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The SCO and Pop Geostrategy

June 15, 2011

The SCO summit in Astana has prompted numerous attempts at unraveling the grand schemes that must be behind the Eurasian organization’s true strategy for world power. Despite the fact that the SCO is not a collective security organization, nor even an alliance, there is a particular delight, both among those who welcome its opposition to the unipolar American system and those who fear its threat to it, in casting it as the telluric, Eurasian organization which shall cast off the shackles of American hegemony and decide the future of the world in the so-called “New Great Game.”

Central to such wild-eyed speculations, as Joshua Kucera notes at the Bug Pit, is the use and abuse of Halford J. Mackinder, the British geographer who came up with what would later be known as the “Heartland theory” of global geopolitics. As Kucera notes, there is a rather superficial understanding of what Mackinder was actually talking about, even among relatively mainstream self-declared adherents of geography, such as Robert Kaplan. The erroneous reading of Mackinder parallels with the fantastical conclusions of many analyses of the SCO.

Mackinder wrote “The Geographical Pivot of History” in 1904 (the phrase “heartland” would appear as an updating of the pivot concept, with new borders, in his 1919 Democratic Ideals and Reality). His contention was hardly that whoever controlled Central Asia was going to control the world, as the remark “who rules the Heartland commands the world” seems to imply. Nor was his prescription that Britain ought try and control the Heartland. Rather, he was writing about the contest between mobility at sea and mobility at land. In 1904, sea mobility and sea powers commanded the world system. Sea commerce was critical to international trade and the generation of wealth, and sea powers could frustrate the aims of their continental rivals, as Britain did by manipulating the balance of power system to check France, Russia, and Germany.

What made Mackinder worried was the rise of railroads, as Kucera pointed out. This would allow for new mobility, and thus military and commercial power, on land. In a key region known as the pivot, the achievement of superior land mobility in a space geographically well-protected from the encroachment of sea power and states of the “inner marginal crescent” of Eurasia allowed for massive continental empires to dominate these outer, marginal regions. In other words, the importance of the pivot region was contingent on the state controlling it actually investing in it enough to create a space of mobility and economic power. Only by doing that could the pivot state immunize itself from the perturbations of sea power, and build the strength to launch a war of conquest to dominate the marginal regions. Then, in theory, the pivot state could use the wealth of its industrialized “heartland” to build a fleet to defeat the outer marginal crescent and enable the unification of the Eurasian “World-Island.”

Does this sound anything like what the SCO is actually accomplishing? Although it has been over a century since Mackinder began writing his theory, continental pivot states have successively failed to mobilize and industrialize Central Asia. It would take a much longer piece to historically treat the validity and plausibility of Mackinder’s theory, but it is plainly obvious that the SCO has utterly failed to unify, mobilize, and develop Central Asia into a Eurasian bastion to fuel the usurpation of global sea power. Central Asia is rife with unstable regimes, missed economic opportunities, divisive and petty rivalries, that the United States can probably rest easy about its prospects for geopolitical domination.

The SCO was founded primarily to resolve China’s continental border disputes, and its existence now, as a security organization, coheres mainly over the stabilization of Central Asia. Consider the “Peace Mission” exercises – far from implying the likelihood of a real and serious Sino-Russian effort against US forces in a likely arena of conflict, they are primarily based around confronting the actual threats emanating from Central Asia – regime instability and terrorism. The area of common security concern in Russia and China is really drug trafficking, organized crime, terrorism, and unrest in Central Asia, as well as the potential for religious extremism or ethnic separatism to undermine Moscow or Beijing. That Russia’s most active military interests are towards its “south” in the Caucasus and Central Asia should demonstrate that the neo-Mackinderite unity of Eurasia is anything but a foregone conclusion.

The expansion of the SCO, furthermore, actually dilutes the unity of the organization, rather than reflecting its coherence as an organization. Russia’s anticipation of India’s membership is partially an attempt to stabilize Central Asia, but to do so in a manner that provides a counterweight to China’s growing economic influence. That Pakistan has been admitted alongside India should demonstrate the further barriers to cooperation. The SCO is merely adding more upon more incoherent regional layers to Asia. The real action is in essentially bilateral relationships between major players such as Russia, China, India, and Pakistan, and their own bilateral relations with Central Asian states.

The belief that a multilateral organization – even more divided than NATO, for all the animus that organization receives – is going to represent the epoch-making fulfillment of Mackinder’s feared Eurasian continental giant should be utterly laughable to anyone who has either read Mackinder’s works in depth or has even a modicum of the political realism such geopolitical realism is usually associated with. Its expansion may legitimize the organization’s efforts, but real and important divisions on issues of regional security and geopolitical power remain. Contrary to the analyses of commentators such as Pepe Escobar, the US has virtually no interest in dominating Central Asia (nor does it need to, by Mackinder’s logic). Instead, it has had the luck of exploiting growing rifts within the organization itself. Rather than concentrating its efforts on Central Asia, China is increasingly focusing on achieving maritime security, and its economic development is overwhelmingly coastal, and in the process it has mobilized maritime Southeast and East Asian states against its security designs. This includes India, and despite its proposed entry into the SCO, do not expect this to ensure Sino-Indian security cooperation any more than both states’ participation in Bandung and the Non-Aligned Movement did during the Cold War. As for Russia, rather than reasserting control of Eastern Europe, its land forces are concentrated against the Caucasus and Central Asian threats, while its navy is more likely to be a serious player in the Pacific than the Atlantic world.

America and the states of Mackinder’s “outer crescent” have essentially succeeded in preventing allowing the “oversetting of the balance of power in favour of the pivot state,” since there is no pivot state and the neighbors of Russia and China, who have the most plausibility of taking up that mantle, remain rather on many issues within Central Asia, and do not wholly trust each others’ intentions. The US and maritime states have succeeded in maintaining their leverage over the continent, while their competitors have not invested in anything resembling a Mackinderite strategy. I am a self-professed fan of Mackinder and many of his successors, such as Nicholas Spykman and the geostrategic writings of Colin Gray. That makes it all the easier to dismiss the hyperventilating over the SCO and the tired meme of the “New Great Game” it is associated with. Whatever relevance the Mackinderite school may have for modern geopolitics, it is not going to be found in the pop geostrategy which seeks to inflate the banalities of a multilateral organization’s search for renewed purpose into world-shaking events.

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