This is the last and most dedicated research project for my Bachelor’s degree. It was well received and has been nominated to participate in a research symposium at my university with an opportunity to be published, which is a very rewarding feeling. You may have noticed that the title is the same as the blog. This was planned and the idea for this site since I began posting on it was for this to be a platform for my own research that would also have me continue my analysis of certain geopolitical developments, particularly in Central Asia, for the forseeable future and at least until the military withdrawal of 2014 comes to pass.

Most of this part of the paper has already been posted during the development stages (introduction and literature review) and they each appear in this section. Part II possesses the actual analysis and I will continue to re-format that section and hopefully be able to put it up soon. This section also integrates the map heavy portions from the powerpoint used for university presentations.

While this paper is decidedly realist in its examination, anyone atttempting to gauge my views by this is mistaken. You will find in the reaction piece (that I will post after the analysis) that I advocate Central Asian-led, post-liberal solutions for the region after 2014. I believe that I can perform analysis in any number of theoretical approaches in international relations. Format is APSA. Cheers. 

Since the early 20th century the study of geopolitics has had a profound effect on international relations as well as regional or spatial strategies of foreign policy. Central Asia is one such region that is considered, if not explicitly stated, as a “pivot” area, or area of conflict by many authors of geopolitical theories. This landlocked area has been a theater of global rivalries for centuries and currently involves the world’s superpower, the US, and the two great regional powers, China and Russia. The goal here will be to examine the literature of geopolitics and geopolitical theory in order to help explain the foreign policy decisions of the powerful states that concern themselves with this region.

The ideas of Halford Mackinder in The Geographical Pivot of History and his other works effectively conceived geography as a definitive school of social science in Britain and is the reason that he is now referred to as one of the fathers of geopolitics and geostrategy. His ideas have been considered, built upon, or reintroduced over the last century by such scholars as the Dutch-born Harvard geostrategist Nicholas J. Spykman and American political scientist Samuel P. Huntington among others. Mackinder considered Central Asia as a pivot due to the 19th century struggle between Britain and Russia over this territory in what is referred to as “The Great Game” or “Tournament of Shadows”.

This paper seeks to explain the role of the US in Central Asia for the 21st century. It will provide a geopolitical perspective and seek answers to the questions: Do geopolitical theories help explain the US foreign policy decisions concerning Central Asia and if so, what do these theories tell us to expect from the future of US policy after the withdrawal of military forces in 2014?

A Century of Literature: Geopolitics

When discussing the history, scope, and effectiveness of geopolitical theories The Geographical Pivot of History by Halford Mackinder is the definitive starting point. It is a remarkable departure from the sea-based theories of political power that previous works of geopolitics had revolved around in the 18th and 19th centuries and, according to Mackinder, was due to the fact that “we are for the first time in a position to attempt, with some degree of completeness, a correlation between the larger geographical and the larger historical generalizations.” (Mackinder 1904, 299) This seminal work gives several accounts of the geographical effects on the developing balance between land and sea power, empires and raiders, and aspects of continental rivalries.

Mackinder refers to the Eurasian continent as the “world-island” that contains two-thirds of the world’s population. He asks the reader to consider “Europe and European history as subordinate to that of Asia and Asiatic history” since the history of Europe is characterized as “the outcome of the secular struggle against Asian invasion.” (Mackinder 1904, 300) For over a thousand years horsemen from Asia traversed the broad region between the Caspian and the Ural Mountains to strike at the European peninsula. Opposing these invaders shaped the history of Europeans (Russians, Germans, French, Italians, and Byzantine Greeks) and the horsemen’s lack of mobility was exposed in the forests and mountains. Their powerbase was the area of the steppe lands, or Central Asia.

Mackinder was a geographer and his is a work that places an emphasis on the historical scope of political geography. In the first portion Mackinder admits “My concern is with the general physical control, rather than the causes of universal history.” (Mackinder 1904, 299) He then identifies the defining nature of certain geographic relationships, particularly the “Pivot” or “Heartland” area of Eurasia, in the later portion. He asks “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?” (Mackinder 1904, 311) This area is landlocked and possesses no waterways to the ocean. The north is hedged by a sub-arctic forest while the rest of the region is surrounded by mountains or the inland Caspian Sea to the south, east, and west and features a broad steppe-land that is easily traversed. This favors the mobility of the steppes’ horsemen and throughout history this is where the territory of empires ended and began.

Outside of the Pivot area lays the marginal or inner crescent, which is part continental and part oceanic and beyond that lays the outer crescent which is entirely oceanic. To the south, east, and west of the heartland lie what Mackinder called the “marginal regions” of the inner crescent which he divided into four geographic areas. Asia possesses two of these regions that he called monsoon lands (China and India) that are each angled away from each other, one to the north and one to the south. Europe and the “lands of the five seas” or Middle East are the other two regions surrounding the pivot. These geographic regions coincide with the spheres of influence of the four major religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity.

The historical scope with which Mackinder identifies spatial determinism, a specific interpretation of the term: geopolitics, is ground breaking. His organization of land and sea power with regards to geography was recognized and built upon, most notably, before and after WWII and after the fall of the Soviet Union. While this work does not provide any testable hypotheses for US foreign policy, the stated geographical relationships concerning Central Asia compelled it to be the progenitor of further geopolitical strategies. The division of the Eurasian continent or world island into pivot or heartland region, inner crescent, and outer crescent was Mackinder’s observation of a “certain persistence of geographical relationship[s]” (Mackinder 1904, 311) He identified what was then the Russian Empire as the central strategic position, or heartland, of the world island and the notable states of the inner crescent as Turkey, Germany, Austria, South Africa, India, China, Japan, Britain and the US. He summarized his Heartland Theory in a later work: “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; who rules the World-Island controls the world.” (Mackinder, Democratic Ideals and Reality 1919, 106)

The Geographical Pivot of History

The Geographical Pivot of History

Nicholas J. Spykman’s The Geography of the Peace built upon Mackinder’s work in a much more extensive and focused manner. Spykman’s work is a military containment strategy. It attempts to define a number of geographic and geopolitical concerns to the disruption of peace from the Soviet threat in the post WWII era. He correctly assumes an allied victory in 1942, the time of the writing, and considers geographic and geostrategic roles in peace and war, security, factors of foreign policy, location with regards to world power, and power potential. This is all done before he addresses “Mackinder’s World.” (Spykman 1944, 35)

Spykman claims that due to Mackinder, “we can now take up in detail the specific regions into which we have divided [the world] and analyze their meaning in terms of power potential and the politics of global security. We must evaluate the role which each zone has in the past played in international society” Beginning with the heartland, Spykman explains that there is a new mobility in the Eurasian land mass due to improvements in infrastructure of rail, road, and airplanes but the natural obstacles of transportation will keep the central Asian region from realizing its power potential for the immediate future.

Spykman redefines Mackinder’s Inner Crescent as The Rimland which is the intermediate region between the Pivot and the seas and he also considered this area as “Eurasian Conflict Zones.” (Spykman 1944, 40, 52) He refutes Mackinder’s dictum and instead forms his own concerning power politics: “Who controls the Rimland rules Eurasia; who rules Eurasia controls the destinies of the world.” (Spykman 1944, 43) He elaborates on Mackinder’s broad definitions: the monsoon lands according to Spykman are two different geopolitical categories whose power will be expressed as two different units, India and China, and he refers to “Asiatic Mediterranean” as an area of significance in the future of an independent Asian world. While he is critical of the assumptions of the Pivot, he states that “Like all good geopolitical analysis, however, the Mackinder study represented a picture of the constellation of forces which existed at a particular time and within a particular frame of reference.” (Spykman 1944, 43)


 While other scholars have attempted to redefine or reinterpret Mackinder or Spykman or both, Samuel P. Huntington set forth an evolutionary piece of geopolitical theory in 1993’s The Clash of Civilizations? Huntington presents his work as a theory of culture and civilization that utilizes a modernization theory of political violence. As such, it is also very much a geopolitical theory since civilizations are in part defined by a specific, generally fixed territory. His hypothesis is that conflict in the post-Cold War world will be between differing cultures or civilizational identities instead of ideological ones. He argues that this conflict will take place along “cultural fault lines separating these civilizations from one another” (Huntington 1993, 25). He pays special attention to Islam, noting its cultures to likely be the primary clash in the future of the Western world (Huntington 1993, 32).


Huntington identifies six main reasons why civilizations will clash: basic differences between civilizations (history, language, culture, tradition, and religion), increasing global integration/knowledge of other civilizations, economic and social modernization/separation of local identities, “growth of civilization-consciousness”, that differences in culture are now much more apparent, and the increase of economic regionalism. He also describes the fault lines at which these clashes will take place. Conflict, according to Huntington, will take place at both the micro and macro level. At the micro level, the territorial boundaries of civilizations are replacing ideological and political boundaries and it is along these lines that opposing groups will clash. On the macro level, core states or civilization-states will compete for economic and military power as well as the influence of international institutions and religion.

The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and its Geostrategic Imperatives by Zbigniew Brzezinski is a book covering the close of the American Century and a look at what waits in the new century. It is not a geopolitical theory, specifically. It does directly involve the geographical locations that have been discussed by the previous authors and considers the politics that pertain to the geography of Central Asia as well as the role that its resources will play in the 21st century. Brzezinski himself was a National Security Advisor to Jimmy Carter and his experienced insights into American foreign policy and its goals are invaluable. He devotes an entire chapter to “US Geostrategy on Eurasia” (Brzezinski 1998, 48). The chapter begins “For America, the chief geopolitical prize is Eurasia” and its relevant topics include: A Geostrategy for Eurasia, Problems at the Periphery and A Pragmatic Approach to China (Brzezinski 1998, 48, 50, 51).

In this chapter of Brzezinski’s book he discusses how critical U.S. management of the Eurasian continent will be in the future. He identifies two primary factors for this: “America is now the only global superpower, and Eurasia is the globe’s central arena.” (Brzezinski 1998, 50) Similar to Halford Mackinder, Brzezinski notes that most of the world’s population and resources are located here as well as the next six largest economies and the next six largest military spenders and that “Cumulatively, Eurasia’s power vastly overshadows America’s.” (Brzezinski 1998, 48) There is also a warning that certain pivot states could form alliances that threaten American hegemony. A coalition of China, Russia, and Iran is identified as the most dangerous of these alliances for American interests. The U.S. has to ensure that no states or alliances will have the ability to force them out of Eurasia, says Brzezinski, and that this should not be viewed as an end itself but rather to impose a benign hegemony that would dissuade any challengers and still foster partnerships that respect the aspirations of the region.

Another piece of literature that I will consider is the article From the “forgotten region” to the “great game” region: On the development of geopolitics in Central Asia, from the Journal of Eurasian Studies by Yelena Nikolayevna Zabortseva. This article identifies the Central Asian region as having an increased role in the international community as well as a possible increase in international conflicts. Zabortseva considers Central Asia’s recent developments as well as the increased use of geopolitical theories concerning the region but warns against the use of these theories alone to frame Eurasian potentials. She identifies critical geopolitics as a potential method that could be applied to the Central Asian transformations of the post-Cold War era. Critical geopolitics is a description of an identifiable congruence between traditional geopolitics and geo-economics that provides an understanding of how geographic arrangements can affect social constructions. “According to this approach world politics is represented by states embedded into transnational techno-economic power structures.” (Zabortseva, 2011 170)

Zabortseva notes a new era of international relations since the collapse of the Soviet Union and that sensitive development, particularly in Central Asia, require new approaches for their resolution. Resources and advantageous position have created new realities in the region, particularly in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. (Zabortseva 2012, 174) International and regional organizations, Zabortseva says, are needed to address urgent problems in the region but consensus will be difficult to reach due to the many different and competing interests.

When these geopolitical theories are considered evolutionary, that each contributes to the next and that they alter or evolve over time, they identify the prioritization of or ability to prioritize specific world geographies at a particular time and place that have the potential to be areas of conflict in many possible forms. Central Asia is at the forefront of geopolitical important spaces for the first time in the post-Cold War era and although the USSR collapsed over twenty years ago, these republics are utilizing their independence and newfound leverage for the first time in over 150 years. This fact is making the execution of policy more difficult for the states that are competing in the region.

Stratfor has the best maps

Stratfor has the best maps

Mackinder does not explicitly note the idea but an examination of his work makes clear: Throughout history Central Asia is the either the beginning or the end of the territory of Empires.



Alexander the Great’s Empire circa 330 B.C.




Mongolian Empire – click for animation


Russian Empire circa 1900

Consideration of these theories will further increase understanding of Central Asia and of the foreign policy decisions of the U.S. It is a region of strategic importance as noted by the aforementioned authors and an examination of these works offers a greater understanding of what Spykman referred to as ‘power politics.’ Foreign policy decisions of the US concerning Central Asia can be explained when examining the history of geopolitical literature. These theories seem to place a historical and perpetual importance on this region; current and specific U.S. foreign policy goals are directly related to operational efforts of coalition forces in Central Asia and are also due to a strategic importance of the region on the globe’s central arena.

Mackinder’s Pivot is the foundation or source material for both Spykman’s and Huntington’s works and all three items will be examined in order to define the characteristics of Central Asia that allow the region to be considered an area of strategic importance. As Spykman said, “Like all good geopolitical analysis, however, the Mackinder study represented a picture of the constellation of forces which existed at a particular time and within a particular frame of reference,” and this analysis attempts to follow that conclusion.

When considered within the context of current events these observations show that the nature of US involvement in Central Asia is not purely logistic but also strategic and that the importance placed on the region involves multiple factors including economic development, infrastructure flows, resource extraction, logistical support, and security strategy.

Part II will feature: the role of the U.S., Russia, and China in Central Asia using current events as support and also a further examination of what the literature on geopolitics has to teach us.