The father of geopolitics

A hundred years ago Halford Mackinder warned of the threat of global domination from the east. His theories influenced Hitler and are now having a revival – for better and for worse.

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A hundred years ago this week, the statesmen in Versailles were building a new world. But on 1 February 1919, a British geographer completed a book which argued that if they did not consider how politics was shaped by land and sea, their settlement would collapse. Halford Mackinder’s book, Democratic Ideals and Reality, was ignored. Yet ever since, his ideas have played a striking, sometimes disturbing, role in international affairs.

A century on, democratic ideals of international community are taking a battering, and Mackinder’s ideas are back in fashion. “Mackinder helped shape strategic thinking about great-power rivalry,” argues Professor Charles Kupchan, who was President Obama’s special assistant and a senior director on the National Security Council staff. “He focused on the importance of the Eurasian ‘Heartland’ and the importance of territory, strategic access, and material strength, and all of that is coming back into play.”

Mackinder was nearly 60 in 1919, and had spent much of his career pioneering the study of geography at Oxford, Reading and across the country. But in a rapidly changing international scene, he was increasingly drawn into politics. As a boy, he saw the news of Prussia’s victory over France in 1871 on the door of his Lincolnshire post office; three decades later, he was busy worrying about the rise of Germany at a “social imperialist” dining club founded by Sidney and Beatrice Webb, alongside Leo Amery and HG Wells. In the face of the German challenge, Mackinder wanted to improve British “manpower” through protectionism, better working-class housing and education, and a minimum wage. Democratic Ideals sometimes reads like imperialist post-liberalism: he lambasts laissez-faire policy for letting London suck the life out of the country, but at the same time he is against socialist centralisation. He hymns neighbourliness at every level, from local communities to the League of Nations. He sees the militaristic uniformity of Germany and Russia as emanating from their sweeping plains.

Portraits of Mackinder suggest a melancholy scholar – his only child died in infancy and his marriage failed – but he was a strong orator, and sustained a long public career, from running the London School of Economics, to becoming a Unionist Party MP in Glasgow, and latterly a knight and privy councillor. But he would be long forgotten were it not for the astonishing sweep of his geopolitical imagination. “Geopolitics” was not a word Mackinder liked – yet he is widely seen as its father.

Avowed imperialist that he was, Mackinder wanted the Versailles settlement to work, insisting the League of Nations was the only alternative to “hell on earth”. His central thesis, first sketched in his 1904 lecture, “The Geographical Pivot of History”, was that with the advent of transcontinental rail, the Eurasian Heartland – roughly, Russia plus Central Asia – could begin to exploit its natural resources properly.

If one power mastered this vast landscape of steppe and forest, it could use those resources to build a huge fleet. With the Heartland as its base, Germany, or Russia, or the two in alliance, could launch naval attacks through the Black and Baltic seas, and take the Suez Canal; it could expand across the “World-Island” – Eurasia plus Africa – and finally overcome British sea-power to dominate the planet. So the Versailles statesmen should remember:

Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; who rules the World-Island commands the World.

To thwart this, Mackinder proposed a buffer of eastern European states between Germany and Russia, and, more alarmingly, a wholesale population switch. Moving Germans west from East Prussia, while Poles moved east, would remove Germany’s enclave near Russia’s border.

In postwar Munich, the Heartland theory caught the eye of another geographer, a war veteran called Karl Haushofer. He twisted it from a warning into a strategy: his humiliated country could form a grand Berlin-Moscow-Tokyo alliance, and challenge British dominance. This intrigued Haushofer’s student, Rudolf Hess. On Wednesdays in 1924 Haushofer tutored Hess and Hitler while they were in prison for their beer hall putsch of 1923. By 1939, Haushofer was applauding his protégés’ pact with the USSR as the great Eurasian land-power of his dreams.

Whether or not this was really Haushofer’s influence at work, the idea that he had inspired the pact went viral. Three days after the news broke, this magazine published an article called “Hitler’s World Revolution”. It claimed to show how the ideas shaping Nazi policy had largely been “stolen from the intellectual arsenal of British imperialism” – specifically, Mackinder.

This led to a hullabaloo in the US. Articles and documentaries warned of an “Institut für Geopolitik” with a “thousand scientists” plotting Hitler’s “plan for destruction”. A Frank Capra propaganda short instructed moviegoers that Mackinder’s mantra (“who rules East Europe…”) was “Hitler’s step-by-step plan for world conquest”.


Swing state: a protest in Kiev against the pro-Russian, anti-EU Yanukovich administration, 2014. Photo: Brendan Hoffman/Getty

The idea he had inspired Hitler dismayed Mackinder, but suddenly, the eighty-something geographer was the coming man. In 1942, Democratic Ideals and Reality was republished; in 1943, Foreign Affairs magazine requested his thoughts on the geopolitics of the coming victory. In “The Round World and the Winning of the Peace”, Mackinder proposed a way to contain a defeated Germany. To its west, there should be “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”. And to Germany’s east? If “the Soviet Union emerges from this war as conqueror of Germany, she must rank as the greatest land power on the globe”.

But by 1945, with Germany flattened, Mackinder’s model foreshadowed the emerging East-West stand-off. As America tried to decide how to face a freshly hostile USSR, East Coast academics drew on Mackinder’s work, and policymakers listened. Through Princeton’s Edward Mead Earle, his ideas reached George Kennan, architect of proposals to “contain” the Soviet Union.

Mackinder had warned in vain, in 1919, against too great a separation of democracy and realpolitik. America had withdrawn; the Versailles settlement had died. But six days after Mackinder’s death in March 1947, President Truman successfully requested Congressional backing to make containment US policy. America now led the creation of a Mackinder-tinged fusion of democratic ideals and realpolitik: a new order which, however problematic, has survived.

The Soviets condemned the Heartland theory as dodgy geography, weaponised for “the aggressive policies of imperialist states”. Mackinder’s writings were preserved in Soviet libraries, with a few trusted ideologues allowed access, so they could refute them. But in 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed, in what President Putin called in 2005 “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. Economic chaos, Western triumphalism and the loss of the Soviet republics left Russia humiliated. The secret scholars of Mackinder emerged – and began to proselytise his ideas. The concept of the Heartland’s centrality found new appeal in the ailing Heartland itself.

If Mackinder’s ideas once helped to establish the Cold War settlement, they now began to lay the seeds of today’s confrontations. As Charles Clover charts in his 2016 book Black Wind, White Snow, the right-wing ideologue Aleksandr Dugin drew on Mackinder to cast Russia as the great Eurasian land-power, eternally opposed to liberal Atlantic sea-power – first in lectures to the General Staff Academy, then in 1997, in an unlikely bestseller, The Foundations of Geopolitics. Dugin presented geopolitics as the secret reality of power behind the fakery of democratic ideals. Mackinder was a Victorian academic who wanted to bolster the League of Nations, but his grand, visionary theories have proved irresistible to conspiracists.

Dugin’s influence has been diffuse rather than direct, but his ideas about Russia’s need to expand into Eurasia have, Clover argues, proved useful to the Kremlin. The Eurasian Economic Union, launched in 2015, embodies the idea of Russia reaching beyond national bounds. This has been expressed rather more sharply in the interventions in Georgia and Ukraine.

When, in November 2013, President Yanukovich withdrew from Ukraine’s “Association Agreement” with the EU, it was in favour of closer links to the Eurasian Economic Union. Protests, violence, and Russia’s annexation of Crimea followed. As Polish foreign minister, Radek Sikorski was involved in talks to end the crisis. He suggests that Ukraine is perhaps the nearest equivalent today to Mackinder’s proposition that who rules eastern Europe commands the Heartland: “It’s the Egypt of Europe – a swing state,” he says, “which is why we’ve had rivalry between Russia and the EU over the geopolitical orientation of Ukraine.”

But Sikorski also suggests that the return of Mackinder’s ideas provides useful justification for Russian imperialism: “Those are dangerous ideas because you can waste a lot of national energy and kill a lot of innocent people trying to realise them.” This echoes Western academics’ criticism of the ways Mackinder has been used to justify British, then American, empire.

Perhaps Mackinder resonates in Russia because his theories chime both with its existential worries – about its civilisational standing next to the West – and its strategic anxieties: those long, vulnerable frontiers. Meanwhile, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach, chairman of the Nato Military Committee – the alliance’s most senior military officer – believes that “the continuities of Russian policy between the Tsars, the Soviet Union and the modern expression of the Russian state are very strong: the search for a warm water port, the sense of the need to secure the plains where they represent what is viewed by Russia as a vulnerability to her strategic depth, the need to understand the seas that surround the state”. To grasp this perspective, he has studied map projections with Russia at the centre.

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While Russia rules much of the Heartland, however, it does not currently command the World-Island. Eurasia now houses another Great Power. Geopolitically-inclined writers such as Robert Kaplan have noted that in 1904, Mackinder imagined the Chinese (albeit organised by Japan) conquering Russia and adding “an oceanic frontage to the resources of the great continent”. Bruno Maçães contends in his 2018 book The Dawn of Eurasia that the super-continent is becoming a single integrated area, citing Mackinder’s point that Europe’s history is subordinate to Asia’s. Maçães argues that China sees the whole supercontinent as its “natural sphere of expansion”: if Russia tilts towards Asia rather than Europe, China could become the hegemonic power in Eurasia.

For now, Russia-China relations are warm. Professor Angela Stent, author of the forthcoming Putin’s World, argues that China’s “Belt and Road” infrastructure megaproject is presented as a win for all concerned, noting that more Chinese guests than ever attended the Valdai Discussion Club conference in Moscow last October, where Putin laid out his ideas for “Greater Eurasia”. Privately, however, Russians are more sceptical about China’s plans.

Mackinder’s Heartland theory was inspired by the railways spanning Siberia; now, Charles Kupchan argues that with the Belt and Road initiative, the Chinese are following Mackinder’s logic in building new internal lines of communication that will stretch right across Eurasia into western Europe. “It’s of geopolitical consequence,” he says, “especially for Russia – because Russia used to own that space, Central Asia in particular, and now the Chinese are moving in.” He expects that Russia-China relations will worsen: “If I were in Moscow… I’d be a heck of a lot more worried about my east than my west, and I think the Russians will come to that conclusion over time.”

Yet some believe that reading our troubles through a Mackinder lens risks worsening polarisation. Paul Richardson of the University of Birmingham argues that “ghosts of geopolitics past” occlude shared interests, and the degree to which Russia and China are really focused on domestic development. In 2011, a Chinese military academic, Zhiyuan Lin, inverted Mackinder by suggesting that some in the US were applying his Heartland theory to the South China Sea, believing that who controls the South China Sea will command East Asia, and consequently the World-Island. Following Lin’s logic, China is defending the Heartland – and itself – from American imperialism.

Meanwhile, Nick Megoran, a British geographer who has studied Mackinder’s legacies, recounts how, since the 1990s, intellectuals in Central Asia have often invoked his theories to burnish the case for their region’s autonomy from the great powers. There is, he says, a certain creativity in this – the Central Asians “invent their own Mackinders”.

The curious endurance of Halford Mackinder’s writing lies in the mix of physical geography and the dazzling designs he sketches on it. At one point in Democratic Ideals and Reality, he invites us to picture the Heartland from the moon. This capacity to picture the Earth from such a dizzying distance and perceive fundamental patterns makes his ideas endlessly adaptable, but it has also given them a dangerous allure.

Much has been said recently about how, after 1991, the West’s hubristic idealists thought they could ignore geopolitical constraints, and are now getting their comeuppance. But might we now be in danger of tipping too far the other way? As we return to a world of great power rivalry, geopolitics could easily lend an aura of authority to cynicism. The challenge of Mackinder’s old book is right there in its title: to embrace geographical reality as a way to secure democratic ideals. Not just to pick one or the other. 

Phil Tinline’s short film on Mackinder’s geopolitics is available at bbc.com/ideas

This article appears in the 01 February 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Epic fail