In this part of the story, Frankopan will intersect with
Halford Mackinder without ever mentioning his name.
Mackinder gave a presentation in 1904.
To summarize: the coming (from his vantage
point) struggle is for the Eurasian landmass – the world island.
My most extensive review of his work can be
I have long felt that his views best capture the
geo-political struggle for empire; his views best explain the reasons for the
wars of the last one-hundred years. To
summarize Mackinder: whoever controls this world island will control the world;
I posit a corollary, or maybe a fallback position: whoever prevents anyone from controlling this world island has a chance to
control the world.
Co-opt Russia or destabilize Russia.
With that, we are now ready to cover Frankopan’s views of
the road to the Great War, World War One.
…it was not a series of unfortunate
events and chronic misunderstandings in the corridors of power in London,
Berlin, Vienna, Paris and St. Petersburg that brought empires to their knees,
but tensions over the control of Asia that had been simmering for decades. It was not Germany’s spectre that lay behind
the First World War; so too did that of Russia – and above all the shadow that
it cast on the east. And it was
Britain’s desperate attempt to prevent this shadow growing that played an
important note in bringing the world to war.
Forgive the long cite, but you must admit that you have
never read anything like this in school: the
root (or, at least, a major root) cause of the war was Britain wanting to push
back on Russia, to keep Russia in check. (Emphasis added…for emphasis.)
Finding a convincing reason for this war – and the
assassination of an Austrian prince is not convincing – has proven elusive to
many, certainly to me. Maybe one will be
Frankopan traces the roots back to one hundred years before
the war. Russia began extending its
frontiers to include various regions and peoples of Central Asia: the Kyrgyz,
the Kazaks, and the Oirats. The
respective leaders were rewarded handsomely by St. Petersburg if they would
support the Russian expansion.
Then there was the south: the Ottoman Empire. Russia secured major concessions, including
Bessarabia and major areas around the Caspian Sea. Then on, beyond the Caucasus to Persia. At one point, to appease the Tsar after a
tense event, the Persian Shah sent off the ninety carat Shah Diamond – once
hanging above the throne of the emperors of India – to St. Petersburg.
Russian intellectuals explored the question: is Russia’s
future to be found in the west or in the east?
Themes of the east were to be found in Russian music of the nineteenth
century; Dostoevskii wrote with passion that Russia should not only engage with
the east but embrace it:
In a famous essay entitled “What is
Asia to Us?,” he argued in the late nineteenth century that Russia had to free
itself from the shackles of European imperialism. In Europe, he wrote, we are hangers-on and
slaves; in Asia, “we go as masters.”
What does any of this have to do with Great Britain and the
Empire? Egypt, India, Afghanistan,
passages to the Far East: all at risk, with Afghanistan seen as the key – the
key to Britain’s crown jewel of India.
As far as policy in Asia is
concerned, wrote Lord Ellenborough, a senior figure in the Duke of Wellington’s
Cabinet in the 1820s, Britain’s role was simple: “to limit the power of
British envoys to the various at-risk regions were rejected
– or decapitated; while in retreat from Afghanistan to India, a British column
was attacked and annihilated in the winter snow – legend held that only one man
The British intended to teach the Russians a lesson. The Crimean War was an outlet for this
desire. The result of the war: a Russian
defeat, continued Ottoman decline, and the French as the leading power on the
continent. This was cemented by The
Treaty of Paris in 1856:
The aim was to humiliate Russia and
to strangle its ambitions. It had the
opposite effect – this was a Versailles moment, where the settlement was
counter-productive and had dangerous consequences.
Russia learned the shortcomings of its army, and extensive
reforms were implemented. Further, the
Tsar abolished serfdom. Russia’s growth
during the second half of the nineteenth century was impressive: iron
production surged five-fold in just 20 years; rails connected the vast reaches
of the empire.
Russia redoubled efforts in Persia and Afghanistan and the
various khanates between it and India.
The missions paid dividends, as hundreds of thousands of square miles of
territory were brought under its control, without force, within fifteen years
of the end of the war.
These efforts were followed by incorporation of Tashkent,
Samarkand, and Bukhara as well as much of the Fergana valley – all
protectorates or vassals of St. Petersburg.
Russia was building its own massive
trade and communication network, which now connected Vladivostok in the east to
the frontier with Prussia in the west, and the ports of the White Sea in the
north to the Caucasus and Central Asia in the south.
In 1867, Russia sold Alaska to the United States. Frankopan sees this as an embarrassing
decision; it is possible it was nothing more than a realistic appraisal. Land army or sea power: where was Russia’s
relative strength to be found?
And it was in this environment that Halford Mackinder gave
his presentation. And it was with this
background in mind that Frankopan suggests that the roots of the Great War were
not to be found in the capitals of Europe, but in Asia; not to be found in the
overt alliance between Britain and Russia but in the covert machinations of the
so-called Great Game between Britain and Russia.
And this will be the story for next time.