There is no doubt that the post 2021 period has shaken our collective global attention onto things other than Covid, pandemics and global health issues. In some ways the last 6 months has been a dress rehearsal for even greater debate over what are the core responsibilities of governments, corporations and communities. Have we shifted from health, welfare and the climate emergency to things like security, sovereignty and sustainable supply chains?
In this period a long forgotten theory of geopolitics has been given some traction: heartland theory – first expressed in the Edwardian era by British geographer, LSE Director and for a time Liberal Unionist MP Halford Mackinder – and its application to how despots, dictators and democrats view the crucial importance of the Eurasia. From the steppes of Ukraine, to the Pacific ports of the East and the Indian Subcontinent the main thrust of this pre WWI idea was that who controls eastern Europe (say Germany to the Urals) controls Eurasia and this core landmass has a dominance over the rest of the world.
Putin, Xi, Modi and so many others could be seduced to a thinking that this approach has value and that the great struggle to be top dog is the defining global conflict. This would be partially correct and hopelessly wrong.
We have a “land war” in Europe that has lasted more than 200 days in this cycle and has caused significant damage to the safety and security of so many neighbours. Mr Putin is deserving of the title “best salesman for NATO 2022” in his ability to shake the reservations of many in countries like Finland, Sweden, Switzerland and elsewhere over collective security. Premier Xi is facing a renewal of his mandate as supreme leader of the largest illiberal society on earth – with all of its economic, cyber and cultural barriers to dissent. PM Modi is balancing his approach to regional security with an escalation of economic reform in efforts to make India the big population, big impact 21st Century democracy.
We have a financial cliff face of unsustainable economic growth in China with desperate liquidity and home value problems that dwarf the headaches of the West. Limits to growth, pandemic inspired lockdowns of whole cities for what are reportedly less than 100 Covid cases per example and loose regulation of lending for vanity projects all play a part in making Eurasia the epicentre of “thin ice” voodoo economics.
Heartland theory is all about who controls the resources (land, space, sea routes, minerals and peoples of this vast core landmass). It is incredibly attractive for some as it positions the Europe/Asia societies as the ultimate Orwellian geography that enjoys primacy over other zones like the Americas, Oceania and Africa.
This is where the breakdown in thinking occurs: in previous periods of world history the actual control of territory required “on the ground” assets like soldiers, navies, governance and a ruling class. Now the advent of our post digital world gives primacy to tech, narratives, soft power projection and cyber induced colonialism. Whomever controls your internet, mobile devices, platforms, information narrative or cyber safety is the dominant player.
China or the US don’t need to put troops on the ground if their global tech companies (with reach and value that would put the French or German economies to shame) can control your operations of critical infrastructure. If the global debate and news narrative is biased towards Russia or the UK’s world view then warships and treaties are less relevant. If the movement of people across borders is accompanied by cultural shifts and/or pivots in policy (due to home country pressure from say India, China or Turkey) then blunt ultimatums are unnecessary.
Eurasia matters because of the stuff it has: people, landmass, minerals and sea routes. Eurasia is not in the driver’s chair yet because the global leadership of the Anglosphere in many aspects of tech (with a honourable mention to Japan and Taiwan) and narrative making is still significant.
War east of Poland, financial meltdown in the PRC and struggles to contain a China/India contest of willpower all contribute to more instability and less opportunity to be the dominant geography that so many theorists and tyrants were seduced into thinking was destiny.
Business, markets and consumers have a role in determining whether the heartland is the game changer or merely the landscape over which ugly, bitter and costly conflict occurs. I am still putting my money on the societies beyond the heartland to stay the course and prevail.
Noel Hadjimichael is a London based public policy consultant in the security, defence and civil society space with relevant experience working in politics, the civil service, industry and the charitable sectors.