It’s not an overstatement to say that over the last twenty years, the world has grown increasingly used to American primacy and leadership. This primacy also spills over to the intellectual domain, where American perspectives and paradigms have shaped much of the field of International Relations. Alexander Dugin’s Last War of the World-Island attempts to take a stance outside of it to present a coherent “Russian” theory of geopolitics. And, despite immensely problematic generalisations and flawed foundations, he manages to succeed in presenting one.
To Dugin, much of modern history (if not all history) can be seen as a clash of two civilisations – the Civilisation of the Land, and the Civilisation of Sea. Let us temporarily leave aside that problematic generalisation. In Dugin’s conception, Land (as exemplified by Russia) is associated with some sort of “Spartan” ethic of asceticism, honour, and respect for the Collective. Sea (as exemplified by the “Anglo-Saxon World”), on the other hand, is about hedonism, greed, and the worship of the Individual. The fall of the USSR, therefore, represents the victory of Sea over land, Carthage over Rome. As he himself puts it, “democratisation, westernisation, Americanisation, and globalisation represent various aspects of the total attack of the Civilisation of the Sea on the Civilisation of the Land.”
Russia, as Dugin’s paragon of the Civilisation of the Land, must in his estimation serve as a tellurocratic pole on a global scale. According to his analysis of history, conflict between Sea and Land is inevitable, and thus for Russia “the question of geopolitical security is foremost”. Further, “Russia must take military control over the center of the zones attached to it in the South and West and the Arctic Ocean”.
Thanks to this simplistic view, any Russian leader who has supported anything similar to this is singled out for praise (Stalin especially). Any Russian who has not is accused of being a Western agent – especially Gorbachev. This can lead to rather absurd conclusions. According to Dugin, Gorbachev’s policies were due to a sinister effort by “Third Way” idealists during the Cold War whose real aim was to weaken the resolve of the USSR, a task in which they were aided (according to him) by Gorbachev.
Gorbachev caused the fall of the USSR and “capitulated” to the West, getting no concession in return as NATO expanded its influence into Eastern Europe to threaten Russia, in the process “weakening” a centuries-old geopolitical pole. Meanwhile, Putin, to Dugin, is a hero, as much for his assertion of Russian dominance in Eastern Europe and his reliance on unscrupulous methods (which Dugin seems to prefer to diplomacy) as for his ability to resist imagined Western influence on Russian policy circles. His current economic policy is not analysed at all.
Indeed, economic reality and political pragmatism seems to have no importance to Dugin, who sees the world as a clash of romantic ideas in the tradition of the same British “geopoliticians” as he despises.
Problems with his formulation aside, it would be foolish to dismiss it as invalid. A key takeaway from my reading of Dugin is that Russia’s worldview is driven by a conviction of its own position as the world’s tellurocratic pole, an idea which to them is much more ancient and justified than America’s concept of “Manifest Destiny”. Moreover, Russia sees NATO’s presence in Eastern Europe with deep mistrust and as being a fundamental threat to its security. America is seen as an implacably opposed, untrustworthy, and dangerous power. As Dugin puts it: “Without a common enemy and given the asymmetrical nature of relations, a search for points of contact will only lead to [Russia’s] further de-sovereignisation”. It will, therefore, continue with its attempt to bring Eastern Europe under its influence and will likely seek to play an increased role in Central Asia.
All in all, Last War of the World-Island is not a very convincing read, but it is extremely interesting to a critical reader interested in reading a coherent Russian view of geopolitics.