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Reform in a Closed World

April 5, 2012

Halford Mackinder is often remembered for his dictum about the value of central Eurasia’s “heartland,” the so-called geographical pivot of history – well, back when the term “pivot” used to refer to pouring troops and resources into Central Asia, not draining them away from it to preserve coastal holdings in East Asia. More important in the 1904 paper – and more relevant than any word game one could play with “pivot,”though, is what Mackinder reveals about the inferences about the nature of space he draws on to advance his thesis:

From the present time forth, in the post-Columbian age, we shall again have to deal with a closed political system, and none the less that it will be one of world-wide scope. Every explosion of social forces, instead of being dissipated in a surrounding circuit of unknown space and barbaric chaos, will be sharply re-echoed from the far side of the globe, and weak elements in the political and economic organism of the world will be shattered in consequence.

Mackinder here is speaking of an aspect of the process of globalization which would seem very familiar to many foreign policy commentators. The processes of geographic expansion and technological improvement had now rendered nearly every conquerable acre subservient to a state or its empire, and every league of the open seas accessible to ships from their ports. In such an environment, the prospect of isolation, stagnation, or complacency was no longer a national option.

While revivals of geopolitics are often praised for their geographical determinative power, or criticized for their same pretenses of prophecy or scientific truth, Mackinder and many of his contemporaries were deeply concerned with the interplay of social forces and their effects on national power. To the modern commentator, the globalized world is flat. For Mackinder, it was closed – distance now provided neither a psychological comfort nor a truly separate space for the amelioration of social and political tensions. For now, rival powers were increasingly able to challenge Britain, threaten her and her empire, and, with the conquest or informal dominance of independent non-European states now largely complete, it would be gains in internal efficiency and progress which would determine the future course of the contest between nations.

The rise of rival great powers and the end of assured British unipolarity, combined with the increasing industrial-technical capability of these rival states, threatened to overtake Britain’s economy, and large land empires would, Mackinder feared, soon have the means to outproduce Britain and its colonies, which would eventually mean political and military dominance as well. Faced with the high costs and embarrassment of the British Empire in the prolonged counterinsurgency of the Boer War, Mackinder, along with other reform-minded policy intellectuals and policymakers, argued that this new unified, closed world demanded a series of grand political reforms and arrangements be made to strengthen Britain for a new era of competition. As Leo Amery, a Tory MP put it in his response to Mackinder’s paper presentation:

Mr. Mackinder makes the  whole of history and politics base themselves on the great economical struggle between the great inside core of the Euro-Asiatic continent and the smaller marginal regions and islands outside.

With the empire abroad becoming difficult to afford, and this expense compounding the difficulty of its defense from other powers, many British intellectuals saw reform at home as a key element of maintaining Britain’s leading influence abroad. I’m uncomfortable with the phrase “nation-building at home,” at least when used casually to refer to capacity-building. However, for many British policy intellectuals, nation-building at home was a real possibility, and talks about restoration and grand bargains as being necessary components or precursors to any new grand strategy were indeed components of this first generation of geopolitical thought.

Mackinder and other supporters of the Imperial Federation saw it as a vehicle for forging a coherent imperial identity which could mobilize social, economic, and military power on the same scale as Britain’s rising opponents, all without sapping its domestic strength. It was a project of nation-building at home in the most literal sense, as it was a matter not simply of calibrating economic policy to develop internal capacity but also a new sense of identity and purpose, using means as varied as education, youth programs, Imperial Preference, and scientific excellence. As Amery continued in his comments on Mackinder’s “Pivot,”:

the successful powers will be those who have the greatest industrial basis. It will not matter whether they are in the centre of a continent or on an island; those people who have the industrial power and the power of invention and of science will be able to defeat all others.

In essence, the drive for national efficiency and the inevitability of truly global competition between the world powers overshadowed the geographic musings of Mackinder himself. The geographic determinism that might earn praise in certain quarters was apparently far less important to policymakers than the dying meaning of old concepts of geographic scale and the rise of new metrics of national efficiency which made Britain appear ever more insecure in the face of new and rising powers around the globe.

This death of distance had its counterparts across the Atlantic, too, albeit it was often mustered towards alternative ends. Andrew Carnegie, the quintessential titan of industry, had published a provocative article in the North American Review arguing for an Anglo-American Federation. While the notion of politically unifying the English-speaking world also carried some weight among H.G. Wells, who saw it as the nucleus for a world state, as Daniel Deudney noted in his comparative look at his and Mackinder’s transformational visions, Carnegie’s vision is notable for its glimpse into Atlanticist unipolarity, as such a federation would:

need not, therefore, take into account attacks upon the land ; as for the water, the combined fleets would sweep the seas. The new nation would dominate the world and banish from the earth its greatest stain – the murder of men by men. It would be the arbiter between nations, and enforce the peaceful settlement of all quarrels, saying to any disputants who threatened to draw the sword :

“Hold! I command you both ;
The one that stirs makes me his foe.
Unfold to me the cause of quarrel,
And I will judge betwixt you.”

Such a giant among pigmies as the Re-United States would never need to exert its power, but only to intimate its wishes and decisions. It would be unnecessary for any power to maintain either a great standing army or a great navy. The smaller nations having discovered that they would not be permitted to disturb the peace of the world would naturally disarm. There would be no use in maintaining large forces either for attack or defence when the Anglo-American had determined that no one should attack. I believe that the wisdom of the re-united nation and its regard for others would be so great as to give it such moral ascendency that there would be no disposition upon the part of any power to appeal from its decisions.

For the optimists, particularly American optimists, the death of distance did not simply mean the globalization of fear and anxieties emanating from every corner in the earth and every change in the industrial-economic balance, but also the sublimation of alternative moral geographies into a world unified by liberty under law, enforced by an Anglo-American fleet and army. Carnegie’s vision would seem fantastical were so many elements of its assumptions and arguments not frequent attitudes and goals of the United States government and its allies today.

For pessimists, on the other hand, the desire to strike a grand bargain that imitated the efforts of rising states, to a certain extent, proved more popular. Thomas Friedman often receives flack for his sympathetic treatment of the Chinese Communist Party and the government it controls, but his mimetic and envious views of a more efficient, centralized regime have a long pedigree in international politics. British intellectuals associated with the imperial reformers and geopoliticians had a relatively dim view of representative government as being unfit for long-term planning, and consequently had some envy of countries such as Imperial Germany, which had a more centralized managerial authority more efficient than mob populism or unfettered capitalism, which was investing in institutions to produce professional expertise, innovation, and economic power to support a growing military. The admiration, envy, fear of Western commentators examining rising states’ economies and polities is hardly unexpected, nor is their use of these rising states as justifications for politically audacious and unrealistic grand bargain reform efforts.

Nevertheless, the end of the 19th century and the dawn of the 20th demonstrates that much of today’s rhetoric connecting internal renewal and reform with a search for a new American grand strategy is hardly unprecedented. The schemes for global transformation and internal reform were pervasive, and it would be misleading to suggest that elites were stuck inside the 20th century caricature of 19th century international relations thought.

Yet as Patrick Porter notes, distance is harder to kill than many think. So too are the internal logics of political communities. Ultimately, the British attempt to forge a diplomatic revolution in the wake of the so-called Splendid Isolation required jettisoning several traditional elements of British balance of power geostrategy. The revolutionary new arrangements of politics failed to open the space for the creation of a new polity to overcome the geographical and economic difficulties Mackinder and others described, while Britain was left with unsustainable and distant commitments abroad and an intensified and inflexible military and diplomatic posture within Europe itself. The belief in a transformed, integrated world system where traditional ideas of international politics no longer applied, and transportation and communication reified new kinds of economic and soft power is not a new one. Nor are many of the approaches towards foreign policy and domestic politics these beliefs prompt. Mackinder’s ideas about the relationship of domestic reform to international power, along with many of the other imperial reformists, turned out not to be based on sober realism but romantic ideas of nationhood and guiding intellectual authority that were at odds with domestic politics and insufficient for solving Britain’s foreign policy problems. For Carnegie and other idealists, though, while the exact structures they desired may not have come into being, the ideals they aspired to and hoped to be able to promote with unipolar authority remain pervasive despite their own deeply deleterious effects.

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