Just as the relentless grinding of the earth’s tectonic plates produces earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, so the endless superpower struggle for dominance over Eurasia is fraught with tensions and armed conflict. Beneath the visible outbreak of war in Ukraine and the U.S.-Chinese naval standoff in the South China Sea, there is now an underlying shift in geopolitical power in process across the vast Eurasian landmass – the epicenter of global power on a fast-changing, overheating planet. Take a moment to step back with me to try to understand what’s now happening on this increasingly embattled globe of ours.
If geology explains the earth’s eruptions, geopolitics is the tool we need to grasp the deeper meaning of the devastating war in Ukraine and the events that led to this crisis. As I explain in my recent book, To Govern the Globe: World Orders and Catastrophic Change, geopolitics is essentially a method for the management of empire through the use of geography (air, land, and sea) to maximize military and economic advantage. Unlike conventional nations, whose peoples can be readily mobilized for self-defense, empires are, by dint of their extraterritorial reach and the perils inherent in any foreign military deployment, a surprisingly fragile form of government. To give an empire a fighting chance of survival against formidable odds requires a resilient geopolitical architecture.
For nearly 100 years, the geopolitical theories of an obscure Victorian geographer, Sir Halford Mackinder, have had a profound influence on a succession of leaders who sought to build or break empires in Eurasia – including Adolf Hitler, U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, and, most recently, Vladimir Putin. In an academic essay published in 1904, when the Trans-Siberian Railway was completing its 5,700-mile crawl from Moscow to Vladivostok, Mackinder argued that future rails would knit Eurasia into a unitary landmass that, along with Africa, he dubbed the tri-continental “world island.” When that day came, Russia, in alliance with another land power like Germany – and, in our time, we might add China — could expand across Eurasia’s endless central “heartland,” allowing, he predicted, “the use of vast continental resources for fleet-building, and the empire of the world would be in sight.”
As the Versailles Peace Conference opened in 1919 at the end of World War I, Mackinder turned that seminal essay into a memorable maxim about the relationship between East European regions like Ukraine, the Central Asian heartland, and global power. “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland,” he wrote. “Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island. Who rules the World-Island commands the World.”
At the core of recent conflicts at both ends of Eurasia is an entente between China and Russia that the world hasn’t seen since the Sino-Soviet alliance at the start of the Cold War. To grasp the import of this development, let’s freeze frame two key moments in world history – Communist Chinese leader Mao Zedong’s Moscow meeting with the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin in December 1949 and Vladimir Putin’s summit in Beijing with Xi Jinping just last month.
To avoid facile comparisons, the historical context for each of those meetings must be kept in mind. When Mao came to Moscow just weeks after proclaiming the People’s Republic in October 1949, China had been ravaged by a nine-year war against Japan that killed 20 million people and a five-year civil war that left seven million more dead. In contrast, having defeated Hitler, seized an empire in eastern Europe, rebuilt his socialist economy, and tested an atomic bomb, making the Soviet Union a superpower, Stalin was at the peak of his strength. In contrast to China’s army of ill-equipped infantry, the Soviet Union had a modern military with the world’s best tanks, jet fighters, and missiles. As the globe’s top communist, Stalin was “the boss” and Mao came to Moscow as essentially a supplicant.
When Mao Met Stalin
During his two-month trip to Moscow starting in December 1949, Mao sought desperately needed economic aid to rebuild his ravaged land and military support for the liberation of the island of Taiwan. In a seemingly euphoric telegram sent to his comrades in Beijing, Mao wrote:
“Arrived in Moscow on the 16th and met with Stalin for two hours at 10 p.m. His attitude was really sincere. The questions involved included the possibility of peace, the treaty, loan, Taiwan, and the publication of my selected works.”
But Stalin surprised Mao by refusing to give up the territorial concessions in northern China that Moscow had won at the 1945 Yalta conference, saying the issue couldn’t even be discussed until their subsequent meeting. For the next 17 days, Mao literally cooled his heels waiting during a freezing Moscow winter inside a drafty dacha where, as he later recalled, “I got so angry that I once pounded the table.” Finally, on January 2, 1950, Mao cabled the communist leadership in Beijing: “Our work here has achieved an important breakthrough in the past two days. Comrade Stalin has finally agreed to… sign a new Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship.”
With Russia giving up its territorial claims in exchange for assurances about demilitarizing the long border between the two countries, their leaders signed a Treaty of Friendship and Alliance in February 1950. It, in turn, sparked a sudden flow of Soviet aid to China whose new constitution hailed its “indestructible friendship” with the Soviet Union. But Stalin had already planted the seeds for the Sino-Soviet split to come, embittering Mao, who later said Russians “have never had faith in the Chinese people and Stalin was among the worst.”
At first, the China alliance proved a major Cold War asset for Moscow. After all, it now had a useful Asian surrogate capable of dragging the U.S. into a costly conflict in Korea without the Soviets suffering any casualties at all. In October 1950, Chinese troops crossed the Yalu River into a Korean maelstrom that would drag on for three years and cost China 208,000 dead troops as well as 40% of its budget. Following Stalin’s death in May 1953 and the Korean armistice two months later, the new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev tried to repair relations by presiding over a massive, yet distinctly inequitable program of economic aid to China. However, he also refused to help that country build an atomic bomb. It would be a “huge waste,” he said, since China was safe under the Soviet nuclear umbrella. At the same time, he demanded the joint development of uranium mines Soviet scientists had discovered in southwest China.
Over the next four years, those initial nuclear tensions grew into an open Sino-Soviet split. In September 1959, Khrushchev visited Beijing for a disastrous seven-hour meeting with Mao. In 1962, Mao finally ended diplomatic relations entirely, blaming Moscow for failing to launch a nuclear strike on the U.S. during that year’s Cuban missile crisis. In October 1964, China’s successful test of a 22-kiloton nuclear bomb marked its arrival as a major player on the world stage. That bomb not only made it an independent world power but transformed the Sino-Soviet split from a war of words into a massive military confrontation. By 1968, the Soviet Union had 16 divisions, 1,200 jet aircraft, and 120 medium-range missiles arrayed along the Sino-Soviet border. Meanwhile, China was planning for a Soviet attack by building a nuclear-hardened “underground city” that spread for 30 square miles beneath Beijing.
Washington’s Cold War Strategy: More than any other event since World War II, the short-lived Sino-Soviet alliance changed the course of world history, transforming the Cold War from a regional power struggle over Eastern Europe into a volatile global conflict…
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