Thursday, September 18, 2014


Below is an article by Swedish geopolitician Bertil Haggman on the growing importance of the geopolitical thinking of Sir Halford Mackinder.

The London Times in 2009 claimed, rightly so, that the Edwardian Scottish geographer Sir Halford Mackinder, (1861 – 1947) Oxford professor and Member of Parliament, is ruling the world of ideas. He was the intellectual architect of modern geopolitics founded by Swedish Uppsala professor and conservative member of the Swedish Riksdag Rudolf Kjellén. Mackinder also put the idea of “the Heartland” at the centre of global diplomacy,“

In the twentyfirst century he is more relevant than ever. Mackinder’s realpolitik is back. Few may recall his name but the world’s foreign policy is played out today according to his geopolitical rules, together with a few other geopoliticians.

Mackinder’s fame came from a  lecture delivered in London in 1904, entitled The Geographical Pivot of History. His proposition number one: the globalised world — crisscrossed by steam, telegram and train — was a closed system. The world was now a unitary space with every strategic advance by one nation necessitating a rival power to retreat. Diplomacy was a zero-sum game and geopolitics meant successfully squaring political power with geographical setting.

Also the key to world power lay in “the Heartland of the Old World”, the Eurasian land mass. This vast land mass included the Iranian upland in the southwest and part of the Mongolian upland in the southeast. The core constituted, however, the Russian Empire. In centuries past this terrain had been the pivot of world history as the Huns, the Mongols and the Magyars swept into Europe. Ranged against this “Heartland” were the sea powers — Great Britain, the United States and Japan. And what geopolitics came down to was an ongoing struggle between the Heartland and the sea powers. Mackinder was worried that an expansionist Russia would act to the detriment of British imperial interests.

Mackinder’s geopolitics was further explored during the 1919 Versailles peace conference in his most significant work, Democratic Ideals and Reality (republished in 2009 under the Faber Find imprint of Lost Classics). Mackinder argued that the First World War victors should base the new world order not on lofty ideals but the hard geopolitical realities underlying history. The most pressing of those realities was the threat posed by a united Russia and Germany. Mackinder’s thesis was simple: “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; who rules the Heartland commands the World Island; who rules the World Island commands the world.”

To prevent the land powers to take over he advocated a cordon sanitaire of independent states in Eastern Europe — Ukraine, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary — to act as a bulwark between Germany and Russia.

Sir Halford warned that a protective measure was needed in Eastern Europe from the Adriatic and Black Sea to the Baltic Sea: Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia and the other states of the former Yugoslavia, Romania, Bulgaria and Greece. Mackinder after World War I met with a number of leading politicians (especially Anton Denikin) whom he tried to persuade to recognize the newly created states in Eastern Europe. An anti-Bolshevik coalition was needed. Mackinder’s plan was turned down by the British government. It was also rejected by the War Secretary Winston Churchill.

Mackinder now came out of retirement and warned that “the territory of the USSR is equivalent to the Heartland” and that “if the Soviet Union emerges from this war as conqueror of Germany, she must rank as the greatest land power on the globe”. To secure the maritime democracies from Eurasian aggression, Mackinder proposed a North Atlantic alliance to provide a “bridgehead in France, a moated aerodrome in Britain, and a reserve of trained manpower, agriculture and industries in the eastern United States and Canada”.

Mackinder’s vision of geopolitics contributed greatly to American postwar defense strategy.

At the time the Yale international relations expert Nicholas Spykman wrote that Mackinder’s influence was palpable in US plans to counter Soviet expansion — from the establishment of Nato to the Marshall Plan to intervention in Turkey, Malaya, even Korea :

The policy of containment or encirclement of the USSR was evolved as a direct response to the threat seen to arise from Soviet domination of the Heartland”.

Mackinder later, however, fell out of fashion. During the era of the Vietnam War geopolitics was regarded as a bloody and arguably amoral approach. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan suddenly geopolitics and geography was back. President Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski — raised on the northern edges of the Heartland in Poland — had studied Mackinder. Brzezinski had a reputation for controversial methods.

 In the 1980s Mackinder’s belief in reality over idealism continued to hold sway in Washington and London as both administrations dropped détente to confront head-on the “Evil Empire”. President Reagan’s nuclear proliferation adviser, Colin Gray, was himself a leading scholar of Mackinder.

Many of those who worked in the Nixon and Reagan White Houses — Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney among them — brought their geopolitics back to bear as part of the Bush Administration in 2000. With hundreds of US military bases stretching from Iraq to Afghanistan to Kyrgyzstan, a bid for the Heartland underpinning much 21stcentury Pentagon thinking can be seen.

After 1991 geopolitics is now discussed in the Heartland itself. Russian securocrats have been working to block NATO and US expansion into the former Soviet republics. Putin has long been reaching for his Mackinder. In 2014 he wages war in Europe over Ukraine.

In 2000 Geopolitics: A Textbook was published in Moscow with much of Mackinder’s work translated into Russian for the first time. In Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, think-tanks and diplomats are now surprisingly studying Sir Halford’s geopolitical philosophy.

In Georgia, Chechnya, Afghanistan and even Iran, an overt and covert battle for the Heartland is again being fought.  As in the 1930s, 1950s and 1980s decision makers are once more in the twenty first century reading Mackinder.

Halford J. Mackinder’s Democratic Ideals and Reality has been published by Faber and Faber. For an introduction in Swedish to geopolitics see Bertil Haggman’s book Geopolitik – en introduktion (2009;in Swedish).

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