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The Costly Return of Geopolitics

Geopolitics, which originated during the run-up to World War I, represents an inherently pessimistic view of international relations as a perpetual power struggle. But as the world’s military and policy establishments prepare for prolonged conflict, we must resist the allure of the zero-sum mindset.

LONDON – One of the regrettable consequences of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was the advent of the pseudoscience known as geopolitics. Drawing inspiration from Darwin’s concepts of “natural selection” and “survival of the fittest,” the progenitors of geopolitics argued that all of history was shaped by a competitive “struggle of nations.” This approach, which stood in stark contrast to the harmonious view of international relations championed by Enlightenment thinkers and classical economists, viewed all countries as potential predators, with the most successful ultimately subduing the rest.

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, leading Western universities created geopolitics departments with the goal of educating future leaders in this emerging “science.” German thinkers like Karl Haushofer, eager to establish Germany’s claim to a “place in the sun,” were enthusiastic advocates. But geopolitics also captivated British intellectuals like Halford Mackinder, who sought to preserve Britain’s naval supremacy. In his 1904 essay “The Geographical Pivot of History,” Mackinder famously asserted: “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; who rules the World-Island commands the world.” The ambition to challenge the United Kingdom later drove Germany to initiate two world wars to wrest control of the Eurasian heartland from Russia.

As the British Empire began to decline, geopolitics found a new home in the United States. But while thinkers like Mackinder focused on the Eurasian heartland, the political scientist Nicholas Spykman highlighted the centrality of the rimland, which encompassed all the coastal regions in Western Europe, the Middle East, and the East Pacific that surrounded it. In 1944, Spykman revised Mackinder’s dictum, stating: “Who controls the rimland rules Eurasia; who rules Eurasia controls the destinies of the world.” With this in mind, the US set out to control the Eurasian rimland.

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