Homeland Security

The Relevance of Geography and History in the Maritime Domain
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Issue Vol. 34.3 Jul-Sep 2019 | Date : 06 Oct , 2019

Command Her!
If you can’t command her, control her.
If you can’t control her, dominate her.
If you can’t dominate her,
maintain presence and deny her to others.
Oh! The sea is a wild child! — Anonymous

Geopolitics emerged towards the fag end of the 19th century at a time when the international system was re-ordering itself given the simultaneous rise of Japan, United States, Germany and Italy. Upon its establishment as a discipline of national science, its primary objective was to appreciate inter-state conflicts in terms of – spatial contest – that enhanced national power and secured national destiny. As developed by Friedrich Ratzel (1844-1904) – a professor of Geography in Germany and the country’s leading political scientist, geopolitics rested on the positivist oriented realist theory of international relations1, and on the geography of states2. An approach based on geographical reality and its relationship with political behaviour was linked to the very survival by early geopoliticians following Ratzel3. Based on the concept of Lebensraum (living space)4 – devised in 1860 by the biologist Oscar Peschel in a review of Darwin‘s The Origin of Species (1859)5 – the struggle for space remained central to Ratzel‘s Die Erde und dasLeben (The Earth and Life, 1902)6. With a strong interest in migration, Ratzel focused on the movement of cultural traits and their spatial implication7.

In his early contributions, Ratzel‘s Völkerkunde (translated as The History of Mankind), published in the period 1885 – 1888, as well as in his article on history, anthropology and the historical perspective, published in Historische Zeitschrift in 1904, sought to elaborate on a historical approach to the relation between culture and space8 and established him as a central figure in the field of cultural historical method which emphasized upon the historical nature of society. This method stood in difference to the evolutionary theories referred to as Darwinism (social)9 which did not include the notions of spatiality. According to Ratzel (1882), detailed study of the contemporary geographical distribution of culture complexes that would allow for construction of world historical processes required the conceptualisation of the state as an organic unit10.

Application of military power at sea varies from that of land, space, and cyber space…

Western scholarship at the fag end of the 19th century was associated with shattering of the religious unity of the Roman Catholic world in Europe which marked the rise of a new pluralism and military revolution that changed the nature of war. Despite the existence of numerous works that could have played an instrumental role in rationalising a social thought as Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859) did is significant of its coincidence with the nature of society during the turn of the 20th century11. The scientific revolution had transformed men and their ideas about their environment thus allowing Darwin‘s theory of evolution applicable to formulate social theories. The idea of competition, survival, accumulative power and self-interest constituted and informed social theories such as geo-politics. Darwin argued that individual organisms and species are all in a struggle for existence; however this struggle was both competitive and cooperative.

Geopolitics as a discipline was similar to the latter schools of international relations that shared the common objective to deal with uncertainty of time and hence – future (fin de siècle – pessimism about the future of Western civilisation). Geopolitics intended to occupy the analytical vacuum created due to discontinuation from the previous political patterns into the new beginnings of 20th century along with the distinction of being a universal law that would provide scientific explanation to re-ordering circumstances12. For founding geo-politicians such as Rudolf Kjellen (1864-1922) and Halford Mackinder (1861-1947), preservation amidst the emergence of a new world order due to the transformative rise of United States and the resultant flux in world affairs was of primary concern to the analytical method of geopolitics which was based on the doctrine of environmental determinism13. It was this school of thought that responded to international problems and opportunities by creating alliance systems and military strategies14. Another area of focus for early geo-politicians was the largest landmass on Earth – Eurasia – which was impregnable to attack by sea and therefore in possible control of a continental power on the Eurasian Heartland15.

The period 1500 AD to 1900 AD was articulated by H Mackinder as the Columbian epoch, which according to him ended in 1900 AD. The broad political effect of Columbian epoch reversed the relationship between Asia and Europe. Since this time, Britain, Canada, the United States, South Africa, Australia and Japan became a ring of outer and insular bases for sea power and commerce, inaccessible to the land-power of Euro-Asia16. The connection between the Western and Eastern coastal navigation of Euro-Asia intended to neutralise the strategically advantageous central position of land powers (steppe nomads) in Europe‘s rear shapes the geographical condition of ultimate unity in the command of the sea and of the whole theory of modern naval strategy and policy as expounded by sea power theorists such as Captain Mahan.

The strength of a sea power over a land power exists until the sea power is confronting a land power…

The method of geopolitics did create the intellectual space for spatiality. However, it did not articulate upon the concept of time despite equal relevance of temporality within a geopolitical calculation. For example, Mackinder (1904) was concerned with Russia‘s rise in Eurasia as it began contemplating the Trans-Siberian railway project. For Mackinder, this transformation in the means of communication from horse or camel to railway and thereby skipping the road, increased the mobility of a land-power and allowed Russia to control the Eurasian landmass as the Mongols did in the past with their horse-dependent mobility. Increase in mobility affects spatiality by being consequential to temporality. An efficient railroad network on land has strategic advantages over sea-based communication and shrinks the total area of Pivot thus impacting both spatial and temporality of geopolitical thought. The idea of naval power17 emerges from the relationship that a continental (land) power shares with a maritime (sea) power.

As sea power theorists contend, a sea power does have distinct advantage in terms of flexibility, mobility and maneuverability, but only up-until the land power begins investing in fleet-building. The strength of a sea power over a land power exists until the sea power is confronting a land power. Hence, according to Mackinder, in order to prevent the land power from pooling enormous resources to fleet-building, it must build alliances around the Eurasian Rimland that can be supplied by foreign navies to support land forces against the pivot area. Spatial control over the pivot area along with a strong naval arm was disadvantageous to an insular sea power such as Britain18.

Application of military power at sea varies from that of land, space, and cyber space. While one can conquer land on a permanent basis, no such possibility presents itself at sea. Sea cannot be conquered in space-time simultaneously19; it can however be commanded, controlled, dominated and maintained for presence and denial. In other words, it is a means to an end and not an end in itself. Furthermore, these categories of power in maritime domain represent varying notions of space-time and transition from one category of power to another represents the in-vogue configuration of world order. For example, a great debate unfolded amongst great powers during the transition from the concept of command of sea to sea control in the early 20th century and the fallout its disagreement led to international conflicts in mid-20th century. Formulation of strategic concepts such as – Indo-Pacific is directly associated with such a transition currently underway in the maritime domain of the 21st century.

The near-simultaneous increase in construction of capital ships by the Americans, British, Japanese and a possible renewal of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance (1911-1921) constituted US interest in the initial debates (Washington Conference) on naval power. The US was almost disinterested in the idea of League of Nation enshrined in the Treaty of Versailles – an arrangement during the inter-war period in Europe20. As a Pacific power, problems in the Pacific, including the potential military use of the former German islands (the Marshalls, Carolines, and Marianas) acquired as Japanese mandates along with inability of China to guarantee peace and stability in Western Pacific, forced the US to the Washington Conference (1921-1922).

A continental power in possession of a fleet or an insular maritime power in possession of continental resources (pivot area) causes systemic instability and possible conflicts…

According to Mackinder (1904), the US had recently become a Pacific power, affecting the European balance not directly, but through Russia. This made the dividing line between East and West to be found in the Atlantic Ocean21. As a Pacific power, the US in 1921 was poised to eclipse Great Britain’s historical position as the number one navy in the world. The US Congress in 1916 passed a naval act that called for the construction of 156 ships of which 16 would be capital ships (battleships and battle cruisers). From a materialistic perspective, the existing ratio of total warship displacement 13.5 (Great Britain): 10 (US): 4.9 (Japan) and total capital ships displacement – 13.9: 10: 6.8 – in 1921, upon completion of under construction projects in the US, UK and Japan, would alter the ratio to 10.6: 10: 8.7, where Japan and the US stood to gain on Great Britain. This transition was intense when compared with the naval race that led to World War I (1914-1918). As a Pacific power, the US assumed the threat from the renewal of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance which was first signed in 1902, and directed against the Russians.

Britain as a neutral in a US – Japanese conflict could cause the United States maritime difficulties in the Pacific. The US position during the Washington Conference (1921-1922) reflects its geographical appraisal of the situation more than the material dimension of naval power amongst other major powers (Great Britain, Japan, Italy, France). According to Mackinder (1904), “The particular combinations of power brought into balance are not material. My contention is that from a geographical point of view they are likely to rotate round the pivot state, which is always likely to be great, but with limited mobility as compared with the surrounding marginal and insular powers.”

The US proposal was closely advised by the then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr and developed primarily as a naval proposal. However, military considerations were placed in secondary position; military advice did not become a major determinant of policy22. The central theme of the debate beginning with the US proposal on 12 November, 1921 was – to end it now and a call for a ten-year naval holiday. For the US to ratify the naval arms control treaty required the following conditions;

  • Great Britain and Japan give up the Anglo-Japanese Alliance.
  • Japan slowdown its aggressive attitude in the Pacific and on the Asian mainland.

The resultant Five-Power Naval Treaty signed 06 February 1922 and a Four- Power Treaty (United States, Great Britain, Japan, and France), a Nine-Power Treaty (United States, Great Britain, Japan, Italy, France, Portugal, the Netherlands, Belgium, and China), a Chinese Customs Treaty (signed by nine-powers) and Japan’s informal agreement to restore Shandong to China, to sell Shandong railway to the Chinese and to withdraw its troops from Siberia, reflects the sea-land dimension of naval power that was sought be altered by regulating its material dimension – naval force.

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The treaty failed as it did not include limitations on the numbers of auxiliary ships (heavy and light cruisers, destroyers and submarines). France understood submarines to be defensive weapon system, whereas Great Britain understood them to be offensive weapons, which was natural given Great Britain and France’s geographical conditions – insular maritime power and continental power. In terms of space, France’s view of submarines was to deny its adversary sea-control and Great Britain as an insular maritime power wished to maintain sea control. Japan too, reflected its geographic conditionality by accepting the Five-Power Naval Treaty only on no further fortification on the stipulated Pacific islands that included the Philippines, Guam and Wake on the US side (but not Hawaii), did not include Hong Kong and Singapore on British side and did include the Pescadores, Amoni-Oshima, the Bonins and others belonging to the Japanese and the construction of aircraft carriers23.

From a geo-political perspective, the Washington Naval Treaty (1922) achieved the following objectives by its call for – stop now naval disarmament programme.

  • Dismantled the alliance between the Atlantic Great Britain and Pacific Japan.
  • Preserved the Pivot area (Continental China) from being dominated by any power in the Pacific.
  • Equalised its naval power with Great Britain and marginalised Japan from a material point of view; however, conceded space to Japan in terms of fortified Islands in the Pacific.

The US behaviour during the course of the negotiations in 1921-1922 was based on its incarnation as a Pacific Power24 as predicted by Mackinder in 1904. Japan‘s ability for command or sea control of the Pacific was similar to Mackinder‘s nightmare where the Pivot area acquires a naval fleet. Japan as an insular maritime power in procession of the Pivot area on Eurasian landmass was an existential threat to the US. In summary, the Washington Naval Treaty (1922) was not about the balance of power amongst the powers participating, but the balance of the maritime world order itself. A continental power in possession of a fleet or an insular maritime power in possession of continental resources (pivot area) causes systemic instability and possible conflicts.

The instability is thus caused due to the relative nature of the concept of command of sea. According to Geoffrey Till, the absolute nature of command of sea is perhaps a strategic cultural understanding that is not inclusive of all maritime (naval) powers everywhere and the principles of maritime strategy are not universal and do not apply to everyone.25 For maritime powers such as the US and Britain, command is being of all the sea for all purposes26. The idea of naval power was understood to be absolute or not existent. According Mahan, Command of sea power was understood; it could not be shared, and was applicable to one nation at a time27. The historical interpretation of geography in terms of geo-politics since the fag end of the 19th century thus continues to be relevant in setting the future course of great power relations in the 21st century maritime domain. The in-vogue concept of Indo-Pacific is one such example that is born out of a relationship between geography and history.


  1. The inability of the theories of international relations to graduate into proper science is attributed to domination of realist theory of international theories and its poverty in epistemological and methodological alternative approaches. Burcu Bostanoglu, “International Relations Theory as Social Science” Turkish Year Book (Vol XXV). Available at http://dergiler.ankara.edu.tr/dergiler/44/678/8637.pdf
  2. Jeremy Black (2009), Geopolitics, The Social Affairs Unit: United Kingdom, p 107.
  3. The notable amongst the early geo-politicians were 1) Rudolf Kjellen (1864-1922) – Sweden, 2) Halford Mackinder (1861-1947) – England.
  4. To Ratzel, this union of expansion and strength, the two being crucial to the state’s existence (rather than simply controlling space itself), was expressed in terms of its pursuit of Lebensraum, or living space. Success in this pursuit would guarantee, as well as define, power, and thus permit the pursuit of great-power status. Power, in short, was cumulative, with space a crucial means and measure. Jeremy Black (2009), Supra Note, 2, p. 109.
  5. Darwin (1859) argued that individual organisms and species are all in a struggle for existence.
  6. M. Bassin (1987), “Imperialism and the Nation State in Friedrich Ratzel’s Political Geography” Progress in Human Geography, Vol: 2, pp. 473-95. H. Wanklin (1961), Friedrich Ratzel: A Biographical Memoir and Bibliography, Cambridge: UK. D. Livingstone (1992), The Geographical Tradition, Oxford: London, pp. 196-202 – Cited in Jeremy Black (2009), Geopolitics, The Social Affairs Unit: United Kingdom, p. 220.
  7. Julia Verne (2017), “The neglected “gift” of Ratzel for/from the Indian Ocean: thoughts on mobilities, materialities and relational”Geographica Helvetica, 72, 85–92, 2017, p. 88.
  8. Julia Verne (2017), Supra Note; 7, p. 88.
  9. Social Darwinism is the application of Darwin’s theory of natural selection to the evolution of human society. The term, Social Darwinism, came into popular usage in the early part of the twentieth century. James Allen Rogers (1972), “Darwinism and Social Darwinism” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 33, No. 2 (Apr-Jun), pp. 265-280.
  10. F. Ratzel (1882), Anthropogeographie, Vol. 1, Engelhorn, Stuttgart, p. 422; cited in Julia Verne (2017); Supra Note, 7, p. 88.
  11. Robert Chambers published in 1844 a theory of biological evolution; Herbert Spencer used the phrase “survival of the fittest” as early as 1852 in writing on biological evolution.
  12. K. Dodds and D. Atkinson (Eds) (2000), Geopolitical Traditions: A Century of Geopolitical Thought, London, pp. 27-51.
  13. By definition the term Determinism is the doctrine that all events are the inevitable result of antecedent conditions, and that the human being, in acts of apparent choice, is the mechanical expression of his heredity and his past environment.
  14. P.M. Kennedy (ed.) (1979), The War Plans of the Great Powers, 1880-1914, London. S.E. Miller, S.M. Lynn-Jones and S. Van Evera (Eds) (1991), First World War (Second Edition), Princeton: NJ. G.A. Tunstall (1993), Planning for War against Russia and Serbia: Austro-Hungarian and German Military Strategies, 1871-1914, Boulder, Col.
  15. On 25 January 1904, at a meeting of the Royal Geographical Society, Halford Mackinder (18611947) presented a paper entitled “The Geographical Pivot of History”, where he classified Eurasia into “Heartland” and “Rimland”. H J Mackinder (1904), “The Geographical Pivot of History” The Geographical Journal, Vol. 170, No. 4, December 2004, pp. 298–321.
  16. H J Mackinder (1904); Supra Note 15, p. 433.
  17. The term naval power is often used synonymous to naval force which is the material dimension of naval power. Naval power is by itself an idea based on geographical realities.
  18. H J Mackinder (1904); Supra Note 15, p. 436.
  19. Geoffrey Till (2013), Seapower: A Guide for the Twenty-First Century, Routledge: London, p. 144.
  20. Treaty of Versailles (1919) in Richard Dean Burns (Eds), Encyclopedia of Arms Control and Disarmament, Charles Scriber’s Sons: New York, p. 1144
  21. It was argued that the Panama Canal would link US East coast (Atlantic) to its west Coast in Pacific. Mackinder (1904), The Geographical Pivot of History, p. 313.
  22. Congressional Record, 28 March 1922, p. 1677.
  23. “Washington Naval Treaty” (1922) in Richard Dean Burns (Eds), Encyclopedia of Arms Control and Disarmament, Charles Scriber’s Sons: New York, p. 1166.
  24. Up-until this point US is a continental power at the threshold of being a maritime power.
  25. Gray, Colin S (1999), Modern Strategy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 222. Booth, K., Navies and Foreign Policy, London: Croom Helm; p. 06. Brodie, B., A Guide to Naval Strategy, New York: Praeger.
  26. Geoffrey Till (2013); Supra Note, 19, p. 145
  27. G.S. Graham cited in Clark G. Reynolds (1974), Command of the Seas, New York: Morrow, p. 211.
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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Dr Rajasimman Sundaram

teaches history, politics, and culture and a member of the Institute of BRICS Studies and College of Multi-Languages at Sichuan International Studies University [四川外国语大学] (The People’s Republic of China)". 

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