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Spring 2014

Mackinder, Geography, and History

Francis P. Sempa

Halford Mackinder (1861–1947) understood the forces that shape world politics better than any thinker of the twentieth century. When he delivered his famous address to the Royal Geographical Society in London in January 1904—an address that accurately foresaw the main currents of international relations during the next nine decades—one member present remarked that it was unfortunate that more members were not in attendance.1 A staunch defender of the British Empire, Mackinder nevertheless predicted that the future belonged to continental-sized great powers such as Russia and the United States. In 1919, while serving as an advisor to a faction of the “White” forces in the Russian Civil War, he advocated the overthrow of the infant Bolshevik regime which, he wrote with singular accuracy, posed a great threat to the democracies of the world.

Mackinder was a generalist in an age that favored specialization; a geographer whose grasp of history was greater than most historians. His critics called him a geographical determinist. Some, unfairly, linked his geopolitical theories to Nazi Germany’s expansionist policies; perhaps because Germany’s most famous geopolitician, Karl Haushofer, thought Mackinder’s writings “the greatest of all geographical world views.”2 What Mackinder wanted most to do, however, was to educate Western statesmen to adapt their foreign policies to geographical realities so that power in the world would be balanced and the West would remain free. In 1944, America’s Ambassador to Great Britain, John Winant, captured the essence of Mackinder’s accomplishment when he praised him for “fully enlist[ing] geography as an aid to statecraft.”3

Knowledge of geography is today not as prized as it used to be. In the twenty-first century world, technology and the information revolution is thought to have lessened the significance of distance. We learn about events in other parts of the world almost instantaneously, and the speed with which we can respond to those events has multiplied exponentially. Information circulates so fast in so many places that there often isn’t time to study the information in a geographical and historical perspective. Maps and atlases are not used as much, let alone studied as much, as they used to be. Yet, to understand history and grasp the importance of current events, it remains essential to study maps. As Robert D. Kaplan recently wrote, “Geography is the backdrop to human history itself.”4

That is why the geographical and geopolitical works of Halford Mackinder, which span the time period from 1887 to 1943, remain relevant to our twenty-first century world. Mackinder directs our focus toward the fundamentals of international politics. His ideas and concepts provide geo-historical perspective on events. Regimes come and go. Nations and empires rise and fall. Wars are won and lost. The global and regional balances of power shift over time. Only geography stays the same.

Mackinder’s most fundamental insight was that the political world is inseparable from the physical world. In a paper entitled “The Scope and Methods of Geography,” written in 1887, he expressed the belief that political geography was “built upon and subsequent to physical geography.” “Everywhere,” he explained, “political questions will depend on the results of the physical inquiry.”5 In 1889, in a paper read to the Scottish Geographical Society, he wrote that “geographical features” play a large role in the “shaping of history.”6

The basis of political geography and geopolitics, therefore, is physical geography. Mackinder’s geopolitical ideas and concepts cannot be fully understood without reviewing his principal geographical works, including Britain and the British Seas (1902), The Rhine (1908), Lands Beyond the Channel (1910), Eight Lectures on India (1910), and Distant Lands (1912). In these books and other writings, Mackinder showed how geography shaped the history of various regions of the world.

Mackinder’s geopolitical works, principally “The Geographical Pivot of History” (1904), Democratic Ideals and Reality (1919), and “The Round World and the Winning of the Peace” (1943), used geographical realities to explain the global balance of power. Here, geography and history become one, and serve to highlight the importance of certain geographical features on the course of world events. Global geopolitics only became possible after the last geographical explorations of what Mackinder called the “Columbian epoch” fully mapped the globe. The world, he wrote in 1904, was a “closed political system” where “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….”7 Or, as he wrote in 1919, “Every shock, every disaster or superfluity is now felt even to the antipodes…. Every deed of humanity will henceforth be echoed and re-echoed in like manner round the world.”8

The time period during which Mackinder lived and wrote witnessed world-changing events: the spread of European imperialism; the unification of Italy and Germany; British rule in India; the rise of Japan as a world power; the First World War; the end of four European empires; the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia; the rise of Nazi Germany; the Second World War; the sunset of the British empire; and the rise of America as a global power.

In 1919, after the cataclysmic First World War, Mackinder warned the statesmen of the West that the failure to adjust their democratic ideals to enduring geographical realities would result in another and more destructive global war. Twenty years later, when events confirmed the wisdom of that warning, Mackinder’s writings and ideas received more widespread attention. His 1919 book Democratic Ideals and Reality was reprinted in 1942. Life magazine did a feature story on his geopolitical theories. The editor of the influential journal Foreign Affairs invited Mackinder to update his geopolitical theories with a view toward the post-war world, which Mackinder did in 1943 in “The Round World and the Winning of the Peace.” It would be Mackinder’s last published work on global geopolitics. He died four years later at the age of 86.

Mackinder’s influence on statesmen and international relations scholars, however, was greater after he died. The forty-five-year struggle for global supremacy known to history as the Cold War conformed so closely to Mackinder’s geopolitical observations that one writer claimed that in America and England “most studies of global strategy or political geography have been based, in whole or in part, upon his theories.”9 The United States’ grand strategy of “containment,” as expressed in George F. Kennan’s famous “X” article, NSC-68, and as implemented by successive U.S. administrations from 1946-1991, reflected an appreciation of the potential geopolitical threat posed by a politically united and hostile Eurasian landmass which Mackinder first warned about in 1904.

In 1975, Saul B. Cohen noted that “most Western strategists continue to view the world as initially described by Mackinder.”10 In 1980, Robert Nisbet wrote that “[e]very geopolitical apprehension that … Mackinder expressed some six decades ago … has been fulfilled.”11 The National Defense University issued a reprint of Democratic Ideals and Reality in 1986. In 1988, the respected strategist Colin Gray asserted that [t]he geopolitical ideas of … Mackinder … provide an intellectual architecture, far superior to rival conceptions, for understanding the principal international security issues.”12 Most recently, Robert D. Kaplan heralded Mackinder’s geopolitical ideas as “remarkably relevant to the dynamics of World War I, World War II, and the Cold War.”13

During certain time periods throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century, Mackinder’s specific theories, and geopolitics in general, have been written-off by some scholars as too deterministic or outmoded. Geopolitics and Mackinder’s ideas suffered initially from their unwitting association with the German school of Geopolitik in the 1920s and 1930s, which the Nazis used to support their expansionist policies. Next, the invention of atomic weapons, intercontinental delivery systems, and the nuclear arms race persuaded many that geopolitics was irrelevant or obsolete. What was the significance of geography, some argued, when the superpowers could blow each other up many times over by just pushing buttons? For some, though not all, observers, even the Korean and Vietnam Wars, the Sino-Soviet split, and the Soviet geopolitical offensive of the 1970s did not warrant the revival of geopolitics. Indeed, the consensus supporting the geopolitical policy of containment suffered as a result of the Vietnam War which many saw as a quagmire resulting from a too rigid adherence to containment and its geopolitical underpinnings.

For others, however, the international events and developments of the 1970s showed only too clearly that an understanding of geopolitics, especially the ideas of Mackinder, was essential to waging and winning the Cold War. Most notably, Colin Gray, in a series of articles and books in the late 1970s and 1980s, characterized the Cold War struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union as the latest instance of a recurring global struggle between insular sea powers and continental-based land powers. Indeed, in his most extensive treatment of the subject in The Geopolitics of Super Power (1988), Gray contended that “Mackinder provided an intellectual framework for understanding recurring patterns in international power relationships that was well founded in history and geography and that the events of the twentieth century have substantiated in most essentials.”14 It is noteworthy that Gray was a national security consultant to the Reagan administration, which reinvigorated the policy of containment in a successful effort to undermine Soviet power.

The end of the Cold War, however, produced new voices that attempted to consign Mackinder and geopolitics to the ash heap of history. The noted strategist Edward Luttwak argued that “geo-economics” had replaced geopolitics as a guide to understanding the world. Thomas Friedman and others suggested that globalization and the information revolution were more important than geography to understanding global politics. Francis Fukuyama envisioned global democratization as the beginning of the “end of history.” After the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Empire collapsed, the George H. W. Bush administration proclaimed a “new world order,” forgetting perhaps that Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt had made similar proclamations at the end of earlier global conflicts only to see their utopian hopes dashed by geopolitical realities.

Those geopolitical realities appeared soon enough when Iraq invaded Kuwait and threatened Saudi Arabia in an attempt to gain effective control over much of the world’s energy resources. A decade later, terrorists connected to a global jihadist network whose goal was to reestablish a Muslim caliphate attacked the United States, resulting in the deployment of U.S. military forces to Afghanistan. Then, repeated violations of United Nations resolutions and the fear that Iraq had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction resulted in the deployment of more U.S. forces to Iraq. Meanwhile, the rogue nations of Iran and North Korea sought nuclear weapons, while China emerged as a potential economic and military peer competitor to the United States. Events in Ukraine and Crimea also have reminded us that geography and geopolitics are back in vogue.

In truth, as Colin Gray has written, geography is inescapable. As Mackinder wrote in 1919, “[t]he physical facts of geography have remained substantially the same during the fifty or sixty centuries of recorded human history.”15 Mackinder spent much of his life reviewing that history in its geographical context and understanding how geography influenced and shaped that history.

Mackinder was not, however, a geographical determinist, as some critics charged. In his writings he repeatedly factored economics, social organization, demographics, and the choices of individual statesmen into his analyses of global politics. His geopolitical theories also changed over time in reaction to world events. His famous “Heartland” theory, for example, evolved from its conception in 1904 to its final expression in 1943. This theory identified the northern-central core of Eurasia as the potential geographic base of a world empire.

Above all, Mackinder’s geopolitical writings were grounded in facts—historical and geographical facts. He spent a lifetime studying the world, mostly as a geographer. He didn’t just write about geography, he did it. In 1899, he led an expedition to climb Mt. Kenya, Africa’s second-highest peak, and later wrote a book about the adventure. He also wrote geographical works about the British Isles and the other regions of the world. His articles and books on geography are not as well known as his geopolitical works, but they formed the basis for his approach to the study of international relations.

His most perceptive biographer, W. H. Parker, applauded Mackinder’s ability to “produce a global view into which the actual course of events, past, present, and future, could be fitted …” He excelled at pulling together “intricately inter-related geographical facts and historical events” into “conceptual structures able to stand the test of time.”16 “It was,” Parker wrote, “the interplay of time and space, of man and place, of historical events and geographical feature that he perceived so clearly.”17 It is why Mackinder’s ideas and concepts remain relevant to twenty-first century global politics.  

Notes

1. W. H. Parker, Mackinder: Geography as an Aid to Statecraft (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), p. 149.

2. Hans W. Weigert, Generals and Geographers: The Twilight of Geopolitics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1942), p. 116.

3. Parker, Mackinder: Geography as an Aid to Statecraft, p. 54.

4. Robert D. Kaplan, The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate (New York: Random House, 2012), p. 28.

5. Halford J. Mackinder, "On the Scope and Methods of Geography," in Democratic Ideals and Reality (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1962), pp. 214, 217.

6. H. J. Mackinder, "The Physical Basis of Political Geography," Scottish Geographical Magazine, Vol. VI, (1890), p. 78

7. H. J. Mackinder, "The Geographical Pivot of History," in Democratic Ideals and Reality, p. 242.

8. Halford J. Mackinder, Democratic Ideals and Reality, pp. 29-30.

9. Anthony J. Pierce, "Introduction" to Democratic Ideals and Reality, p. xxi.

10. Saul B. Cohen, Geography and Politics in a World Divided (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), p. 44.

11. Robert Nisbet, History of the Idea of Progress (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1980), p. 331.

12. Colin S. Gray, The Geopolitics of Super Power (Lexington, Ky: University Press of Kentucky, 1988), p. 4.

13. Kaplan, The Revenge of Geography, p. 10.

14. Gray, The Geopolitics of Super Power, p. 5.

15. Mackinder, Democratic Ideals and Reality, p. 28.

16. Parker, Mackinder: Geography as an Aid to Statecraft, p. 250.

17. Ibid., p. 255.

Francis P. Sempa is a contributor to Population Decline and the Remaking of Great Power Politics (Potomac Books), and the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century (Transaction Books). He has written on historical and foreign policy topics for Joint Force Quarterly, American Diplomacy, Strategic Review, The National Interest, The Washington Times, and other publications. He is an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.

Posted: March 30, 2014 in Essays.

The moral imagination is the principal possession that man does not share with the beasts. It is man’s power to perceive ethical truth, abiding law, in the seeming chaos of many events. Without the moral imagination, man would live merely day to day, or rather moment to moment, as dogs do. It is the strange faculty—inexplicable if men are assumed to have an animal nature only—of discerning greatness, justice, and order, beyond the bars of appetite and self-interest.

Russell Kirk, Enemies of the Permanent Things, 1969

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