The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West by Alexandros Petersen

On January 2014, Taliban suicide bombers attacked a Lebanese restaurant in Kabul. Twenty one people were killed, among them was Alexandros Petersen a scholar of geopolitics, and energy politics in the Caucasus and Central Asia. At the time of his death Alexandros was working as an Assistant Professor in political science at the American University campus in Afghanistan.

In his book, The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West, Alexandros Petersen is making a case for the West to pursue a strategy around Russia’s perimeter, with the aim of integrating the smaller nations of the former Soviet Union more deeply into Western-oriented market and democratic institutions.

Petersen ‘s  Twenty-First-Century Geopolitical Strategy for Eurasia (21CGSE) sets out and communicates what is at stake for the West in the Eurasian theatre, and provides a joint framework for trans-Atlantic cooperation. Its most important policy implication is the restoration of geopolitical purpose to Western institutions such as NATO, EU and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), among others, by arguing that their activities and expansion should be refocused in Eurasia.

“The Eurasian landmass ought to be the focal point of the West’s strategic exertions… If the nascent process of Western decline is to be arrested and reversed, a better understanding of the geopolitical relevance of Eurasia, and the struggle therein, and a concerted effort there, is crucial, “

By Eurasia or “World Island”, Peterson means the mega-continent that divided into Europe, the Middle East, East and South Asia and Africa, which really constitutes one land surrounded by one giant interconnected ocean. The term was first introduced by Harold Mackinder, a British geographer, academic and politician, and was used to describe the area that stretches from the eastern borders of Germany to the western border of China and from the Arctic Circle to the South Asian deserts and mountain ranges. In the future, Petersen argues,  this area will be deemed to be of decisive strategic importance to the United States and its West European allies.

Mackinder formulated his geopolitical ideas shortly before and after World War I in opposition to those of A.T. Mahan, who argued that sea-power is the key to world domination. Mackinder argued that the most important part of the world, geopolitically speaking, is the Pivot Area or Heartland of Eurasia, which lay at the centre of the world island, stretching from the Volga to the Yangtze and from the Himalayas to the Arctic, a vast territory controlled by Russia.

Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; who rules the World-Island commands the world. ”

Harold Mackinder,  Democratic Ideals and Reality, 1919.

Petersen argues that the pivotal importance of the Heartland still remains and the West needs to actively engage with the small nations in the periphery of Russia, the post-Soviet territories e.g. Ukraine, Georgia, Uzbekistan, Mongolia, etc, in order to prevent Russian and/or Chinese dominance.

It is a comprehensive analysis of the ideas of Mackinder and Kennan’s “Containment”, combined with  Josef Pilsudski’s “Prometheism” and “Intermarum” policies.  Josef Pilsudski, the first leader of the modern Polish state as it emerged after the end of World War I, aimed to create a fortress of common defence against Russia that would include independent states in the basins of the Baltic, Black and Caspian Seas, arguing that “any great Eurasian power would crumble if its many minorities were empowered from without”.

Western involvement and integration in Eurasia is not only possible but strategically imperative, not just in the Black Sea region, but also around the Caspian and Central/Inner Asia. The strategy departs from the traditional emphasis placed on the future of Ukraine and its schismatic domestic policies. Rather, it links Western efforts in Europe, Russia, Afghanistan, China and Iran into strategic whole to form an overarching purpose for Western institutions and governments. It is not hopelessly isolationist not vaingloriously imperialistic. It is aggressively realistic …..

The World Island arms the reader with insights and ideas in order to better understand the basics of geopolitics in the region. Petersen’s arguments are both thought-provoking and controversial, but often they are vaguely defined and they lack imagination. How do you contain a big country like Russia, especially when its fellow BRICS do not wish to isolate it? He also fails to answer fundamental questions, such as, what if, in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008 when the EU was visibly not in the ‘most robust health’,  Central Asian countries do not have strong incentives for institutional change and find that the Chinese alternative is more attractive and beneficial for their economic development albeit less oriented towards democratization.