A Troubling "World Island" Grand Tour: A World on Fire
Even though President Obama did an about-face and militarily reintervened in Iraq, one still gets a sense that he does not apprehend the gravity of security events in the world. As the world’s security erodes at an alarmingly fast rate, now is a good time to step back from the liberal philosophies of international relations that capture the American worldview and the Obama administration and look anew at the world through conservative-realist lenses.
Geopolitics has fallen out of fashion in the study of international relations and foreign policy in the United States, but it is an intellectual foundation for realism. Few observers today notice the absence of geopolitical discourse save a few. A return to geopolitical analysis would help make sense of the spreading and sprawling international anarchy from which the world suffers.
One shining reference point in geopolitics is the work of British geographer Sir Halford John Mackinder, who died in 1947. When most people look at a world map, they see oceans populated by continents. But Mackinder looked at the world differently and saw Africa, Europe and Asia as a single landmass stretching from Europe through Russia, into the Middle East and over to South Asia and Asia. He called that landmass the “World Island.” Mackinder reasoned that any power that could control East Europe would command the heartland of the World Island, and, in turn, command the entire world. As distinguished military historian Lawrence Freedman reflected, “What Mackinder offered was a way of rooting the higher-level strategic discourse in the interaction between states and the enduring features of their environment.”
The World Island today is ablaze with fires of conflict. And these fires mingle and combine in today’s globalized world to an extent unprecedented in human history. Events at the western coast of the World Island impact events in the central and eastern coasts, and vice versa. The cascading effects of conflict travel across the World Island at the speed of Internet and into the minds of rivals, friends and foes.
The World Island’s coast in North Africa is on fire with political instability. Libya is torn by war between tribal militias and Egypt has resorted to an authoritarian dictatorship masquerading as a democratically elected government. Militant Islam is fueling violence beneath the Sahara, causing massive refugee flows up into northern Africa and into Europe. These refugees add to others fleeing violence and economic turmoil from the Middle East and South Asia. These increasing immigration flows are placing acute demographic pressures on European states. Refugees in the world today number some 50 million people, the greatest number of refugees since World War II.
Close to the heartland of the World Island, Russia has started a fire and Europeans are paralyzed with shock and apologetics that war has returned to Europe. While European states and NATO over the past two decades triumphantly celebrated the “winning” of the Cold War, they imprudently allowed their military prowess to disintegrate. Russia, meanwhile, nurtured its bitter, wounded pride and began rebuilding its military forces. Russia used a cunning mixture of intelligence, propaganda, duplicitous diplomacy, paramilitary, special-operations forces, threats of conventional military power and coercive economic power to conquer Crimea. Moscow is using the same toolkit—with the deadly addition of medium-range surface-to-air missiles that undoubtedly downed a Malaysian passenger aircraft—to dismantle what is left of Ukraine. Russia threatens to employ the same arsenal to intimidate (or worse) the Baltic States, and states in the World Island’s heartland. European nations are intimidated by a Russia that could retaliate against them economically with restrictions of energy supplies and investment, should they move to implement more assertive economic sanctions on Moscow.
In the center of the World Island, the Middle East is ablaze with the upending of governmental authorities and the degeneration of nation-states formed out of the post–World War I rubble. While the collapse of the Ottoman Empire led to the redrawing of political maps in the Middle East, the rapid regeneration of militant Islam is redrawing states on the World Island today. Osama bin Laden was put into a body bag and his old Al Qaeda leadership has been eclipsed by a variety of metastasized militant Islamic movements located around the World Island from Boko Haram, to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, to al-Shabaab and to the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS), which essentially erased the border between Syria and Iraq.