I always had two historical loves which won out over all the others. Sure, there isn’t a time and place I can’t not find interesting or even devote significant amount of time to reading up on, but my true loves that beat all the others are Eurasian nomads and Native American studies. So it has been since my teens, and remains so to this day. Just today I realized a concept I learned in the study of one might make more sense applied to the other.
When I made the transition into International Relations I became aware of geopolitics. There was a lot to disagree with as well as agree with and parsing through the gems from the coal became one of the purposes of this very blog. Even the founding article of the field, Mackinder’s ‘The Geographic Pivot of History’, is so full of holes a knowledgeable person can leap through with space to spare. But this first halting step did create new and interesting discussions in policy circles back in its original context of rampant Russophobia in Britain and the Anglo-Japanese Alliance and Russo-Japanese War which was occurring at the time of its publication. Though that war would show that the Romanov Dynasty had feet made of clay and that Germany was Britain’s true rival, the core thesis had one very stark and obvious insight: that Eurasia was rich in population and resources and the closest thing we have to a super-continent right now. Thus if one power could dominate it, it would truly be unstoppable and quite possibly unassailable. If anything, Soviet defense in depth and being able to shuffle resources back and forth from frontiers with Germany and Japan in response to changing circumstances lent the theory some real world credit in the Second World War. It certainly interested Cold War strategists in the NATO world.
Nowadays, it has spawned a quite bizarre, almost theosophist-mystic form of geopolitics in Russia. Alexander Dugin, a kind of Blavatsky-Evola-Rasputin hybrid creature, waxes poetically about Russia’s need to directly annex a variety of countries and regions and apply them to some kind of fascistic definition of Eurasian solidarity that would have made the tolerant and flexible Mongols he claims to idolize sneer in contempt. But that is a different subject from this post. Brzezinski’s book ‘The Grand Chessboard’ shows the American take on the subject is still here as well. The point is, whether for good or ill, World-Island Theory (the term for Eurasia’s central role in geopolitics) is still strong. And while I hold the central observation of Eurasia’s massive importance to be largely correct, I dispute that it has yet to achieve its potential. North America, on the other hand, already has.
In a great irony of prehistory, the horse, which first evolved in North America, would end up going extinct there while the Eurasian migrated branches of the species would survive, thrive, and go on to play such an important role in human history. The Americas, by and large, are severely lacking in indigenous domesticated animals which can be put to human use. Jared Diamond’s ‘Guns Germs and Steel’ and Charles Mann’s book ‘1491’ goes further into detail into the science behind this observation, as do many other works. The point is, lack of such beasts hampered both mobility and disease resistance, as this is mostly acquired through close contact by living with domestic animals. As it was, when horses returned they quickly went wild, almost as coming home. The Plains tribes rose to a massive gain of power projection and living standards practically overnight in the late 17th and early 18th Centuries due in no small part to these creatures. All this despite already have suffered through waves of depopulating plagues. By that point it was too late to undo the effect of thousands of years of their absence, but the rise of the Comanche Empire, which would humiliate the frontiers of New Spain and then Mexico for over a century despite a calamitous demographic situation for the Native population speaks volumes.
Imagine, if you will, a world where horses never died out in the Americas before being reintroduced by the Spanish.The percentage of the land taken up by the Great Plains is far larger, proportionally, than the great Eurasian Steppe, where the nomadic people there did so much to spread trade and technology from one end of the land mass to the other. One suspects it would be a realm of large empires and thriving trade cities connecting the eastern forest and river peoples to groups far further afield than they otherwise would have direct contact with, such as the Tlingit, Haida, and other Pacific Northwest peoples who had probably the highest living standards of the pre-industrial world and (possibly) a few tenuous trade links to Asia. The greater effort of technology and commerce travelling north-south as opposed to east-west (due to more shifting climate zones) could be overridden by the massive interconnectedness of the Great Plains under nomadic empires. As it was, even with the tragic and utterly unnecessary genocide and driving to the periphery of the Native peoples of North America, a small collection of fractious colonies on the eastern seaboards of both the US and Canada would find a rapid expansion followed by an intense interconnections of resources and peoples-first through rail and then through interstate highways. Now, cheap domestic flight seals the deal.
As with all things geopolitics, this is not permanent. It is the interplay of social sciences with the physicality of geoscience and geography that really make the discipline when it is being thorough. One dominant state in the center of the landmass with cordial relations with its two neighbors is not a permanent situation…but it is so far the most ideal conjunction of forces for the wielding of great power politics on a global scale than has ever so far existed. Control of the North American world-island means the security to build bases and dominate trade routes around the entire planet. The British had no defense beyond their navy in a multi-polar Europe, the Mongols were a small minority who ruled with a relatively light hand, and the Spanish came into such a glut of wealth they suffered hyperinflation and became prey for other countries’ pirates. So far, out of this group, only the United States has equaled if not surpassed the Mongolian geopolitical achievement.
Good North American strategists see that it is the ocean that is both the highway and the fortification protecting this remarkably secure and wealthy apparatus from Arctic to Panama Canal, bad ones overextend themselves dangerously into Eurasia and Africa. For North America (specifically the United States as the core of this order) to re-learn the strategy it has lost through smug complacency since the fall of the USSR, some kind of American Maritime Focused Hadrian figure is necessary. Right now there is no such thing in the running for leadership…though Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard points to a distinct possibility for the future.
It seems such a waste for such a conjunction of positive forces to be squandered on nation building outside of core maritime connections. Not to mention the human cost of many of these ill-fought out interventions. Perhaps in the future I can write a post about what allies are actually critical to the American edifice. North American geopolitical thinkers also need not fear about Eurasian unification, it is much larger, much more divided (both geographically and culturally) and could only be unified under circumstances that do not presently nor could foreseeably exist in the near future. Eurasia, in the end, is actually a super-continent build for balance-of-power politics, not so much hegemony. After all, when various Chinese dynasties were the leading scientific and technological forces of the world, they still could not meaningfully exert this dominance too far afield. So long as powerful maritime states exist outside of Eurasia, they cannot make such an attempt in the future. The large populations of South Asia and East Asia are not coming together anytime soon, and even a demographically challenged Russia is still playing the game. And even a Eurasia-dominating empire would no longer necessarily be able to overtake a stable North America that retains its decisive role in South America. The cumulative sea-surrounded landmass of the Americas, no longer as hampered by climactic variation and choke-points as it once was, could verily be the real super-continent for strategist of the future to ponder on.
None of this is to say that North America will never split apart. The Washington DC hegemony splintering or becoming a Byzantine rump state is always a possibility, causing the political geography of North America itself to create its own states in the Northeast, Appalachia, Southeast, Plains, Rockies, and northern and southern West Coasts-to say nothing of Quebec, Mayan populated parts of Mexico, and all the many other possible conjunctions. States are like people, they have various and finite lifespans. And like the super-continent cycle itself, division and unification of landmasses under specific rule comes and goes from one to the other. This should make it all the more important that strategists in Washington, Ottawa, and Mexico City make the most of what they have now and not through it away on an altar of faddish economic and political theories which exist to self-congratulate the ruling class. The present order of world affairs is not a product of such forces, but rather of smart strategy applied to fortuitous geography. A world-island, if you can keep it.