Friday, July 24, 2015

The Vintage of History is Forever Repeating

-        E.A. Bucchianeri, Faust: My Soul Be Damned for the World Vol. 2

With the benefit of hindsight and the evidence of subsequent events, it is easy to identify moments in history that were (rightly or wrongly) meaningful, regardless of how the event was viewed at the time.  This will be a story about one such event.

It is also a story of a repeating history…or maybe just a continuing history – after all, a few centuries from now the last 100 years will be remembered as one long event; a newer “100 Years War,” perhaps.

I am currently reading “A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East,” by David Fromkin.  From the Amazon introduction:

David Fromkin reveals how and why the Allies drew lines on an empty map that remade the geography and politics of the Middle East. Focusing on the formative years of 1914 to 1922, when all seemed possible, he delivers in this sweeping and magisterial book the definitive account of this defining time, showing how the choices narrowed and the Middle East began along a road that led to the conflicts and confusion that continue to this day.

This post is not about the Middle East or the fall of the Ottoman Empire.  It is about Europe’s Great Game, offered as chapter 2 in Fromkin’s book.

"The Great Game" was the strategic rivalry and conflict between the British Empire and the Russian Empire for supremacy in Central Asia.  The classic Great Game period is generally regarded as running approximately from the Russo-Persian Treaty of 1813 to the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907. A less intensive phase followed the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. In the post-Second World War post-colonial period, the term has continued in use to describe the geopolitical machinations of the Great Powers and regional powers as they vie for geopolitical power and influence in the area.

It is easy enough to accept that the United States has taken Britain’s place in this so-called game.  It is my view that this switch was by design, on behalf of all relevant and meaningful parties. 

Fromkin traces the roots of the game to Napoleon’s advances against Egypt and Syria, key points in Britain’s access to its outposts and colonies in the sub-continent and Far East.  Though Napoleon was checked in his plans, Britain’s global vulnerabilities were exposed.

…Napoleon afterwards persuaded the mad Czar Paul to launch the Russian army on the same path.

This was Czar Paul’s Indian March:

The secret plan of the expedition, as preserved in the Russian archives, envisaged the joint operations of two infantry corps, one French (with artillery support) and one Russian. Each infantry corps had 35,000 men, the total force thus containing 70,000 men, plus artillery and a large contingent of Cossack cavalry.

The march was stopped:

When Orlov's modest Cossack contingent advanced as far south as the Aral Sea, they received intelligence of the Emperor's assassination. The Indian March was brought to a halt, and before long the Cossacks were commanded to retreat.

And perhaps in this event was the so-called Great Game between Britain and Russia born:

The British public learned about the incident years later, but it firmly imprinted on the popular consciousness, contributing to feelings of mutual suspicion and distrust associated with the Great Game.

For a nice little twist:

It is tempting to speculate that the Pahlen plot was triggered by the Indian adventure, given that the high-placed Russian officials did not approve of it and their conspiracy was financed by British diplomacy. There is no evidence to confirm this conjecture.

Returning to Fromkin, Britain’s response to this threat was to support the native regimes of the Middle East against European expansion:

Throughout the nineteenth century, successive British governments therefore pursued a policy of propping up the tottering Islamic realms in Asia against European interference, subversion, and invasion.

George Curzon outlined the stakes:

“Turkestan, Afghanistan, Transcaspia, Persia – to many these names breathe only a sense of utter remoteness…To me, I confess, they are the pieces on a chessboard upon which is being played out a game for the dominion of the world.”

I guess that makes the rest of us “Mongo.”

According to Queen Victoria, it was “a question of Russian or British supremacy in the world.”  For Victoria, being the “Grandmother of Europe,” this “game” was nothing more than a family squabble.

How to keep Russia out of India; this was one of the first pressing issues for the British.  In the east, the answer was to keep Russia out of Afghanistan – hence, no direct passage to India.  Buffer regions made up of decaying regimes of Islamic Asia were to be supported.

Constantinople was key in western Asia, controlling both north/south passageways as well as east/west.  As long as The City remained friendly with Britain, British ships were free to pass through the Dardanelles into the Black Sea to dominate the Russian coastline – including, for example, Crimea. 

The war ebbed and flowed between hot and cold.  With Russia’s role in the defeat of Napoleon, British concerns increased; when Russia was defeated in the Crimean war, British concerns decreased.  Overriding it all, if Russia destroyed the Ottoman Empire (or, presumably, the Ottoman Empire collapsed on its own accord), the scramble to pick up the pieces might lead to a major war between several European powers.

Oil played no part in this game – not even into the early 20th century.  Oil had little, if any, economic value until the early 20th century; even as late as 1913 the United States produced 140 times as much oil as did Persia. 

Liberals both in and out of the British Parliament would express their abhorrence of these corrupt and despotic Middle Eastern regimes being propped up by their own government – all in the name of a defense against Russia.

Gladstone eventually washed British hands of Ottoman involvement.  The Turks turned to Bismarck’s Germany.  Soon enough, the Germans replaced the Russians as the principle threat to British interests.  Further, Britain’s superiority in industrial production was, relatively speaking, in decline.  Coal, iron, steel – the percentage of global output produced by Britain was regularly shrinking.  In chemicals and machine tools, Germany held the advantage.

The advent of railroads was also a threat – creating the possibility of vast inland “oceans” that were not available to the British Navy.  And it is at this point in the story where we come to the one, single event mentioned above.

Sir Halford Mackinder read a paper at the Royal Geographical Society on January 25, 1904.

Sir Halford John Mackinder PC (15 February 1861 – 6 March 1947) was an English geographer, academic, politician, the first Principal of University Extension College, Reading (which became the University of Reading) and Director of the London School of Economics, who is regarded as one of the founding fathers of both geopolitics and geostrategy.

And what is the Royal Geographic Society?

The Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) is the UK's learned society and professional body for geography, founded in 1830 for the advancement of geographical sciences. Today, it is the leading centre for geographers and geographical learning. The Society has 16,500 members and its work reaches millions of people each year.

So what is so special about Mackinder’s paper? 

It is entitled “The Geographical Pivot of History.”  It is not a long read – less than 20 pages, and worthwhile.

In it, he describes the value of the sea to Britain, as it was to other empires before – such as Rome.  He further describes the value of large land areas to the invading tribes from Central Asia; inefficient for horse and camel, but this is changing.  The railroad will allow these large land masses to be controlled from within.  For Britain, which until then had successfully established beachheads on virtually every coast of the world, this could very well render naval power and access futile.

The game between Russia and Britain began long before this reading, yet Mackinder offers a singular, identifiable event – one perhaps also explanatory of events up to and including today.  It is worth considering a few of his comments.

After briefly describing European history from Greek and Roman times to the present, he suggests that his audience not consider all history as European:

I ask you, therefore, for a moment to look upon Europe and European history as subordinate to Asia and Asiatic history, for European civilization is, in a very real sense, the outcome of the secular struggle against Asiatic invasion.

He describes 1000 years of invasions, from the several Asian tribes that pushed on the boundaries of eastern and southeastern Europe.  These tribes came from a large, but sparsely populated land mass – 9  million square miles of northern and northeast Asia (more than twice the area of Europe and approximately the same area as North America; all inland, all away from any coast (save the Arctic), with little in the way of navigable / accessible inland waterways. 

To the east, south, and west of this heart-land are marginal regions, ranged in a vast crescent, accessible to shipmen. 

He describes four “marginal regions” bordering this central land mass: two in “monsoon lands” (one facing the Pacific and the other towards the Indian Ocean); one is Europe.  These three, with less than 7 million square miles, carried two-thirds of the world’s population. 

Then there is the “Nearer East,” the sparsely populated regions of Babylonia, Syria, and Egypt.  This fourth region is “the weakest spot in the girdle of early civilizations.”  The Suez divides sea power into eastern and western; India and China can be divided from the Mediterranean and Europe with control of Persia; through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles is the gateway to Hungary and southeastern Europe.

With superiority on the sea, Europe was able to reverse the direction of history and circumvent this “weakest spot.”  Instead of nomadic hordes invading from the east throughout the Middle Ages, European powers could travel to the Indies via the “Cape road.”  Naval strategy and policy was geared toward taking advantage of the opportunity afforded by the “one and continuous ocean enveloping the divided and insular lands….”

“New Europes” were created: Canada, the United States, South Africa, Australia, and even Japan.  Further, numerous outposts and colonies were established throughout much of this ocean-accessible ring: India and the many ports in China and Southeast Asia.

Yet always present was the land.  And Russia.  Emerging and migrating from the forested areas of the north, the center of all European Russia is now to be found “in the midst of the wheat-fields….”

Odessa has here risen to importance with the rapidity of an American city.

And with the railroads, the path was open for Russia to tie together this entire mass.

The Russian railways have a clear run of 6000 miles from Wirballen in the west to Vladivostok in the east.  The Russian army in Manchuria is as significant evidence of mobile land-power as the British army in South Africa was of sea-power.

It is true, admitted Mackinder, that at the time there was merely a single strand of rail crossing Siberia, “but the century will not be old before all Asia is covered with railways.”

The spaces within the Russian Empire and Mongolia are so vast, and their potentialities in population, wheat, cotton, fuel, and metals so incalculably great that it is inevitable that a vast economic world, more or less apart, will there develop inaccessible to ocean commerce.

I will return shortly to the optimism of Mackinder’s prediction regarding the timing of this vast Asian railway network.  In the meantime, consider his statement: there is a continent of incalculable trade outside of the reach of the ocean-going empire – at the time Britain, today the United States.  It is so vast and potentially wealthy that it can remain “more or less apart” from the peripheral world. 

If you had visions of global empire, wouldn’t you want to control this?

Russia replaces the Mongol Empire.  Her pressure on Finland, on Scandinavia, on Poland, on Turkey, on Persia, on India and on China, replaces the centrifugal raids of the steppemen.

Mackinder offers the possibility that the Chinese – perhaps “organized” by the Japanese – could overthrow and conquer the Russian Empire, and thereafter play the lead role in this vast Asian pivot state.  This could very easily explain the greenlight given by the United States to Japan regarding Korea and Manchuria about 110 years ago.

Today’s events suggest that war between Russia and China may not be necessary for China to play a significant role.

The oversetting of the balance of power in favour of the pivot state [Russia], resulting in its expansion over the marginal lands of Euro-Asia, would permit of the use of vast continental resources for fleet-building, and the empire of the world would then be in sight.

There is a somewhat well-known map: “Russia Wants War: Look how close they put their country to our military bases.”  I believe it doesn’t take a great imagination to conceive of today’s connection to this history.

Even more telling, Mackinder offers what one would have to consider quite explanatory of today’s events in Europe – as well as, perhaps, explanatory of two world wars; regarding the potential shift in the balance of power to Russia:

This might happen if Germany were to ally herself with Russia.

So much for Mackinder; I return to Fromkin, and an explanation as to why Mackinder’s prediction of timing (when he suggested that the twentieth century would not be old before this all came to pass) had not yet come true in the first decades of the twentieth century:

Russia’s disastrous defeat by Japan (1904-5), followed by revolutionary uprisings in St. Petersburg throughout the country in 1905, suggested that, in any event, the Czar’s armies were no longer strong enough to remain a cause for concern.

Of course, since then, a few minor issues like the Great War, the Russian Revolution, Stalin’s famines and terror, World War Two, and the decades of disaster that was central economic planning in the Soviet Union also certainly contributed to the delay.

But returning to the time covered in Fromkin’s book: with Russia weakened by defeat to Japan and internal revolts, Britain was able to negotiate treaties with Russia favorable to her containment – the aforementioned Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907.


While I have indicated a few points of connection and continuation to current events, I believe this entire post can be re-written for or read again as explanatory to current events with little more editing required beyond changing past tense to present and replacing “Britain” with “the United States.”


  1. So just as the revolutionary upheaval distracted Russia then, the NeoCons hope that a social upheaval will do the job again?
    Hence, "Pussy Riot"?
    If they're wrong, and I hope they are, Russia is the new frontier for speculators. So many resources, such a teensy GDP.

  2. Another fine article to go with my morning coffee. Thanks for giving me something to ponder.

  3. when british moved to become empire they followed roman divide and conquer rule.

    when french was strongest opponents; british found way to get prussians, austrians,russians friends.

    they repeat this with all of them.

    american empire following same principles.

  4. The British were terrified of Russia right up until 1907. When negotiating the second Anglo-Japanese treaty they asked the Japanese to provide soldiers to defend India in case of a Russian invasion.

  5. @Bionic Mosquito. I think this article will interest you. The Great Game is still going on.