Strategic Geography and the Greater Middle East

By Harkavy, Robert | Naval War College Review, Autumn 2001 | Go to article overview

Strategic Geography and the Greater Middle East


Harkavy, Robert, Naval War College Review


Occupying a pivotal position at the juncture of Europe, Africa, and Asia, the "Greater Middle East"-here defined as the sum of the core Middle East, North Africa, the African Horn, South Asia, and ex-Soviet Central Asia-likewise occupies a crucial position with respect to some of the major issue areas of the contemporary era.1 Those issue areas are energy sources and availability; the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and their delivery systems; and the dangerous pairings involving Israel and the Arabs, Iran and Iraq, and India and Pakistan. Surely, this region in its aggregate has come to be viewed by the contending and aspiring world powers-the United States, Russia, a united Europe, China-as a strategic prize, maybe the strategic prize.

The geographic aspects of these issues can be analyzed by moving from macro to micro, from grand strategy to operations and tactics (climate and terrain). The new missile programs involving WMD do not easily fit within this framework but apply across issues.

TRADITIONAL AND EMERGING IMAGES

A sketch of traditional geopolitical theory would go somewhat as follows.2 Alfred Thayer Mahan and Halford Mackinder advanced what appeared to be contrary views on the relative importance of sea and land power for global dominance. Both focused on a global struggle for power between a Eurasian-based land power and a "rimland" -based sea power in the context of global maritime dominance. Mackinder thought that land power was destined to prevail, because of such emerging technological developments as motorized transport, and road and rail networks, which would simplify logistics between the Eurasian core and the periphery; indeed, he argued, these might also allow the "heartland" power to achieve maritime superiority as well. Mahan read the opposite into emerging technological trends, seeing in them possibilities for dominance by a maritime power, able to project power more easily than before all around the rimland.3

What has been the legacy of geopolitics? Geopolitics must be understood as "a conceptual and terminological tradition in the study of the political and strategic relevance of geography."4 Accordingly, even in the nineteenth century, geopolitics was

concerned with the implications for power politics of the geographical attributes of states, and of their spatial locations .... In the abstract, geopolitics traditionally indicates the links and causal relationships between political power and geographic space; in concrete terms it is often seen as a body of thought assaying specific strategic prescriptions based on the relative importance of land power and sea power in world history.... The geopolitical tradition had some consistent concerns, like the geopolitical correlates of power in world politics, the identification of international core areas, and the relationships between naval and terrestrial capabilities.5

Nicholas Spykman developed the "rimland" thesis in contrast to Mackinder's "heartland" doctrine. Both believed that at given times, certain regions become pivotal.6 Mackinder saw the Russia-Eastern Europe area as pivotal. Spykman contended that considerations like population, size, resources, and economic development combined to make the rimland-peninsular Europe and the coastal Far East-the most significant geopolitical zone, domination of which meant global hegemony. American interests thus dictated that the European or the Far Eastern coastland not be dominated by any hostile coalition.

Saul Cohen has used the term "shatterbelts" as roughly equivalent to the concept of the rimland-"a large, strategically located region that is occupied by a number of conflicting states and is caught between the conflicting interests of adjoining Great Powers."7 Cohen sees the Middle East and Southeast Asia as the primary shatterbelt regions, and, contrary to Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilizations" thesis (about which more below), he holds that "the Shatterbelt appears to be incapable of attaining political or economic unity of action. …

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