Mission Impossible?

The Geographical Pivot of History

an article by Halford J. Mackinder
Geographical Journal, Vol. 23 (1904)
Niall Ferguson
Niall Ferguson; drawing by David Levine


Exactly one hundred years ago, in April 1904, the prestigious Geographical Journal of London published one of the most remarkable articles on international affairs that has appeared in modern times. Written by Halford J. Mackinder, the newly appointed director of the London School of Economics, it also had one of the most intriguing titles: “The Geographical Pivot of History.” This piece had been given as a lecture just three months earlier, on January 25, 1904, in the main room of the Royal Geographical Society itself. It was attended by a group of British policymakers, journalists, and intellectuals who offered comments once the talk was over.

What was the thesis being put forward? It was nothing less than an explanation of how geography, history, and empire had interacted over at least the previous one thousand years, and would most likely interact in the centuries to come. Its author was not shy of the big picture. For most of history, he argued, the western and southern parts of the “world-island” of Europe and Asia—that is, the continuous region including southern Asia, the Middle East, the Mediterranean region, and Europe itself—had been subjected to successive waves of invasion and conquest from the great tribal eruptions that began in Central Asia. These were conquests by Huns, Mongols, Turkmen, Moguls, pushing ever forward and displacing frightened peoples that ran before them, like wildebeests before the lions, who in their turn trampled upon the weaker species in front of them. Control of the land—“Land Power”—was central here, whether it be exercised by the hordes of nomadic warriors themselves, or by those societies (in mountainous regions, or behind great lines of fortifications) who could preserve themselves. And land power remained essential even as the barbarians settled down, became civilized and soft, and thus vulnerable to the next hungry, reckless, migrant tribes of inner Asia.

According to the article, this natural pattern slowed down at the end of the medieval period. The surges from Asia diminished, as did population pressures; Western defenses were tougher (and, in the case of Muscovy, expanding). In addition, and more amazingly, a few Western European states—Portugal and Spain at first, then the Netherlands, France, and especially Britain—launched a geopolitical counterassault against the pattern, though they surely did not know that was what they were doing at the time. By their circumnavigation of the globe, their acquisition of Asian territories and “discovery” of the Americas, and their increasing control of Mediterranean, Indian, and Far Eastern waters, the Western powers slowly and spasmodically gained the upper hand. Sea power asserted itself against land power, and the Western maritime nations placed themselves firmly along the outer rim of the Asian landmass. More specifically, the British Empire not only conquered all of South Asia; it took over Egypt, Cyprus, Singapore, and Hong Kong, and was also pushing its “informal rule” into the Ottoman Empire, the Persian Gulf states, and…

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