Academic historians reject anything smacking of inevitably. Instead they emphasize the contingency of events as manifested through the inherent agency of human beings and the countless decisions they make. On the merits, such scholars are basically correct. That said, there was something – if not inevitable – highly probable, almost (forgive me) deterministic about the two cataclysmic world wars of the 20th century. Both, in retrospect, were driven, in large part, by collective – particularly Western – nations’ adherence to a series of geopolitical philosophies.
The first war – which killed perhaps nine million soldiers in the sodden trench lines (among other long forgotten places) of Europe – began, in part, due to the continental, and especially maritime, competition between Imperial Great Britain, and a new, rising, and highly populous, land power, Imperial Germany. Both had pretensions to global leadership; Britain’s old and long-standing, Germany’s recent and aspirational – tinged with a sense of long-denied deservedness. Political and military leaders on both sides – along with other European (and the Japanese) nations – then pledged philosophical fealty to the theories of an American Navy man, Alfred Thayer Mahan. To simplify, Mahan’s core postulation – published from a series of lectures as The Influence of Sea Power Upon History – was that geopolitical power in the next (20th) century would be inherently maritime. The countries that maintained large, modern navies, held strategic coaling stations, and expanded their coastal, formal empires, would dominate trade, develop the strongest economies, and, hence, were apt to global paramountcy. Conversely, traditional land power – mass armies prepared to march across vast land masses – would become increasingly irrelevant.
Mahan’s inherently flawed, or at least exaggerated, conclusions – and his own clear institutional (U.S. Navy) bias – aside, key players in two of the major powers of Europe seemed to buy the philosophy hook-line-and-sinker. So, when Wilhelmine Germany took the strategic decision to rapidly expand its own colonial fiefdoms (before the last patches of brown-people-inhabited land were swallowed up) and, thereby necessarily embarked on a crash naval buildup to challenge the British Empire’s maritime supremacy, the stage was set for a massive war. And, with most major European rivals – hopelessly hypnotized by nationalism – locked in a wildly byzantine, bipolar alliance system, all that was needed to turn the conflict global was a spark: enter the assassin Gavrilo Princip, a pistol, Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and it was game on.
The Second World War – which caused between 50-60 million deaths – was, of course, an outgrowth of the first. It’s causes were multifaceted and complicated. Nonetheless, particularly in its European theater, it, too, was driven by a geopolitical theorist and his hypotheses. This time the culprit was a Briton, Halford John Mackinder. In contrast with Mahan, Mackinder postulated a land-based, continental power theory. As such, he argued that the “pivot” of global preeminence lay in the control of Eurasia – the “World Island” – specifically Central Asia and Eastern Europe. These resource rich lands held veritable buried treasure for the hegemon, and, since they lay on historical trade routes, were strategically positioned.
Should an emergent, ambitious, and increasingly populated, power – say, Nazi Germany – need additional territory (what Hitler called “Lebensraum“) for its race, and resources (especially oil) for its budding war machine, then it needed to seize the strategic “heartland” of the World Island. In practice, that meant the Nazis theoretically should, and did, shift their gaze (and planned invasion) from their outmoded Mahanian rival across the English Channel, eastward to the Ukraine, Caucasus (with its ample oil reserves), and Central Asia. Seeing as all three regions were then – and to lesser extent, still – dominated by Russia, the then Soviet Union, the unprecedentedly bloody existential war on Europe’s Eastern Front appears ever more certain and explainable.
Germany lost both those wars: the first badly, the second, disastrously. Then, in a sense, the proceeding 45-year Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union – the only two big winners in the Second World War – may be seen as an extension or sequel to Mackinder-driven rivalry. The problem is that after the end of – at least the first – Cold War, Western, especially American, strategists severely miscalculated. In their misguided triumphalism, US geopolitical theorists both provoked a weak (but not forever so) Russia by expanding the NATO alliance far eastward, but posited premature (and naive) theories that assumed global finance, free (American-skewed) trade, and digital dominance were all that mattered in a “Post” Cold War world.
No one better defined this magical thinking more than the still – after having been wrong about just about every US foreign policy decision of the last two decades – prominent New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman. In article after article, and books with such catchy titles as The World is Flat, and The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Friedman argued, essentially, that old realist geopolitics were dead, and all that really mattered for US hegemony was the proliferation of McDonald’s franchises worldwide.
Friedman was wrong; he always is (Exhibit A: the 2003 Iraq War). Today, with a surprisingly – at least with his prominent base – popular president, Donald J. Trump, impeached in the House and just acquitted by the Senate for alleged crimes misleadingly summed up as “Ukraine-gate,” a look at the real issues at hand in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, demonstrate that, for better or (probably) worse, the ghost of Mackinder still haunts the scene. For today, I’d argue, the proxy battle over Ukraine between the U.S. and its allied-coup-empowered government – which includes some neo-nazi political and military elements – and Russian-backed separatists in the country’s east, reflects a return to the battle for Eurasian resource and geographic predominance.
Neither Russia nor the United States is wholly innocent in fueling and escalating the ongoing Ukrainian Civil War. The difference is, that in post-Russiagate farce, chronically (especially among mainstream Democrat) alleged Russia-threat-obsessed America, reports of Moscow’s ostensible guilt literally saturate the media space. The reporting from Washington? Not so much.
The truth is that a generation of prominent “liberal” American, born-again Russia-hawks – Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, the whole DNC apparatus, and the MSNBC corporate media crowd – wielded State Department, NGO, and economic pressure to help catalyze a pro-Western coup in Ukraine during and after 2014. Their opportunism seemed, to them, simple, and relatively cost-free, at the time, but has turned implacably messy in the ensuing years.
In the process, the Democrats haven’t done themselves any political favors, further sullying what’s left of their reputation by – in some cases – colluding with Ukrainians to undermine key Trump officials; and consorting with nefarious far-right nationalist local bigots (who may have conspired to kill protesters in the Maidan “massacre,” as a means to instigate further Western support for the coup). What’s more, while much of the conspiratorial Trump-team spin on direct, or illegal, Biden family criminality has proven false, neither Joe nor son Hunter, are exactly “clean.” The Democratic establishment, Biden specifically, may, according to an excellent recent Guardian editorial, have a serious “corruption problem” – no least of which involves explaining exactly why a then sitting vice president’s son, who had no serious diplomatic or energy sector experience, was paid $50,000 a month to serve on the board of a Ukrainian gas company.
Fear not, the “Never-Trump” Republicans, and establishment Democrats seemingly intent on drumming up a new – presumably politically profitable – Cold War have already explanation. They’ve dug up the long ago discredited, but still publicly palatable, justification that the US must be prepared to fight Russia “over there,” before it has no choice but to battle them “over here” (though its long been unclear where “here” is, or how, exactly, that fantasy comes to pass). First, there’s the distance factor: though several thousands of miles away from the East Coast of North America, Ukraine is in Russia’s near-abroad. After all, it was long – across many different generational political/imperial structures – part of the Soviet Union or other Russian empires. A large subsection of the populace, especially in the East, speaks, and considers itself, in part, culturally, Russian.
Furthermore, the Russian threat, in 2020, is highly exaggerated. Putin is not Stalin. The Russian Federation is not the Soviet Union; and, hell, even the Soviet (non-nuclear) military threat and geopolitical ambitions were embellished throughout Cold War “Classic.” A simple comparative “tale-of-the-tape” illustrates as much. Economically and demographically, Russia is demonstrably an empirically declining power – its economy, in fact, about the size of Spain’s.
Nor is the defense of an imposed, pro-Western, Ukrainian proxy state a vital American national security interest worth bleeding, or risking nuclear war, over. As MIT’s Barry Posen has argued, “Vital interests affect the safety, sovereignty, territorial integrity, and power position of the United States,” and, “If, in the worst case, all Ukraine were to ‘fall’ to Russia, it would have little impact on the security of the United States.” Furthermore, as retired US Army colonel, and president of the restraint-based Quincy Institute, Andrew Bacevich, has advised, the best policy, if discomfiting, is to “tacitly acknowledge[e] the existence of a Russian sphere of influence.” After all, Washington would expect, actually demand, the same acquiescence of Moscow in Mexico, Canada, or, for that matter, the entire Americas.
Unfortunately, no such restrained prudence is likely, so long as the bipartisan American national security state continues to subscribe to some vague version of the Mackinder theory. Quietly, except among wonky regional experts and investigative reporters on the scene, the US has, before, but especially since the “opportunity” of the 9/11 attacks, entered full-tilt into a competition with Russia and China for physical, economic, and resource dominance from Central Asia to the borderlands of Eastern Europe. That’s why, as a student at the Army’s Command and General Staff College in 2016-17, all us officers focused almost exclusively on planning fictitious, but highly realistic, combat missions in the Caucasus region. It also partly explains why the US military, after 18+ years, remains ensconced in potentially $3 trillion resource-rich Afghanistan, which, not coincidentally, is America’s one serious physical foothold in land-locked Central Asia.
Anecdotally, but instructively, I remember well my four brief stops at the once ubiquitous US Air Force way-station into Afghanistan – Manas Airbase – in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Off-base “liberty” – even for permanent party airmen – was rare, in part, because the Russian military had a mirror base just across the city. What’s more, the previous, earlier stopover spot for Afghanistan – Uzbekistan – kicked out the US military in 2005, in part, due to Russian political and economic pressure to do so.
Central Asia and East Europe are also contested spaces regarding the control of competing – Western vs. Russian vs. Chinese – oil and natural gas pipeline routes and trade corridors. Remember, that China’s massive “One Belt – One Road” infrastructure investment program is mostly self-serving, if sometimes mutually beneficial. The plan means to link Chinese manufacturing to the vast consumerist European market mainly through transportation, pipeline, diplomatic, and military connections running through where? You guessed it: Central Asia, the Caucasus, and on through Eastern Europe.
Like it or not, America isn’t poised to win this battle, and its feeble efforts to do so in these remarkably distant locales smacks of global hegemonic ambitions and foolhardy, mostly risk, nearly no reward, behavior. Russia has a solid army in close proximity, a hefty nuclear arsenal, as well as physical and historical connections to the Eurasian Heartland; China has an even better, more balanced, military, enough nukes, and boasts a far more powerful, spendthrift-capable, economy. As for the US, though still militarily and (for now) economically powerful, it lacks proximity, faces difficult logistical / expeditionary challenges, and has lost much legitimacy and squandered oodles of good will with the regional countries being vied for. Odds are, that while war may not be inevitable, Washington’s weak hand and probable failure, nearly is.
Let us table, for the purposes of this article, questions regarding any environmental effects of the great powers’ quest for, extraction, and use of many of these regional resources. My central points are two-fold:
first, that Ukraine – which represents an early stage in Washington’s rededication to chauvinist, Mackinder geostrategy – as a proxy state for war with Russia is not an advisable or vital interest;
second, that Uncle Sam’s larger quest to compete with the big two (Eur)Asian powers is likely to fail and symptomatic of imperial confusion and desperation.
As the U.S. enters an increasingly bipolar phase of world affairs, powerful national security leaders fear its diminishing power. Washington’s is, like it or not, an empire in decline; and, as we know from history, such entities behave badly on the downslope of hegemony. Call me cynical, but I’m apt to believe that the United States, as perhaps the most powerful imperial body of all time, is apt, and set, to act poorest of all.
The proxy fight in Ukraine, battle for Central Asia in general – to say nothing of related American aggression and provocations in Iran and the Persian Gulf – could be the World War III catalyst that the Evangelical militarist nuts, Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, unwilling to wait on Jesus Christ’s eschatological timeline, have long waited for. These characters seemingly possess the heretical temerity to believe man – white American men, to be exact – can and should incite or stimulate Armageddon and the Rapture.
If they’re proved “right” or have their way – and the Mikes just might – then nuclear cataclysm will have defied the Vegas odds and beat the house on the expected human extinction timeline. Only contra to the bloody prophecy set forth in the New Testament book of Revelations, it won’t be Jesus wielding his vengeful sword on the back of a white horse, but – tragic and absurdly – the perfect Antichrist stooge, pressing the red button, who does the apocalyptic deed.
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Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer and regular contributor to Antiwar.com. His work has appeared in the LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Truthdig, Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. His forthcoming book, Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War, is available for preorder on Amazon. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet. Check out his professional website for contact info, scheduling speeches, and/or access to the full corpus of his writing and media appearances.