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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.

  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.

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