When J.R.R. Tolkien was asked, late in life, how he had created the extraordinarily rich and complex world in which his famous adventures took place, he answered that he “wisely started with a map and made the story fit”. Before him, Robert Louis Stevenson gazed at the map of Treasure Island that he had drawn for his own story, and “found the pirates began crawling out of it, Long John Silver with his cutlass between his teeth”. The romance of adventure aligns naturally with a map, for it allows the narrative to unfold step by step, growing into the space delineated. But there is always the danger that maps overwhelm the brute facts of geography, comprising instead a kind of spatial yearning that substitutes for the difficulty of actually bringing the story to life. As long as the story remains fiction though, X really can mark the spot.
Perhaps there is a carto-tropic property of the human mind that exaggerates the significance of maps, substituting an idea of control for the real thing, as if maps contain some secret knowledge, an unknown mountain pass, a sacred river or a hoard of gold. Dreams of controlling territory often turn on wild claims of the strategic importance of hidden pathways and unlocked doors, which is why they form the best plots of spy and adventure novels. Not just Stevenson and Tolkien, but perhaps the greatest of all spy novels—Erskine Childers’s The Riddle of the Sands—also turns on the discovery of a hidden invasion route and a grand conspiracy, the secret knowledge of which is obtained by a couple of sojourning yachtsmen, like Swallows and Amazons for grown-ups. The book even reproduces a series of detailed maps. From John Buchan to Tom Clancy, the sheer number of thrillers that involve secret treaties, oil pipelines and hidden keys that unlock and transform the entire world order would be hard to overestimate.
All these adventure tales do have a serious side, however, in that they often overlay the reality of political and strategic competition. This is particularly so when academics and commentators turn to what is known as “geopolitics”, a field of inquiry in which maps take precedence, for when the geopolitical imagination fires up, maps are taken as opportunities to clarify the strategic facts. But it should occasionally be asked, do they clarify or do they disguise? Jorge Luis Borges, another famous novelist, wrote a one-page story1 about an ancient civilisation of map-makers, whose desire for precision led them to make a 1:1 scale map of their entire empire, which merely crumbled, forgotten into the desert sands after it was, obviously, found to be useless.
Borges was satirising scientists but his story also captures something of the allure of maps and the seductive generalising they encourage, allowing us to visualise what we would like to see over and above what is actually there. This failing, I believe, can also apply to geopolitics, where the urge to make spatial sense of politics leads to what Salvatore Babones has called “mappism”,2 which might be compared to Stevenson’s reaction to his own map of Treasure Island, leaving the contemporary strategist “seeing naval bases and new alliances crawling out of it, Xi Jinping with his Belt and Road clamped firmly between his teeth” when in reality there are just lines on a page.
The Technology of Geography: Or, Why Mackinder was Wrong
To some extent it is of course true that maps matter. Military commanders need to know exactly the contours of any battlefield on which they will engage. Consequently, mountain passes, narrow straits and isthmuses matter for any effort to concentrate and supply force. But on another level, the perceived importance of maps reduces to a misconception, or at the very least a simplification, of geopolitics. A strategist takes geography for granted, assumes that it is broadly fixed, and plans around it. This is why knowledge of terrain and “reading the ground” have historically been critical skills for the battlefield commander. At the battle of Assaye in 18033, for example, Arthur Wellesley (the future Duke of Wellington) personally surveyed the ground, estimating that a river, contrary to the intelligence he had received, was fordable, allowing him to gain a crucial advantage in the ensuing engagement. Scale up these sorts of considerations to the strategic level and although the ground becomes more complex, the task of the strategist remains a proper consideration of the constraints geography applies to force projection.
Geopolitics, however, concerns not the constraints of geography on military action or strategy, but the determining quality of geography on politics. Geopolitical insights are therefore more general, more predictive. Sir Halford Mackinder (1861–1947) suggested that it was possible to determine “geographical causation in universal history”, and although he is considered the progenitor of the discipline of geopolitics one can find many antecedent works that reward serious “geopolitical” reflection. Famously, Alfred Thayer Mahan’s classic The Influence of Seapower upon History (1660-1783)—mentioned in The Riddle of the Sands—is one, but there are many pithy quotes from renowned statesmen of the past. Napoleon, for example declared that “Geography is destiny”, though apparently he made that remark before his invasion of Russia, so perhaps he changed his mind.
The key insights offered by geopolitics were not derived from viewing geography as a constraint but as affecting the character of a nation, or rather, giving rise to a nation’s true long-term interests. England, for example, was geography-bound to be a maritime power, but also to be the dominant maritime power in Europe, on account of its rich supplies of oak, its command of the main sea routes to and from Northern Europe, and its large population of experienced seafarers. Germany, on the other hand, was geography-bound to be an efficiently organised, aggressive state on account of its lack of natural borders. In the twentieth century, geopolitics morphed into arguments about racial domination and living space,4 with well-known results. Then in the Cold War, geopolitics found expression in the containment strategy developed by George Kennan, with its attendant “domino theory” in Asia. Always there were maps, divided up by coloured patches, with indexes of oil production and military bases marked for emphasis.
During this period, however, the original meaning of geopolitics got lost somewhere. Where Mackinder had once said, “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; who rules the World-Island commands the world”, indicating that as far as early geopolitical theorists were concerned control of geography was the key to mastering politics, the twentieth century proved time and again that this was simply false. During the First World War, the “heartland” power of Russia faced constant defeat until it eventually collapsed in revolution. The German empire then poured its forces west to break the allies, only to face American reinforcements, tanks and superior artillery rolling them up in the astonishing “Hundred Days” campaign that followed. Mobility, technology and greater resources won the war; geography was just where it happened.
The Second World War gave geopolitics a second chance with the Germans, the Japanese and the Italians conceiving of their axis as an attempt to remake the world order, or “redraw the map”, carving up the British Empire in the process. Once again, however mobility, technology and greater resources won. If anything, the geopolitical imagination of Adolf Hitler contributed to Germany’s downfall, as the desire to dominate the Russian heartland in search of “lebensraum” and a civilisational victory corroded whatever strategic and tactical sense he had. Nevertheless the British Empire did not survive the experience either, as the technological and economic advantages that had built the empire in the nineteenth century had evaporated by the middle of the twentieth, with the ideology of national self-determination dealing the final blow.
Thereafter, the Cold War took on a geopolitical veneer, with constant talk of force disposition and the strategic layout of different alliance structures. The real struggles, however, were ideological, economic and technological. The USSR didn’t lose the Cold War because it ran out of oil, or couldn’t access the Mediterranean, it lost because the theorised efficiencies of collectivised economics did not materialise. It lost because the US so surpassed it in the technological sphere that the USSR simply could no longer keep up in its military and logistical capabilities.
The geographical extent of US and Soviet alliances ebbed and flowed because of these things, not the other way around. That is to say, the spread of the alliances both the US and the USSR could maintain symbolised their struggle, and was to some extent a measure of their relative strengths. But it was not where the real battles were actually being fought. The real contest was fought in laboratories, factories, supermarkets, on film screens and to some extent even in space. The most intense battles were ideological and consisted in appeals to Gorbachev to “tear down this wall”, something which, in the end, he could no longer prevent. Geopolitics, however enthusiastically the superpowers engaged in it, merely masked the real struggle underneath, the one which saw the Soviet Union utterly overwhelmed by its internal contradictions and eventual self-corruption.
The best evidence for this is that the scholars of international relations most closely associated with geopolitics simply didn’t see the end of the Cold War coming at all. What they saw, and continued to see right up to the end, were army divisions, air bases, missile silos and oil reserves. By this time geopolitics had lost so much of its original meaning—that geography determines history—it had become a sort of reductionist vernacular of materialist power projection, a hard version of realism, entirely devoid of normative or economic analysis. Lacking even the stuff of politics itself, being appeals to authority, legitimacy, nation, all set aside for extended exercises in desiccated number-crunching. Hence, when the Soviet economy stagnated, they viewed the problem merely as derivative or “second order” rather than corrosive to the entire system.
The premature end of geopolitics?
After the end of the Cold War it became commonplace to regard geography as unimportant. Globalisation had rendered it so, it was claimed. As the world moved towards open markets, free capital movement, better transport and communications, geography would become ever less important as a determining factor of anything and we would all drink coffee from Indonesia or Colombia according to taste, while sitting at the same branded cafés on gentrified streets in nowhere-ville, chatting instantly using our network in everywhere-else-town on our smartphones.
The only mistake in this pleasing scenario, however, is to imagine that geography only became irrelevant as a determining feature of politics after the end of the Cold War, when in fact it happened long before. While Mackinder and his geopolitical disciples tried to master geography, treating it as fixed and relatively unchanging, the twentieth century showed the opposite is true, a fact summed up beautifully by the writer and sinophile Pearl S. Buck, who said, “In our changing world, nothing changes more than geography.” Buck was describing the effect of politics on geography, rather than the other way around, but the phrase clarifies that geography is not remotely stable, and the key reason it is not stable is technology. Oceanic navigation changed the world in the Age of Exploration, steam power—both locomotives and boats—did so again in the nineteenth century, and the twentieth century saw a host of innovations that have transformed the human relationship with geography entirely, expanding the scope of strategic imagination well beyond mere maps. In short, it is technology and economics that change geography, and maps adjust to reflect that. History, it might be better argued, makes maps; maps don’t make history. The heartland, therefore, has no intrinsic value as a strategic concept without the means to master it.
Looking back on Mackinder’s influential text,5 this only becomes more obvious in retrospect. For Mackinder didn’t light upon his insights because generations of historians had overlooked it, but precisely because of the arrival of the railway. He saw the ability to move troops quickly over vast distances as strategically decisive, and compared it to the mobility of the Mongol and Turkic steppe lords. He surmised that Russia’s vast scale, and the growing ease of transport occasioned by long-distance railway, would endow Russia with unmatched material advantages for the supply of food and all important commodities. Moreover, he theorised that rail transport would be cheaper over long distances than transport by sea, on the basis that rail implies “only two handlings” as opposed to four by ship. Accordingly, he declared that “the century will not be old before all Asia is covered with railways”. He was referring, of course, to the twentieth century and he couldn’t have been more wrong.
There remains only one main line across Russia, which was under construction when Mackinder was writing and was completed in 1916. More than this, larger ships and containerisation mean sea transport is about one third the cost of the cheapest rail transport today, meaning that in practice no commercial or geopolitical advantages for the heartland exist. Nevertheless, what is striking is that Mackinder’s main argument doesn’t really turn on geography anyway, but the use technology can make of geography. Implicit within his argument is that geography, insofar as humans interact with it, is an artefact of technology and economics, not the other way around. So even in the late nineteenth century, and according to the argumentative logic of the father of geopolitics, geography cannot determine politics at all, instead it merely constitutes an amphitheatre in which political struggle takes place, to the advantage of the technologically and economically superior power.
The Belt and Road fallacy
For years, however, influential commentators have spoken of a “Return of Geopolitics”,6 arguing that the retreat of globalisation has seen great powers jockeying for “influence” in strategically significant regions. Increasingly the word geopolitics makes an appearance in newspaper and journal articles without further explanation, as if merely describing an observable fact. The use of the word return in the referenced article above is instructive for it echoes the classic distinction in international relations between idealism and realism, where realism is cast as the default, to which all idealistic deviations “return” when shown to be hopelessly naive. Accordingly, geopolitics is cast as the norm, and globalisation as the idle dream from which we are now being rudely awakened. The muscular strategists are once again contemplating their moves on a map. Politics, just as it was in the nineteenth century, and all the way back to the ancient Greeks, is reduced to contests over territory where ruthless calculation of material interests governs without recourse to elevated claims of “justice” or “right”.
In one respect there is some value in a restrained form of geopolitical analysis in that the habits of the past often inform the practice of the present. History has left its imprint on regional animosities, ensuring that some of the same territories and loyalties remain stuck in a conflictual echo chamber with the ebb and flow of instability and war. Iran and Iraq, for example, still vie for the borderlands of Persia and the Ottoman empire. Russia, famously, still conceptualises its interests territorially over the Crimea and the Caucasus. But it is the more expansive view of geopolitics that has made a recent comeback, and no more emphatically than with China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Brainchild of Xi Jinping, the Belt and Road Initiative promises to revive the old Silk Road, and reawaken the spirit of Admiral Zheng He with a Chinese maritime preponderance from Piraeus to the Pacific and a plenitude of ports and railways wherever conditions allow. With this scheme China aims to reverse centuries of strategic navel gazing and, according to some, reassert its central place in the global economy. Much is made of a map of the world showing how the economic centre of gravity has shifted dramatically from Europe towards China7 in recent decades, and the notion of China’s centrality in global affairs across the centuries—as attested by Peter Frankopan in The New Silk Roads: The Present and Future of the World—is now relatively uncontroversial.8 The period of European global dominance is routinely referred to as an anomaly in historical terms, with the natural order restoring itself alongside China’s rapid economic development.
So neatly do these stories dovetail with the so-called “return of geopolitics” that the rise of China appears like a seamless transition. Mackinder’s ability to transcend the narrow confines of nineteenth-century Eurocentrism is now regarded by some as magnificent prophecy, heralding the re-emergence of a truly geopolitical imagination, along with the historic power to realise it in the form of an awakening, 2000 (or 5000, according to propaganda) year-old China, reducing 500 years of upstart European history to a mere interlude. Indeed, Europe has been relegated to the status of a peninsula on the supercontinent of Eurasia in perhaps the most explicitly geopolitical—and naturally best-selling—book of the modern era,9 Bruno Macaes’s The Dawn of Eurasia. The zeitgeist, it seems, is Eurasian, and the Belt and Road is its symphony in concrete.10
These books by Macaes and Frankopan are by no means alone in zeroing in on geopolitical certitudes. The idea of China’s rise is so deeply carved in the stone of contemporary political analysis it can be difficult to dislodge, but the problem with much of the literature is the taking for granted that, ultimately, geography settles matters of political struggle. On the one hand, this can be accounted for by the sheer scale of China, which when properly organised cannot help but create waves. Napoleon, for example, famously said, “Let China sleep, for when she wakes she will shake the world.” On the other hand, however, the modernising technocrat has a weakness for plans over the messy business of liberty. The apparent success of Roosevelt’s New Deal, the rapid growth of Soviet Russia in the 1950s, and the almost mythical competence of Japan’s MITI during the 1980s have left the impression that real progress needs vision and authority, something Communist China seems perfectly suited to provide. Leashing China’s singular purpose to its sheer size cannot but draw the world’s “centre of economic gravity” towards it.
Yet there is nothing necessary or automatic about this, and there has always been scepticism towards the Belt and Road. In 2015 I researched and wrote a feature article11 about what was then the One Belt One Road (shortened to OBOR), and encountered doubts in China and elsewhere about its genuine viability. The broad policy has always been comprehensible, but commercial logic and investment returns rarely respond to strategic hopes, and there was always a profound danger that the Chinese government, flush with cash, would merely breed a herd of white elephants before properly understanding that an empire is not just for show; to be worthwhile it must generate a return. Rarely is it mentioned that the idea of a “Eurasian Land Bridge” first emerged in the fringe, not to say crackpot, thinking of Lyndon LaRouche back in 1997.12
Looking at the impressively wide scatter of differentiated projects aggregated under the BRI banner today, however, provides little reassurance that this will ever be the case. Railways in Africa that don’t work properly13 or will never pay for themselves,14 ports with no traffic,15 lines on a map with only the most abstract rationale. Government officials privately admit16 they will eventually have to write off tens of billions in uneconomic investments. In 2019 the actual value of investment going overseas dropped like a stone17 as China tried to stabilise a faltering economy and a sinking exchange rate. Nor, in the wake of COVID-19, has it yet recovered.
Even the much-heralded railway transport routes to Europe were found recently to be routinely loaded up with empty containers,18 merely harvesting transport subsidies from different regional governments in China, who in turn are trying to secure central government funds that come with aligning their regional plans with Xi Jinping’s personal project, the Belt and Road Initiative. There is a clear danger the whole project has become little more than a merry-go-round for state subsidies, with only the most ephemeral grasp on the prospect of real, aggregate economic returns even over the long term.
Recent reported problems with the port of Gwadar in Pakistan have perhaps greater long-term significance. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is a linchpin of China’s Belt and Road. Not only has China long cemented its alliance with Pakistan as the “All-Weather Friendship”,19 but the mappists have also always noted the “route to the Indian Ocean” this “economic corridor” permits, imagining a constant stream of lorries threading over the Karakoram Highway (notably not an “all-weather” route) and pouring Chinese merchandise into the Indian Ocean basin, or supplying a strategically crucial naval base for the protection of oil shipments from Iran.
In reality, Pakistan now finds itself with almost unpayable debts to China while turning to the IMF20 as the costs of servicing those debts spiral out of control. The problems at the port itself have become so bad21 the Chinese government has scaled back its investment and warned that this may adversely affect the entire CPEC. Now Pakistan is reportedly turning to Japan22 for assistance with exactly the sort of infrastructure that China specialises in. Of course it may be that other projects meet with greater success, but the CPEC—with its combination of strategic position, infrastructure spending and political friendship—is such an emblematic element of the wider Belt and Road, it is hard to see how the BRI provides China with advantages of any sort without it.
Alongside these and other problems comes news that China is now the world’s largest creditor nation,23 with considerable outstanding liabilities extended to some pretty unstable states which will inevitably struggle to repay. On its own these problems may be manageable if China’s economy was secure and resilient, but beyond the general lack of transparency, it is abundantly clear that China has many problems of its own internally. Most particularly China’s debt load has increased to eye-watering levels after a decade of historically unprecedented credit stimulus during which in only one year has nominal growth not been dwarfed by enormous credit creation, prompting repeated warnings from the International Monetary Fund24 and the Bank for International Settlements. Many commentators have noted these incongruities, but just as geopolitics encourages a kind of “mappism”, years of constant growth and reductionist, breathless commentary have produced what the economist Michael Pettis calls “GDPism”25, a term he borrows from Giuseppe Gabusi, in which the normally reliable wisdom of crowds becomes focused on the wrong variable.
In the case of China, what we see on the surface is prolonged high growth, five-year plans and the appearance of a strategic, long-term view with a focus on infrastructure; what economists sometimes call “building the economy of tomorrow”. According to a different perspective, however, we can equally see a huge amount of state-driven catch-up growth, funded by the world’s largest-ever wager on expansionist economics with an obsession for building infrastructure, producing an investment and debt bubble so unbalanced the whole thing is on the point of capsizing. Each different perspective produces a radically different interpretation of the Belt and Road Initiative. To those enthralled by China’s state-driven narrative of ever-advancing growth, the BRI looks like a natural outgrowth, and indeed the inevitable, and irresistible assumption of their natural position in the global economy. To those more sceptically minded, it looks like the Tokyo property market in 1992.
Irrespective of which view you take, the BRI is what is known as an epiphenomenon, in that it is not where China’s future will be determined. By investing in ports, railways and assorted infrastructure China may facilitate its trading relations with a large number of states around the world, but unless those investments generate an economic return for China, they will just become one more faded dream, the ruins of which will inspire travelogues for the curious citizens of the twenty-second century, like Darien, or the Nabatean city of Petra. In this sense, “mappism” and “GDPism” are much the same phenomenon, occasioned by an overconfidence in expectation and a habit of disregarding contrary indicators, giving rise to a kind of economic and strategic misdiagnosis that may look quite ridiculous in retrospect.
Roll Up That Map Of Eurasia, We Shall Not Need It At All
All talk, therefore, of a “return of geopolitics” must be weighed against much of twentieth-century history, during which it featured prominently at the beginning, then declined until geopolitics formed merely the reductionist vernacular of static realism, subject to radical revision whenever some new technology emerged to transform ideas about the limitations geography imposes on political control. This recent upsurge in the discourse of geopolitics coincided with the end of a period of technology transfer and market opening that made the earth flatter than it had once seemed, but the same rise in the popularity of the underlying ideas may also have given an apparent, but ultimately fraudulent, intellectual ballast to a monumental strategic error on the part of an ambitious rising power—namely China.
So committed has China under Xi Jinping been to the glowing vision of international influence and strategic reach known as the BRI, that it has crowded out common sense. So attractively did these maps of connectivity adumbrate China’s proclaimed hegemony, that they transcended critical faculties in think-tanks and editorial offices around the globe, producing not just colourful maps criss-crossed by lines of intent, but a conceptual trap, into which a hubristic China has resolutely fallen. As, therefore, one project after another faces delay or cancellation, and one country after another asks for their debts to be rescheduled for want of an ability to pay, China’s horizons will narrow once again until they retreat behind the great firewall. The focus then will return to the economic sphere and the domain of technological progress, and once that happens, China’s fortunes look pretty bleak.
China is at the end of an enormous debt-fuelled expansion. The rest of the world, seized by GDPism, has watched China build more infrastructure than it can use, and more apartments than it has people to fill them, and confused this for wise economic statecraft. China now maintains an export surplus it depends upon, while its much-heralded domestic consumers are retreating to nurse the huge mortgages they took on to purchase their wildly overvalued homes. China’s population is growing older, faster than in almost any other country. Now, like the US in the 1920s, Russia in the 1950s and Japan in the 1990s, China is reaching the point where the miracle proves no such thing, and the consequences of believing it all too readily become slowly apparent.
The most egregious of those consequences is the Belt and Road Initiative itself, which, as we get further from the fanfare of hope that accompanied its promulgation, looks more and more like a scattered assemblage of struggling and questionable investments, without coherent justification or rationale, producing no particular advantages for China, yet still exciting the romantic imagination of the mappists as it crumbles, increasingly forgotten, back into the desert sands.
Douglas Bulloch is an international relations scholar who was born in Canada, grew up in the UK, spent some years in Shanghai and now lives in Hong Kong.
1 Jorge Luis Borges On Exactitude in Science. Which can be found in his collected works and is widely available online.
3 Jac Weller, Wellington in India, Chapter X (London: Frontline Books, 2013)
4 The geopolitical work of Karl Haushofer is often thought to have inspired the Nazi policy of Lebensraum, which reduces politics to racial struggle over space and ‘living room’.
5 For a pdf of The Geographical Pivot of History follow this link;
6 Walter Russell Mead, “The Return of Geopolitics”, Foreign Affairs, May/Jun 2014.
This article is typical of many, and notable because it reoccupies one of the in-house journals for geopolitical thinkers of the past.
7 The notion of an economic centre of gravity is taken to illustrate some important dynamic in global economics, but it is hard to see exactly what, beyond the obvious it really highlights.
The economic centre itself is currently in frozen Siberia, somewhere between Omsk and Yekaterinberg.
8 Probably best expressed by the historian Peter Frankopan in his The Silk Road: A New History of the World (London: Bloomsbury, 2015) and his more recent work The New Silk Roads: The Present and Future of the World (London: Bloomsbury, 2018)
9 Bruno Macaes The Dawn of Eurasia: On the Trail of the New World Order (London: Penguin 2018)
10 Macaes followed his 2018 publishing success with another book focussed on The Belt and Road: A Chinese World Order (London: Hurst, 2019)