The Historical Text Archive: Electronic History Resources, online since 1990 Bringing you digitized history, primary and secondary sources
HTA Home Page | Articles | Latin America | "Shatterbelts" of the Americas

Email to a friend
Printer friendly

"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 shatterbelt phenomenon.
In total, eleven American shatterbelts have existed in the post-colombian era, as listed in chronological order below:

- Amazonian
- Banda Oriental
- Ohio River - Great Lakes
- Louisiana
- Florida
- United States Independence
- Texas Independence
- Mexican civil war
- United States civil war
- Cuba
- 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 aspects:

- 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 alliances.
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 Pérez 2003).
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 falters.
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 opinion.
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 war.

Conclusions About Shatterbelts

Several final points about the American shatterbelts will conclude this article:

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 South America.

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 continent.

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 shatterbelts.

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.


Castro, Therezinha de. (1992). Nossa América: Geopolítica comparada. Rio de Janeiro: Fundaçâo Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística - IBGE Colégio Pedro II.
Ceresole, Norberto. (1988). The South Atlantic: War Hypothesis. In Geopolitics of the Southern Cone and Antarctica (Phil Kelly y Jack Child, eds.). pp. 55-66. Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc.
Kelly, Phil. (1997). Checkerboards and Shatterbelts: The geopolitics of South America. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Kelly, Phil. (1990). La geopolítica de América Latina: eslabones regionales y estratégicos. Geopolítica No. 40, 16-28.
Kelly, Phil. (1986a). Buffer systems in Middle America. In Buffer Systems in World Politics (John Chay y Thomas Ross). Pp. 67-84. Boulder: Westview.
Kelly, Phil. (1986b). Escalation of regional conflict: testing the shatterbelt concept. Political Geography Quarterly 5: 161-180.
Kelly, Phil y Luisa Pérez. (2002). La geopolítica de Nicholas Spykman. Geosur No. 263/264 (Marzo-Abril), pp. 3-13.
Kelly, Phil y Luisa Pérez. (2001). Una estructura para la paz: La geopolítica de Sudamérica contemporánea. Argentina Global No. 7 (Octubre-Diciembre), pp. 1-8.
Kelly, Phil, Rubén de Hoyos, y Luisa Pérez. (2003). Los espacios en contestación y en contextualización. Geosur, aceptado para publicación.
Loewen, James. (1995). Lies My Teacher Told Me. New York: Touchstone.
Meira Mattos, Carlos de. (1980). Uma Geopolítica Pan-Amazônica. Rio de Janeiro: Biblioteca do Exército Editora.
Modelski, George. (1982). Long cycles and the strategy of U.S. international economic policy. In America in a Changing World Political Economy (William Avery y David Rapkin, eds). pp. 97-116. New York: Longman.
Vargas Llosa, Mario. (1981). La Guerra del Fin del Mundo Barcelona: Seix Barral., S.A.