Halford Mackinder’s Heartland theory.


Blog no. 112.

Halford Mackinder 1861-1947. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halford_Mackinder

I was brought up in a small village on the outskirts of Gainsborough, an innocuous, Lincolnshire market town on the River Trent, with a 19th Century population of little more than 8,000 souls. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gainsborough,_Lincolnshire   I share that Gainsborough origin with a certain Halford Mackinder, whom, though mentioned in Gainsborough’s Wikipedia entry, hardly anyone in Gainsborough will ever have heard of.

Halford has however, been heard of elsewhere. His original ‘Heartland Theory,’ as set out in a paper addressed to the Royal Geographical society in 1904 and entitled “The Geographical Pivot of History” has been (and, more than a century after it was written, still appears to be) influential in the development of American and other nations’ foreign policy.

It should be remembered that Halford was a patriotic Briton, which, at that time, was the world’s greatest sea power. He was writing when warfare was still two dimensional, before air power was a factor in geo-strategy and when Britain’s major adversary, Germany, occupied much of Eastern Europe and was able to utilise the rapidly developing railway networks of the Eurasian landmass to project its military power both eastward and westward.

german_empire_1000Having the reputation of having been the world’s first geo-strategist and writing more than a century ago, it would be surprising were Halford’s ideas to retain much validity. However, it is evident that they still resonate as prophesies to be self-fulfilled by later generations, who might be tempted to place more reliance on them than a modern-day appreciation of the situation could justify. Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski are among those who recognised the significance of the Heartland theory.

 In a nutshell, Halford’s argument was that the ‘World Island’ centre of the world, the ‘Heartland’ lay in that vast expanse of defensible territory somewhere East of the Ural Mountains and North of the Himalayas and that whoever controlled that vast area controlled a pivot from which world domination could be levered. The argument went on that Western Europeans, rather than backward Russians should control the Heartland – but preferably not Germany. The whole theory is summarised in this Wikipedia entry https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Geographical_Pivot_of_History


It might be argued that not only Hitler’s ‘Drang nach Osten,’ but the whole post-Cold War drive of American foreign policy, to take back Eastern Europe from the retreating Soviet empire, was influenced by Halford’s Heartland theory. Certainly, a Google search on ‘Halford Mackinder influence American foreign policy’ comes up with a wealth of proposals. This is a 2008 abstract taken from one such.

Abstract: In a 1990 document for National Security Strategy, the first Bush Administration noted that “for most of the century, the United States has deemed it a vital interest to prevent any power or group of powers from dominating the Eurasian landmass.” This statement is closely aligned to the geopolitical paradigm of Halford Mackinder’s “Heartland Theory,” which states that the power that controls Central Asia—the great pivot—would eventually emerge as the most powerful state in international politics. This paper reassesses the theory in the context of today’s foreign policy by examining U.S, Russian, China, and European Union policy towards Central Asia. The purpose of the paper is to analytically determine the extent to which the theory is still influential in contemporary world politics. The paper is thus formulated around a fundamental question: to what extent is the Heartland theory influential in the current foreign policy of the four great powers— U.S, E.U, Russia and China? The paper ends by concluding that there is substantial evidence of Mackinderian philosophy in the discourse of geopolitics in Central Asia.

The newly independent states of Eastern Europe are in the front line of any conflict based on Heartland theory. They appear to retain Halford’s theory in the forefront of their mind. I print below, in full, an article, which well illustrates the purpose for which Halford’s theory is still being deployed. The article is by the English educated, James Rogers, co-founder and a Senior Editor of ‘European Geostrategy’ (a journal filled with articles arguing for a ‘robust’ European defence policy.) Rogers is also employed as the Director of the Department of Political and Strategic Studies at the Baltic Defence College in Tartu, Estonia. The college provides training courses for senior military personnel and officials drawn from the Baltic states. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baltic_Defence_College .

“A letter from Prof. Sir Halford Mackinder to European leaders on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

Posted in: Articles on Sunday, 9th March 2014 – by James Rogers

Dear Mr. Cameron, Mr. Hollande, Dr. Merkel and Mr. Van Rompuy,

I write to you as the key European leaders in the Euro-Atlantic community, not least as you shape your responses to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. You may not be aware but I have been observing keenly geopolitical developments in Eastern Europe since my death in 1947. As the world’s first modern geopolitical theorist, I have always placed special emphasis on the importance of Eastern Europe. Why? My dictum is simple: ‘Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; who rules the World-Island controls the world.’

In other words, Eastern Europe is the gateway between the vast resources of Asia and the dense and technologically advanced populations of Europe. This means that it will either be controlled by imperial despotism in the form of Russia, or by democratic civilisation in the form of Europe. Due to its geostrategic location, who gains access over this crucial zone will also gain influence over the entire Eurasian supercontinent. When Eastern Europe is controlled from Moscow, Europeans – and by extension, North Americans – will be held captive, as they were for much of the Cold War. When Eastern Europe is shaped by Brussels (as well as London, Paris and Berlin) – and by extension, Washington – Russia will be weakened and rendered relatively harmless, as it was for much of the 1990s and 2000s.

For the past twenty years, I have observed as Western strategists have steadily enlarged the democratic European zone of peace, first into Central and then into Eastern Europe. This was perhaps the greatest geopolitical triumph of the twentieth century, and it unshackled countless millions from Soviet-Russian tyranny, from Poland to the Baltic States, and from Georgia to Romania. The result was the enlarged European Union (EU), undergirded by the Atlantic Alliance – and ultimately by American, British, French and German strategic power – which unleashed a period of prosperity and globalisation unrivaled in European history.

The Russian invasion of Ukrainian Crimea threatens to reverse this trend. Today, I turn in my grave as I watch you all engaging in what can only be described – accurately on this occasion – as a policy of appeasement. You believe that you can subdue Vladimir Putin’s revisionist regime by granting concessions. You are very wrong.

As one of the statesmen who observed the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, I wish to offer you some geopolitical guidance as you shape your responses. Be in absolutely no doubt that Moscow is testing your unity and resolve: Putin and the domestic political forces behind him believe the democratic West is a decadent and declining civilisation, which will not resist Russian geostrategic advances. So far, you have proven him right. You must be under no illusions as to the severity of this situation: this is a struggle for power over who will shape the destiny of Eastern Europe, as well as – according to my dictum – beyond. That is to say, European weakness today will invite additional Russian aggression tomorrow – and that could end very badly.

Russia’s power is now such that you – and the wider West – will pay a price, irrespective of your decisions. You bear some responsibility for this situation: had you not invested so heavily in the Russian energy sector and sought to draw Moscow into the European Neighbourhood as a ‘partner’ over the previous fifteen years, Russia may today have remained a poor and feeble husk. But I digress: the question now is whether you wish to pay a smaller price today or a bigger price tomorrow to prevent Moscow’s attempts to stoke-up chaos and disorder in the European Neighbourhood. I will work under the assumption that you do not wish to be remembered by future generations as a new cabal of ‘guilty men’. Thus, here are my recommendations:

All three countries – France, Germany, the United Kingdom (UK) – and the wider EU should apply punitive sanctions on Russian economic interests, particularly on Russian financial activity in London, Paris and Frankfurt. This will be painful, but well worth the price to inflict damage on the Kremlin, while punishing simultaneously the Russian elite for supporting it.

Mr. Cameron and Mr. Hollande: dispatch warships to the Black Sea and – crucially – jet-fighters to the Baltic region. The United States cannot be left to shoulder the responsibility for helping to reassure nervous allies and re-asserting the unity and power of the Atlantic Alliance. The UK and France, as the two main European military powers, must provide assistance too; indeed, given their closer geographic proximity to Eastern Europe, they should also take the lead.

Dr. Merkel: announce that Germany will begin a wholesale revision of its energy policy with immediate effect to reduce European energy dependency and slash European financial transfers into Russian coffers; simultaneously, provide the economic resources necessary to help get the new Ukrainian government back on its feet. The rapid stabilisation of Ukraine will prevent further meddling from Moscow.

Mr. Hollande: France must cancel the sale of its Mistral class projection vessels to Russia with immediate effect. Would you have sold battleships to Nazi Germany in the 1930s? Of course not. So, do not sell such potent war machines to Russia.

Mr. Van Rompuy: ensure the EU pushes even more assertively with its geopolitical objectives in Eastern Europe. Ignore those who counsel that the European Neighbourhood is a shared space or that Moscow is a ‘strategic partner’. Respond by telling your advisors that the European continent must remain unipolar with the EU as a supra-European power and that Russia must not be granted the ability to re-assert bipolarity and division. As per the new Ukrainian government’s wishes, push forward with the ‘Association Agreement’ and bring Kyiv permanently into the European fold. Although Moscow may win Crimea by force of arms, it must be seen by the entire world to lose the rest of Ukraine – and permanently.

I understand that you will not like some of my proposals. Indeed, some of you may even see them as a blowback from the distant past. After all, most of your foreign policy advisors believe that geopolitics has been replaced with geoeconomics or something otherwise known as ‘internationalism’. They are wrong; the future – just like the present – will show that I am right. Therefore, I wager that if you wish to avert disaster in Eastern Europe, in turn reversing years of Western advances, you would be well advised to take my proposals seriously.

Yours sincerely,

Prof. Sir Halford J. Mackinder

Director, London School of Economics (1903-1908)

Chairman, Geographical Association (1913-1946)

Member of Parliament for Glasgow Camlachie (1910-1922)

British High Commissioner to Southern Russia (1919-1920)

Author of the Geographical Pivot of History and Democratic Ideals and Reality


cisasiacLooking at the map above, one can better see the scenario that is actually developing. As has been illustrated in my previous blogs, the evidence all points not, as the Estonians would have it, to an aggressive Russia threatening the feeble and paranoid states of Eastern Europe, but the American war machine utilising an aggressively expansionist NATO to threaten Russia’s borders to the West of the Heartland while, at the same time applying military pressure on China to its South East.

With American policy driving China and Russia each into the other’s arms, it now appears that the end result may well be a Heartland firmly occupied by a Sino-Russian power centre, and very well insulated from attempts by would be aggressors from the peripheral regions. Nor is it beyond the realms of possibility that that Heartland, made ever more habitable by the changing climate and bolstered by Chinese manpower and capital, could develop into the pivot that does indeed control the peripheral world.

Western attempts to follow Halford’s theory will have resulted in its validation, but not in the manner hoped for!

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