by Francis P. Sempa

“No mere scraps of paper, even though they be the written constitution of a League of Nations, are, under the conditions of today, a sufficient guarantee that the Heartland will not again become the centre of a world war.”

Mackinder’s proposed solution to the problem of Eastern Europe, which he derived from “a consideration of the realities presented by the geography of our globe,” was the formation of a “tier of independent states between Germany and Russia,” which would form “a broad wedge of independence, extending from the Adriatic and Black Seas to the Baltic.” This territorial buffer between Germany and Russia,” wrote Mackinder, must have access to the ocean, and must be supported by the “outer nations” (i.e., Britain and the United States).11 Otherwise, the East European power vacuum would again serve as the spark to ignite yet another struggle for Eurasian hegemony.

During the 1920s and 1930s, unfortunately, Mackinder’s ideas had little influence in Britain or the United States. That was not the case, however, in Germany where Mackinder’s global view attracted the attention and praise of Karl Haushofer and his associates at Munich’s Institute of Geopolitics. The German geopoliticians, influenced by the writings of Oswald Spengler, Friedrich Ratzel and Rudolf Kjellen, adapted Mackinder’s theories and concepts to promote German expansion. Haushofer in the 1920s and 1930s was close to Rudolf Hess, a close adviser to Hitler. But it is unclear to what extent the German geopoliticians influenced the Führer’s global strategy. Haushofer considered Mackinder the author of “the greatest of all geographical world views.” “Never,” exclaimed Haushofer referring to “The Geographical Pivot of History,” “have I seen anything greater than these few pages of a geopolitical masterwork.” The German geopoliticians divided the world into “Pan Regions” each of which was dominated by a great power. Haushofer advocated the formation of a “Eurasiatic great continental bloc”; in essence, an alliance between Germany, Japan and Russia that would eventually overwhelm the British Empire.12

During the inter-war period, Mackinder was knighted (1920), lost his seat in Parliament (1922), chaired the Imperial Shipping Committee (1920-1939), sat on the Imperial Economic Committee (1925-1931), was made a Privy Councilor (1926), and continued to write and lecture on geography and related topics. His inter-war writings included: “Geography as a Pivotal Subject in Education” (1921); “The Sub-Continent of India”(1922); The Nations of the Modern World: An Elementary Study in Geography and History After 1914 (1924); and “The Human Habitat”(1931).13

The Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939, the beginning of the Second World War and Germany’s subsequent invasion of the Soviet Union drew attention in the United States to Mackinder’s works. In 1941 and 1942, Newsweek, Reader’s Digest and Life published articles which prominently mentioned Mackinder and his writings. Democratic Ideals and Reality was reprinted in 1942. That same year, Hamilton Fish Armstrong, the editor of Foreign Affairs, asked Mackinder to write an article to update his Heartland theory. That article, entitled “The Round World and the Winning of the Peace,” appeared in July 1943, and was Mackinder’s last significant statement of his global views.

"[M]y concept of the Heartland,” wrote Mackinder, “is more valid and useful today than it was either twenty or forty years ago.”14 He described the Heartland in geographical terms as “the northern part and the interior of Euro-Asia,” extending “from the Arctic coast down to the central deserts,” flowing westward to “the broad isthmus between the Baltic and Black Seas.” The Heartland concept, he explained, is based on “three separate aspects of physical geography.”

First, “the widest lowland plain on the face of the globe.” Second, “great navigable rivers [that] flow across that plain [but have] no access to the ocean.” And third, “a grassland zone which . . . presented ideal conditions for the development of high mobility” by land transportation.

The Heartland, in essence, wrote Mackinder, was equivalent to the territory of the Soviet Union, minus the land east of the Yenisei River.

If the Soviet Union defeated Germany in the war, opined Mackinder, “she must rank as the greatest land Power on the globe.” “The Heartland is the greatest natural fortress on earth,” he explained, and “[f]or the first time in history it is manned by a garrison sufficient both in number and quality.”

A second geographical feature which Mackinder estimated to be “of almost equal significance” to the Heartland was the "Midland Ocean,” consisting of the eastern half of Canada and the United States, the North Atlantic basin and its “four subsidiaries (Mediterranean, Baltic, Arctic and Caribbean Seas),” Britain and France (a remarkable description of the NATO alliance that was formed six years after Mackinder wrote his article).

Completing his updated global sketch, Mackinder identified three additional geographic features. The first was “a girdle of deserts and wildernesses” extending from the Sahara Desert eastward to Arabia, Tibet, and Mongolia to eastern Siberia, Alaska, part of Canada, and the western United States. The second consisted of South America, the South Atlantic Ocean, and Africa. And the third encompassed the “Monsoon lands” of China and India. He expressed the hope that those lands would prosper and, thereby, balance the other regions of the globe. “A balanced globe of human beings,” he wrote, “[a]nd happy, because balanced and thus free.”15

Mackinder expressed the hope that Heartland Russia would cooperate with the Midland Ocean powers in the postwar world and, thereby, prevent future German aggression. But his theories and concepts proved readily adaptable to the emerging Cold War struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union. American strategists during and after the Second World War borrowed aspects of Mackinder’s world view in formulating and implementing the policy of “containment” of Soviet Russia.16 Anthony J. Pierce, in his introduction to the 1962 edition of Democratic Ideals and Reality, could confidently assert that “[i]n America and in England, since 1942, most studies of global strategy or political geography have been based, in whole or in part, upon [Mackinder’s] theories.17 “Mackinder, of course, had his share of critics,18 but as Colin Gray has pointed out, “Mackinder’s interpretations of historically shifting power relationships in their geographical setting have stood the test of time much better than have the slings and arrows of his legion of critics.”19

More recent and current political observers and strategists attest to the continuing influence of Mackinder’s ideas. In 1974, R.E. Walters wrote that “the Heartland theory stands as the first premise in Western military thought.”20 In 1975, Saul B. Cohen noted that “most Western strategists continue to view the world as initially described by Mackinder.”21 Zbigniew Brzezinski’s Game Plan (1986) and The Grand Chessboard (1997) present global views almost wholly based on Mackinder’s concepts. In 1980, Robert Nisbet claimed that "[e]very geopolitical apprehension that Sir Halford Mackinder expressed some six decades ago in his Democratic Ideals and Reality has been fulfilled.”22 The influential journals, Strategic Review and The National Interest, published several articles in the 1980s and 1990s wherein the authors applied Mackinder’s theories and concepts to contemporary global issues.23 In 1988, the respected strategist Colin Gray asserted that “[t]he geopolitical ideas of the British geographer Sir Halford Mackinder … provide an intellectual architecture, far superior to rival conceptions, for understanding the principal international security issues.”24 In 1992, Eugene Rostow remarked that “Mackinder’s map remains an indispensable tool of analysis” of global politics.25 In 1994, the former State Department Geographer, George J. Demko, wrote that “the geographic ideas of … Mackinder, still provide important insights into international political processes.”26 Henry Kissinger in his book, Diplomacy (1994), concludes with a warning that “Russia, regardless of who governs it, sits astride territory Halford Mackinder called the geopolitical heartland….”27 Paul Kennedy, Robert Chase, and Emily Hill invoked Mackinder’s theories in a 1996 Foreign Affairs article on post-Cold War “pivot states.”28 Finally, in 1996 the National Defense University issued a reprint of Democratic Ideals and Reality.

Twentieth century global politics were shaped, in part, by Mackinder’s geopolitical vision. Following his concepts, the continuing struggle for Eurasian mastery was the geopolitical essence of the First World War, the Second World War, and the Cold War. First Great Britain, then the United States, organized great coalitions to oppose successive bids for Eurasian hegemony launched by Wilhelmine Germany, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. The Great Power struggles of the twenty-first century will likely repeat this pattern.

The People’s Republic of China, situated at the gates of Mackinder’s “pivot region” or Heartland, and with access to the sea, possesses sufficient human and natural resources to make a bid for Eurasian mastery sometime in this new century. Russia, though currently undergoing a new time of troubles, still occupies the Heartland and possesses vast human and natural resources, as well as thousands of nuclear weapons. The nations of Western, Central and Eastern Europe are moving toward economic unity and, perhaps, political unity, with Germany playing a leading role. Whatever specific power constellation emerges, however, U.S. foreign policy will continue to be shaped by Mackinder’s geopolitical vision of a Eurasian-based world hegemony.

In 1944, the American Geographical Society awarded Mackinder the Charles P. Daley Medal, which was presented to him at the American Embassy in London on March 31, 1944. Ambassador John Winant remarked that Mackinder was the first scholar who fully enlisted geography as an aid to statecraft and strategy. A year later, the Royal Geographical Society awarded Mackinder the Patron’s Medal, and its president noted that ”[a]s a political geographer his reputation is . . . world wide.”29 Mackinder died on March 6, 1947, at the age of eighty-six. More than fifty years later, as we enter a new century, statesmen and strategists still operate in Mackinder’s world.