Part IV: This essay is the fourth in our week-long series on geopolitics by Hal Brands, the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs at the Johns Hopkins University and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can read part one here, part two here, and part three here, and part five here.
“The end of everything we call life is close at hand and cannot be evaded,” wrote H.G. Wells in 1946. It’s easy to see why he thought so. The first two rounds of the struggle for Eurasia had consumed, collectively, 80 million lives. The most destructive war on record had ended only with the use of the most destructive weapons mankind had ever designed. Now the victors of that conflict were turning against each other, presaging a third global showdown—one that might break civilisation altogether.
Another clash for supremacy indeed followed, one that played out mostly in the endangered rimlands around a Soviet-dominated heartland, while also spilling into rear and flanking theatres around the world. An authoritarian state within Eurasia reached for hegemony; a coalition led by a liberal superpower resisted desperately. Diplomatic crises, arms races, and brutal proxy wars were commonplace; the threat of cataclysmic violence was inescapable. The contenders may have changed, but the basic patterns of global affairs remained the same.
But only to a point. Contrary to Wells’ expectations, the Cold War did not become another great-power hot war, nor did it lead to another collapse of the Eurasian balance. It resulted, instead, in the peaceful—relatively speaking—defeat of the Soviet Union and the creation of a world more favourable to democracy than ever before. It was a revolutionary departure from recent history, which required a revolutionary change in American strategy. The Soviet Union may have looked a lot like the realisation of Mackinder’s original nightmare. The free world’s answer looked a lot like his vision of a democratic security community that could break the cycle of violent conflict over Eurasia and, by extension, the globe.
The heartland menace
Mackinder died in 1947, so he lived long enough to glimpse the danger he had long foreseen. Stalin’s Soviet Union was the epitome of a heartland menace. It was a bloody tyranny that used brute-force modernisation to become an industrial juggernaut. It combined the imperial ambitions of the tzars with the universalism of the communists. It had emerged from the Second World War as an unrivalled land power, and its position at the centre of Eurasia gave it access to industrialised or resource-rich rimlands—Western Europe, East Asia, the Middle East—all around. Not least, it was an island of strength in a vast expanse of weakness: The radicalism and chaos that engulfed Eurasia after the war created tantalising opportunities for Soviet expansion.
Stalin certainly wasn’t averse to aggrandisement. Between 1945 and 1950, he would ruthlessly consolidate control of Eastern Europe, forge an alliance with Mao’s China, and create a communist bloc running from Germany to the Pacific. He would probe for weakness in Iran, Turkey, Scandinavia, Korea, and elsewhere around the Soviet periphery. And while Stalin didn’t necessarily want war, he fully expected that the contradictions of capitalism would eventually spark another global conflict that would open the way to Soviet hegemony. “Stalin looked at it this way,” his former foreign minister recalled. “The First World War has wrested one country from capitalist slavery. The Second World War has created a socialist system. A third world war will finish off imperialism forever.”
Throughout the rimlands, fears of heartland domination were pervasive. French officials worried that economic collapse would lead to communist coups—or simply communist electoral victories—throughout Europe. British leaders warned that stricken non-communist countries would be conquered, subverted, or coerced into submission one-by-one. The democratic world might well relive “our experience with Hitler,” foreign secretary Ernest Bevin said, suffering a “slow deterioration of our position” until there was no option other than war.
In the late 1940s, then, the prospect that Stalin might win an empire even more vast than Hitler’s was all too real. Yet that scenario didn’t ultimately materialise, in part because Stalin was not, in fact, Hitler, and in part because his enemies understood that organising to preserve the Eurasian balance now was better than scrambling to repair it later.
Creating the free world
Stalin wasn’t less malevolent than Hitler, and his ultimate aim—the global overthrow of capitalism—wasn’t any less revolutionary. Yet he and his successors were more deterrable than Hitler: Their “scientific” confidence that Marxism-Leninism would eventually triumph made them comparatively cautious about provoking war prematurely. Moscow would press relentlessly for advantage; it might use force when conditions were right. But it would retreat when it hit strong resistance, which gave the free world—as George Kennan wrote in 1947—an opportunity to contain Soviet influence until the communist system either mellowed or collapsed from its own contradictions.
The trick was to take a preventive, rather than reactive, approach to balancing. The United States could not allow, through its own inaction, another totalitarian rampage across Eurasia. It must create, in peacetime, the strategic linkages that would prevent a deadly imbalance of power from leading, again, to war. And given that the threat was now emerging from a former US ally in the heartland, Washington would have to make common cause with the very rimland powers it had just defeated. ‘Any world balance of power means first and foremost a balance on the Eurasian land mass,’ wrote Kennan. ‘That balance is unthinkable as long as Germany and Japan remain power vacuums.’
What emerged was a strategy that blended ruthless geopolitics with democratic ideals. The United States identified the areas that had to be denied to the Soviets, focusing first on Western Europe (along with neighbouring countries such as Greece and Turkey), and secondly on Japan and the offshore island chain in the Western Pacific. These areas had sufficient industrial might to tip the global balance in favour of whoever controlled them. They were also strategically situated to block easy Soviet access to the Atlantic, the open Pacific, and the Mediterranean.
The United States then used its unmatched economic and technological prowess to bring moribund countries back to life, imparting an economic stability that reduced the danger of political collapse. It established military alliances to bolster these countries against aggression or intimidation, and stationed US forces in highly exposed areas to ensure America would be in any fight from the beginning. Washington also cultivated, although not always consistently, democratic values at the core of this emerging free world, fostering diplomatic cohesion and common moral purpose.
Containment was thus a conservative strategy with revolutionary implications — and revolutionary effects. By suppressing historical antagonisms between countries of the rimland (Germany and France, Japan and its neighbours), America’s alliance network allowed them to achieve unprecedented peacetime cooperation against the heartland threat. American military protection and economic support enabled democratic prosperity that would ultimately prove fatal to stagnating communism. And the creation of a non-communist bloc that spanned multiple continents, and effectively encircled the Soviet-dominated heartland, fostered a free-world overbalance of power that, in the end, would doom Moscow.
‘Our alliance system,’ US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles said in 1954, ‘has staked out the vital areas of the world’ and fused them tightly to Washington. America’s pre-1945 strategy in Eurasia had involved joining ad hoc coalitions in times of war. Its post-1945 strategy involved anchoring an enduring, transoceanic community that might keep the peace.
It wasn’t that simple, of course. The Cold War is sometimes portrayed as a forty-year stalemate in which the West quickly erected defences and then waited for the enemy to collapse. In reality, it featured continual manoeuvring and probing, as Moscow tried to escape containment and the West grappled with the ensuing dilemmas.
The arms race was one area of intense interaction and danger. Moscow, the CIA reported in 1949, had an ‘overwhelming preponderance’ of locally available military power along the East-West divide. The credibility of America’s alliances thus depended on its preponderance of globally available military power — as well as its willingness to start a nuclear war in order to avoid losing a conventional one.
‘If Western Europe is to enjoy any feeling of security,’ one classified document stated, it was because US nuclear weapons balanced ‘the ever-present threat of Soviet military power.’ Yet this meant that adverse shifts in the military balance threatened to destabilise the entire architecture of the free world. Running a protracted arms race was the price of keeping US alliances strong and the Cold War cold.
So was a second imperative — standing firm in tests of strength. The famous diplomatic and military crises of the Cold War — the Cuban missile crisis, three separate Berlin crises, the US–Soviet showdown in the Middle East in 1973, and others — each had specific causes. But each also had broader salience, as a measure of the superpowers’ relative strength and their willingness to run geopolitical risks.
If Washington allowed the Soviets to kick the West out of Berlin, or install nuclear missiles in Cuba, what message would that send to allies whose survival depended on American power and commitment? US officials usually didn’t want to find out, so another burden of containment was its requirement to occasionally stare down the enemy over local stakes that hardly seemed worth global war.
A third set of dilemmas involved what was then called the Third World. After the front lines in Europe began to stabilise, the Soviets pushed more aggressively to turn the free world’s flanks. Ideological radicalism was convulsing critical rimland regions such as Southeast Asia and the Middle East, as well as America’s strategic rear in Latin America. The situation in the Middle East, then-US Secretary of State Dean Acheson commented, ‘might have been devised by Karl Marx himself.’ And if American officials had originally emphasised securing key industrial regions, they soon became terrified that setbacks on the periphery would lead to weakness at the centre.
The Third World was thus where the Cold War featured many hot wars — civil wars fuelled by superpower tensions, major conventional wars in Korea and Vietnam, proxy wars and insurgencies across the global south. It was where containment evolved from a regionally-focused strategy to something more limitless and, periodically, exhausting. Not least, it was where America most struggled to reconcile its democratic ideals with the various expedients — support for dictators, assassination schemes, blatant disregard for human rights — that it used to keep its footing on unstable ground. ‘There are degrees of evil,’ one US official explained: If Cold War strategy prioritised democratic solidarity in the First World, it required a more flexible morality in the Third.
An ugly game
The United States never fully resolved these problems. Once the Soviets developed their own intercontinental nuclear strike capabilities, for instance, American officials spent years worrying that US strategy — which relied on the threat of nuclear escalation — might now be bankrupt. During the Vietnam War, the United States invested so much in defending a peripheral theatre that it nearly destroyed its ability to compete effectively around the globe. By the late 1970s, it appeared that the Soviet Union might be gaining the edge in the arms race and the struggle for the global south. But the United States did ultimately manage these dilemmas successfully enough, through a mix of enduring commitment and continual innovation.
America never stopped pushing for the nuclear advantage needed to make its alliances credible. During the late 1970s and 1980s, it would develop sophisticated capabilities and aggressive military doctrines meant to restore the strategic superiority that would keep Moscow under wraps. At the same time, the Pentagon was pursuing technological breakthroughs — Stealth bombers, precision-guided munitions, and others — that finally began to negate the Soviet conventional advantage.
In the Third World, the United States shifted, after its enervating tragedy in Vietnam, to a strategy of contesting Soviet advances — and punishing Soviet overreach —through proxy wars, covert intervention, and other limited-liability means. Finally, the United States developed the means to fill gaps in the containment barrier: the creation of the Rapid Deployment Force in the 1980s was intended to keep the Soviet Union bottled up in the heartland by denying it easy access to the Persian Gulf.
This game of geopolitical cat-and-mouse was rarely pretty. But over time, it put more pressure on the Soviet Union than the Soviet Union could put on the outside world. It bought time for the economic and political failures of communism to become manifest, and for the economic and political success of democracy to put Moscow at a hopeless deficit. It also allowed the disadvantages of the Soviet Union’s central position to do their work.
If the great benefit of Soviet geography was the potential for omnidirectional expansion, the great detriment was that it also gave a brutal, repulsive autocracy the chance to make enemies all around. By the late 1950s the aspirations of one communist empire in Eurasia (the Soviet Union) were slamming into those of another (Mao’s China). The Sino-Soviet breakup would cut the communist world in half; it led to a tacit Sino-American alliance through which Beijing used the ‘far barbarians’ to keep the ‘near barbarians’ at bay. That partnership left the Soviet Union hopelessly surrounded — and it underscored just how much ideologically diverse resistance bids for Eurasian domination can provoke.
When the Soviet Union finally conceded defeat in the late 1980s, it precipitated the liberation of Eastern Europe, the retreat of Kremlin influence across the global periphery, and the breakup of the Soviet state itself. Even before that, the Cold War had birthed a thriving free world that laid the foundations for today’s liberal international order. The third round of the struggle for Eurasia thus wrought global changes almost as fundamental as those wrought by the prior two rounds, with only a sliver of the accompanying violence.
Nuclear weapons deserved some credit for this: The fact that warfare had become so apocalyptic made it less useful as an instrument of policy. Yet the structure of nuclear deterrence that emerged during the Cold War was closely linked to a new structure of global politics, in which an offshore power permanently tied itself to the defence of onshore allies. Technology once again shaped the Eurasian century, but in a way that was itself shaped by strategic choice.
The free-world security system also delivered a final benefit — geopolitical stability that outlasted the superpower rivalry. Germany and Japan did not, as some observers had feared, turn revisionist after the Cold War ended, because they were deeply connected to a strategic community of democracies led by Washington. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, in fact, there was no actor, or coalition of actors, that could plausibly use Eurasia as a platform for global aggression. The international community had its ‘best chance”’ in centuries, US President George W. Bush declared in 2002, ‘to build a world where the great powers compete in peace instead of prepare for war.’
Yet history hadn’t ended, and the Eurasian century hadn’t either. In 1942, the Dutch-American political scientist Nicholas Spykman warned that ‘a modern, vitalised, and militarised China’ might dominate the Western Pacific. Thirty-eight years before that, Mackinder predicted that if China expanded within Eurasia, it might pose the greatest threat ‘to the world’s freedom’ because it ‘would add an oceanic frontage to the resources of the great continent.’ When the Cold War ended, that prospect seemed very distant. Today, it looms very large.