Home / Articles / Heartland Geopolitics and the Case of Uzbekistan
One hundred years ago tonight, Sir Halford John Mackinder presented his paper, “The Geographical Pivot of History” (published in the April 1904 Geographical Journal) to London’s Royal Geographical Society. He argued that the “closed heartland of Euro-Asia” was the “pivot” of global balance and told his audience that control of the Eurasian heartland meant, “You will be able to fling power from side to side of this area. My aim is to make a geographical formula into which you could fit any political balance.”
Over the next forty years, Mackinder developed this “formula,” advising strategists that maintaining balance in Central Asia would require a security coin where one side was hard power and the other soft-power. As the United States partners with such present-day heartland nations as Uzbekistan in the war on terror, and as we consider the political balance of our own times and the future, we would do well to recall Mackinder’s insights.
Although Mackinder changed the heartland boundaries according to the strategic context of the times—he applied his formula in 1904, 1919, and 1943—its core element always included Central Asia (Afghanistan, Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan), western Siberia, and the northern portions of Iran and Pakistan. Beyond the reach of seapower because its rivers flowed into inland seas or the largely inaccessible Arctic Ocean, the region was “the greatest natural fortress on earth.”
In his January 25, 1904, speech, Mackinder argued that the advent of the railroad marked the end of European global domination through seapower. As the railroad connected previously remote spaces, a “closed political system” would result where “every explosion of social forces, instead of being dissipated in a surrounding circuit of unknown space and barbaric chaos, will be sharply re-echoed from the far side of the globe, and weak elements in the political and economic organism of the world will be shattered in consequence.” The land power of Eurasia was a powerful force that would have to be contained by the West; whatever happened in Central Asia would have far-reaching effects.
In 1919, Mackinder published Democratic Ideals and Reality, alarmed that “democracy refuses to think strategically unless and until compelled to do so for purpose of defense.” Hoping to influence the Versailles peace process by expanding his heartland formula, he argued that if global balance were to be achieved, a new, holistic sense of strategy and security was needed that balanced hard and soft power in its analysis. “Now is the time, when the nations are fluid, to consider what guarantees, based on geographical and economic realities, can be made available for the future security of mankind.”
His hard-power analysis concluded that global stability depended on “the German claim to dominance over the Slav.” A buffer zone was needed between Germany and Russia to prevent Germany from starting a second world war. Mackinder believed that a collection of independent but integrated states, anchored in the north by Poland, could provide security, if not deterrence, against Germany. As a result, he included Eastern Europe within the heartland’s most western boundary.
Mackinder’s analysis also took into consideration how the soft power of economic opportunity might enable human dignity and community. Considering why people fight, he used an example from home: “Are you quite sure that the gist of the demand for Home Rule in Ireland does not come mainly from young men who are agitating, though they do not fully realize it, for equality of opportunity rather than against the assumed wickedness of England?”
In 1943, just four years before his death, Mackinder offered the readers of Foreign Affairs an “interim estimate” of his timeless formula. He envisioned the global balance of the twenty-first century, wherein the heartland (Russia) and the mid-Atlantic nations (America, France, and Britain) would combine to balance (not necessarily against) China and India. Mackinder thought that the mid-Atlantic should be “pledged together” with Russia in case “any breach of the peace is threatened,” anticipating NATO and its expansion eastward, along with the EU.
These formulations suggest not only that hard and soft power are critical to global balance, but also that this balancing takes place in Central Asia, the backyard that everyone shares. Surrounded by four regional powers with nuclear weapons (Russia, China, India, and Pakistan) and one that seeks them (Iran) and permeated by a global hegemon that has military bases throughout it, Central Asia could turn out to be the geographic fulcrum of global balance. Because of its youth bulge and its uncertain political future, however, Central Asia is also a frontline in the war on terror (or, as some would argue, it is the frontline).
The region has a clear choice regarding its future. It can be an economically integrated and stable buffer zone of independent states, where friction among regional powers accordingly dissipates (as Mackinder might suggest); or it will be a place where tension builds among competing states and surrounding powers even as the region’s jobless youth are recruited and retained by terrorists.
Uzbekistan, at the center of Central Asia, possesses one-third of the region’s population and is contiguous to every other country in the region (clockwise from above, Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan). Its army is bigger than the other countries’ combined. Most importantly, 50 percent of its population is under the age of 18, living mostly in cities.
The majority of these youth are cultural Muslims who appreciate that they are inheritors of a great Islamic civilization characterized by tolerance and achievement (witness the learning and beauty of Samarkand, the second largest city in Uzbekistan). They possess a rich cultural heritage but lack opportunities. Uzbekistan is still a centralized economy where entrenched elites have long controlled the currency exchange rates. It is hard for a country to participate in the global economy, let alone create jobs, if its currency is non-convertible. A youth cohort with a strong sense of cultural identity but no opportunities makes fertile ground for Al Qaeda. Therefore, it is in Uzbekistan and the rest of Central Asia that we can prevent the next Bin Laden, through the integrated use of both hard and soft power.
Unmindful of Mackinder’s insights, the United States has yet to implement a balanced policy toward Uzbekistan. During the Clinton administration, the U.S. ignored the hard-power importance of Uzbekistan—both its geography and the terrorist threat it faced—while offering inappropriate soft-power solutions. The Bush administration, especially since 9/11, has brought back a hard-power perspective but has not given soft-power solutions the emphasis they demand.
During the Clinton years, America was slow to acknowledge the region’s importance, treating it primarily as a Soviet Union backwater. (It took the State Department years to change the name of its bureaus from “former Soviet Union” to “newly independent states” to “Europe and Eurasia”). Uzbek officials I have interviewed feel that the U.S. pursued a “Russia first” policy over these years, and that they were treated not as equals but usually as vassals of Moscow. In fact, the Uzbeks were tertiary to Washington during the 1990s because Washington didn’t need them. It painted Uzbekistan, with its well-documented human rights abuses, with a broad brush, depicting it as a repressive regime in need of Western civil society, which we could provide.
The sad result was ironic, first, because the Uzbeks were right about the Islamic terrorist threat emanating from their country and region and second, because the Uzbeks used national security as an excuse to crack down on alleged terrorists. (There are 6500 “terrorists” in Uzbek jails today, most of them for being pious Muslims.) Washington made President Karimov’s regime a poster child for authoritarian regimes as it focused on engaging the country through Western-based civil society programs that often did not account for alternative models of civil society that already existed in Uzbekistan. (Dr. David Abramson has done some wonderful writing on this topic).
Even worse, because we saw what we wanted to see, our foreign policy experts, most of whom were former Sovietologists, did not come to grips with the domestic politics of Uzbekistan. We saw Uzbek foreign policy as a function of Karimov and his external relations with the region and the U.S.; not as a function of Karimov and his internal relations with the competing forces within his country. Those forces are comprised of various powerful family clans who generally hold one of two perspectives on the world: reactionaries who only want to stay in power (and for years prevented currency convertibility); or progressives who want Uzbekistan to compete in a global economy and contribute to a global civilization.
Both perspectives have a common plank: they, as Mackinder would condone, see an engaged America as a means to balance Russia and China. The reactionaries see in this a way to preclude America’s holding them accountable for human rights and economics, while the progressives see an engaged America as an external catalyst to their own impulse for economic and social reform, the precursor to political reform.
During the war in Afghanistan, the Bush administration gained the right to operate from two key bases in Uzbekistan (Karshi and Khanabad) and significantly increased aid to Uzbekistan. This rediscovery of the importance of the heartland led to President Karimov’s visiting the White House and an unprecedented U.S. security guarantee to Uzbekistan.
Because of its hard-power needs, the Bush administration has been careful in how it pushes on soft-power issues. It is a complex and often messy process. On the one hand, pious Muslims and Christians are harassed and jailed for their beliefs. The economy is still centralized and jobs are hard to find. Many live on tea and bread. Uzbeks, by nature a passive people, are now talking openly about how bad the situation has gotten. Change cannot happen fast enough.
On the other hand, the Uzbek government, in the context of its domestic politics, has moved “rapidly,” enabling change unimaginable two years ago. The government has just recently made its currency, the som, convertible (although border tariffs still impede free trade). It has granted amnesty to almost one thousand political prisoners on two separate occasions. It has prosecuted secret police who have violated human rights. And it has allowed both the UN rapporteur on torture and the ICRC to visit prisons.
We cannot get Central Asia wrong. The U.S. should not be afraid to press more comprehensively for human rights progress, but neither should it expect the progressive elements in Tashkent to do what Washington wants it to. In addition to its hard-power guarantee, Washington should encourage economic integration of the independent states, anchored by Uzbekistan, and the development of native MBA programs; a rule-of-law center that would make recommendations on corruption and reform of prisons and the economy; and a conference series on religious freedom and security in Central Asia, to reconsider the current laws.
Finally, there is currently serious discussion in the US government about designating Uzbekistan as a “country of particular concern” (CPC) this April, given Uzbekistan’s terrible treatment of pious Muslims and the harassment of Christian groups. It is not yet time for such a designation. Uzbekistan has come a long way. It has a long way to go. Although the human rights improvements made thus far seem glacial by our own standard, they are rapid according to the Uzbek political context. In fact, by placing sanctions on Uzbekistan now (which could include limiting or stopping aid), we may empower the reactionaries. Now is the time to work together.
During the question-and-answer period following Mackinder’s 1904 presentation, Mr. Spencer Wilkinson remarked that governments needed to remember that “you cannot move any one piece without considering all the squares on the board… . The great fact of today is that any movement which is made in one part of the world affects the whole of the international relations of the world.” We, too, need a new, holistic sense of strategy and security, beginning in Mackinder’s heartland.