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February 2000

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Mackinder's World
 By Francis P. Sempa

Halford Mackinder’s ideas, which began to appear in print almost a century ago, have assumed classic status in the world of political geography. Policy makers and scholars remember them now mainly for the seemingly simple formula that control of Eastern Europe would bring command of the “Heartland,” thus control of the “World-Island” (Eurasia), and ultimately the world. His ideas in their entirety, including his own later reconsiderations, form a complex, powerful body of work. The author, who is deputy attorney general for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, revisits Mackinder’s professional career.  ~ Ed.

The study of international relations is impossible without a firm grasp of geography. The geographic factor in world history is the most fundamental because it is the most constant. Populations increase and decrease, natural resources are discovered and expended, political systems frequently change, empires and states rise and fall, technologies decline and advance, but the location of continents, islands, seas and oceans has not changed significantly throughout recorded history. That is why great nations neglect the study of geography at their peril.

No one understood better the important relationship between geography and world history than the great British geographer, Halford John Mackinder. Born in Gainsborough, England, in 1861, Mackinder attended Gainsborough Grammar School and Epsom College before entering Oxford in 1880. As a boy, according to W. H. Parker, Mackinder had “a strong curiosity about natural phenomena, … a love of the history of travel and exploration, an interest in international affairs, and a passion for making maps.”1

imageAt Oxford, Mackinder fell under the influence of Michael Sadler and Henry Nottidge Mosely, key figures in the effort to establish geography as an independent field of study in England. Mackinder was appointed a lecturer in natural science and economic history in 1886 and that same year joined the Royal Geographical Society. According to Brian W. Blouet, one of Mackinder’s biographers, the membership of the Royal Geographical Society “consisted of men with a general interest in the world and its affairs, officers from the army and navy, businessmen, academics, schoolteachers, diplomats, and colonial administrators.”2 The next year (1887), Mackinder wrote his first major paper, “On the Scope and Methods of Geography,” which has been called “a classic document in the history of the development of British geography.”3 In that paper, Mackinder argued that “rational” political geography was “built upon and subsequent to physical geography.” “Everywhere,” he wrote, “political questions will depend on the results of the physical inquiry.” Political geography’s function was “to trace the interaction between man and his environment.” That environment, Mackinder explained, included the “configuration of the earth’s surface,” climate and weather conditions, and the presence or absence of natural resources.4

Four of the ideas mentioned in “On the Scope and Methods of Geography” are key to understanding Mackinder’s subsequent geopolitical writings.

First, Mackinder expressed his view that the goal of a geographer was to “look at the past [so] that he may interpret the present.”
Second, he noted that man’s great geographical discoveries were nearing an end; there were very few “blanks remaining on our maps.”
Third, Mackinder described the two kinds of political conquerors as “land-wolves and sea-wolves.”
And, fourth, he recognized that technological improvements made possible “the great size of modern states.”5

Upon the foundation of those four ideas Mackinder later constructed his famous global theory.

In June 1887, Mackinder was appointed Reader in Geography at Oxford, and he began to lecture on the influence of geography on European history. He visited the United States in 1892, lecturing at the University of Pennsylvania, Swarthmore, Drexel, Harvard, Princeton and Johns Hopkins. The same year, he was appointed Principal of Reading College at Oxford, a position he held for eleven years. In 1893-1894, Mackinder gave a series of ten lectures on the relations of geography to history in Europe and Asia. Five years later, he helped found the School of Geography at Oxford, and participated in an expedition that climbed Mount Kenya, Africa’s second-highest peak.6

In 1902, Mackinder wrote his first major book, . Although primarily concerned, in Mackinder’s words, “to present a picture of the physical features and conditions” of Britain, the book’s chapters on “The Position of Britain,” “Strategic Geography,” and “Imperial Britain” contain insights on global affairs that foreshadowed Mackinder’s subsequent geopolitical works. In the book, he described Britain as being “of Europe, yet not in Europe,” and as lying “off the shores of the great continent.” British predominance in the world rested on its “command of the sea,” wrote Mackinder, because “[t]he unity of the ocean is the simple physical fact underlying the dominant value of sea-power in the modern globe-wide world.” “A new balance of power is being evolved,” Mackinder opined, and it included “five great world states, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and America.” Mackinder suggested, however, that Britain’s position as the preeminent world power was endangered due to “permanent facts of physical geography” in the form of “the presence of vast Powers, broad-based on the resources of half continents” (i.e., Russia and the United States).7

The threat to British preeminence and to the liberty of the world was the subject of Mackinder’s bold, provocative essay, “The Geographical Pivot of History,” which he delivered to the Royal Geographical Society on January 25, 1904. He began this seminal work by noting that the last stage of “geographical exploration” (which he called the “Columbian epoch”) was nearing its end. “In 400 years,” he wrote, “the outline of the map of the world has been completed with approximate accuracy.” Moreover, since conquerors, missionaries, miners, farmers and engineers “followed so closely in the travelers’ footsteps,” the world was for the first time a “closed political system.” This meant, wrote Mackinder, that “every explosion of social forces, instead of being dissipated in a surrounding circuit of unknown space and barbaric chaos, will be sharply re-echoed from the far side of the globe, and weak elements in the political and economic organism of the world will be shattered in consequence.” Nations, in other words, could no longer safely ignore major events that occurred in far away places of the globe.

Mackinder’s avowed purposes in writing the “pivot” paper were to establish “a correlation between the larger geographical and the larger historical generalizations,” to provide “a formula which shall express certain aspects… of geographical causation in universal history,” and to set “into perspective some of the competing forces in current international politics.”

Mackinder pictured Europe and Asia as one great continent: “Euro-Asia.” He described Euro-Asia as: “a continuous land, ice-girt in the north, water-girt elsewhere, measuring twenty-one million square miles….” The center and north of Euro-Asia, he pointed out, measure “some nine million square miles, … have no available waterways to the ocean, but, on the other hand, … are generally favorable to the mobility of horsemen…. ” To the “east and south of this heart-land,” he further explained, “are marginal regions, ranged in a vast crescent, accessible to shipmen.”

Mackinder noted that between the fifth and sixteenth centuries, a “succession of … nomadic peoples” (Huns, Avars, Bulgarians, Magyars, Khazars, Patzinaks, Cumans, Mongols and Kalmuks) emerged from Central Asia to conquer or threaten the states and peoples located in the “marginal crescent” (Europe, the Middle East, southwest Asia, China, southeast Asia, Korea and Japan). Beginning in the late fifteenth century, however, the “great mariners of the Columbian generation” used seapower to envelop Central Asia. “The broad political effect” of the rise of sea powers, explained Mackinder, “was to reverse the relations of Europe and Asia….” “[W]hereas in the Middle Ages Europe was caged between an impassable desert to south, an unknown ocean to west, and icy or forested wastes to north and north-east, and in the east and south-east was constantly threatened by the superior mobility of the horsemen,” Mackinder further explained, “she now emerged upon the world, multiplying more than thirty-fold the sea surface and coastal lands to which she had access, and wrapping her influence around the Euro-Asiatic land-power which had hitherto threatened her very existence.”

Often unappreciated, however, Mackinder believed, was the fact that while Europe expanded overseas, the Russian state based in Eastern Europe and Central Asia expanded to the south and east, organizing a vast space of great human and natural resources. That vast space would soon be “covered with a network of railways,” thereby greatly enhancing the mobility and strategic reach of land power.

With that geo-historical background, Mackinder identified the northern-central core of Euro-Asia as the “pivot region” or “pivot state” of world politics. He placed Germany, Austria, Turkey, India and China, lands immediately adjacent to the pivot region, in an “inner crescent,” and the insular nations of Britain, South Africa, Australia, the United States, Canada and Japan in an “outer crescent.” He then warned that, “[t]he oversetting of the balance of power in favour of the pivot state, resulting in its expansion over the marginal lands of Euro-Asia, would permit the use of vast continental resources for fleet-building, and the empire of the world would then be in sight.” Mackinder suggested that either a Russo-German alliance or a Sino-Japanese empire (which conquered Russian territory) could contend for world hegemony. In either case, “oceanic frontage” would be added to “the resources of the great continent,” thereby creating the geopolitical conditions necessary for producing a great power that was supreme both on land and at sea.

“I have spoken as a geographer,” Mackinder acknowledged toward the end of the paper. But he carefully avoided geographical determinism in assessing the world situation: “The actual balance of political power at any given time is… the product, on the one hand, of geographical conditions, both economic and strategic, and, on the other hand, of the relative number, virility, equipment and organization of the competing peoples.”8

Continue reading Sempa 123End Notes

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