About me

In 2010 I made the decision to follow a career path dedicated to peace building and conflict resolution, resulting in enlistment at the Royal Netherlands Navy in 2012. Currently, I am specializing into conflict resolution at Radboud University's Center for International Conflict -  Analyses and Managment. Since July 2015 I have been working part time at Radboud University as faculty advisor for the course United Nations and Multilateral Diplomacy and currently as a research assistant at the Center for International Conflict -  Analyses and Managment. In February 2016 I started my own consultancy and training bureau "Pantheon". Focussing on teaching skills needed to act within the international setting (Public Speaking, Negotiation, Etiquette, Protocol) as well as offering consultation on maritime and defense issues.

From The Heartland to the Complete Network: Blood Vines and Nervous Systems

By G.L.J. Jacobs on 2017-06-20 in Papers,


Starting from the Colombian epoch, from around 1500 and ended in 1900, major powers have exercised colonial power struggles to establish dominion. With the turn of the 20th century the age of exploration had come to an end. Indeed as Mackinder pointed out in this famous "The Geographic Pivot of History" (1904); "[i]n 400 years the outline of the map of the world has been completed with approximated accuracy, and even in the polar regions the voyage of Nansen and Scott have very narrowly reduced the last possibility  of dramatic discoveries" (Mackinder 1904, 421). Mackinder analytically remarked that because the political system had been closed again, be it now on a global scale, and that any explosion of social force would be redirected at the centre of the globe rather than the periphery as it had during the Colombian epoch. The first half of the 20th century clearly has shown this development, putting geopolitics on the map (see for example classics such as (Mackinder 1919, Haushofer 1927, Ancel 1938, Haushofer 1942) In the second half, in terms of geopolitical shifts, borders had become more stable. Under the dominion of two powers at an impasse much of the social force was put into proxy - but borders hardly changed, as a result at the end of the cold war the interest in borders resurged in the last two decades (Newman 2006). This development is reflected in the increase of literature on borders and bordering (Ganster, Sweedler, et al. 1997, Newman and Paasi 1998, Eskelinen, Liikanene and Oksa 1999, Hardt and Negri 2000, Kaplan and Hakli 2001, Berg and Van Houtem 2004, Pavlakovich-Kochi, Morehouse and Wastl-Walter 2004, Ganster and Lorey 2005).

Before applying these contemporary thinkers, I will first briefly touch upon Mackinder's geo-strategic thinking. I will use the anatomical wording of the heartland that originated in 1904 and instead argue that it is perhaps not the heart that requires attention, but rather the blood vessels and the nervous system of the world. I primarily argue that it is by controlling the flow of material goods and immaterial information that a colonial power can, and is, exercising its control over other countries. In my analysis I identify the People's Republic of China, The Russian Federation and the United States of America as the dominant colonial powers of this day and age, and would consider the United Kingdom and France to be colonial powers of the previous era. When focussing on the flows of material goods and immaterial information, I found the broader power struggles laid bare. Additionally it became clear that although these three colonial powers might be instigating the struggle, it is no longer only sovereign nations that play a pivotal role, an idea that is heavily advocated by Hardt and Negri (2004) - though perhaps this has always been the case, but has become so much clearer today.

The Heartland today

Map 1: The Heartland Map (Mackinder 1904)

Mackinder summarised his heartland theory in 1919 as:

"Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland;
who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island;
who rules the World-Island commands the world."
(Mackinder 1919, 150)

The idea behind controlling the Heartland was that it would constitute for nearly half of the world's resources. So far, however, none of the colonial powers had been able to completely control the Heartland. It was entrenched between geological thresholds, impervious to an attack with sea power by the eastern and southern mountains and deserts and the icy Arctic to the north. While the east and western sides were approachable by land, its historical invasions were unsuccessful due to logistical restraints. With the introduction of the railroad, Mackinder predicted that this might change and he illustrated three scenarios in which would lead to commanding the Heartland, and subsequently the World (Mackinder 1904, 436-7).

When looking at the world in 1904 and the introduction of the ingenuity of the rail system, it is not difficult to imagine one thinking of an opportunity to apply it to warfare, and indeed it played a revolution or even pivotal in the first world war - which heavily changed the geopolitical situation in Europe and the world. It should be noted that this was only a decade after Mackinder proposed the idea of being able to penetrate the Heartland by rail if a powerful continental nation extended its political control over the Eastern European gateway into the Eurasian landmass. Perhaps such a role could have been played by Germany or the Ottoman Empire, but neither existed after 1918 - perhaps because of this very reason that the Western powers of Britain, France and the US made sure the Central Powers would not take over the Russian empire. Although power shifted on the tectonic level, two other scenarios; a Russo-German alliance or conquest of Russia by a Sino-Japanese Empire also did not come to be.

Forgoing Mackinder's ability to predict the future, a couple of interest remarks can be made based upon his thinking to apply Mackinder today. The first is in the military domains. In 1904 these were limited to land and sea, commonly known as the first and second military domain respectively. In the past century warfare led to new industrial and scientific developments allowing war to branch out to the domains of air (the third domain), space (the fourth) and cyber (the fifth). The later three diminish the importance of the land domain, though increase the importance of sea power. With land power becoming less relevant, and sea power more so, both nullify the heartland theory. The other four domains play a prominent role, and I will argue that it is sea power and cyber power that are pivotal. It is through these two domains that colonial powers can project force and where they struggle to control the interconnected and interdependent globalised world.

The Complete Network: Spaces of Flows and Globalisation

Hardt and Negri (2000) theorise an ongoing transition from the modern phenomenon of imperialism to an emergent postmodern construct created among ruling powers which the authors call "Empire" with different forms of warfare, that contemporary call 'hybrid' or 'unrestricted warfare'. While Empire transverse geographical borders, this is not to say that territorial borders do not play a role. Van Houtem and van Naerssen (2002) argue that the word "borders" assumes "that places are fixed in space and time.". This assumption is unjustified and borders should be understood in terms of bordering and ordering. It is a strategic effort by colonial powers to "make a difference in space among the movements of people, money or products", and I would add the flow of information to that as well. In a continuously effort, borders regulate the mobility of these flows and by doing so construct and reproduce places in space (Van Houtem and Van Naerssen, Bordering, ordering and othering 2002, 126)

Newman and Paasi (1998) point towards Castells expression that the impact of globalisation and the rise of 'space of flows' instead of the 'space of places' (Castells 1989). Globalisation is seen by Robertson (Robertson 1992) as the 'shrinking' of the world and the increasing consciousness of the world as a whole. It is then not unsurprising that boundaries are significant in this process in what they become more enterable, as Newman and Paasi conclude "this is particularly the case with respect to the movement of goods, people and information" (Newman and Paasi, Fences and neighbours in the postmodern world: boundary narratives in political geography 1998, 192).

David Held's (2006) definition of globalisation is what I will use to introduce the idea of the complete network, of the interconnected and the interdependent world. Held and his colleagues declare globalisation to be "the widening, deepening and speeding up of worldwide interconnectedness in all aspects of contemporary social life, from the cultural to the criminal, the financial to the spiritual." (Held, et al. 2006, 5) Within this social life, we can thus also include the struggle of power and dominion by colonial powers. Hardt and Negri, argue that "war tends to extend [even] further, becoming a permanent social relation" (Hardt and Negri, Multitude, War and Democracy in the Age of Empire 2004, 12), which led Cramer to conclude that through technological developments, "war has been raised [ ] to an "absolute, ontological level"." (Cramer 2006, 50). In terms of the global order, "[It] can no longer be understood adequately in terms of imperialism as it was practised by the modern powers, based primarily on the sovereignty of the nation-state extended over foreign territory." (Hardt and Negri, Multitude, War and Democracy in the Age of Empire 2004, xii), as a result, Hardt and Negri argue for viewing conflict "not in isolation, then, but seen as part of a grand constellation, linked in varying degrees both to other war zones and to areas not presently at war." (Hardt and Negri, Multitude, War and Democracy in the Age of Empire 2004, 4).

Having elevated conflict from its kinetic geographical presence, one may wonder how then to visualise this on a map. And indeed although it would be difficult to visualise all social interactions related to power struggle, it would be possible by looking contemporary struggle and conflict. Various nodes can be distinguished of where colonial superpowers show their interest. No longer is there a heartland to be controlled, but by controlling the nodes in the network. How would a map look like then? The link with biology made in 1904 is not unwarranted, let us have a look at maps that show the blood vines and the nerves of the global network, and deconstruct them to reveal areas of geopolitical interest.

Blood vines...

In order to visualise the bloodlines, I have chosen to use deep sea shipping routes. This is not to say that it is only shipping lanes that are part of the bloodlines, but it helps us visualise an otherwise difficult to show Castells' 'space of flows'. Alternative and more detailed one could look at maps of train systems and roads that show the flow of material goods. The decision was made to use shipping lanes as they became increasingly important over the past decades, as well have historically been the theatre of conflict.

The map above is used by shipping companies to depict the major deep sea shipping routes. It is generally accepted that 90% of the world's trade is carried by sea. (IMO 2012, 5) Over the past half, a century cargo shipped nearly quadrupled, from 2.5 billion tonnes of cargo in 1970 to 8.5 billion tonnes in 2010 (UNCTAD 2011, 7). It is estimated that if the trade growth trend of the last 150 years continues, this number will have increased to 23 billion tonnes by 2060 (Stopford 2010, 6). If once was spoke of a heartland of the world, the surely these shipping lanes are the blood vessels that allow the world to live.

These maritime nodes correspond with what John House (1980) calls the 'double peripherality'. Areas that are located in the geographic periphery of the country (the coast line), where the residents of the region suffer from economic, social, and political peripherality due to their distance with power elites and decision-makers (Newman 2006). Often these places take on the form of 'borderland' (Rumley and Minghi 1991, Blake 2000, Van Houtem and Eker 2013).

Beyond the social impact and the impact shipping has on the environment, maritime shipping routes have always been the theatre of major power struggles, going as far back as the competition between the Spanish and Portuguese at the beginning of the Colombian era resulting in the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. A second such power struggle between the Dutch and the Portuguese resulting in the publication of 'Mare Liberum'. The principles of the free sea advocated in 'Mare Liberum' formed the basis for the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982.

Imagine indeed these shipping lanes to be the vessels through which the world transfers necessary substances and transports (metabolic) waste. One of these vessels is by far the most superior, I will call it the 'Anteria Maxima' from the Latin words for 'great' and 'artery'. The Anteria Maxima is the shipping lane to the world that is the artery to the heart. It is a circular lane with no starting point or end that flows through Panama Canal, the Mediterranean Sea, the Suez Canal, the Gulf of Aden, goes south of India through the Indies to China and from there again to Panama. In 1904 Mackinder pointed out that the Sahara was the dividing line between North and South (Mackinder 1904, 428), contemporary this would be Anteria Maxima. In a military context, this line is occasionally described as the 'Belt of Instability' due to the many conflicts erupting in countries bordering the shipping lane. Note how all of these places have and still are the areas of colonial struggle and dominion, with where at least two colonial powers, the United States and France have artificially created canals to consolidate their claim, a third, the United Kingdom, has been involved with a war over one of the canals, and finally a fourth power, China, has made plans to construct another channel to rival that of Panama.

Above the Anteria Maxima we find the Anteria Boreas. It connects the Anteria Maxima with the Bering Strait, between Russia and the United States, the Northwest Passage above Canada and the Northern Sea Route above Russia. These are currently largely a dormant shipping lane (only the Bering Strait is accessible at times), but with the increasing climate change and melted ice this northern shipping lane will open up in the near future (Arctic Council 2009). Seeing a new theatre appear, and fearing another scramble like the scramble for Africa, the Arctic Council was established by the Ottawa declaration in 1996. Allowing for corporation between the two colonial powers bordering the Arctic as well as allowing other colonial powers a seat as an observer, thus keeping the power struggle away from the kinetic theatre.

On the south, we find the Anteria Australis. As a shipping lane, it is large too expensive to use and only used when the Maxima for whatever reason is blocked. Noteworthy here is again the struggle for dominion over the Arctic and its sea regions between the major colonial powers.

Finally, attention should be given to the struggles of China as upcoming power. Both in the lawfare conflict (a form of hybrid warfare on the basis of international law, (Liang and Xiangsui 1999) in the South Chinese Sea (Dutton 2011), as well as in their attempt to reconstruct the Silk Road, a hybrid rail, road and shipping lane. On land, "a corridor linking China with Mongolia, Central Asia, Russia, Iran, Turkey, the Balkans, central and eastern Europe, and ultimately Germany and the Netherlands", and via the maritime "linking south-east China with south-east Asia, Bangladesh, India, the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean" (Ferdinand 2016).

... and Nerve Systems

While the bloodlines can be visualised on a map to an extent, it is much more difficult to do so with the nerve system. The nerve system lies party outside of physical bordering and ordering. It encompasses the Ethernet, both in its physical connects of the worldwide network of cables, as well in the 'flow' of information. Here again the relevance of Castells' (1989) expression on 'the space of flows'. Nevertheless, an attempt can be made by looking at a map of the underwater sea cables that connect the modern world - if we consider the flow of information to be the world's nerve system, then these cables from the vertebral column, or the Internet's backbone. During the cold war colonial powers fought out their struggle in proxy wars and intelligence operations (Herman 1996, Andrew, Aldrich and Wark 2009). The latter made often use tapping these cables such as the NSA from the early 1970's until 1981 to spy on the Russians under the name of 'Operation Ivy Bells' (Khazan 2013). More recently it was revealed that both the U.S. and the U.K. spy agencies have made use of tapping directly into the vertebral (Timberg 2013, MacAskill, et al. 2013).

Map 3 Underwater Sea Cables (The Atlantic 2013)

Aside of the physical backbone of the internet, the second theatre of Hardt and Negri's Empire is within the borderless struggle of the internet itself. Contemporary this is mainly used by colonial powers in the form of misinformation (Levitin 2016). Misinformation is defined as incorrect, or false information, that is spread unintentionally or intentionally (Antoniadis, Litou and Kalogeraki 2016). It is an addition to the toolbox of hybrid warfare that has recently been used extensively in conflicts pertaining the United States and Russia (Snegovaya 2015, Hunter and Pernik 2015, Rogers and Bromwich 2016).


The above gives only a sample of geopolitical moves by colonial powers, by looking at conflicts over the blood vines and the nerves in the history we may predict the ones in the future and act accordingly. As the German General Karl Haushofer already advocated in 1942, "Only this can give [ ] the needed realistic insight into the world picture as it presents itself from day to day." (Haushofer, Why Geopolitik? 1942, 40).This is as true today as it was in the second half of the 20th century. The resurgence of the interest in bordering and ordering is warranted, but it also evident to look beyond borders and look at the things that 'flow'. By looking at contemporary conflicts and deconstruct them in order to find the underlying geopolitical interest. In this essay I touched upon a few historical and contemporary conflicts between the modern colonial powers China, Russia and the United States. I have illustrated some of these empire fuelled conflicts using two maps the interconnectedness of the moderglobaliseded world by means of naval transport, the blood vessels of the world, and the harder to show nerve system that is in particular relevance for the western world. Control the things that allow the globalized world to 'flow' for domination.

This argument can then perhaps be summarized in a paraphrase of Mackinder's 1919 summary:

"Who rules the Ethernet commands the Nervous system;
Who rules the flow of goods commands the Blood vessels;
Who rules both commands the globalized world."


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