Mission Impossible?

The Geographical Pivot of History

an article by Halford J. Mackinder
Geographical Journal, Vol. 23 (1904)


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 up the great Chinese rivers.

Quite understandably, then, the years around 1900 were often referred to as “the age of navalism,” and the most influential work upon global matters at the time was Alfred T. Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power upon History, composed by the American naval officer and scholar in 1890 and required reading among policymakers and even national leaders such as Kaiser Wilhelm II and Theodore Roosevelt. Command of the sea, Mahan taught, was essential for any country aspiring to world leadership; without naval power, one could only be a second-class nation.

By contrast, Mackinder, in his iconoclastic “Geographical Pivot of History,” argued that an interpretation of world affairs based on sea power was yesterday’s wisdom. The balance, in his view, was swinging back to land power, roughly five centuries after Vasco da Gama had burst into the Indian Ocean. And the reason for this change—the culprit, if you will—was that world-altering British invention, the steam engine, and, by extension, the railway. The coming of the railway gave an enormous boost to the middle stages of Britain’s Industrial Revolution, but railway technology, copied elsewhere, gave an even greater boost to larger countries such as the United States and Imperial Russia because it provided much easier access than hitherto to their landlocked resources. As has happened so often in history, the inventor-nation eventually lost ground to its imitators.

More specifically, the spread of Russian strategic railways toward the Ottoman Empire, the Caucasus, British India, and the Far East seemed to present dangers to the Western sea powers that no number of battleships could conquer. By 1905 and 1906, the Royal Navy stunned the world by launching its Dreadnought-class battleships, which made all other warships obsolete. But what could they do against the geographically and economically invulnerable “Heartland,” now to be opened by steam and electricity, and whose broad rivers flowed north, to the inland seas and the Arctic?

The great struggle of the twentieth century, therefore, was going to be that fought between the commercial, maritime powers of the West and the authoritarian, land-based regimes that ruled the Heartland. And the battle zones would lie in the rimlands that ran from Eastern Europe to the Middle East and the Himalayas to the Far East. Although the author leaves the future open, he bequeathed to us a three-liner full of geopolitical inevitability:

Who Rules East Europe commands the Heartland. Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island. Who rules the World-Island commands the world.1

There were various different responses in Britain to this grandiose thesis. To supporters of the British army, here was one further reinforcement to their worries that, over the long run, they would not be able to stop the larger Russian land forces from invading the North-West Frontier and destabilizing the Raj. To sea power advocates, these ideas were dangerous, even absurd; they suggested that the role of navies might be much less important in the future than they had been in recent centuries (which was, of course, Mackinder’s point). Many of the commentators on Mackinder’s article in the Geographical Journal wondered about the clarity of the thesis, and the ambition and sheer sweep of the argument; others were uneasy at its tone of inevitability. Perhaps the most acute observation was made by the rising young imperialist politician and author Leo Amery:

Sea power alone, if it is not based upon great industry, and has a great population behind it, is too weak for offence to really maintain itself in the world struggle… both the sea and the railway are going in the future…to be supplemented by the air as a means of locomotion, and when we come to that…the successful powers will be those who have the greatest industrial basis. It will not matter whether they are in the centre of a continent or on an island; those people who have the industrial power and the power of invention and of science will be able to defeat all others.2

That, too, was a prescient statement, especially since it was made only months after the Wright Brothers’ inauguration of the age of air power.

Mackinder was a polymath. Apart from his job as director of the London School of Economics, he was also a reader in geography at Oxford, being the founder of the School of Geography there. He put the term “geopolitics” on the map (so to speak). Later, he was a member of Parliament. He was one of a group of intellectuals (“the Co-Efficients”) dedicated to maintaining the power of the British Empire in world affairs. He was appointed British commissioner for North Russia in 1919, while the Russian civil war between Bolsheviks and Whites was tearing that country apart. He was chairman of the Imperial Shipping Commission between 1920 and 1945. In 1943 Foreign Affairs asked him to look again at his Heartland thesis, which he did in another remarkable article, “The Round World and the Winning of the Peace.” He was one of the most original, quirky thinkers of the twentieth century.

Mackinder’s ideas cast a long shadow across that century, particularly in their impact upon German attempts to drive deep into the Russian heartland during the two world wars. According to simplistic accounts, probably his ruminations about control of the “World Island” were adopted by the German geopolitical writer Karl Haushofer and then fed into the stream of Nazi ambitions about “living space” (Lebensraum) in the East. It also seems to have had a place in American geopolitical thought, since such respected American writers as Nicholas Spykman, Edward Meade Earle, and others referred to his work early in the cold war. The Truman Doctrine (more specifically, its support of Greece and Turkey), the East–West quarrels over Persia, the CENTO alliance of 1959—including the US, UK, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Pakistan—all seem to indicate that neither the great sea power of the time nor the great land power wished to cede any influence along the rimlands. To be sure, the nuclear standoff meant that this rivalry could not be moved into a “hot” war, and thus the region’s borders were left unchanged after 1945. Nonetheless, the geostrategical configurations across Eurasia of, say, 1950 or 1955 certainly resembled Mackinder’s battle zone for world influence.

For all the weight and power of the Oxford geographer’s forecasts, surely even he would have been astonished at what is happening now in Central Asia, Iran, and the Middle East, one hundred years after his article appeared. The imperial regime (tsarist or Communist) that long controlled the Heartland is no more, although Russia still exists, withdrawn, weakened, resentful, and waiting to regain influence. A half-dozen independent “khanates” are separate players along the rimlands, and jostling for power. Some of them adjoin, or are close to, the growing giant states of China and India, or are neighbors to the volatile Pakistan.

The most striking feature of all, however, is that the greatest of today’s maritime-industrial powers, the United States, has projected itself right into the center of this vortex, and to a degree that would have astonished the Founding Fathers, Teddy Roosevelt, Wilson, FDR, and Eisenhower. Department of Defense reports on overseas deployments vary from month to month, but, roughly speaking, there are 130,000 American troops in Iraq, about 30,000 in Kuwait, and 15,000 in Afghanistan. The United States is using air bases and training bases in Turkey, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan. It has gone further into the Heartland than Lord Curzon might ever have imagined an offshore power could do. Amery was right. The nation with the greatest industrial base, and advantages in science and technology, could place its strategic footprint anywhere.

The reasons for this huge American entanglement in regions approximately seven thousand miles from Kansas are well known. In the years following 1991, the US position was that it had an interest in encouraging democracy and open markets in the fledgling states of Central Asia. Then came the terrorist attacks of September 11 by al-Qaeda, provoking the Bush administration’s decision to go into Afghanistan, smashing the Taliban as part of its hunt for bin Laden’s forces. Accompanying this was a global policy of supporting or intimidating virtually all other states in carrying out America’s anti-terrorism campaign; among other things, this included negotiating treaties with and gaining concessions on military bases in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia.

The White House’s decision to occupy Iraq and drive Saddam Hussein from power imposed an even heavier US presence upon these explosive regions as American armored divisions blasted their way northward from Kuwait to the Turkish border. Long-range bombers from Omaha and the island of Diego Garcia, and carrier-borne aircraft of the US Navy, pounded Baathists, Taliban, and al-Qaeda alike. Largely hidden from the public, American special forces were sent to carry out small operations well to the north of the Hindu Kush. American aircraft landed and took off daily from the Bagram air base in western Afghanistan, just as if they were using their traditional cold war air base in Ramstein, Germany. As the twenty-first century began, the West was pouring through the rimlands and into the Heartland. A newly dominant international power, the American industrial democracy, had once again tilted the balance.


But is America really just the latest “imperial” power to enter the field? One suspects that, to the average inhabitant of Iraq, Afghanistan, and all those other regions that have known a long succession of distant conquerors, the question is hardly worth asking. Of course the US is an imperial power. Most people in the developing world think the same. Most Europeans seem to think that way, too. In the United States itself, however, this opinion is heavily contested, with many politicians and pundits denying that America has any imperial intentions. Here is a debate that will only get hotter as the November 2004 presidential election approaches, if US casualties increase, and if conditions in Iraq worsen.

Amid the seemingly endless writings and decisions about “America as Empire,” the most prominent recent voice is that of Niall Ferguson, the Oxford and NYU scholar. His latest work is Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire. Ferguson is a highly qualified historian whose early works—on banking and inflation in Hamburg, on the Rothschilds, on the Great War—have contributed much to our understanding of nineteenth- and twentieth-century international history. These works are not without controversy. Like his mentor Norman Stone and a more distant influence, A.J.P. Taylor, Ferguson also has a wider audience than most other historians, writing a regular column in The Daily Telegraph, producing large numbers of opinion pieces for American newspapers, and presiding over his own historical television series “Empire.”

The title, Colossus, cleverly suggests not just great power, but also an abundance of power, though perhaps on precarious foundations; and a power almost certain to provoke dislike. In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the Bard has Cassius raging against Caesar for “bestriding the world like a Colossus.” And when the ambitious British imperialist Cecil Rhodes proposed to build a Cape-to-Cairo railway through Africa one hundred years ago, a Punch cartoon portrayed him towering above the continent, one foot in Egypt, one foot in South Africa; the cartoon was entitled “The Colossus of Rhodes.”

Ferguson has no doubt that George Bush’s America is the modern Colossus. Using now-familiar comparative statistics—on US defense spending, military capacities, economic heft, technological edge, and the “soft” power of diplomatic influence—he shows how preeminent America has become at the beginning of our twenty-first century. The closest comparison, and Ferguson explains why even this measure fails, was the British Empire from the mid-nineteenth century until around Mackinder’s day. Britain not only had interests on all five continents, but also (through the Royal Navy and many military bases abroad) a worldwide reach. It was a modernizing empire as well, espousing liberal principles, just as America has become.

Ferguson also has no doubt that the United States is an empire, whether or not its own president, secretary of state, and fellow politicians admit it. This is an argument the author clearly relishes making throughout the book, and one cannot help but hear an echo of the writings of A.J.P. Taylor and Norman Stone. Ferguson is helped here by the emergence in recent years of the many writings that define empire in more nuanced terms than the classical Roman juridical definition (i.e., empire is now seen more as the exertion of undisputed influence than as the formal annexation of another land). He is helped, too, by the mass of evidence that nineteenth-century American administrations were not only truly formidable acquirers of lands held by others, but that they so often articulated a desire to fashion the world in their own image—a formula then repeated in the twentieth century from Wilson to Bush Jr. Ferguson’s argument is again helped by the sheer size of the American military presence on much of the rest of the globe. When a single country has 368,000 people in its national service overseas, in 120 other countries (Time magazine’s latest estimate), it is rather hard to avoid using the term “imperial.”

Finally, Ferguson is supported by the emergence of an influential pro-imperialist or pro-colonial group of American neoconservative intellectuals and officials who firmly advocate the use of US military power in the world and seem to have little problem if others regard their country as an empire. This coterie—Ferguson quotes from many of them, but the most dedicated within government seems to be Paul Wolfowitz, and the most prolific outside government the Council on Foreign Relations fellow Max Boot (who calls, among other things, for a US equivalent of the Colonial Office)—has its own intellectual roots, particular to American culture and politics at the end of the twentieth century.3 But they increasingly resemble the imperialist milieu of Amery, Mackinder, Joseph Chamberlain, Lord Milner, Viscount Curzon, John Buchan, Rudyard Kipling, and others one hundred years ago. The doctrine is much the same.

Our” rule, our influence (formal or informal), is good for the world, good for trade, good for liberal government, and good for all those people to whom we bring it. Of course it will not be good for the nasty leaders, the petty dictatorships, the fanatical theocracies—but if they cannot be persuaded to mend their ways (as with Colonel Qaddhafi?) they will be flattened (Saddam Hussein). Indeed, this employment of beneficent American force is so good that the country must take all steps to ensure that its present domination never be challenged by another power. This, in a nutshell, is the so-called Wolfowitz Doctrine. If that isn’t a presumptively imperial policy, what is?

Is Niall Ferguson part of this coterie? In fact, no, though one can imagine him being described as such when journalists, skipping through Colossus, spot his declaration that “the world needs an effective liberal empire and that the United States is the best candidate for the job.” But let the reader beware. Ferguson is no more a Wolfowitzian advocate of American empire than Ariel was a benign guide to the drunken sailors Trinculo and Stephano when he led them into the thorns and marshes. For Ferguson has two large reasons why the United States will never be able to reproduce the power of the British Empire—and, why, therefore, it should think more seriously about today’s imperial temptations and its present overstretch in the Middle East and the rest of the rimlands. These reasons, interestingly, do not depend on whether the US has the military capacity to conquer Baathist remnants. They are far more disturbing than that.

The first, says Ferguson, is that Americans cannot “hack it”; that is to say, they do not have the social, cultural, and political strength to produce a ruling class that would benignly administer Iraq for the seventy or so years that, for example, the British administered Egypt. The sons of the British elite competed fiercely to get into the India Civil Service, the Colonial Service, the Sudan Service. Nowadays, he says, Harvard and Yale graduates are going off to law school or to Wall Street. Besides, which members of the proselytizing neocon elite have ever served in the military, or have children in the military? How many members of the US Senate have a child in the military? Which of our vigorous neocons are willing to send off their daughters to rule Mosul for the next thirty years? We are still under the shadow of Vietnam. And so, Ferguson teases us: we should be an imperial nation, but we haven’t the guts to be one. What’s more, if we decide to follow the path of Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and become the new Western empire in the Middle East, we will be stuck there for ages. And one day, like Curzon and Cromer and the rest, we will have to go. Heads you lose, tails you don’t win. You are, Ferguson charges, an empire in denial; but you cannot properly attend your new estates.

Ferguson’s provocative work brings us back to Mackinder, in an ironic but telling way. Ferguson believes that the US should interpose itself in Central Asia, stay the course in Iraq, Kuwait, and Afghanistan, and be the benign controller of the rimlands; but he also tells us we haven’t the heart to do it. He offers us a dilemma. If the US doesn’t control the swath of territory from Baghdad to Tbilisi, it will lose the possibility of controlling the world. Mackinder was far more scholarly, far more objective. This region is important, he argued, much more important than, say, West Africa or the southern lands of Latin America. But as a political geographer, he really wanted to point out that space and land mattered in world history, and persuade his listeners at the Royal Geographical Society to draw the same conclusion. By 1919, when he composed his classic book Democratic Ideals and Reality, however, he had begun to see that the British public’s heart was no longer in the imperial mood; as he noted in that work, democracies simply refuse to think strategically in peacetime. Ferguson, by contrast, encourages the United States to assume a grand strategical position across the Middle and Far East, even as he argues that the American democracy will not bear the inevitable burdens. Where Mackinder was sober, almost deadening, in his analysis of world politics, Ferguson is impish. Clearly, he wants to provoke Americans to think about the world they are creating, upsetting, and transforming. He wants to make Americans uneasy. That may be a useful thing to do.

Secondly, and here is where Ferguson moves onto firmer ground, he argues persuasively that America cannot stay the imperial course because it simply cannot afford it financially. The “price of America’s empire” (as in his subtitle) is not just the daily body count of Marines, but the unsustainable fiscal and balance-of-trade deficits that the US has been recklessly assuming. While Ferguson gets into an unnecessarily contrived argument—that America’s imperial overstretch comes more from domestic weakness than expansion abroad (as if they were not two aspects of the same problem)—his final two chapters should be sobering reading for all US politicians, not to mention Alan Greenspan. Here Ferguson, a historian of the international bond markets of the past two hundred years, really comes into his own, and his conclusion is truly creepy. “So vast is America’s looming fiscal crisis,” he concludes, “that it is tempting to talk about the fiscal equivalent of the perfect storm—or the perfect earthquake.”

While Ferguson is often portrayed as a supporter of an American empire, what he is saying in Colossus should bring no comfort to today’s neo-conservative expansionists. Yes, he declares, you have inherited Britain’s liberal, commercial, imperial traditions, and that is why you have placed yourself so dramatically all the way along Mackinder’s rimlands. But this latter-day empire of power and influence will not work because your elites will not bear the personal costs of international governance, and your economy cannot sustain the fiscal costs. His book is often light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek, studded with jokes (some of them very bad, as in his reflections on American obesity). But his overall message is serious, and more bitter than sweet.

Both Mackinder and Ferguson write what David Landes once termed “large History,” admirable in a world of scholarly specialization and narrowness. Mackinder impresses the reader by his extraordinary combination of boldness with studied detachment. Ferguson is bold to the point of rashness in his teasing, ambivalent encouragement of an American empire. One hundred and six years ago, a close friend of Mackinder’s wrote a famous poem, encouraging Americans to “take up the White Man’s Burden.” Kipling’s verses were not well received at the time, and caused even friends like Henry James to wince at what seemed to be its racism and triumphalism. But in fact the later stanzas of Kipling’s poem warn Americans of the costs of empire, of native resentments, and of the disappointments that lie ahead (“the silent, sullen peoples/Shall weigh your gods and you”). Kipling would have been in no way surprised at what is now happening in Iraq and Afghanistan. All the more reason, therefore, to be suspicious of those who today would encourage the spread of a liberal, free-trading, American empire into the mud swamps of the Euphrates and the fastnesses of the Hindu Kush.

  1. 1

    These lines actually come from the same author’s 1919 book, Democratic Ideals and Reality, another breath-takingly bold work that Washington’s armchair strategists might consider exhuming. Mackinder is much less of a household name among policymakers than he was in, say, the 1940s, although the reader who goes to the Google search engine and keys in “Mackinder and Heartland” will be amazed at how many references there are to him in the contemporary scholarly/strategic studies literature.

  2. 2

    The Geographical Pivot of History,” p. 441; Amery’s remarks upon Mackinder’s paper.

  3. 3

    Mortification at America’s defeat in Vietnam; hatred of Clinton and his policies; uncompromising support of Israeli right-wing governments; dislike of Europe; mistrust of international bodies. One could go on. Its historian awaits.