By: Igor Shchebetun and Alessio Calzetti.
From the battlespace of Europe to the borders of the Middle East to East Asia the Soviet Union and the United States did battle for the supremacy of the world. Millions of pairs, who inhabited the 20th century, considered it a fight for the end of history. Both powers used every means at their disposal including nuclear bombs, military espionage, finances, propaganda, cultural ties and many more asymmetric tools. Nearly everything the Americans and the Soviets designed, had an art of dying, but was an excuse for living. For this was the geopolitics of the Cold War.
Bernard Baruch, a financial adviser to presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, to find the Cold War in 1948 as a rivalry between two superpowers, which at the time was the United States and the Soviet Union, who each proceeded to fill the power vacuums left by the defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. The Cold War was a competition between two systems - the US versus the USSR, capitalism versus communism, pluralism versus totalitarianism. The american-soviet struggle was present in the daily lives of people and shaped their identities and beliefs, from technology and espionage to business sports and movies. Nearly everything we hold dear today was formed by the Cold War. So in a way by studying the past we gained a better understanding of the present.
Most historians agree that the Cold War took place between 1947 and 1991. It’s origins however are much more profound and can be traced to the geographical pivot theory by historian Alfred Thayer Mahan, who wrote extensively on global politics. Mahan believed that whoever controlled the world's oceans would come to dominate global politics, since most people live adjacent to the sea. The notion was that a powerful navy allows one to project power by the way of the sea onto the commercial maritime routes that connect the globe. For instance, Mahan’s work encouraged the American government to purchase Alaska, annex Hawaii, construct a strong navy and confront Spain in a war. In global terms, Mahan’s book “The influence of sea power upon history” became mandatory reading in the German and French navies and even inspired the Japanese to fight the Russians in 1904. Considering his monumental impact, Mahan is often considered one of the most critical strategists in world history.
Holding the opposite view was geographer Halford Mackinder, who argued that global power belonged to whoever controlled the heartland. Although, he came a bit later than Mahan, Mackinder’s work would also mold the minds of policymakers to come and he is often considered the father of geopolitics as a field of study. In 1904 Mackinder wrote his most important thesis «The heartland theory», which divided the world in three bodies. The first was the world island, which consisted of Europe, Asia and Africa. The second categorization refers to the offshore islands like the British Isles and the Japanese archipelago, while the final group points out to the Americas and Australia as outlying islands. Within these parameters, Mackinder placed a special emphasis on the world island. This was the most populous and resource rich land combination. Whoever controlled the world island would gain the means to dominate the globe. Within the world island however was the heartland region, which stretched from the Volga to the Yangtze and from the Arctic to the Himalayas. This was the core domain of the world island power. A summary of this theory comes down to the following passage: “Who rules East Europe commands the heartland, who rules the Heartland commands the world island, who rules the world island commands the world”. Going by this theory, Mackinder explained international relations by observing how pivot islands were trying to conquer or at least prevent a singular power from dominating the heartland. This concept explains why Britain always fought against whoever tried to conquer continental Europe like Napoleonic France, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
Alexander Dugin, for instance, who is a modern political analyst with close ties to the Kremlin, has repeatedly written about the need for a Russian based Eurasian power. In the late 19th and early 20th century, making this theory, especially the part concerning East Europe, became a source of inspiration for policymakers from Nazi Germany. Karl Haushofer, a politician and strategist from the Munich University, argued that Germany's national interest was to expand to the east.
Haushofer believed that to command authority over East Europe and thereby pivot into the heartland one had to control the eastern half of Europe as a collective unit, since the landmass was geographically defenseless and like the barriers like mountains and rivers. As Haushofer thought to promote a German Soviet alliance, because their collective output would have overwhelmed the coastal powers, such as France, the United Kingdom and the United States. Most analysts today would argue that there is merit to this claim. However, Haushofer ideas took a turn to the dark side, when Adolf Hitler took the queue and added it to his to-do list. Although Haushofer himself was not a member of the Nazi Party, his work influenced the Nazi leadership and laid the bedrock for what will become known as the leobens round. This infamous expansionist policy sought to permanently remove the indigenous populations of Eastern Europe and repopulate the land with German settlers with the ultimate goal, being to dominate the Heartland region and from there the world island.
From a geopolitical angle the Cold War was a testing ground for these theories, putting the global naval power, the United States against the Soviet Union, which controlled more land than any country. This clash would turn out to be the most epic international power struggle in history. It was essentially a game of chess on a global scale. The Americans sought to contain their Soviet counterparts wherever and whenever. Meanwhile, the Soviet leadership fought desperately to break out the containment by exporting its communist ideology. In the ensuing tug of war, alliances were made. Governments were overthrown and the international community was practically split in two. Underneath the disguise of ideology the age-old geopolitical rules guided the contest. So when Putin says that the breakup of the Soviet Union was a disaster, he isn't referring to the collapse of communism, but the disintegration of the heartland concept. In this regard, one can argue that the grand chessboard of the Cold War still presents the template of modern long-term global politics.