Lessons of geopolitics from the purchase of Alaska

Alaska: Lessons of geopolitics

By Emanuel Pietrobon

What if Russia never sold Alaska to the United States? History would have been completely different, this is why the study of the Alaska purchase is a must-to-do for every want-to-be geopolitician and strategist

Between 1835 and 1840 the French sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville published "Democracy in America", a two-volume essay focused on the explanation of the reasons behind the firmly establishment of democratic culture in the United States.

Tocqueville went beyond the mere analysis of American society, because in the conclusions he made some personal predictions about future trends in the United States and in the international relations. According to him, the United States and Russia, although deeply different and geographically distant from each other, in the future would have rivaled for "the destinies of half the world" because of their territorial extension, their ambitions, and their historical path.

The book was a success but the prophecy was ignored and forgotten for a century. It was resumed and popularized only after World War II with the emergence of the Cold War and the global confrontation between the so-called free world, led by the United States, and the Communist empire, led by the Soviet Union.

The US-Russia geopolitical rivalry has gradually re-emerged twenty years after the end of the Cold War, consolidating the idea that Russia is destined to face a neverending containment by the West, as it is considered by Washington the main obstacle to hegemonization over what Sir Halford Mackinder, the founding father of geopolitics, renamed the "Heartland", ie the central part of Eurasia.

But relations between Russia and the United States have not always been characterized by distrust alternated with Russophobic hysteria, as demonstrated by the sale of Russian America, today's Alaska. What at the time was considered a farsighted agreement today is readable and judgeable by posterity as a severe mistake dictated by contingent interests which has deprived Russia not only of a natural resources-rich territory, but above all of a geostrategic outpost that it would be fundamental in the following years to put pressure on the United States and, maybe, change recent and contemporary history.

The study of Alaska allows drawing from a precious and evergreen source of teaching that, if properly exploited, could help strategists and geopoliticians not to act according to impulse and circumstance but to act thinking about long-term survival.

The history of Russkaja Aljaska is the following: the first settlement was established in 1784 and used as a bridgehead by the Russian-American Company (RAC) for the creation of commercial outposts in the Aleutian Islands, the Pacific, and the West Coast. 

But only the Rac's explorers-settlers seemed aware of the potential of an expansion of the imperial borders in the Pacific and the Americas. In fact, Tsars Alexander I and Nicholas I were respectively protagonists of the withdrawal from Hawaii in 1817, aimed at not annoying the United States, and the sale of Fort Ross (California) in 1841.

It was precisely the submissive attitude of the imperial family that convinced the United States that it would be possible to expel permanently every Russian presence from the continent through dollar diplomacy. The discussions began unofficially in 1857 and were finally concluded on March 30, 1867, by the Russian ambassador Eduard de Stoeckl and the Secretary of State William Seward.

Alaska was sold for $7.2 million, the equivalent of present-day $121 million, a ridiculous amount: 2 cents per acre, about 4 dollars per square kilometer.

Yet, in Russia the event was celebrated as a diplomatic success full of benefits because American capital would improve the government budget, more resources (both human and economic) would be available for expansionistic campaigns in Europe, Central Asia, and Siberia, a possible future conflict against the United States or the British Empire would be avoided, and furthermore  Americans would buy a sterile territory, without natural resources and therefore unprofitable.

In reality, the sale of Russian Alaska did not produce or nourish any of the allegedly flaunted benefits. In fact, the imperial budget and the general economic situation of the country worsened in the following years, fueling the insurrectionary and anti-tsarist protests that eventually resulted in the October revolution.

Moreover, taking into account that at the time of the negotiations the imperial budget was about 500 million rubles, with a debt of 1.5 billion, and that the paid amount was the equivalent of about 10 million rubles, it is possible to understand the irrelevance of the sum received.

In the following decade, US settlers would discover immense deposits of natural resources, such as oil, and precious metals, such as gold. The discovery refuted the false belief of having sold a sterile and resourceless land.

It was also false the claim according to which the control over Russian America involved an excess of human and economic resources otherwise usable, such as Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and Siberia. In fact, at the time of the sale 40 thousand people lived in Alaska, most of them were Aleuts and, moreover, most of the expenses incurred were covered by the RAC.

Finally, it should be noted that even the leitmotif of the entire operation has been refuted by history because the withdrawal from the Americas has not led to any improvement in relations with the United States and the British Empire.

Even the withdrawal from Hawaii was a severe mistake dictated by comparable strategic myopia: World War II showed the importance of the archipelago for the purposes of military hegemony over the Pacific and the Far East.

If the Russian Empire had kept control over Hawaii and Alaska, the entire historical course would have followed a different line. The missile crisis would not have arisen in Cuba but in Alaska. The United States could not aspire to hold any hegemonic position in the Pacific. Even the quality of anti-Soviet containment in Eurasia would have suffered, because the USSR could have implemented an effective and suffocating counter-containment by means of Hawaii, Alaska, and Cuba, with the result to encircle the United States.

Alaska teaches that even territories apparently irrelevant from a strategic point of view in a given period could prove fundamental in reversing world power balances in an indefinite future. Although it is true that the future is unpredictable, it is equally true that some trends can be deciphered as demonstrated by Tocqueville's prophecy.

The survival of Russia depends on how the Scramble for Eurasia will be dealt with in the near future, because the country is already surrounded at West from Euro-American expansionism and in the rest of the continent from China, and military pressure and economic fragilities could push the country to repeat the mistake of giving away geostrategically important lands.

In fact, although the costs for maintaining a hegemonic sphere (not excessively large) can be high, the gains are always higher: Alaska proves it again.

The negative disparity between costs and benefits is typical of the short term and it tends to gradually vanish with the reverberation of profits in the medium and long term in the diplomatic, economic, geopolitical and military dimensions.

The United States recovered the price paid for Alaska in less than twenty years, obtaining a 100 times higher economic return by 1917 due to the full entrance of land and sea exploitation.

Moreover, it was precisely the complete ousting of the European powers from the continent that allowed the United States to concentrate every resource on the submission and the hegemonization of Latin America. The permanent presence of the Russians in Alaska would have hindered US hegemonic initiatives on the rest of the continent, due to the mandatory attention to be devoted to the northern front.

Alaska has also allowed the United States to have an outlet on the Arctic, and therefore to have a natural justification for hegemonic claims and ambitions on the region - which in recent years it has regained vital geopolitical importance due to global warming.

In the end, it is not so hazardous to claim that Alaska purchase helped the United States turn into the world's first power, because the change of ownership locked up Russia in Eurasia, with all the above-mentioned consequences, and simultaneously allowed Washington to finalize the building of its own sphere of influence.

Like Russia, every other hegemonic power in history faces, and has faced, the choice to sell, quit or defend a seemingly unimportant territory, but in the decision-making process it is always necessary to consider the "future uncertainty" variable, because if it is true Cicero's "Historia magistra vitae" (history is life's teacher), then it is legitimate to say that the study of Alaska should serve as a teacher of geopolitics.

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Author`s name Emanuel Pietrobon