The SCO and the Mackinder Revival
There is something about the Shanghai Cooperation Organization that brings out the armchair geopoliticking among the world's pundits. As the SCO begins its 10th annual summit in Astana, there have been a slew of analysis and opinion pieces from around the world bombarding anyone with a Google alert for "shanghai cooperation organization." One thing these geopoliticians especially love: citing Halford Mackinder, the early 20th-century scholar who famously theorized the importance of what we now call Eurasia. His famous maxim:
"Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland;
who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island;
who rules the World-Island controls the world."
Is there anything that Mackinder can teach us today, other than "Central Asia is important"? it would seem that some pretty significant changes in the world's strategic environment have happened since he wrote. The era of air travel and ballistic missiles, for example, has had an irrevocable impact on the importance of land power, it would seem. And doesn't the fact that the one power to have actually implemented Mackinder's maxim -- the Soviet Union -- collapsed spectacularly suggest that it may need revision?
Writing in 1904, he argued that it was the rise of the transcontinental railroad that would accrue such massive importance to Central Asia:
The spaces within the Russian Empire and Mongolia are so vast, and their potentialities in population, wheat, cotton, fuel and metals so incalculably great, that it is inevitable that a vast economic world, more or less apart, will there develop inaccessible to oceanic commerce....
Is not the pivot region of the world's politics that vast area of Euro-Asia which is inaccessible to ships, but in antiquity lay open to the horse-riding nomads, and is to-day about to be covered with a network of railways?
Now, more than a century later, it is an understatement to say that the prediction of a vast economic space of incalculable potential, brought about by the coming of the railroad to the Russian Empire and Mongolia, has not been realized.
Nevertheless, Mackinder is enjoying a rebirth, as one can see from a sampling of the SCO summit analysis pieces. From By M K Bhadrakumar, writing in Asia Times:
Indeed, the Afghan endgame is inspiring the several tracks in the geopolitics of Eurasia and Central Asia and South Asia, some running tracks, some dormant, some visible, some others nor so visible, to begin to converge. But the focal point is Eurasia.
Indeed, Sir Halford John Mackinder (1861-1947), the great English geographer and scholar-diplomat, who is considered one of the founding fathers of the esoteric subjects of geopolitics and geostrategy, based his famous Heartland Theory on the basis that Eurasia remains the heartland of international politics.
Xiaoxiong Yi, writing in the Coshocton Tribune:
In 1904, Sir Halford Mackinder, the father of geopolitics, predicted that “who rules the heartland rules the world” and “control of the heartland by any one power could be a springboard to world domination.” Mackinder's theory was much derided at the time because the heartland of Euro-Asia was divided between then-imperial powers. A century later, however, Mackinder's prediction has finally come true in this reborn heartland of the Eurasian Continent.
Andrei Volodin, writing for the Canadian Centre for Research on Globalization:
The failed “unipolar” or “post-American world” is becoming more complicated in terms of structure and organisation, casting about for a framework that might contain the chaos driven by the “Arab revolutions” and the Libyan crisis. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), to be joined by India and Pakistan in mid-June, promises to be just such a cementing factor.
Not surprisingly, the prospect of SCO enlargement and its growing influence on world politics is hardly welcomed by the Americans, who see these new processes as signs of the growing geopolitical activity of China and possibly Russia.
There is logic to their concern. Like in the times of Mackinder (1861-1947), Eurasia remains the world’s heartland.
And Pepe Escobar, writing on AlJazeera.net:
As facts on the ground go, Moscow and Beijing have been deeply alarmed by the NATO war on Libya, the threat of an intervention in Syria, the absolutely free pass for repression in Bahrain, and the Washington obsession on remaining in Iraq at all costs.
But instead of the Arab world, their counterattack has been focused closer to home, in Eurasia - "the world's heartland", as conceptualised by the (imperial British) father of geopolitics Halford Mackinder (1861-1947).
That's where the SCO concept for a stable Afghanistan fits in.
But what about the railroads?