Rediscovering Spykman – the Rimland, Geography of Peace and Foreign Policy

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Article by: Federico Bordonaro PhD (May 2009) Tags: Nicholas Spykman Rimland Geography Peace Foreign Policy

Bio of Federico Bordonaro


Dr. Federico Bordonaro is associate professor of geopolitics at the Center of Excellence for Stability Police Units (COESPU, Italy) and lecturer at Rome’s university “La Sapienza”. He is senior analyst with the Power and Interest News Report and, two organizations that collect open sources to provide conflict analysis. Mr Bordonaro is currently writing an essay on the origins and evolution of Anglo-American geopolitical thought.

Since the 1980s, both the academic world and the analytical community in the field of international relations and political theory have shown a renewed interest for classical geopolitics. On one hand, leading scholars in strategic studies, such as Colin S. Gray and Geoffrey Sloan in Britain, Mackubin T. Owen and Francis Sempa in the U.S., have promoted a much needed rediscovering of classical authors. The above mentioned analysts have attempted to demonstrate that classical geopolitical thinking is still a valuable tool to read post-Cold War power relations, and that geography remains the most important factor in international relations, because it is “the most permanent” and – ultimately – “inescapable”, notwithstanding the crucial changes in the relationship between man and the earth thanks to new military, transportation, and communication technologies.

On the other hand, critical geopolitics has produced a number of in-depth studies which, together with accurate biographical works, have helped scholars to better understand the cultural origins, biases, and theoretical limitations of classical geopolitics.

However, both “neo-classical” and “critical” thinkers have concentrated their efforts mostly on the works of Sir Halford J. Mackinder (Blouet 1987, 2004; Gray and Sloan 1999; Loughlin 1994; O’ Tuathail 1996), and to a lesser extent on the previously largely overlooked geopolitical thinking of Alfred T. Mahan (Sumida 1997, 1999). As a result, the theoretical and analytical work of Dutch-born American scholar Nicholas J. Spykman has been less accurately and less deeply reconsidered.

Although Spykman has traditionally been recognised as one of the most important and influential geopolitical thinkers, at the same time he has very often been “reduced” to being the author of the “Rimland thesis”, as opposed to Mackinder, who put emphasis on the strategic prize and role of the “Heartland”. In addition, most of the articles and essays on classical geopolitics have in fact considered Spykman in light of Mackinder’s seminal work. In this brief paper, this author would like to highlight the richness of Spykman’s thought, its originality and prescience. Moreover, I will attempt to show, albeit very succinctly, that Spykman’s in-depth analysis of geography’s political-strategic significance constitutes an excellent introduction to the methodology of geopolitics.

The “other” Spykman

The “Rimland thesis”

Because of the goals of this paper, I shall not emphasise the importance of the “Rimland thesis” in Spykman’s intellectual work. While it would be incorrect to overlook the impact of that thesis on the U.S., and western, strategic thinking in the second half of the 20th century, the reader can refer to Spykman’s well-known posthumous work The Geography of the Peace and to a series of studies on classical geopolitics to judge the soundness of the author’s best known geopolitical and strategic hypothesis. Moreover, students of geopolitics can refer to Michael Gerace’s groundbreaking article on the real and presumed influence of Mackinder’s and Spykman’s thinking on U.S. containment strategy during the Cold War (Gerace 1991).

Spykman’s earlier works on geopolitics

In this paper, this author will look instead to Spykman’s earlier works on geopolitics, and in particular to two lengthy articles that he wrote in 1938 and 1939, respectively on Geography and Foreign Policy and Geographic Objectives in Foreign Policy. In these two essays, the Dutch-American professor appears to be aiming at formulating a response to Friedrich Ratzel’s geographic-political analysis of the conditions of state’s power and greatness. More generally, Spykman’s two seminal articles may be considered as an Anglo-Saxon, “insular” response to German Geopolitik, in the sense that the author engaged in the analysis of Kleingeopolitik (Wilkinson 1985) before committing himself to global geostrategic considerations (Grossgeopolitik), as he will do in 1942 with America’s Strategy and World Politics).

An urgent task for American scholars

Anglo-American geopolitics, and in particular Halford Mackinder, had focused mainly on “global geopolitics”, as Mackinder’s The Geographical Pivot of History epitomised. Kleingeopolitik was the “micro-level” analysis of the geographical bases of state’s power (Parker 1998); in other words, the state was taken as the analytical unit. In the late 1930s, German geopolitical science was flourishing, especially because of the Munich School and its widely read journal Die Zeitschrift fuer Geopolitik. Spykman felt that the Anglo-American scientific community needed to respond to the German authors who were unduly influenced by the Nazi ideology, and that improving the understanding of political-geographic factors affecting power and international relations was an urgent task for American scholars.

Geographical bases of power

While quoting various works on geopolitics published in Germany, Spykman’s theoretical framework in Geography and Foreign Policy owed much to Alfred T. Mahan’s geopolitical thought. In 1890, Mahan wrote about The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783, and he argued that geographical position, extent of territory, topography, number of population, together with the “character of the people” and the character of government heavily conditioned the sea power potential of states. Writing in 1938, Spykman echoed Mahan’s theory about the geographical bases of power as he stated that “The factors that condition the policy of states are many; they are permanent and temporary, obvious and hidden; they include, apart from the geographic factor, population density, the economic structure of the country, the ethnic composition of the people, the form of government, and the complexes and pet prejudices of foreign ministers” (Spykman 1938:28).

Not a “geographical determinist”

As it is clear from the above passage, Spykman was certainly not a “geographical determinist”; he deemed geography the most important, but not the only important factor of international politics and power relations. He clarified (Spykman 1938:30) that “The geography of a country is rather the material for, than the cause of, its policy, and to admit that the garment must ultimately be cut to fit the cloth is not to say that the cloth determines either the garment’s style or its adequacy. But the geography of a state cannot be ignored by men who formulate its policy. The nature of the territorial base has influenced them in that formulation in the past and will continue to do so in the future”.


Sharing a characteristic that is proper of all serious geopolitical analysts, Spykman founded his method in history, and most importantly, in long-run history. All of the examples that Spykman introduced in his 1938 and 1939 articles were taken from history, instead than from mere theories. Just like Mahan before him, Spykman devoted a considerable part of his theoretical introduction to geopolitics to the effects of size of territory and location upon a state’s political and strategic history. The Dutch-American authors recognised that “size is not strength but potential strength”, since geopolitics is a multi-factorial method of analysis (a fact widely accepted by modern authors such as Randall Collins or François Thual). Size is strength insofar as it is “equivalent to arable land and therefore to man power, and, reasoning from this premise, most land powers have in the past followed a policy of territorial expansion. Since the Industrial Revolution, however, strength has become more and more identified with industrial strength. Raw material resources and industrial organization have therefore become the prerequisites of power whether by land or by sea. But size is still operative in the sense that the larger the area the greater the chances that it contains varying climatic ranges and varying topography, and therefore varied resources and economic possibilities” (Spykman 1938:32).

Shape and topography of territory

Size could be exploited fully only if “effective centralized control” could be exerted, thanks primarily to “an effective system of communication from the center to the periphery” and to “the absence or the successful counterbalancing of centrifugal forces of separatism”. But especially in order to establish a modern and articulated system of communication, Spykman explained, geography again played a crucial role, since the shape and topography of territory heavily conditioned such an enterprise. Examples of strategies implemented to overcome natural barriers and to exploit territorial potential were found by Spykman in ancient, medieval, and modern history, in European as well as in American or Asian history (Spykman 1938:36). From a military-strategic point of view, Spykman pointed out that “Size is of primary importance as an element of defense, particularly if the vital centers of a country are far removed from the border”, quoting Russia’s defence of her territory against Napoleon and other examples (Spykman 1938:32).

Two superpowers

The decades that followed Spykman’s writings confirmed his views. In the industrial-technological era of the Cold War, the two superpowers were very large states: U.S. and USSR, while China was rapidly emerging as a new power. On the other hand, comparatively small countries with large industrial bases could still rank among the medium-sized powers, like Germany, Japan, France, the UK, or Israel, but they could certainly not compete with the giants for world domination. Therefore, what geopolitical analysis discovered to be true for the agrarian states turned out to be still theoretically valid for 20th century’s politics – the necessary changes having been made. Moreover, the extent, shape, and topography of Soviet territory proved once again a provider of strategic depth and defensive strength during the Second World War, as it frustrated the Third Reich’s offensive under the Barbarossa Plan. He then speculated how territorial size and resources, when coupled with technological strength, would project a state – or an alliance of states – to the status of great power, and he predicted in 1938 that in fifty years, a confederation of European states might have joined the likely “quadrumvirate of world powers” formed by the U.S., the U.S.S.R., China, and India. He was, in this respect, strikingly prescient, and well ahead of his time.

Significance of location

Probably, the most interesting part of Spykman’s theoretical geopolitics is the one devoted to the significance of location for a state’s power potential. “The location of a state may be described from the point of view of world-location, that is, with reference to the land masses and oceans of the world as a whole, or from the point of view of regional location, that is, with reference to the territory of other states and immediate surroundings. The former description will be in terms of latitude, longitude, altitude, and distance from the sea; the latter will be in terms of relations to surroundings areas, distances, lines of communication, and the nature of border territory” (Spykman 1938:40).

Geopolitical change

He then highlighted the crucial importance of geopolitical change, as history had changed the salience of certain areas and resources. Spykman noticed that “A complete description of the geographic location of a state will include […] an analysis of the meaning” of the facts of location, since while the latter “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”.

The importance of such an insightful consideration could be hardly overstated. It demonstrates how much off the mark are the frequent charges of “determinism” and obsolescence against classical geopolitical thinking, while at the same time it helps rediscovering the “other” Spykman, i.e., the analyst of the geographical bases of power, who was writing on geopolitics years before his “Rimland thesis” became known.

North Atlantic basin

Spykman’s analysis of great powers’ relative location took him to the conclusion, in 1938, that “The northern Atlantic is today the most desirable body of water on which a state can be located”. Contrary to Mackinder, he believed that geography gave the U.S., not Russia, a decisive strategic and economic advantage. Although Mackinder’s “Heartland thesis” (Mackinder 1904, 1919) remains a masterpiece of geopolitical thinking, and albeit the rise of Moscow to the status of superpower can be considered to have been, at least in part, forecast by Mackinder, the British geographer had apparently underestimated the power potential of the United States and the growing importance of the North Atlantic basin, at least until 1943 (Mackinder 1943). Presciently, Spykman also foresaw the irresistible rise of the Pacific Ocean as a key route for world trade. He believed that although it would have taken a long time before the Pacific basin could compete with the Atlantic, the “relative position” of the two oceans was “shifting” in favour of the former (Spykman 1938:42).

Spykman’s predictions

As a proof of Spykman’s forecasting ability, one can quote the episodes reported by David Wilkinson, one of the few scholars to have devoted attention to Spykman’s early works and biography. In 1942, during some of the hardest times in WWII, he almost caused a scandal as he publicly expressed his unconventional views about the desirable post-war American diplomacy. He was convinced that, once Germany and Japan had been defeated, they should had both been included into an anti-Soviet alliance, due to the fact that Moscow would be left in a too favourable position in Eurasia. He thus anticipated the end of the Soviet-Western alliance and the formation of a Western alliance against Moscow axed on the North-Atlantic. Such views were expressed by Spykman when the anti-Japanese and anti-German propaganda was at its heights in America and Washington was allied with the Soviets against the Tripartite Pact (Williamson 1985:83-86). Of course, not all of Spykman’s predictions turned out to be true. In 1942, he incorrectly forecast that Britain would be a third force between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. after WWII, and he thought that Germany would survive as a great power instead of France (Williamson 1985:85). However, his track record remains impressive.

Territorial resource and geo-positional advantages

It is remarkable that Randall Collins, the American sociologist who built a brilliant geopolitical theory in the late 1970s in order to predict the Cold War’s outcome, as well included territorial size and resources and geographic location among his theoretical principles (Collins 1981, 1986). While Collins never quoted Spykman’s 1938 article, he acknowledged the importance of classical geopolitics as he introduced the bases of geopolitical method. For Collins, territorial resource and geo-positional advantages were the two fundamental geopolitical advantages of world power, and they worked cumulatively over time. In his early formulation of the theory (see Collins 1981), the American sociologist devoted the introductory part to the examination of the facts of extent, shape, topography, and location of the world heartlands, in a way that resembles Spykman’s 1938 investigation.

Rediscovered geography

Spykman also anticipated most of the themes of the so-called “offensive realism”, a branch of neo-realism in IR theory that emphasises the great powers’ lust for territorial expansion and power maximisation as a means to security maximisation (see Mearsheimer 2001). Spykman’s focus on geography as the most conditioning factor of world politics decisively separates his work from the body of IR theory. However, in the last decade, IR theory, and particularly offensive realism and neo-classical realism, seems to have rediscovered geography (Mearsheimer 2001; Mouritzen and Wivel 2005). The implications of the geographical and ecological settings for human aggressiveness and expansionism have been also analysed by Bradley Thayer in his groundbreaking work on evolutionism and international relations (Thayer 2004). As a result, Spykman’s works, and especially America’s Strategy and World Power may be seen as a precursor of today’s new theoretical evolutions of realism.


The aim of this short paper has been to stimulate a fresh reading of Spykman’s early writings on geopolitics, and especially of his 1938-1939 articles. Since geopolitics has been rediscovered in the West in the 1970s, Spykman has been almost always identified as the author of the “Rimland thesis”. However, his contribution to geopolitical analysis has certainly not been limited to that. His intellectual relationship with Mackinder, Mahan, and German Geopolitiker is a fascinating and complex one, as it is his cultural formation as a conflict sociologist who specialised in Georg Simmel’s work.

At a time when the world geopolitical struggle continues to unfold mainly in the Rimland (the Middle East, south Asia, and with less intensity in north-east Asia), Spykman’s geopolitical writings deserve a careful reading also beyond the Rimland question.


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