10 March 2018

Mackinder’s Century

By Francis P. Sempa

The 20th century was Halford Mackinder’s century. The great British geopolitical thinker married history to geography to understand better than any other observer the broad currents of world politics. One hundred years ago, he wrote his geopolitical masterpiece, Democratic Ideals and Reality (published in 1919). Mackinder’s “prophetic power,” wrote one admirer in 1962, can be seen “on almost every page” of that book. Democratic Ideals and Reality was the product of more than thirty years of study and analysis. Between 1887 and 1918, Mackinder wrote a series of papers that introduced the fundamental geopolitical concepts that formed the bases of his global worldview. His immediate goal, as he wrote in 1890, was to apply “geography to the lighting up of history” because “the greatest events in the world’s history are related to the greatest features of geography.” His ultimate goal, as he wrote in Democratic Ideals and Reality, was to help the Anglo-American democracies “adjust our ideals of freedom to [the] lasting realities of our earthly home.”

During this same time period, Mackinder wrote a series of books that studied the world’s geography through the lens of history: Britain and the British Seas (1902), Our Own Islands: An Elementary Study in Geography (1907), The Rhine: Its Valley and History (1908), Eight Lectures on India (1910), Lands Beyond the Channel (1910), and Distant Lands (1912). 

In essence, these books constituted a multi-volume survey of the world’s geography in its historical settings, and they formed the raw material for the masterful synthesis of Democratic Ideals and Reality. They are comparable in that respect to Arnold Toynbee’s 12-volume A Study of History, though Toynbee needed another writer, D.C. Somervell, to condense and synthesize his great work.

Mackinder gave the world a preview of Democratic Ideals and Reality in a 1904 paper entitled “The Geographical Pivot of History.” Mackinder read the paper to an audience at the Royal Geographical Society in London. He told them that the age of global exploration—what he called the “Columbian epoch”—was at an end. The world was now a “closed political system,” where major events in one part of the world would likely have consequences in other parts of the world.

He reviewed several great historical struggles for power in their geographical settings and suggested that history revealed certain fundamental aspects of geography and major geographical features that influenced world politics. He also grasped the importance of emerging technological trends and relative population growth that enabled the extension of political control over ever-expanding territories.

He sketched a geopolitical map of the globe that consisted of the great continent of “Euro-Asia,” a large, mostly landlocked “pivot state” in the north-central region of the continent, a “marginal or inner crescent” of lands that abutted the pivot state but had access to the sea (Western Europe, the Middle East, Southwest Asia, and East Asia), and an “outer crescent” of insular islands, including Great Britain, Japan, North and South America, and Australia.

Mackinder foresaw a future clash between land powers based on the great continent and sea powers located in the outer crescent. He issued this prophetic warning:

The oversetting of the balance of power in favour of the pivot state, resulting in its expansion over the marginal lands of Euro-Asia, would permit the use of vast continental resources for fleet-building and the empire of the world would then be in sight.

He suggested that a Russian-German alliance based in the pivot state or a Japanese-Chinese condominium over Euro-Asia could result in an empire that was supreme both on land and at sea. 

Fourteen years later, in the wake of the First World War, Mackinder sensed that events had largely confirmed his geopolitical worldview. In 1917, Germany had defeated Russia in the east and came perilously close to winning the war in the west. In Democratic Ideals and Reality, he lamented that democracies “refuse to think strategically unless and until compelled to do so for purposes of defense.” The important strategic lesson of the First World War, he explained, was that “had Germany conquered she would have established her sea-power on a wider base than any in history, and in fact on the widest possible base.”

Mackinder revised and updated his 1904 global map. He now viewed the joint continent of Eurasia-Africa as the “World-Island,” which combined insularity with greater human and natural resources. He renamed the pivot state the “Heartland” of Eurasia. The crescent-shaped region bordering the Heartland with access to the sea was renamed the Coastland. Great Britain, Japan, North and South America, and Australia were islands situated in the world ocean and dependent on sea power.

Remarkably, he foresaw a renewed struggle between Germany and Russia for control of the Heartland. He advised the peacemakers at Versailles to construct a “tier of independent states” in Eastern Europe that would act as a buffer zone between the two great continental giants. Such a buffer zone would require the support of outside powers or the new League of Nations to be effective. Otherwise, he wrote, “we shall merely have gained a respite, and our descendants will find themselves under the necessity of marshaling their power afresh for the siege of the Heartland.”

Mackinder famously hoped that some “airy cherub” would whisper into the ears of the statesmen at Versailles:

Mackinder ridiculed the notion that defeat in war would change Germany’s aggressive outlook. “He would be a sanguine man,” he wrote, “who would trust the future peace of the world to a change in the mentality of any nation.”

In Democratic Ideals and Reality, Mackinder, who would later serve as High Commissioner to South Russia during the Russian Civil War, also predicted the threat of world anarchy or a “world tyranny” should the Bolsheviks consolidate their power. In 1920, in a report from South Russia, he observed that “there is to-day a growing threat from Moscow of a state of affairs which will render this world a very unsafe place for democracies.”

Twenty years after the publication of Democratic Ideals and Reality, the renewed struggle for the Heartland that Mackinder envisioned began when Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia divided-up Eastern Europe and started the Second World War. The East European buffer states disappeared and within two years Germany invaded Russia.

Mackinder’s prescience was recognized during the war in a lengthy article about his geopolitical worldview in Life magazine and the publication of a new edition of Democratic Ideals and Reality. In 1943, the editor of Foreign Affairs asked Mackinder to update his global analysis, and he responded with “The Round World and the Winning of the Peace.”

Mackinder’s Foreign Affairs article is not as well known as the 1904 pivot paper and Democratic Ideals and Reality, but it deserves no less attention when examining his analytical brilliance. The war up to that point, he wrote, had done nothing to invalidate his geopolitical concepts. Indeed, he noted that “my concept of the Heartland . . . is more valid and useful today than it was either twenty or forty years ago.” The Soviet Union, he predicted, will emerge from the war as “the greatest land Power on the globe,” situated in the “strategically strongest defensive position,” and “manned by a garrison sufficient both in number and quality.”

U.S. entry into the war to support Great Britain and liberate North Africa and Western Europe led Mackinder to envision in the Foreign Affairs article a new geopolitical region—the Midland Ocean, consisting of the nations of Western Europe, Great Britain, Canada and the United States. Mackinder thus foresaw the creation of the North Atlantic alliance six years before its formation. Such a development, he hoped, would produce a “balanced globe of human beings.”

The Cold War that lasted from approximately 1945 to 1991 was essentially a struggle between a great continental empire based in Mackinder’s Heartland and a great insular maritime power in alliance with nations in Mackinder’s Coastland. The U.S. policy of containment sought to prevent the Soviet Union from dominating the Eurasian landmass and controlling the World-Island. The U.S.-led NATO alliance—controlling Mackinder’s Midland Ocean region—effectively contained the Soviet Union and prevented it from dominating Eurasia. It was no accident that in the midst of the Cold War in 1981, Greenwood Press published a new edition of Democratic Ideals and Reality, and five years after the Cold War ended in 1996, the National Defense University reprinted the 1942 edition with a new introduction.

Twentieth-century geopolitics generally played out as Mackinder thought it would. What about the 21st century?

Consider Robert Kaplan’s analysis in a chapter of his forthcoming book The Return of Marco Polo’s World, which was originally written for the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment:

[T]he interactions of globalization, technology, and geopolitics, with each reinforcing the other, are leading the Eurasian supercontinent to become, analytically speaking, one fluid and comprehensible unit. Eurasia simply has to mean in the way that it didn’t used to. Moreover, because of the reunification of the Mediterranean Basin, evinced by refugees from North Africa and the Levant flooding Europe, and because of dramatically increased interactions across the Indian Ocean from Indochina to East Africa, we may now speak of Afro-Eurasia in one breath. The term “World-Island,” early 20th-century British geographer Halford Mackinder’s phrase for Eurasia joined with Africa, is no longer premature.

Or, consider China’s current “Belt and Road” policy of landward expansion, its assertiveness in the South and East China Seas, and its increasing naval presence in the Indian Ocean and beyond, which is being met by America’s rebalance or pivot to the Asia-Pacific region.

The struggle for Eurasia that Mackinder first wrote about more than a hundred years ago continues in the 21st century. 

Francis P. Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21stCentury, America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War, and Somewhere in France, Somewhere in Germany: A Combat Soldier’s Journey through the Second World War. He has written lengthy introductions to two of Mahan’s books, and has written on historical and foreign policy topics for The Diplomat, the University Bookman, Joint Force Quarterly, the Asian Review of Books, the New York Journal of Books, the Claremont Review of Books, American Diplomacy, the Washington Times, and other publications. He is an attorney, an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University, and a contributing editor to American Diplomacy.

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