Spykman’s World According to Francis P. Sempa

Because the subject of this study, Nicholas Spykman, does not quite have the scholarly recognition — not to mention the perhaps popular acclaim — of Alfred Thayer Mahan or Sir Halford Mackinder, this study merits wide attention. The author, an attorney and scholar of security studies, is unusually well qualified to place Spykman in historical context. Spykman’s findings and pronouncements, while somewhat dated to the current student of foreign affairs, nonetheless show a remarkably wide grasp of strategic questions. — Ed.

Spykman's World
Prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Americans and their leaders debated what role, if any, the United States should play in what were then commonly considered “distant” European and Asian conflicts. Similarly, at the end of the Second World War, Americans debated whether and to what extent they should participate in the emerging postwar international order. In the first instance, the United States mobilized its industrial might and manpower to wage total war in Europe, Asia, North Africa, and on the world’s oceans to help defeat Nazi Germany, Italy, and Imperial Japan. In the latter instance, the United States gradually assumed the leadership of a 45-year global effort to contain and, ultimately, defeat the Soviet Empire.

In both instances, U.S. policy hewed to realistic geopolitical moorings that had been brilliantly analyzed and explained in two articles and two books by a Dutch-American professor at Yale University named Nicholas Spykman. These writings earned for Spykman a prominent and lasting place in the field of geopolitical thought alongside such intellectual heavyweights as the American naval strategist and historian Alfred Thayer Mahan, and the great British geographer and statesman Sir Halford Mackinder.

Spykman, at the time he wrote the aforementioned articles and books, was the Sterling Professor of International Relations at Yale who had founded the college’s Institute of International Studies in 1935. He taught at Yale until his untimely death at the age of 49 in 1943. Prior to his work in the field of international relations and geopolitics, Spykman was best known for his pioneering work in the study of the sociological theories of Georg Simmel.1

According to Frederick S. Dunne, Spykman’s colleague and friend at Yale who later directed the Institute of International Studies, Spykman perceived that U.S. national security policy in the mid-to-late 1930s was “ignoring the geographic factor” to its detriment. “The more he studied the location of this country in relation to the rest of the world,” explained Dunne, “the more he became convinced that our security policy was unrealistic and inadequate.” Spykman grasped, according to Dunne, that the “early geopoliticians…brought to light many pertinent facts which our policy makers were ignoring.”2 This perception resulted, initially, in Spykman writing two lengthy articles in 1938 and 1939 in The American Political Science Review on the relationship of geography to foreign policy.

Spykman wrote these articles at a time when Japan had been waging war on the Asian mainland since the early 1930s, Germany and Soviet Russia had intervened on opposite sides in the Spanish Civil War, and German expansionism in Europe and Italian conquests in North Africa had been met by the Western democracies’ ineffectual policy of appeasement. Spykman sensed that the world was lurching toward another great war, and he sought in these articles to explain the fundamental factors that condition the policies of states in the international arena.

President Franklin Roosevelt clearly sensed the danger to U.S. security posed by aggressive totalitarian powers, but he was unwilling to get too far ahead of American public opinion. FDR denounced Japanese and German aggression, and later, once the war in Europe began, cautiously circumvented the Neutrality Act by sending material aid to Great Britain and China. But as late as the election campaign of 1940, Roosevelt still promised the American people that he would not send their sons to fight in another foreign war.

Spykman’s articles in The American Political Science Review were not shrill warnings, like those then being sounded by Winston Churchill, about the growing German and Japanese threats to global security. Instead, Spykman took a political scientist’s approach to the world situation, examining the geopolitical factors that influenced the behavior and affected the security of all great powers.

In “Geography and Foreign Policy” (1938), Spykman discussed the effect of size, world location, and regional location on the foreign policies of nations. Geography, he believed, was the most important factor conditioning the policy of states because, “the geographic area of the state is the territorial base from which it operates in time of war and the strategic position which it occupies during the temporary armistice called peace.”3 Moreover, compared to other factors that influence the foreign policies of states—population density, economic structure, form of government, personalities and prejudices of statesmen—geography is more permanent. “Because the geographic characteristics of states are relatively unchanging and unchangeable,” he wrote, “the geographic demands of those states will remain the same for centuries…”4

Spykman’s review of world history showed that most of the strong, powerful states have been large states, though he recognized that certain smaller powers (Venice, Holland, Great Britain) had, by means of the control of the sea, ruled large empires. Size, he explained, “is not strength but potential strength.” Large size can be either a strength or weakness depending on “technical, social, moral and ideological development, on the dynamic forces within a state, on the political constellation of the past, and on the personality of individuals.”5

The most essential element of a powerful large state, according to Spykman, is “effective centralized control,” which depends upon “the existence of an effective system of communications from the center to the periphery…” Spykman noted in this regard how the Incas, Persians, Romans, French, Chinese, and Russians constructed highways, roads, and canals to knit together their empires. More recently, he explained, railroads and airports “made possible effective integration over wider areas.” The geopolitical trend, he noted, was for states to be able to exercise effective political control over ever larger areas. “[I]t may well be,” he prophesied, “that fifty years from now the quadrumvirate of world powers will be China, India, the United States, and the U.S.S.R.”6

Even more important than the size of a state, according to Spykman, was its location, both in the world and in a particular region. Indeed, Spykman characterized the geographic location of a state as “the most fundamental factor in its foreign policy.”7 He explained further,

The facts of location do not change. The significance of such facts changes with every shift in the means of communication, in routes of communication, in the technique of war, and in the centers of world power, and the full meaning of a given location can be obtained only by considering the specific area in relation to two systems of reference: a geographic system of reference from which we derive the facts of location, and a historical system of reference by which we evaluate those facts.8

Spykman sketched a geopolitical world framework consisting of two great landmasses, Eurasia and North America; three islands, South America, Africa, and Australia; and five major bodies of water, the South Polar Sea, North Polar Sea, and Indian, Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. He reviewed the historical shifts in the world centers of power: from the Middle East, to the Aegean Sea, to the Mediterranean Sea, to Western Europe, to the Atlantic Ocean, to the current (1938) situation where there were four “spheres” of world power, each dominated from different centers, “the Americas from the United States, the Far East from Japan, the heartland of Eurasia from Moscow, and the Eastern Atlantic and Indian Ocean from Europe.”9Spykman concluded that the United States, with direct access to the Atlantic and Pacific basins, was “the most favored state in the world from the point of view of location.”10

With respect to regional location, Spykman divided most states into three types: “landlocked states,” “island states,” and “states which have both land and sea frontiers.”11 Landlocked states usually faced security problems from their immediate neighbors. Island states normally faced potential pressure from other naval powers, but if they are offshore island states (Great Britain and Japan) they could also face security problems from nearby coastal powers. Offshore island states often approached the latter security problem by conquering or colonizing coastal areas, maintaining coastal buffer states, and/or supporting a balance of power between continental powers. States with both land and sea frontiers determined their principal security orientation based on several factors, including the extent of their sea and land frontiers and the power potential of their immediate or nearby neighbors.

Spykman categorized France, Germany and Russia (even though they had both sea and land frontiers) as primarily land-oriented powers. Their respective security problems, historically, emanated from their land neighbors. Great Britain, Japan, and the United States, on the other hand, were island states oriented toward sea power. The United States qualified as an “island” because she had no security issues on her land frontiers with Canada and Mexico. China and Italy, with both sea and land frontiers, had a mixed land-sea orientation due to their world and regional locations.

Spykman held out little hope that the great powers would construct an effective system of collective security. The system then in existence—the League of Nations—was ineffective because it was “not in harmony with basic geographic and political realities.”12 Great Britain and France, for example, viewed events in central Europe and Ethiopia quite differently from a security perspective. To France, central Europe was a region of potentially important allies against Germany, whereas to London the region was a “distant land” of “little interest.” Similarly, to Great Britain, Italian control of Ethiopia was a potential threat to British interests in the Red Sea and Sudan, whereas to France it meant “only a rather unwelcome neighbor near a relatively insignificant colony.”13

States, concluded Spykman, cannot escape their geography “however skilled the Foreign Office, and however resourceful the General Staff.” A state’s foreign policy must reckon with geographic facts. “It can deal with them skillfully or ineptly; it can modify them; but it cannot ignore them. For geography does not argue. It simply is.”14

A year later, this time with Abbie Rollins, Spykman returned to the subject of world politics in a lengthy two-part article entitled, “Geographic Objectives in Foreign Policy.” This piece explored, historically and geographically, the patterns of expansion of states. Spykman believed that the expansionist behavior of states must be viewed over long periods of time because “[s]uch a time-scale avoids the tendency to regard either war or peace as the normal state and reveals states, in their relations with each other, in their true light as struggling power organizations.”

“Other things being equal,” wrote Spykman, “all states have a tendency to expand.”16 This was true of both sea powers and land powers, and it led to what he called “shifts in the balance of forces.” “The realm of international politics,” he wrote, “is like a field of forces comparable to a magnetic field. At any given moment, there are certain large powers which operate in that field as poles. A shift in the relative strength of the poles or the emergence of new poles will change the field and shift the lines of force.”17

The bulk of the article described and provided historical examples of how states tended to expand in strategic geographical terms. States frequently expanded along nearby river valleys which served as routes of communication (Egypt on the Nile, Mesopotamia on the Tigris and Euphrates, China on the Hoang-ho, the U.S. on the Mississippi and Missouri). Landlocked states sought to gain access to the seas and oceans (Babylon and Assyria sought access to the Mediterranean, Balkan powers sought access to the Adriatic, Russia sought access to ice-free ports). Island states often expanded to conquer nearby coastal regions (Great Britain and the western coast of Europe, Japan and the eastern coast of China), and frequently sought to control sea routes for economic and strategic reasons (Great Britain, Japan, Holland, the United States). Some states engaged in what Spykman terms “circumferential and transmarine expansion”18 to gain control of marginal or inland seas (Greece’s control of the Aegean, Rome’s control of the Mediterranean, U.S. control of the Caribbean). Finally, states expanded to rectify, secure or control their frontiers, often with a view toward further expansion (Russia, the Roman Empire, the Mongol Empire, Germany, the United States).

Spykman and Rollins offered little solace to those who hoped that the League of Nations or some international conference would curb the expansionist tendencies of Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, or Imperial Japan. “History testifies to the constant reappearance of these expansion forms and the ever-recurring conflict patterns that result,” they wrote, “and there seems to be no reason to assume or expect that these behavior patterns of states will suddenly change or disappear in the near future.”19

On September 1, 1939, a few months after Spykman’s second article appeared in The American Political Science Review, Germany, having secretly agreed to divide Eastern Europe with Soviet Russia, invaded Poland to begin the European phase of the Second World War. Two days later, Great Britain and France honored their guarantee to Poland by declaring war against Germany. A few weeks later, the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the east, effectively sealing her fate. On May 10, 1940, after a period of time known as the “phony war,” Hitler began the invasion of Belgium, France and the Low Countries. France, which fielded the largest army in Europe, surrendered to Germany in late June 1940. For the next year, Britain withstood massive bombing campaigns and heavy losses at sea, and stood virtually alone among the great powers in opposition to Germany and Italy. The course of the war was then transformed by three momentous events: Germany’s invasion of Soviet Russia in June 1941, Japan’s attack on U.S. forces at Pearl Harbor in December 1941, and Hitler’s subsequent declaration of war against the United States.

With the world at war, and the United States a full belligerent in that war, Spykman in 1942 wrote America’s Strategy in World Politics: The United States and the Balance of Power,20 a masterful analysis of world politics and U.S. grand strategy informed by geopolitical realism. The book, he explained, offered “an analysis of the position of our country in terms of geography and power politics,” so that the United States could “develop a grand strategy for both war and peace based on the implications of its geographic location in the world.”21

Spykman began this work with a description of the anarchic character of world politics. In the absence of a world-governing authority, all states strive first and foremost for self-preservation. “[T]he basic objective of the foreign policy of all states,” he wrote, “is the preservation of territorial integrity and political independence.”22 This world of international anarchy results in a never-ending struggle for power among states. “[T]he struggle for power,” he explained, “is identical with the struggle for survival, and the improvement of the relative power position becomes the primary objective of the internal and the external policy of states. All else is secondary, because in the last instance only power can achieve the objectives of foreign policy.”23

A state’s power, Spykman believed, was composed of many factors, including: the size and nature of its territory and frontiers; its population; the amount of raw materials it possessed and produced; its economic and technological development; the stability of its political system; its national spirit; its military power; and the strength and power of its potential enemies. Statesmen, he wrote, must focus their attention and energies toward the attainment of the “power objective.” States can only survive, he cautioned, “by constant devotion to power politics.” This meant, according to Spykman, that morality played only a subsidiary role, if any, in a nation’s foreign policy. He explained,

The statesman who conducts foreign policy can concern himself with values of justice, fairness, and tolerance only to the extent that they contribute to or do not interfere with the power objective. They can be used instrumentally as moral justification for the power quest, but they must be discarded the moment their application brings weakness. The search for power is not made for the achievement of moral values; moral values are used to facilitate the attainment of power.24

Statesmen, instead, must concern themselves with the global balance of power. “Experience has shown,” he wrote, “that there is more safety in balanced power than in a declaration of good intention.”25 But, hearkening back to his previous article on the expansion of states, Spykman noted that there were few instances in history where states sought to limit or constrain their own power. Instead, he explained, “states are interested only in a balance which is in their favor. Not an equilibrium, but a generous margin is their objective.”26 The balance of power, in Spykman’s view, was not a static phenomenon, but a never-ending, constantly shifting relationship among great powers. “[T]he margin of security for one [country],” he wrote, “is the margin of danger for the other, and alliance must, therefore, be met by counter-alliance and armament by counter-armament in an eternal competitive struggle for power. Thus it has been in all periods of history.”27

This eternal competitive struggle for power sometimes involves war. “There is a tendency to look upon peace as normal and war as abnormal,” Spykman explained, “but this is because of an intellectual confusion resulting from emotional reactions to war. War is unpleasant, but it is an inherent part of state systems composed of sovereign independent units. To forget that reality because wars are unwelcome is to court disaster.”28 War in the twentieth century, Spykman noted, was waged militarily, politically, economically, and ideologically. In other words, twentieth century war was “total war.”

The bulk of America’s Strategy in World Politics consisted of Spykman’s detailed and systematic analysis of the geopolitical position of the United States in the Western Hemisphere, in the transatlantic zone, in the transpacific zone, and in the world as a whole.

The United States, Spykman noted, was the dominant power in North America and in the entire Western Hemisphere. He described the historical process by which the U.S. grew from a thin sliver of territory along the eastern seaboard of central North America to a continental giant controlling all the land in the center of North America from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. U.S. expansion resulted from war, diplomacy, exploration, the forcible removal of indigenous people, relatively weak neighbors, a favorable geographic position, and a shrewd exploitation of the rivalries of the European powers. The United States achieved its “manifest destiny” in the Western Hemisphere, Spykman noted, “because there was never a united Europe to gainsay them and because no single European state ever obtained sufficient freedom of action to throw its whole military weight into a struggle in [the Western] hemisphere.”29 Even though the European great powers were concerned with the rising power of the United States, “they were of necessity more concerned with the balance of power in Europe and their own territorial security than with the power relations on the American continents.”30

In the transatlantic zone, wrote Spykman, the United States was geopolitically positioned in regard to Europe as Great Britain was positioned in regard to the Eurasian continent. “We have an interest in the European balance,” he explained, “as the British have an interest in the continental balance.”31 For centuries, Great Britain opposed whatever power threatened to upset, or did upset, the balance of power on the continent. Britain, to paraphrase its great 19th century foreign minister and prime minister Lord Palmerston, had no permanent friends and no permanent enemies, only permanent interests.

Britain historically anchored coalitions of European powers to defeat the hegemonic ambitions of the Hapsburgs, Louis XIV, and Napoleon Bonaparte. In the First World War, however, Europe required the help of a non-European power, the United States, to defeat Kaiser Wilhelm’s attempt at continental hegemony. In the 1930s and in the early stages of the Second World War, Spykman noted, Germany “destroyed the power foundations of the political structure of Europe.”32 Europe was no longer a self-contained geopolitical system capable of balancing itself.

Few Americans initially understood the security implications for their country resulting from what Hajo Holborn later called, “the political collapse of Europe.”33 Spykman recounted America’s early collective reaction to Germany’s challenge to the Versailles settlement that ended the Great War: isolation, neutrality, and the judgment that Europe was not our concern. “The majority of the nation,” wrote Spykman, “seemed to feel that the only thing necessary was to make some corrections in our neutrality technique and to remove the weaknesses which had drawn us into the last conflict.”34 Spykman credited President Roosevelt for attempting to awaken his countrymen to the grave implications for U.S. security in a German-controlled Europe, but Americans only slowly awakened to the danger.

Spykman not only grasped the implications for U.S. security of Germany’s challenge to the European balance of power, but he was also familiar with German geopolitical writings published by Karl Haushofer and his associates at Munich’s Institute of Geopolitik. Spykman summarized the German geopolitical vision as follows:

The European land mass from the North Sea to the Ural Mountains will be organized on a continental basis as the economic heart of the great ‘living space’ and the foundation of the war potential for the inter-continental struggle for power. The Near East, which controls the routes to the Indian Ocean and contains the oil on which European industrial life depends, will be integrated, economically and politically, in the form of semi-independent states controlled from Berlin.35

Africa would also be economically managed and politically controlled by Germany, and would serve as a source of strategic raw materials and as a link across the Atlantic to South America.

Spykman concluded that if Germany consolidated its control of the continent and defeated Britain, it would combine the economic resources of the whole of Europe with ready access to the oceans that lead to the Western Hemisphere and the United States. Under the world circumstances of 1942, the United States had little choice but to once again “place her economic strength, the output of her war industries, and her man power in the scales of a European power struggle.”36

American economic and security interests in what Spykman called the transpacific zone flowed initially from our annexation of Hawaii and our victory in the Spanish-American War in 1898 from which we acquired the Philippine Islands and Guam. A year later, Secretary of State John Hay launched the “Open Door” policy in which the United States sought equal commercial access to China and pledged to respect China’s territorial integrity. The other principal Asian powers were Russia and Japan, who went to war against each other in 1904-05. America’s growing role in Asia was manifested by the fact that the treaty ending the Russo-Japanese War was mediated by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt.

America’s possessions in the Pacific and offshore Asia, as well as its increased commercial interests in China, meant that the balance of power in Asia also affected U.S. security. Whereas in Europe, the rising power was continental Germany, in Asia and the Pacific the rising power was the island nation of Japan. Spykman noted that it was during the First World War, while the European powers and ultimately the United States were busy dealing with the German threat in Europe, that Japan improved her relative power position in the world. After the First World War, the United States and Britain, at the Washington Naval Conference, agreed to demilitarize their possessions in the Western Pacific and to abide by a ten-to-six ratio in warships. These arms control agreements, coupled with the great Pacific geographic distances, according to Spykman, “provided Japan with naval supremacy in the marginal seas between the Asiatic mainland and the Pacific and in the western part of that ocean.”37

Japan made its first overt move toward achieving hegemony in East Asia and the Pacific by invading Manchuria in 1931 and setting up the puppet state of Manchukuo. In 1937, Japan militarily occupied China’s northern provinces. In 1940, after France surrendered to the Germans, Japan inserted troops into Indochina, and subsequently occupied naval and air bases in the French colony. Japan then brought pressure on the Dutch East Indies. Spykman explained what all of this meant to U.S. security interests in the Asia-Pacific region:

If the Japanese could realize their dream of empire, the position of the United States in the world would be seriously affected. It would involve the loss of the Philippines, Guam, and probably Samoa. It would end the ‘Open Door’ in China and make us dependent on Japanese good will for the strategic raw materials of [the region]… A ‘Japanese Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’ would mean the final destruction of the balance of power in the transpacific zone which would have ultimate repercussions on our power position in the Western Hemisphere.38

The response of the United States to Japan’s aggressive moves, Spykman noted, included “persuasion, barter, and the threat of force.” “Our notes and protests have been well written, cogently argued, and bolstered with the immutable principles of international law,” he lamented, “but the Japanese…refused to be impressed.” “The League [of Nations] passed a resolution condemning Japan, and the people of America held indignation meetings,” Spykman further noted, “ but neither action prevented the landing of troops or the bombing of cities.”39

It was only after Japan’s occupation of French Indochina that the United States used meaningful economic coercion in the form of an oil embargo. Rather than submit to this economic coercion by restraining its imperial ambitions, Japan on December 7, 1941, lashed out at American positions in the Philippines and in the Pacific Ocean. The struggle for mastery in the transpacific zone broke out into open warfare.

The details of the struggles for power in the transatlantic and transpacific zones were important, but the most significant part of America’s Strategy in World Politics was Spykman’s geopolitical analysis of America’s position in the world as a whole. For this analysis, Spykman divided the globe into several geopolitical regions, borrowing concepts from British geographers James Fairgrieve and Halford Mackinder, and from the great American naval historian and geopolitician Alfred Thayer Mahan.40

Europe, Asia, and the Middle East formed the great continent of Eurasia. The “inner zone” of Eurasia was the “heartland,” a territory rich in resources and man power which, Spykman claimed, “could develop an economy strong enough to support one of the great war machines of the twentieth century.”41 Historically, nomadic horsemen from the inner recesses of this area of north-central Asia repeatedly pressured Europe, the Middle East, southwest Asia, and China. Once Russia established herself in the “heartland,” she sought to “break through the encircling ring of border states and reach the ocean,” but “[g]eography and sea power,” explained Spykman, “… persistently thwarted her.”42 In the nineteenth century, Russian pressure from the “heartland” was opposed by British sea power in a geopolitical struggle known as the “great game.”

Spykman described the maritime region around Eurasia as “the great circumferential maritime highway of the world.” This included the Baltic and North Seas, the marginal seas of Western Europe, the Mediterranean and Red Seas, the Persian Gulf, the Indian Ocean, and the marginal seas of the Far East and Indochina. He called the land area situated between the “heartland” and the maritime highway the “great concentric buffer zone,” which included Europe, Persia and the Middle East, southwest Asia, China, Indochina, and Eastern Siberia.43Spykman noted the special strategic significance of the Middle East-Persian Gulf-southwest Asia region because it contained “the great oil-producing regions of the Eurasian land mass and the overland routes to the heartland.”44

The power position of the United States in the world, explained Spykman, was greatly as risk in the Second World War because Germany and Japan threatened to upset the balance of power in Europe and Asia upon which our security depended. Should Germany and Japan be victorious in the war, the United States, warned Spykman, “would then be surrounded by two gigantic empires controlling huge war potentials….[T]he balance of power across the ocean [would be] destroyed, and the relative power potential of the two great land masses would then turn the geographic embrace of the Western Hemisphere by the Old World into political strangulation.”45

Under such circumstances, Spykman explained, the United States did not have the option of retreating behind the oceans to defend the Western Hemisphere. The oceans, due to modern technology and advanced means of navigation and communication, are “not barriers but highways.” A “balance of power in the transatlantic and transpacific zones,” he further noted, “is an absolute prerequisite for the independence of the New World and the preservation of the power position of the United States. There is no safe defensive position on this side of the oceans. Hemispheric defense is no defense at all.”46

In the conclusion to America’s Strategy in World Politics, Spykman reminded his readers that “the end of the war is not the end of the power struggle.”47 He cautioned allied statesmen against completely eliminating the power potential of Germany and Japan. He prophetically warned that a “Russian state from the Urals to the North Sea can be no great improvement over a German state from the North Sea to the Urals.”48 Likewise, the defeat of Japan should not mean the complete elimination of its military strength and “the surrender of the Western Pacific to China or Russia.”49 China, he predicted, will one day be a “continental power of huge dimensions,” and her size, geographic position, natural resources, and manpower will force the United States into an alliance with Japan to preserve the Asian balance of power.50

The “new” postwar international order “will not differ from the old,” Spykman wrote. “[I]nternational society will continue to operate with the same fundamental power patterns.” The postwar world will be “a world of power politics in which the interests of the United States will continue to demand the preservation of a balance in Europe and Asia.”51

In 1942 and 1943, Germany and Japan began to suffer setbacks in the war. British and American forces defeated the Germans and Italians in North Africa, invaded Sicily and Italy, turned the tide in the Battle of the Atlantic, and in June 1944 invaded Hitler’s fortress Europe. Meanwhile, the Soviet Army turned back Germany’s efforts to take Moscow, Stalingrad and Leningrad, and slowly pushed the German Army westward. In the Far East and the Pacific, Admiral Nimitz’s navy and General MacArthur’s army slowly pushed back the island and sea frontiers of the Japanese Empire.

Professor Spykman continued to teach at Yale after the publication of America’s Strategy in World Politics, and, according to Frederick Dunne, he planned to write another book “in which he would develop further his views on the subject of power in international relations and on the place of geopolitical analysis in the formulation of a security policy.”52 He wrote and delivered lectures, which were stenographically recorded, and made maps to accompany the lectures. Spykman soon thereafter became ill, however, and died at the age of 49 on June 26, 1943. The Yale Institute of International Studies decided to fulfill Spykman’s plan by publishing a book based on Spykman’s lectures, maps, notes, and correspondence. Helen R. Nicholl, who had been Spykman’s research assistant for two years, was tasked with arranging and editing the text. The result, published in 1944, was a classic in the field of geopolitical analysis entitled, The Geography of the Peace.53

As indicated by its title, The Geography of the Peace was largely focused on the geopolitical structure of the post-World War II world. It was written and published at a time when geopolitical analysis was gaining increased attention in the United States. In 1942, Robert Strausz-Hupe, Andreas Dorpalen and Hans Weigert wrote interesting volumes on German geopolitics54; the air power enthusiast Alexander De Seversky wrote Victory Through Air Power;55 and George Renner authored Human Geography in the Air Age.56 That same year, Halford Mackinder’s 1919 geopolitical masterpiece, Democratic Ideals and Reality, was reprinted; and a year later (ironically in the same month that Spykman died), Mackinder’s article, “The Round World and the Winning of the Peace,” in which he updated his famous “Heartland theory,” appeared in Foreign Affairs.57 Also in 1943, Princeton University Press published Makers of Modern Strategy, a book edited by Edward Mead Earle which prominently analyzed the geopolitical writings of Mahan, Mackinder, De Seversky, and the German geopoliticians.58 In 1944, Weigert and Vilhjalmur Stefansson edited a symposium on political geography entitled, Compass of the World.59

Geopolitical analysis gained favor and interest because the Second World War had confirmed the importance of many of the ideas and concepts expressed by Mahan, Mackinder, Spykman and others. Statesmen, strategists, and ordinary citizens observing and living through the Second World War, saw the great powers vie for control of Eurasia; read about the German-Soviet struggle to control the “heartland;” learned about the value of sea power and air power; and became familiar with the geography of the globe. Indeed, Americans became all too familiar with seemingly tiny specs of land in the vast Pacific Ocean like Tarawa and Iwo Jima; obscure bodies of water such as Leyte Gulf and the Coral Sea; desert locales such as Kasserine Pass and El Guettar; coastal beaches like Anzio and Normandy; Belgian towns such as Malmedy and Bastogne; and European forests such as Huertgen and the Ardennes. The Geography of the Peace, therefore, was both timely and relevant as America’s leaders sought to pierce the fog of war and look to the postwar world order.

“The basis of world planning for peace,” according to Spykman, “must be world geography.”60Americans, he noted, have in the past ignored geopolitical realities to our peril. The Geography of the Peace included fifty-one maps to help visualize the position of the United States in the world. Global distances and air power relationships between states, for example, were reflected in a “polar-centered azimuthal equidistant map.”61 Spykman pointed out that statesmen tend to view the world as if their country was at the center of the world. He provided examples of maps centered on Berlin, Tokyo, London, and Moscow. He noted that most traditional world maps place Europe in the center since “[i]t was from Europe that political domination spread over the world and it was the condition of balance or unbalance of forces in Europe that largely determined the power position of states everywhere else.”62

The most relevant map for purposes of understanding the relative power position of the United States in the world is one centered on the Western Hemisphere. This map revealed the most significant geopolitical fact about the United States: “our continent lies between the European and Asiatic power centers of the Old World and is separated from them by oceanic distances.”63 One important consequence of our geographical location, Spykman noted, is that we can exert influence in Europe and Asia, and the powers of Europe and Asia can reach our shores, only by sea power and air power. Another consequence of our geographical location is that we are potentially geopolitically surrounded by the Eurasian land mass. That is why we had to fight Germany and Japan in World War II. As Spykman explained,

The most significant fact…about the situation which confronted us when, at the beginning of 1942, Germany and Japan had achieved a good part of their objectives, was the existence of a political alliance between them. We were then confronted with the possibility of complete encirclement, in which case we might have had to face the unified power of the whole Eurasian land mass. The strength of the power centers of the Eastern Hemisphere would then have been over-powering. It would have been impossible for us to preserve our independence and security.64

That is why, Spykman wrote, “our constant concern in peace time must be to see that no nation or alliance of nations is allowed to emerge as a dominating power in either of the two regions of the Old World from which our security could be threatened.”65

Perhaps the most important chapter in The Geography of the Peace was Spykman’s analysis and critique of Mackinder’s geopolitical world view. Spykman credited Mackinder with being the first to study in detail “the relations between land and sea power on a truly global scale.”66Mackinder, as early as 1904, had identified the northern-central core of Eurasia as the “pivot region” or “Heartland,” and viewed this region as a potential seat for a world empire. He called the coastal regions in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East that bordered the Heartland “the inner or marginal crescent.” The remaining land areas of the globe were islands such as Great Britain, Japan, Australia, and North and South America, and Mackinder placed them in the “outer crescent” of his geopolitical map.

Spykman accepted Mackinder’s geographical concept of the “Heartland,” but he believed that Mackinder had overrated the region’s power potential. The key region of world politics was not the “Heartland,” but rather the coastal region bordering the “Heartland” that Mackinder called the “inner or marginal crescent,” and that Spykman, in The Geography of the Peace, renamed the “Rimland.” Spykman described the Rimland as follows:

The rimland of the Eurasian land mass must be viewed as an intermediate region, situated…between the heartland and the marginal seas. It functions as a vast buffer zone of conflict between sea power and land power. Looking in both directions, it must function amphibiously and defend itself on land and sea.67

The Rimland included the countries of Western Europe, the Middle East, southwest Asia, China and the Far East. These countries, combined with the offshore islands of Britain and Japan, possessed greater industrial and manpower resources than the Heartland, and wielded both land and sea power. Spykman noted that the three most recent aspirants to world hegemony (Napoleon’s France, Wilhelmine Germany, and Nazi Germany) all emerged from the Rimland. In each instance, it was a coalition of powers from the Rimland, offshore islands, the Heartland, and North America (in the latter two instances) that defeated the strongest Rimland power.

The great threat to U.S. security, warned Spykman, “has been the possibility that the rimland regions of the Eurasian land mass would be dominated by a single power.”68 That is why, Spykman wrote, Mackinder’s famous dictum about control of the Heartland leading to rule of the world, should be changed to: “Who controls the rimland rules Eurasia; who rules Eurasia controls the destinies of the world.”69

Spykman predicted that in the postwar world China would emerge as the dominant power in the Far East, while Soviet Russia would be the strongest land power on the continent. Germany needed to be balanced by France and Eastern Europe (including Russia), while the United States and Great Britain had to maintain their sea and air access to Eurasia. The battle zones of the Second World War—the Rimland regions of Europe, the Middle East, and the Far East—would continue to be the areas of greatest strategic significance in the postwar world. “It is the peace-time relationship between the power factors in these regions,” Spykman explained, “which will make or mar the security of the world in general and the Western Hemisphere in particular.” These geopolitical factors meant that the United States was “obliged to safeguard her position by making certain that no overwhelming power is allowed to build itself up in these areas.”70

Although Spykman is often characterized, with some accuracy, as a leading critic of Mackinder’s geopolitical theories, the essence of their world views, as Colin Gray has pointed out, reveals a common geopolitical outlook for the United States.71 Though the two theorists differed about the power potentials of certain geopolitical regions on the Eurasian land mass, both recognized that unbalanced power in Eurasia threatened the security of Britain and the United States. Mackinder surely would have had no argument with Spykman’s conclusion in The Geography of the Peace that, “The United States must recognize once again, and permanently, that the power constellation in Europe and Asia is of everlasting concern to her, both in time of war and in time of peace.”72

The emergence of the Soviet Union as the next aspirant to global hegemony after the Second World War indicated that the structure of the postwar world conformed more closely to Mackinder’s “Heartland” theory than to Spykman’s “Rimland” theory. However, the central fronts in the Cold War struggle were the Rimland regions of Western Europe, the Middle East, and the Far East. Indeed, in order to successfully contain then defeat Soviet Heartland-based power, the United States led and anchored a grand coalition that included the major powers of the Rimland and the offshore island powers of Great Britain and Japan. U.S. postwar policy, therefore, benefited from both Mackinder’s and Spykman’s geopolitical analysis.73

Spykman’s geopolitical analysis continues to be relevant to the world of the twenty-first century because he focused on the permanent and enduring features of international relations. The United States is currently the dominant world power, and has focused its immediate security efforts on defeating the unconventional challenge of Islamic terrorists and countering rogue states’ efforts to obtain weapons of mass destruction. Since the fall of the Soviet Empire in 1989-91, no peer competitor has emerged to challenge America’s geopolitical primacy. Yet, as Spykman recommended more than sixty years ago, the United States still actively participates in the balance of power in Europe, the Middle East, and the Asia-Pacific region. Maintaining the geopolitical pluralism of Spykman’s Rimland continues to be a vital interest of the United States.


  1. Nicholas J. Spykman, The Social Theory of Georg Simmel (Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2004). First published by the University of Chicago Press in 1925.
  2. Introductory Statement by Frederick S. Dunne in Nicholas J. Spykman, The Geography of the Peace (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1944), p. ix.
  3. Nicholas J. Spykman, “Geography and Foreign Policy I,” The American Political Science Review, Vol. XXXII, No. 1 (February 1938), p. 29.
  4. Ibid. p. 29.
  5. Ibid., pp. 32, 33.
  6. Ibid., pp. 34, 36, 39.
  7. Ibid., p. 40.
  8. Ibid., p. 40.
  9. Ibid., p. 45.
  10. Ibid., p. 43.
  11. Nicholas J. Spykman, “Geography and Foreign Policy II,” The American Political Science Review, Vol. XXXII, No. 2 (April 1938), p. 214.
  12. Ibid., p. 228.
  13. Ibid., p. 229.
  14. Ibid., p. 236.
  15. Nicholas J. Spykman and Abbie A. Rollins, “Geographic Objectives in Foreign Policy I,” The American Political Science Review, Vol. XXXIII, No. 3 (June 1939), p. 391.
  16. Ibid., p. 394.
  17. Ibid., p. 395.
  18. Nicholas J. Spykman and Abbie A. Rollins, “Geographic Objectives in Foreign Policy II,” The American Political Science Review, Vol. XXXIII, No. 4 (August 1939), p. 602.
  19. Ibid., p. 611.
  20. Nicholas J. Spykman, America’s Strategy in World Politics: The United States and the Balance of Power (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1942).
  21. Ibid., p. 8.
  22. Ibid., p. 17.
  23. Ibid., p. 18.
  24. Ibid., p. 18.
  25. Ibid., p. 20.
  26. Ibid., p. 21.
  27. Ibid., p. 24.
  28. Ibid., p. 25.
  29. Ibid., p. 66.
  30. Ibid., p. 66.
  31. Ibid., p. 124.
  32. Ibid., p. 114.
  33. Hajo Holborn, The Political Collapse of Europe (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1966).
  34. Spykman, America’s Strategy in World Politics, p. 126.
  35. Ibid., p. 121.
  36. Ibid., p. 128.
  37. Ibid., p. 146.
  38. Ibid., p. 155.
  39. Ibid., p. 156.
  40. James Fairgrieve, Geography and World Power (London: University of London Press, 1941), originally published in 1915; Halford Mackinder, Democratic Ideals and Reality (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1962), originally published in 1919. The 1962 edition contains Mackinder’s 1904 article, “The Geographical Pivot of History,” and his 1943 article, “The Round World and the Winning of the Peace.” Alfred Thayer Mahan was the author of numerous books and articles on naval history and foreign policy. For extensive discussions of Mackinder and Mahan see, Francis P. Sempa, Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century (Transaction Publishers, 2002), and my lengthy introductions to Mahan’s The Problem of Asia: Its Effect upon International Politics (Transaction Publishers, 2003) and The Interest of America in International Conditions (Transaction Publishers, 2003).
  41. Spykman, America’s Strategy in World Politics, p. 182.
  42. Ibid., p. 182.
  43. Ibid., p. 181.
  44. Ibid., p. 184.
  45. Ibid., pp. 194 – 95.
  46. Ibid., p. 457.
  47. Ibid., p. 457.
  48. Ibid., p. 460.
  49. Ibid., p. 460.
  50. Ibid., p. 469.
  51. Ibid., p. 461.
  52. Introductory statement by Dunne in The Geography of the Peace, p. x.
  53. Nicholas J. Spykman, The Geography of the Peace (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1944).
  54. Robert Strausz-Hupe, Geopolitics: The Struggle for Space and Power (New York: Putnam’s Sons, 1942); Andreas Dorpalen, The World of General Haushofer (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1942); Hans W. Weigert, Generals and Geographers: The Twilight of Geopolitics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1942).
  55. Alexander P. De Seversky, Victory Through Air Power (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1942).
  56. George T. Renner, Human Geography in the Air Age (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1942).
  57. Halford J. Mackinder, “The Round World and the Winning of the Peace,” Foreign Affairs (July 1943).
  58. Edward Mead Earle, ed., Makers of Modern Strategy: Military Thought from Machiavelli to Hitler (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1943).
  59. Hans W. Weigert and Vilhjalmur Stefansson, ed., Compass of the World (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1944).
  60. Spykman, The Geography of the Peace, p. 6.
  61. Ibid., p. 16.
  62. Ibid., p. 13.
  63. Ibid., p. 18.
  64. Ibid., p. 34.
  65. Ibid., p. 34.
  66. Ibid., p. 35.
  67. Ibid., p. 41.
  68. Ibid., p. 44.
  69. Ibid., p. 43.
  70. Ibid., p. 51.
  71. See Colin S. Gray, The Geopolitics of the Nuclear Era: Heartland, Rimlands, and the Technological Revolution (New York: Crane, Russak & Company, 1977); Colin S. Gray, The Geopolitics of Super Power (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1988); Colin S. Gray, “In Defence of the Heartland: Sir Halford Mackinder and His Critics a Hundred Years On,” Strategic and Combat Studies Institute, Occasional Paper No. 47 (2004), www.army.mod.uk/img/doctrine/scsi47.pdf.
  72. Spykman, The Geography of the Peace, p. 60.
  73. Several observers have noted Spykman’s influence on U.S. postwar policy. Mackubin Thomas Owens has written that “Spykman’s approach greatly influenced the U.S. cold war policy of containment.” Mackubin Thomas Owens, “In Defense of Classical Geopolitics,” Naval War College Review (Autumn 1999). Adam Garfinkle recently observed that “in the State Department and what would become the Department of Defense, [Spykman’s] views were universally known and widely appreciated.” Adam Garfinkle, “Geopolitics: Middle Eastern Notes and Anticipations,” Orbis (Spring 2003). Christopher J. Fettweis wrote that Spykman is “considered one of the leading intellectual forefathers of containment.” Christopher J. Fettweis, “Sir Halford Mackinder, Geopolitics, and Policymaking in the 21st Century,” Parameters (Summer 2000). John Bellamy Foster, in a recent article, states that “Spykman’s views were widely read in U.S. policy circles.” John Bellamy foster, “The New Geopolitics of Empire,” Monthly Review, Vol. 57, No. 8 (January 2006).


The author is an Assistant United States Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania and the author of the new book, Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century (Transaction Publishers 2002).


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