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Nicholas J. Spykman

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Nicholas J. Spykman

Nicholas John Spykman (13 October 1893 –1943) was a Dutch-American geostrategist, known as the "godfather of containment." As a political scientist he was one of the founders of the classical realist school in American foreign policy, transmitting Eastern European political thought into the United States. A Sterling Professor of International Relations, teaching as part of the Institute for International Studies at Yale University, one of his prime concerns was making his students geographically literate—geopolitics was impossible without geographic understanding.


  • Biography 1
  • Spykman's geostrategy 2
    • Heartland 2.1
    • Rimland 2.2
    • Offshore continents 2.3
    • Eurasian dynamics 2.4
    • U.S. strategic goals 2.5
  • Quotations 3
  • Spykman's works 4
  • See also 5
  • External links 6


He was born on 13 October 1893 in Amsterdam. He was married to the children's novelist E. C. Spykman. He died on 26 June 1943 in New Haven, Connecticut of cancer at the age of 49.

Spykman published two books on foreign policy. America's Strategy in World Politics was published in 1942 near the entry of the United States into World War II. Concerned with balance of power, he argues that isolationism, relying on the oceans to protect the United States ("hemispheric" or "quarter defense"), was bound to fail. His object was to prevent a U.S. retreat, similar to U.S. policy following World War I. The Geography of the Peace was published the year after Spykman's death. In it he lays out his geostrategy, arguing that the balance of power in Eurasia directly affected United States security.

In his writings concerning geography and foreign policy, Spykman was somewhat of a geographical determinist. Since geography was "the most fundamentally conditioning factor because of its relative permanence," it was of primary relevance in analyzing a state's potential foreign policy.

Spykman's geostrategy

N.J. Spykman could be considered as a disciple and critic of both geostrategists Alfred Mahan, of the United States Navy, and Halford Mackinder, the British geographer. His work is based on assumptions similar to Mackinder: the unity of world politics, and the unity of the world sea. He extends this to include the unity of the air. The exploration of the entire world means that the foreign policy of any nation will affect more than its immediate neighbors; it will affect the alignment of nations throughout the world's regions. Maritime mobility opened up the possibility of a new geopolitical structure: the overseas empire.

Spykman adopts Mackinder's divisions of the world, renaming some:

  • the Heartland;
  • the Rimland (analogous to Mackinder's "inner or marginal crescent"); and
  • the Offshore Islands & Continents (Mackinder's "outer or insular crescent").


At the same time, because he gives credit to the strategic importance of maritime space a Mackinder's. He does not see it as a region which will be unified by powerful transportation or communication infrastructure in the near future. As such, it won't be in a position to compete with the United States' sea power. Spykman agrees that the heartland offers a uniquely defensive position, but that is all Spykman grants the occupier of the heartland.

While the USSR encompassed a great expanse of land, its arable land remained in a small portion of its territory, mostly in the West. Indeed, the Soviet's raw materials were largely located to the West of the Ural mountains as well. Since the political and material center of gravity was in the Western part of the USSR, Spykman sees little possibility of the Soviets exerting much power in Central Asia.

Still, Russia was to remain the greatest land power in Asia, and could be a peacekeeper or a problem.


The Rimland (Mackinder's "Inner or Marginal Crescent") sections:

While Spykman accepts the first two as defined, he rejects the simple grouping the Asian countries into one "monsoon land." India, the Indian Ocean littoral, and Indian culture were geographically and civilizationally separate from the Chinese lands.

The Rimland's defining characteristic is that it is an intermediate region, lying between the heartland and the marginal sea powers. As the amphibious buffer zone between the land powers and sea powers, it must defend itself from both sides, and therein lies its fundamental security problems. Spykman's conception of the Rimland bears greater resemblance to Alfred Thayer Mahan's "debated and debatable zone" than to Mackinder's inner or marginal crescent.

The Rimland has great importance coming from its demographic weight, natural resources, and industrial development. Spykman sees this importance as the reason that the Rimland will be crucial to containing the Heartland (whereas Mackinder had believed that the Outer or Insular Crescent would be the most important factor in the Heartland's containment).

Offshore continents

There are two offshore continents flanking Eurasia: Africa and Australia. Spykman sees the two continents' geopolitical status as determined respectively by the state of control over the Mediterranean Sea and the "Asiatic Mediterranean." Neither has ever been the seat of significant chaos prevents Africa from harnessing the resources of its regions; Australia hasn't enough arable territory to serve as a base of power.

Other than the two continents there are offshore islands of significance are Britain and Japan, while the New World, buffered by the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans

Eurasian dynamics

Again, Spykman differs from Mackinder. Mackinder sees Eurasian wars as historically pitting the heartland against the sea powers for control of the rimland, establishing a land power-sea power opposition. Spykman states that historically battles have pitted Britain and rimland allies against Russia and its rimland allies, or Britain and Russia together against a dominating rimland power. In other words, the Eurasian struggle was not the sea powers containing the heartland, but the prevention of any power from ruling the rimland.

Spykman recalls Mackinder's famous dictum,

Who controls eastern Europe rules the Heartland;
Who controls the Heartland rules the World Island; and
Who rules the World Island rules the World,

but disagrees, refashioning it thus:

Who controls the rimland rules Eurasia;
Who rules Eurasia controls the destinies of the world.

Therefore, British, Russian, and U.S. power would play the key roles in controlling the European littoral, and thereby, the essential power relations of the world.

U.S. strategic goals

Spykman thought that it was in U.S. interests to leave Germany strong after World War II in order to be able to counter Russia's power. Strategically, there was no difference between Germany dominating all the way to the Urals, or Russia controlling all the way to Germany; both scenarios were equally threatening to the U.S.

Spykman predicted that Japan would lose the war in the Pacific, while China and Russia would remain to struggle against one another over boundaries. He also forecast the rise of China, becoming the dominant power in Asia, causing the U.S. to take responsibility for Japan's defense.

Spykman was opposed to European integration and argued that U.S. interests favored balanced power in Europe rather than integrated power. The U.S. was fighting a war against Germany to prevent Europe's conquest—it would not make sense to federalize and thereby unify Europe after a war fought to preserve balance.

Cold War strategy.


  • "Geography is the most fundamental factor in foreign policy because it is the most permanent."
—from The Geography of the Peace
  • "Plans for far-reaching changes in the character of international society are an intellectual by-product of all great wars."
—from America's Strategy in World Politics
  • "There are not many instances in history which show great and powerful states creating
—from America's Strategy in World Politics
  • "[A] political equilibrium is neither a gift of the gods nor an inherently stable condition. It results from the active intervention of man, from the operation of political forces. States cannot afford to wait passively for the happy time when a miraculously achieved balance of power will bring peace and security. If they wish to survive, they must be willing to go to war to preserve a balance against the growing hegemonic power of the period."
—from America's Strategy in World Politics
  • "Nations which renounce the power struggle and deliberately choose impotence will cease to influence international relations either for evil or good."
  • "Geographic facts do not change, but their meaning for foreign policy will."

Spykman's works


  • The Geography of the Peace, New York, Harcourt, Brace and Company (1944)
  • America's Strategy in World Politics: The United States and the Balance of Power, New York, Harcourt, Brace and Company (1942)
  • The Social Theory of Georg Simmel, Chicago, University of Chicago Press (c1925)


  • The Social Background of Asiatic Nationalism, The American Journal of Sociology 1926, issue 3
  • International Relations from the Point of View of Teaching, in: Proceedings of the Fourth Conference of Teachers of International Law and Related Subjects, Washington 1930
  • Methods of Approach to the Study of International Relations, in: Proceedings of the Fifth Conference of Teachers of International Law and Related Subjects, Washington 1933
  • States’ Rights and the League, The Yale Review 1934, issue 2
  • Geography and Foreign Policy, I, The American Political Science Review 1938, issue 1
  • Geography and Foreign Policy, II, The American Political Science Review 1938, issue 2
  • with A. A. Rollins, Geographic Objectives in Foreign Policy, I, The American Political Science Review 1939, issue 3
  • with A. A. Rollins, Geographic Objectives in Foreign Policy, II, The American Political Science Review 1939, issue 4
  • Frontiers, Security, and International Organization, Geographical Review 1942, issue 3

See also

External links

  • American Diplomacy"Spykman's World" at
  • ObituaryNew York Times
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