"Shatterbelts" of the Americas
By Phil Kelly y Luisa Pérez
We have described four Latin American "shatterbelts"
before in a variety of publications (Kelly y Pérez 2001; Kelly 1997; Kelly 1990; Kelly
1986a; Kelly 1986b), all of which pertained to either Middle America or to South America.
For instance, during the colonial and immediate republican periods, two shatterbelts
appeared in eastern South America at the estuaries of the Amazon and the la Plata Rivers,
the latter being the more important to continental geopolitics because it resulted in
creating the Uruguayan state and it re-enforced the continental "checkerboard"
structure. In the contemporary era, two more shatterbelts arose - one in the South
Atlantic Ocean as alleged by the Argentinian Norberto Ceresole (1988), the other in the
Caribbean that led to the 1962 confrontation between the United States and the Soviet
Union over the placement of nuclear-tipped strategic missiles in Cuba by the Russians.
Yet, seven additional shatterbelts surfaced in North America (Canada,
Mexico, and the United States) during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that were
vitally important to the emergence of the United States as a continental and a world power
- one that helped to bring independence to the English colonies, three that encircled the
western and southern portions of the colonies and later the newly-independent thirteen
states, these located in the Ohio valley-Great Lakes area, the extensive Louisiana region,
and in Florida. Nearly a century later, the struggle for Texas independence from Mexico
offered a fifth instance of a North American shatterbelt, and in the civil wars of Mexico
and of the United States, a sixth and seventh such structure appeared. These seven
shatterbelts have never received specific notice as shatterbelts in the extant public and
academic press, and accordingly, each will be examined below as examples of the
In total, eleven American shatterbelts have existed in the
post-colombian era, as listed in chronological order below:
- Banda Oriental
- Ohio River - Great Lakes
- United States Independence
- Texas Independence
- Mexican civil war
- United States civil war
- South Atlantic
The intent of this article is first to define the general
shatterbelt dimensions, second to review the four Latin American shatterbelts, third to
examine the seven North American shatterbelts, and finally to explore briefly the
significance of shatterbelts to American diplomacy and to international relations.
"Shatterbelts" (the term defies translation into Spanish) are
geographic regions (Kelly 1986b: 173):
"over whose control great powers seriously compete. Great powers compete because they
perceive a strong interest for doing so and because opportunities are present for gaining
alliance footholds with states of the region. Consequently, a high potential exists for
escalation of war among major powers. A shatterbelt originates when rival major power
footholds are established in an area."
Accordingly, the essential features of shatterbelts include these
- strategic or extra-continental great power rivalry
- regions or sub-regions in political and military conflict
- decisions by leaders of great powers to compete in such regions, and likewise decisions
by leaders of regional states in conflict to enter into alliances with the competing
outside strategic or extra-continental great powers. Hence, the formation of shatterbelts
depend upon certain of the major world powers wanting to intervene and to pursue their
interests in these regions, and certain of the states of these regions also wanting to
intensify the pursuit of their regional interests by agreeing to align with the competing
outside world powers.
- some type of actual military alliances or agreements ("footholds") between
competing regional states and their great power allies
Shatterbelts, therefore, are (1) regions or sub-regions on the verge of
or actually engaged in military strife, or at least regions that suffer from high war
tensions and escalation of diplomatic intrigue. Tied to this status, (2) major outside
powers have chosen these regions as fields of contestation that may fit their strategic
interests, and (3) the regional states have accepted alliance with the global outside
powers as a way to satisfy their national interests. Consequently, shatterbelts will
restrict any sort of regional economic or political integration, they will encourage
various types of conflictual international structures, such as "tight" bipolar
balances of power and "checkerboard" patterns ("mandala") structures
that reveal a fragmentation relative to the dictum, "My neighbor is my enemy, but my
neighbor's neighbor is my friend" (Kelly 1997: vii), and frequently, major wars
escalate out of shatterbelts - wars that are fought not only between the regional states
but wars that are fought between great powers but within such regions, as per a majority
of the twentieth-century wars (Kelly 1986b).
Examples of historic and contemporary shatterbelts abound in history
and in world affairs, but in the Cold War era, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, East Asia,
Southeast Asia, South Asia, Middle America, and Sub-Sahara Africa all could be defined as
shatterbelts. Fortunately, with the passing of the Cold War, shatterbelts largely have
disappeared from the international scene because only the United States now possesses
enough military power to stretch into most world regions and because there appears to be a
sufficient great power consensus such that the larger states have choose not to compete in
peripheral regions of conflict. Instead, we have seen during the 1990s and since the turn
of the century, great power cooperation in the 1991-1992 Persian Gulf War, in the current
"war" against terrorism in Afghanistan, in North Korea, and in the
India-Pakistan strife over Kashmir. Previously, these areas of strife probably could have
formed into shatterbelts, but because the strategic powers apparently have forsaken
entering into such regional conflict, for the present moment at least, shatterbelts cannot
emerge, whether or not the local states-in-conflict indeed desire such regional-strategic
Again, regional turmoil continues in many areas and such will probably
remain for decades to come, but now lacking are the outside great power desires and/or
abilities to link into these conflictual regions, for shatterbelts are a combination of
strategic and regional conflict tied together in foothold alliances. For the moment,
probably what the world is seeing is an assortment of various reasons for the great power
reluctance to decide to intervene in regions of conflict, including: a
"condominium" pattern of strategic power agreements for not competing in the
rivalries of peripheral world areas; the refusal of certain great powers to engage in such
behavior because they are unable to do so (China and Russia) or because it is not
profitable for them to do so (the United States, as in Somalia and in other parts of
Africa, for example); and the recognition that the United States now stands alone as the
sole superpower of the world and that this structure is apparently satisfactory for the
moment to the other great powers, such as Japan and Germany (the extension of the
"unipolar moment" thesis).
The Two Historic South American Shatterbelts
The less important South American historic shatterbelt, perhaps even a
"pre-shatterbelt " in that local South American settlements at the time were
very sparse, arose over control of the Amazon's estuary in the seventeenth century, the
great power rivals being Portugal and Holland (de Castro 1992: 20-27). The Dutch, then
reflecting their status as global "hegemons" (Modelski 1982), had attempted to
colonize various sectors of America, in the eastern North Atlantic, in the Caribbean, and
in the northeast of South America, as well as in various other parts of the world, but
their territorial reach weakened at century end and they were forced to retrench. The
remnants of their efforts today are seen in the Dutch-speaking state of Surinam, now
independent of the Netherlands for several decades, and in several islands in the
Caribbean still within the sphere of the metropolitan parent. The Dutch commercial
activities north of the Amazon drew competition from Portugal, as both sides sought
domination over the almost empty Amazon watershed, and, of course, the Portuguese
colonialists eventually won out and re-occupied the Dutch northern Amazonian area.
The contemporary lesson to be learned from this extinct shatterbelt is
that the Brazilian sertão and the entire northeast region, that would hold the
position for controlling the entire Amazonian basin, retains a perceived threat of
rebellion and thus stands as a potential shatterbelt, visualized occasionally by some
Brazilian leaders as being an area vulnerable to outside great power intervention. For
example, we see this perception of foreign intrigue in Mario Vargas Llosa's historic
novel, La Guerra del Fin del Mundo (1981), where "English agents" had
allegedly assisted rebellion at Canudos. In addition, twentieth century governments of
Brazil, whether military or civilian, have feared detachment of the less-settled and
exposed Amazonian lands because such are allegedly valued for their resources by
foreigners including the United States and are likewise susceptible to insurrection
because they are depressed economically and are also marginal in national politics (Meira
Mattos 1980: 93, 136, 145-6). Hence, shatterbelts tend to be inherent to pivotal
"contested spaces" and have a greater tendency to arise in these areas more than
in others when the relevant conditions described above pertain (Kelly, de Hoyos, and
Spain, Portugal (later Argentina and Brazil), and Great Britain vied
for control of the Plata estuary a century later that would give the victor easier access
to the continent's center and possible territorial expansion onto the coastal Pacific.
This shatterbelt structure led to the Cisplatine War (1825-1828) between Brazil and
Argentina over ownership of the Banda Oriental, a strategic strip of territory north of
the Plata River, and it also led to the formation of Uruguay as a buffer state at the
urging of Great Britain. Threats to Uruguay's security as a neutral state occasionally
have arisen, particularly from illegal migrations by Brazilians settling in the northern
provinces and from threats of military intervention when Uruguayan domestic stability
The stalemate caused by the Plata shatterbelt assisted in stabilizing
the continental checkerboard that prevented Brazil from extending its domain to the
Pacific coast and preserved the independence of the three buffer states of Uruguay,
Bolivia, and Paraguay, the URUPABOL formation. We have argued elsewhere (Kelly and Pérez
2001) that this checkerboard pattern also helped to assure a truce among the larger South
American states because actual escalation of armed strife meant exposure to two-front wars
that would be expensive and perhaps not winnable. In this fashion, continental inter-state
relations, and particularly Southern Cone diplomacy, ironically was probably given a
better chance to reverse tensions and stalemate poised in the checkerboard and instead
attain some measure of stability, peace, and eventually integration.
Contemporary Latin American Shatterbelts
Ceresole's South Atlantic maritime shatterbelt (1988: 55-66) originated
from his perception of a pre-1980's "great strategic vacuum" in the southern
ocean that the NATO countries came to believe, he felt, was a plausible threat to them and
therefore important to their security, for, according to Ceresole, "whoever dominates
South Atlantic [maritime] traffic will dominate northern maritime Europe and the
"U.S. Atlantic."" From an "Atlanticist perspective," the northern
alliance "viewed the South Atlantic as a maritime containment barrier against Soviet
"expansionism" coming out of the Indian Ocean basin, West Africa, and the
Southern Pacific Ocean (Indochina Peninsula)." Consequently, he urged an agreement
whereby Great Britain would cede the Malvinas Islands back to Argentina in return for
Argentina's guarantee to make the region a "zone of peace" and thus terminate
the shatterbelt itself by isolating the area from extra-continental interference.
We doubt, nonetheless, the actual existence of this shatterbelt because
neither of the Cold War antagonists saw the South Atlantic as vital to its interests, and
in particular, the Soviet Union lacked the naval reach at the time necessary to create a
serious maritime rivalry there against the West. Nonetheless, Ceresole's vision has merit,
for important southern world natural and energy resources traveling to the northern
democracies do transit the South Atlantic and the South Pacific, and the 1982 Malvinas War
did reveal the South American checkerboard pattern, where especially Chile sided with
Great Britain against Argentina in true shatterbelt fashion. We believe the southern
oceans and Antarctica could someday encounter heightened international rivalry over
possession of resources and this could prompt formation of a shatterbelt formation.
The Middle American shatterbelt too represents a classic case of the
two-tieree conflictual phenomenon, where local states' rivalries in the Caribbean basin
became linked to Cold War strategic rivalries that brought the world to its closest
potential for nuclear war in the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Once Fidel Castro attuned
his foreign policies to those of the Soviet bloc and sought alliance with the eastern
bloc, a shatterbelt became possible, and once Nikita Khrushchev accepted Cuban overtures
for military alliance and decided to position nuclear missiles on the island, a
shatterbelt became inevitable, because the United States had no other recourse but to take
up the challenge against the missiles. Consequently, we saw Caribbean opponents (Cuba,
later Grenada and Nicaragua, opposed to Honduras, Guatemala, and Venezuela, among others)
linked to strategic opponents (the Soviet Union opposed to the United States), again a
classic instance of a shatterbelt, local conflict in tandem with strategic conflict.
A vital feature to this discussion not raised before in this article
needs mention here before we precede further with the seven North American shatterbelts,
that being, the Monroe Doctrine of the United States. The Doctrine arose in 1823 because
the new republic found itself dangerously threatened by three encircling shatterbelts, and
the Doctrine aimed to prevent these and future shatterbelts along its frontier that would
endanger United States security.
The Monroe Doctrine was meant to intercede against European and later
Asian military alliances with Middle American states in order to prevent shatterbelts.
Political and economic instabilities in Central American and in the Caribbean that would
create political vacuums and thus could attract extra-continental intervention were either
shored up by the Yankee (for instance, through "dollar diplomacy" or the
granting of bail-out monies, or through pressures for neo-liberal economic and political
reforms) or according to North American military intervention or threat of intervention
(Teddy Roosevelt's "Big Stick" tactic, gun-boat diplomacy, overt and covert aid
to pro-U.S. insurgents, and outright military occupation in such countries). Although in
large part South America, unlike Middle America, escaped involvement within the net of the
Monroe Doctrine, occasionally non-military interference also extended further south, as in
Chile in the covert funding of elections against Salvador Allende and in Colombia, Peru,
and Bolivia against narcotics trafficking. In sum, the Monroe Doctrine reflects the
cornerstone of United States' foreign affairs historically and also very much at the
present time, and again its primary goal is to prevent shatterbelts from arising along the
North American borders and even along the rimlands of Eurasia.
Soviet weapons in Cuba aimed against the United States represented the
worse case scenario of what the Monroe Doctrine was designed to thwart, a security
nightmare spanning the "soft underbelly" of the southern flank of North American
defense. And, of particular danger, this threat was a nuclear one, a first such threat
coming from the south. If one could assume that any frontier of the United States would be
secure, it would be on the Latin American side, and now such an unopposed security was no
longer the case. In sum, the Cuban missile crisis was a classic shatterbelt, and what was
unusual about it was that it was a North American shatterbelt, far from
Nicholas Spykman's "rimlands" of Eurasia (Kelly and Pérez 2002) where most of
the twentieth century's shatterbelts resided.
Historic North American Shatterbelts
The vast and rich North American continent, once discovered by Europe,
lay open to settlement and exploitation by several of the great powers who possessed the
north temperate location, wealth, and technology for colonization in the New World. Once
began, the territorial goals of the European colonizers frequently overlapped, making
fertile grounds for the rise of shatterbelts in the regions where existed European
colonists and/or Native American populations. Forgotten in most of our histories is the
role played by the Native American peoples of eastern North America in shatterbelt
involvement. For example, in New England's first Indian war, the Pequot War of 1636-37,
the Narragansetts tribe aligned with the English colonists against the Pequot and the
French. Later, in King Philip's War (1675-1678) the Wamganoag Indians sided against
England in a brutal war that suffered more American deaths in combat than in each of the
later French and Indian War, the 1776 Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, or the
Spanish American War (Loewen 1995: 115-123). Until the Indians lost their British allies
after the War of 1812, the various Native American tribes were active participants within
the shatterbelt encirclement of the English colonies and the newly independent United
States. Lacking British protection and arms after 1812, the various Indian tribes alone
faced the harsh wrath of the Yankee moving westward, and they never again enjoyed real
sovereignty or an effective defense against the Yankee's westward movement.
One of these North American shatterbelts emerged within the struggle
for independence of the English colonies, a civil war in which colonists split amongst
themselves either for loyalty or opposition to the English crown. On the strategic level,
the British faced rivalry from France and Spain, the former instrumental in assisting the
English colonists to eventual victory and independence from England. The shatterbelt could
not have formed had not the French decided to side with the colonists against their
British masters and had not the colonists chosen to accept French involvement. And clearly
the French were opposing the English on both strategic and regional levels, wanting to
weaken the English colonial hold as a way to weaken the English in other world areas as
well. Had not this shatterbelt appeared, North American independence would not have
succeeded at the time, or at least would have been significantly postponed. and this
shatterbelt later ended with eventual British acceptance of North American sovereignty
over its Atlantic seaboard and the Ohio valley territories in today's Middle West.
Immediately before and after independence, the United States of North
America faced encirclement from other shatterbelts, all formed because the western and
southern territorial bounds of the English coast were ill-defined and were populated by
peoples not wanting to give up lands to the English or the English Americans. For a period
of several decades into the new century, these structures posed serious threats to the
Republic and led to the design of the Monroe Doctrine that sought to secure its frontiers
from extra-territorial intrigue that are inherent to shatterbelts.
Two of the post-Independence shatterbelts involved Native American
peoples and escaped African slaves as local antagonists to the advancing Yankee settlers
in Florida and in the Ohio valley, hoping to prevent further colonization in their
regions. In Florida, the strategic protagonists were the British and the Spanish against
the North Americans; in the Ohio watershed, the British and the Yankee, the French having
departed Canada and the Northwest territory. When the extra-territorial players sought
local ties, and when such local ties agreed to the strategic connections, the two
shatterbelts originated. The defeat of the British in the War of 1812, or better, the
British fear of Napoleon Bonaparte in Europe and Napoleon's capture of Spain, brought an
end to the two shatterbelts, as England focused its security energies on non-American
areas and the French and Spanish weakened to the extent of being marginal to further
colonial activities in the Americas.
The third post-Independence North American shatterbelt arose in the
Louisiana territory and extended from New Orleans to California and Oregon, involving both
the French and the Russians as strategic rivals, and certain Indian nations as local
antagonists to the Yankee. Napoleon sought American empire in the Mississippi basin, but
military setbacks in Hispañola damped his enthusiasm there and his fear of British
competition in the region prompted his wish to cede the property to the North Americans.
Imperial Russia was actively colonizing California, and this drew reaction from the
Yankee. The United States strengthened its claim to the West by sending the Lewis and
Clark expedition to Oregon, and again Monroe's doctrine reflected U.S. determination to
prevent the European powers from filling political vacuums along its frontiers. As was
sooften the case, Washington benefitted in its "manifest destiny" of settling
North America from Atlantic to Pacific because of European weaknesses and balance of power
stalemate. Napoleon's imperialism saved U.S. independence from reverting back to the
English colonialism in 1812, the Russians too became entangled in the Europe power
balances and lost their colonial momentum into America, the Native American tribes were
vastly weakened in their resistence to Yankee expansion when their military ties to the
British were broken after 1812, and the amazingly rapid thrust of the United States to the
Pacific, happening in just several generations, was encouraged by European immigration to
North America, economic incentives in the West and the Middle West, the interior river
systems (the Ohio, the Mississippi, the Missouri, and the Colombia) that aided travel to
California, the ability to pass through the Rocky Mountains, U.S. political and economic
stability, and European industrial investments in North America, all assisting the new
republic in consolidating its hold on the Atlantic shore and its extension across the
continent to the Pacific.
Another North American shatterbelt emerged around the struggles for
Texas independence, these linked also to U.S. territorial expansion and to struggles by
Mexicans to establish national unity. The war over Texas and the Southwest between Mexico
and the United States was inevitable because both states were moving into the same
territories, and the area became a shatterbelt once Great Britain aimed to establish Texas
as an independent buffer state, reminiscent of Britain's successful efforts to form the
Uruguayan buffer. But, one wonders how committed were the British to the buffer design,
because they did not seriously restrict the Yankee advances nor did they aid the Mexicans
in protecting their lands, and the United States took the territories of north Mexico
after occupying Vera Cruz and Mexico City.
The United States civil war fits the shatterbelt description as well,
with the North and South vying for European allies to assist their causes. Russia strongly
favored the Union and hoped to prevent British recognition of the South. England held
significant sympathies for the Confederacy and this potential continue to worry President
Abraham Lincoln throughout the first years of the conflict until he issued his
Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves and winning the approval of British pubic
A final shatterbelt may be visualized in Maximilian Mexico as well
(1862-1867), with France an extra-territorial protagonist, intervening into the Mexican
civil war to establish a Hapsburg on the Mexican throne against the Liberal Benito
Juárez, and the United States the opposing strategic rival against France, bent on
enforcing the Monroe Doctrine against the French occupation after victory in its own civil
Conclusions About Shatterbelts
Several final points about the American shatterbelts will conclude this
1) A greater number of shatterbelts have risen in North America than in Middle and South
America. Several reason may account for this difference:
a) Spain and Portugal so dominated their American empires, especially in the earlier
colonial years, that the English, French, Dutch, and Russians were not able to interfere
in Latin American affairs. Hence, this power monopoly prevented rivals in the south and
thus shatterbelts, except in the fringe areas of northern Brazil and of the Plata estuary.
b) In contrast, the northern regions of America were open to the European powers to
territorial acquisitions and consequently to territorial clashes.
c) In the more recent centuries, North America has become more wealthy and thus more
sought after than have been the more marginal and less wealthy Latin America. In
traditional geopolitical terms, the north "counts" more in strategic and
commercial affairs than does the south, and thus has attracted more shatterbelts.
2) The shatterbelts of Texas Independence, of Maximilian Mexico and of Castro Cuba were
tied closely to United States manifest destiny and to security and had little to do with
3) United States expansion to the Pacific could well have been hindered or prevented had
the several North American shatterbelts been more strongly contested and more long-lived.
Their brevity stems in large part from the instabilities wrought among the European great
powers from the European balance of power, including Napoleon's aggressions and German
unification of the nineteenth century. Without these weaker and briefer shatterbelts not
obstacles, little else restricted the United States from settling the rest of the
4) Other factors in addition to shatterbelts prevented Brazil's and Argentina's
territorial expansion to the Pacific, some of these being the harsh topography and climate
of the middle continent, Spanish settlement in Peru and Chile, the South American
checkerboard, economic and political weaknesses of Brazil and Argentina, and perhaps less
vision and determination than the Yankee to expand westwardly.
5) Shatterbelts appear to be strongly attracted to civil wars and revolutions, or any type
of political vacuum or instability in important regions that would attract outside
strategic involvement. Consequently, the Monroe Doctrine's strong opposition to
6) The emergence of shatterbelts reflects periods of heightened great power competition,
i.e., rivalry for colonies, expansionism and reaction against such expansionism. In
addition, the appearance of shatterbelts also corresponds to heightened local conflict and
the readiness of local governments to accept ties to the strategic powers.
7) Certain march areas or lands in colonial transition frequently see shatterbelts,
regional "crush spaces" where different cultures and states are competing for
colonial expansion, control of valued resources or transit zones, strategic security
spaces, and so forth.
8) Shatterbelts tend to perpetuate and even to expand regional and strategic tensions,
unlike checkerboards that may limit escalation for reason of two-front wars, the costs of
escalation, avoidance of shatterbelts, or other reasons.
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