A Short Introduction to Geopolitics

Gérard Chaliand and Jean-Pierre Rageau 

Editor’s Introduction:

This short selection from Gérard Chaliand and Jean-Pierre Rageaus’ excellent introduction to the field of geopolitics (1993) provides a succinct and comprehensive overview of the key thinkers and ideas in geopolitical thinking. Anyone interested in geopolitics would do well to begin their inquiry with Chaliand and Rageaus’ atlas. 

The German geographer Friedrich Razel, author of Politische Geographie (1897), developed a number of basic concepts, particularly concerning space, that have inspired geopoliticians. It was the British writer H. Mackinder who in 1904 proposed the notion that the continental part of Eurasia, by virtue of its land mass, forms the world Heartland. According to Mackinder (see maps 1 and 2), who several times revised his geographical delimitation of the heartland, the power that controls this land mass – once potentially Germany, now Russia – threatens the sea powers – once Great Britain, now the United States – that control the World Island – that is, our planet. 

The factors that Mackinder came to include as his thinking developed were communications (including aviation), population, and industrialization. In 1943, he repudiated his 1919 theory (the state that controls the Heartland will dominate the World Island). 

The American Mahan, a geopolitician before the word was invented, put forward as early as 1900 (in The Problem of Asia and Its Effect upon International Politics) the idea that the world hegemony of sea powers can be maintained by control of a series of bases around the Eurasian continent. This view foreshadowed Mackinder’s concept of the World Island, but it led to the opposite strategic conclusions: Sea powers dominate land powers by hemming them in. Therein lies the seed of the theory of containment born of the Cold War. 

Geopolitical concepts were systematized by the Swede Rudolf Kjellen and then adopted by the German geopoliticians, especially Karl Haushofer (1869-1946). German geopolitics developed in three directions: the concept of space (Raum) advanced by Ratzel, meaning the need for a great power to have space available to it; the concept of a World Island enunciated by Mackinder, implying sea power; and the North-South combination of continents put forward by Haushofer (see map 4). The last concept is to be found today in the Eurafrican policy of Western Europe. 

The American N.J. Spykman (map 3) followed Mackinder and adapted his concepts to the circumstances of the 1930s. He argued that only an Anglo-American (sea power) and Russian (land power) alliance could prevent Germany from controlling the Eurasian coastal regions and thus achieving world domination. But he rejected some of Mackinder’s strategic conclusions concerning the importance of controlling the Heartland by giving great importance to control of the Rimland. 

Although it is sometimes excessively systematic, the geopolitical approach is stimulating; but it is so only if there is no lapse into geographical determinism and if all factors in the balance are taken into account. In map 5 we sketch our own approach along these lines, one more in conformity with present-day realities. 

From Chailiand, G. & Rageau, J.P. (1993). A strategic atlas: comparative geopolitics of the world’s powers. Harper Collins.

Map 1

Map 2

Map 3

Map 4

Map 5

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