Classical geopolitics and energy geopolitics: a state of play

February 2, 2012

One of the earliest theoretical disputes in classical geopolitics was the relative value of sea power vs. land power.  Alfred T. Mahan was a proponent of the primacy of sea power, while Halford MacKinder believed that if any nation was able to obtain primacy in the Eurasion heartland, then the corresponding landpower would overwhelm the advantages of seapower.

From the perspective of Long Cycle Theory, the conflicts of the modern world system have always been between a sea power and a land power – and the dominant power has always been the nation that can rule the waves.

Nor is this dichotomy is not limited to Anglo American perspectives on geopolitics and hegemonic power.   Russian geopolitical theorist Aleksander Dugin argues that it is the core of international conflict (he uses the terms “thalassocracy” for sea power and “telluocracy” for land power) and, in a geographically deterministic conclusion, contends that the two different positions create profound cultural differences that will always be in conflict.

In the original dispute between Mahan and MacKinder, the latter feared that the connecting of the Eurasion Heartland via a network of railroads would give the land power a mobility equal to or surpassing that of the naval powers; that a land power would be able to project power as efficiently as formerly only sea power could, and that would allow a nation to dominate all of Asia and bring its vast resources to bear in creating an inexorable global empire.

Today, the Eurasian Heartland and its vast resources are once again the field of contest among great powers.  The technology brought to bear has changed, however.  Whereas a century ago, it was railroads pitted against battleships, today it is pipelines vs. super tankers.  The resource of primary interest in Central Asia is energy – oil and natural gas resources that the energy-dependent economies of the world hunger and thirst for.  The pipelines would seem to have the upper hand, as described in the purple prose of Pepe Escobar, who foresees a MacKinderian nightmare of an Asia integrated on energy trading that he dubs “Pipelineistan.”

Escobar’s vision would be a nightmare development for the West.  Europe would be dependent on Russia for energy and the United States would be marginalized.  It is through this lens that Escobar understands US military and foreign policy, and he may be correct.  But, the shale revolution may completely reshuffle the deck.  The gas bonanza that hydraulic fracturing promises would collapse the price structure on which the intricate network of pipelines depends; it is conceivable that, within 25 years, the United States could at once become the world’s greatest consumer, producer and exporter of energy.  The Pipelineistan behemoth would be stillborne, and the US would remain the world’s greatest power.  All that such an outcome requires are the proper policy decisions in Washington, DC over the next decade.



One comment

  1. A good critique of the good and bad points of Escobar’s Pipelinestan views, but I would note that shale fracking for natural gas is very different than shale fracking for oil.
    In particular, even excluding the apparent production profile shortcomings of fracked oil – the ability to transport natural gas over large bodies of water is extremely problematic.
    LNG is very expensive – even with historically low natural gas prices in the US, the port price for LNG in Europe is not competitive with pipelined natural gas whether Russian, North African, or Middle Eastern.

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