War, however, the primary U.S. military realignment has
entailed the drawdown of American forces in East Asia and Europe along with the
buildup of forces in the south-central region. U.S. bases in Europe are being
closed, while new military bases are being established in the Persian Gulf area
and in Central Asia.
is important to note that this is a process that began before 9/11.
September 11 quickened the process and gave it a popular mandate, but this was
entirely serendipitous from the point of view of U.S. strategists. It was
President Clinton who initiated U.S. military ties with Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan,
Georgia, and Azerbaijan, and who built up the U.S. capacity to intervene in the
Persian Gulf / Caspian Sea area. The U.S. victory in Iraq was not a victory of
Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld; it was Clinton’s work that made this victory possible.
war against Iraq was intended to provide the United States with a dominant
position in the Persian Gulf region, and to serve as a springboard for further
conquests and assertion of power in the region. It was aimed as much, if not
more, at China, Russia, and Europe as at Syria or Iran. It is part of a larger
process of asserting dominant U.S. power in south-central Eurasia, in the very
heartland of this mega-continent.
why specifically the Persian Gulf/Caspian Sea area, and why now? In part, this
is so because this is where most of the world’s remaining oil is
located—approximately 70 percent of known petroleum reserves. And you have to
think of oil not just as a source of fuel—although that’s very
important—but as a source of power. As U.S. strategists see it, whoever
controls Persian Gulf oil controls the world’s economy and, therefore, has the
ultimate lever over all competing powers.
September 1990, then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney told the Senate Armed
Services Committee that Saddam Hussein would acquire a “stranglehold” over
the U.S. and world economy if he captured Saudi Arabia’s oilfields along with
those of Kuwait. This was the main reason, he testified, why the United States
must send troops to the area and repel Hussein’s forces. He used much the same
language in a speech last August to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. I believe that
in his mind it is clear that the United States must retain a stranglehold on the
world economy by controlling this area. This is just as important, in the
administration’s view, as retaining America’s advantage in military
years from now, China is expected to be totally dependent on the Persian Gulf
and the Caspian Sea area for the oil it will need to sustain its economic
growth. Europe, Japan, and South Korea will be in much the same position.
Control over the oil spigot may be a somewhat cartoonish image, but it is an
image that has motivated U.S. policy since the end of the Cold War and has
gained even more prominence in the Bush-Cheney administration.
region is also the only area in the world where the interests of the
putative great powers collide. In the hotly-contested Caspian Sea area, Russia
is an expanding power, China is an expanding power, and the United States is an
expanding power. There is no other place in the world like this. They are
struggling with one another consciously and actively. The Bush administration is
determined to dominate this area and to subordinate these two potential
challengers and prevent them from forming a common front against the United
States. (For more on the emerging power struggle in the Caspian Sea basin, see
my Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict [Henry
then are the implications of this great realignment of U.S. geo-political
strategy made possible by the Cold War defeat of the Soviet Union?
is obviously much too early to draw any definitive conclusions on this, but some
things can be said. First, Iraq is just the beginning of a U.S. drive into this
area. We will see further extensions and expressions of U.S. power in the
region. This will provoke resistance and self-conscious opposition to the United
States by insurgent groups and regimes. But the United States will also become
enmeshed in local conflicts that arose long before America’s involvement in
the region. For example, the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and that
between Abkhazia and Georgia—both of which have a long history—will come to
impact on U.S. security as the United States becomes dependent on a
newly-constructed trans-Caucasian oil pipeline. The Chechen and Afghani wars
continue and bracket the region. In all such disputes there is a likelihood of
indirect or direct, covert or overt intervention by the United States and the
other contending powers.
are at the beginning, I believe, of a new Cold War in south-central Eurasia,
with many possibilities for crises and flare-ups, because nowhere else in the
world are Russia and China directly involved and supporting groups and regimes
that are opposed to the United States. Even during the height of the Cold War,
there wasn’t anything quite comparable to this. American troops will be there
for a long time, with a high risk of violent engagement and the potential for
great human suffering. It appears, then, that the U.S. and international peace
movement will have a lot of work ahead!
Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire
College in Amherst, Massachusetts, and the author, most recently, of Resource
Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict (Henry Holt/Metropolitan, 2001).
want to know what you think of this article.