Sea versus land powers
image by Michael Day on Flickr

Modern history is marked by the struggle between sea and land powers. Ever since the end of the Cold War, the world has been ruled by the U.S.-led sea order, but 2016 was a watershed year. Many of this year’s great surprises reveal a shift towards a land-based future world order. This has implications for international relations and for the prevailing mentalities within countries.


  • On June 26, the UK voted to leave the EU, straining decades of cross-Channel relations.
  • On July 12, the U.N. ruled in favor of the Philippines and against China on the South China Sea Arbitration. But instead of forming a naval alliance, president Duterte pivoted to China.
  • On November 8, Donald Trump was elected U.S. president. Whereas Hillary Clinton primarily won states along the American east and west coast, Donald Trump’s victory was based on continental America. The Yes California campaign seeks independence from the U.S. in 2019.
  • Despite the current tensions between Russia and the West and trade sanctions, the Bertelsmann Foundation has conducted a study on a future trade deal between the European Union and Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union.


Since the dawn of the modern age, control of the seas has been central to global politics. Philosopher Carl Schmitt described the rise of sea powers through three stages: ancient civilizations first ruled river systems. Rome and Venice then dominated the Mediterranean Sea. Subsequently, powers like Portugal, Holland and England came to dominate the world’s oceans. Sea powers have a specific mindset: they favor openness, global free trade, individualism and enterprise. The United States is the contemporary heir of the oceanic sea powers.

Throughout modern history, the sea powers have been opposed by land-based powers: Napoleon’s France, czarist Russia, imperial Germany and the Soviet Union. Land powers are more inward-looking and they emphasize community, collective action, security and strong central rule. After the fall of the previous great land power, the Soviet Union, US-led sea power has dominated the world. But now this is changing and the great surprises of 2016 mark a shift in the relation between land and sea.

During the year central institutions of the American sea-based global order were questioned by President-elect Trump: the “Atlantic” treaty NATO and the “Pacific” TPP and “Atlantic” TTIP trade deals. The other great surprise of the year, Brexit, drifts the island nation of the UK away from continental Europe, which is currently developing an independent security policy and is looking eastward. Finally, the U.N. arbitration of the Sea on the South China Sea was expected to strengthen the hand of the American sea-based alliance. Against expectations, the island nation of the Philippines did not challenge China but proposed to align itself with continental China and Russia. And within countries the balance is shifting towards a land mentality. The pro-trade elites are based in large (capital) cities and coastal regions. The rise of populist leaders represents the revenge of the hinterland and its mindset. London, Washington, New York, California and Istanbul were overtaken by land-based politics in 2016, which has even spurred an independence movement in some of these places. Moreover, Trump wants American companies to move back “on shore”.

‘The continental wind from the east will bring a stronger emphasis on borders and security, community, central rule and overall a more inward-looking mentality.’

As we’ve argued before, the focus is currently shifting towards trade alliances and conflicts on the Eurasian landmass. And whereas after the Cold War regime types spread from the sea-based west to the land-based west (democratization, liberalization), the opposite is currently happening: governance principles of Russia and Turkey moved first to Hungary and Poland and now towards the west. This continental wind from the east will bring a stronger emphasis on borders and security, community, central rule and overall a more inward-looking mentality.