Conquest : The Heartland Theory of Halford J. Mackinder
by MR Ronald Hee
Born in 1861, the eminent lecturer and British
MP, Halford J. Mackinder, was a geographer by training. In
1904, he wrote an article that changed how politicians and
military men viewed the world. It was a perception that influenced
Hitler to send his panzers east against Soviet Russia. It
was a perception that, only recently, with the sudden collapse
of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, had seemed
all too relevant, relevant enough to be part of the intellectual
underpinnings for superpower foreign policy. The theory that
had so influenced nearly three generations of strategists
was called simply, the Heartland Theory.
In a nutshell, Mackinder saw history as a
struggle between land-based and sea-based powers. He saw that
the world had become a "closed" system, with no
new lands left for the Europeans powers to discover, to conquer,
and to fight over without affecting events elsewhere. Sea
and land-based powers would then struggle for dominance of
the world, and the victor would be in a position to set up
a world empire.
The determining factor in this struggle was
geography; "Man and not nature initiates, but nature
in large measure controls".1 The geographical features
of the globe, in large measure, is seen as defining the nature
of this world struggle, defining the opposing sides, and defining
the areas of conflict. Defeat and victory would hinge on the
"pivot-state"; the state in control of the "heartland"
of the "world-island".
The "world-island" is the landmass
of Euro-Asia-Africa. The control of this landmass by any one
state would enable it to organise overwhelming human and material
resources, to the detriment of the rest of the world. As the
"heartland" of this landmass was inaccessible to
attacks from sea-based powers, this organisation could take
place largely unimpeded.
Once this organisation was underway, victory
would be all but inevitable, even if all the sea--based powers
were to unite against this "pivot-state". In time,
this "pivot-state" would reach open waters, and,
with the resources of the "world island" behind
it, it would be unstoppable; "the 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 of the use of vast continental resources for fleet-building,
and the empire of the world would then be in sight".2
A look at Map I perhaps illustrates matters
more clearly. 'What Mackinder called in 1904 the "pivot
area", he subsequently called the "heartland"
by 1919. The "heart" of Mackinder's theory is contained
in a famous and succinct dictum:
Who rules Eastern Europe commands the Heartland;
Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island'
Who rules the World-Island commands
In practical terms, this dictum points to
a struggle for the control of Eastern Europe (including European
Russia) by the land powers. The sea powers would then have
to fight the victor to prevent control of the Euro-Asian-African
landmass and ultimately the world. At the height of World
War II, a good 40 years after this dictum was first coined,
it was said that "there is no escape from the logic of
this conclusion and it is the most powerful, practical argument
for intelligent international organisation that could be presented".4
In retrospect, it might be argued that, during
the Napoleonic Wars, Napoleon had nearly succeeded in controlling
this heartland, and the British were at times rather desperately
raising coalition after coalition to thwart this control.
Napoleon's Continental System aimed to unite Europe against
England, closing off the continent from English trade. It
can be argued farther, that Napoleon came to grief only after
the breakdown of the Continental System and his disastrous
fight against the other great land power of Europe, Tzarist
With the defeat of Napoleon, the paramount
sea power, Britain, continued its struggle, now against the
successor "pivot-state", Russia. Throughout what
Kipling called "The Great Game" of 19th century
diplomacy, Britain sought to keep Russia bottled up, by preventing
access through China and Japan in the east, India in the south,
and Turkey in the south-west, with her allies in Europe.
Writing in 1904 while his own British Empire
was still the paramount sea power, Mackinder sought to warn
that the game was changing, that, as Marxists were once so
fond of pontificating, the "correlation of forces"
was shifting. This change was being brought about not so much
by the heartland's vast wealth and size, but due to technical
changes mobilising these resources:
It was an unprecedented thing in the year
1900 that Britain should maintain a quarter of a million men
in her war with the Boers at a distance of six thousand miles
over the ocean; but it was as remarkable a feat for Russia
to place an army of more than a quarter of a million men against
the Japanese in Manchuria in 1904 at a distance of four thousand
miles by rail. (italics mine)5
What Mackinder foresaw was that the traditional
advantage of mobility enjoyed by the sea power, was now being
met in equal measure by mobility on land, brought about by
the railroad and by the motor vehicle. The British way of
war, as explained by Mackinder's contemporary, Alfred T. Mahan,
was to land relatively small bodies of troops at points of
their choosing, to effect a strategic result. Victory was
assured by the control of the seas.
Certainly the British way of war had resulted
in one of the world's greatest empires - at its height, covering
one quarter of the world's landmass - built at relatively
low cost by a small island nation. But the rules were changing.
As Mackinder foresaw, by World War I, the equal mobility of
the land-based powers would mean bloody stalemates, and a
draining of resources from the main effort; the failures at
Dardanelles and Gallipoli are bloody examples.
During that war, Germany and her allies were
not in undisputed control of Eastern Europe, thanks again
to Russia. But what if they were? The history of the world
might well have been very much different. In 1902, Mackinder
had warned, "In the presence of vast Powers, broad based
on the resources of half continents, Britain could not again
become mistress of the seas...."6
It is the opinion of this writer that one
of the greatest computer games ever designed is Civilization,
by MicroProse, surpassed only by its sequel, Civilization
II. In this game, the player matches his wits against other
powers led by the likes of Genghis Khan, Julius Caesar and
Mao Zedong, for control of the world, in a game spanning 6,000
years of human history, from the Stone Age to the Space Age,
developing, along the way, all the technologies that make
up the modern world. To play the game is to play geopolitics
the way Mackinder saw it; to defeat all of one's rivals on
the Euro-Asian-African landmass, would ensure victory, for
the control of such vast resources meant that even an enemy
in control of everything else on earth, could not hope to
prevail. World conquest from either the Americas or Australia
is, at best, difficult.
With the end of World War I, perhaps Mackinder's
most enthusiastic followers could be found among the Germans.
Karl Haushofer, another Mackinder contemporary, wrote and
lectured widely on geopolitics, and is said to have influenced
Hitler's thinking. Of Mackinder's theory, Haushofer exclaimed,
"Never have I seen anything greater than these few pages
of a geopolitical masterwork."7 For Haushofer, Hitler,
and the Nazi leadership, the lessons of World War I were clear
- Germany's salvation lay in the subjugation of lebensraum
in eastern Europe and beyond, to be wrested from Soviet Russia;
"dominate the Heartland, both for its strategic advantages
and for its rich resources; then and only then could she match
the Anglo-Saxon powers; all other policies, such as [a] ...
naval challenge were wasteful and mistaken diversions".8
Mackinder hinted as much in 1904, that a
union of the organised brain that was Germany, upon the vast,
rich body that was Russia, would put that union in an unassailable
position. With this in mind, the Russo-German Non-Aggression
Pact of 1939 came as no surprise, nor did the subsequent carving
up of Eastern Europe between the two land giants. Hitler had
seen the Pact as a means to keep Russia at bay while he built
his base in Europe. By 1941, he felt ready to attack Russia,
an attack which also should have come as no surprise to a
student of Mackinder; nor should Hitler's failure in the vastness
of that country, just like Napoleon before him.
It is precisely such a juncture, whether
by force or by agreement, that Mackinder sought to forestall
in Democratic Ideals and Reality, written in 1919. "It
is a vital necessity [for lasting peace]", he wrote,
"that there should be a tier of independent states between
Germany and Russia".9 If these states remained viable,
he reasoned, then Eastern Europe would be broken up, denying
Germany, Russia, or any other power, dominance. But this viability,
he warned, depended on the cooperation of the sea-based powers.
Written specifically to influence the politicians
re-drawing the map of Europe at Versailles, Mackinder was
partially successful. It was these sea-based powers that had
made these Eastern European states possible after World War
I. And it was these sea-based powers' failure to support these
states in the 1930s, that led to the dominance of the region
by one power, and, in the end, very nearly the creation of
the heartland power - Nazi Germany -Mackinder warned of.
Fortunately for the sea-based powers, the
two land behemoths of Nazi-controlled Europe, and communist-controlled
Russia went for each other throats, instead of keeping a united
front against the Anglo-Americans. Despite what the sea-based
powers may claim, it was in this clash of titans that Germany
was defeated; "the real stuffing was knocked out of the
German army on its Eastern Front, where it suffered over four-fifths
of its casualties..."10
With Nazi Germany so preoccupied, the sea-based
powers could continue in their strategy of the periphery,
successfully defeating the Germans in North Africa, landing
commando and sabotage forces along the coasts of Europe, and
keeping Russia in the fight with vital supplies sent by ship.
The best example of the application of sea power was the Normandy
landings of 1944. The landings gave the sea powers a short
route to the heart of Germany, and the war ended just over
a year after the landings. But in 1944 the landings were an
extremely perilous undertaking; impossible if the Non-Aggression
Pact had still been in force,11 and more likely, an invasion
from Normandy across to Britain, had the Germans and Russians
been active partners, or if either power had been defeated
by the other.
Mention has been made of the sea power theories
of Mahan. Of World War II, it has been said that "Mahanite
methods were ineffectual against a power which had adopted
a Mackinderite programme".12 Yet the theories of the
two men are not as opposing as some believe. Boiled down to
the bare essentials, the two theories are two sides of the
same coin; "the chief difference between Mahan and Mackinder
centred around the method of securing command over the world
island".13 Mackinder saw Mahanite sea power as on the
wane, and his warning of the rising strength of the land power
gave rise to the containment school after World War II.
After World War II, the baton passed to a
new sea power, from the fatally weakened British Empire, to
the US. With Germany in ashes, the great land power rival
once again became Russia. In 1943, while Russia had just started
to gain the upper hand against the Nazis, Mackinder warned
of the rise of Russia, as a land power for the first time,
in control of both Eastern Europe as well as the heartland;
"the conclusion is unavoidable that if the Soviet Union
emerges from this war as conqueror of Germany, she must rank
as the greatest land power on the globe," and the heartland
"for the first time in history ...is manned by a garrison
sufficient both in number and quality".14
Soviet Russia had to be "contained"
within the heartland; the world island had to remain at least
partially safe for democracy. Writing in 1962, Professor Pearce
commented that with the "Cold War [being] waged by carefully
limited land, sea and air forces in the peninsulas of the
World Island, far from being outdated, [the Heartland Theory]
appears to be more relevant than ever".15 Map II shows
the American right-wing view of the world; an embattled sea-based
Uncle Sam against the colossal land-based Russian Bear.
In the 1980's, Zbigniew Brzezinski, once
the National Security Advisor under the Carter Administration,
echoed the words of Mackinder; "Whoever controls Eurasia
dominates the globe. If the Soviet Union captures the peripheries
of this landmass ... it would not only win control of vast
human, economic and military resources, but also gain access
to the geostrategic approaches to the Western Hemisphere -
the Atlantic and the Pacific...."16
Certainly such a Mackinderite view of the
world continued under the neo-containment of the Reagan years,
little changed since the 1950's:
Whether the underlying process is perceived
in the grandiose form of Kissinger's geopolitical mechanics,
the Nixon 'game plan' or an anti-Communist crusade, the prevailing
American mental map [during the Reagan Administration] is
a Mackinderesque projection divided between white and red
camps with a contested field of pinkish green between. The
image which sustains the insanity of nuclear deterrence is
of a violently aggressive Russian heartland which must be
held in check ... and other nations become mere dominoes in
the hegemonic struggle....17
Yet, is control over such vast territories
as the world island really possible?
A number of criticisms have been raised against
Mackinder's theories, perhaps the most telling is nationalism.
Writing in an era where national strength was determined by
the extent of one's imperial possessions, how so vast an empire
as the world island could be controlled and exploited over
the long term, appeared to not have been taken fully into
account. The explosion of nationalism after 194518 created
a great many more nation-states than had existed before; the
explosion of 1989-91 created several more in Eastern Europe
and the former Soviet Union. Rather than falling under the
sway of one power, the world island has been heading in the
opposite direction. With the 20-20 vision of hindsight, it
is easy to accuse the Cold War policy makers of such a Mackinderite
fixation, that they failed to see that the "evil empire"
had enough difficulties keeping its own nations in line, let
alone its satellites in Eastern Europe, to seriously think
of adding more nations under its control.
This fixation meant lost opportunities. This
fixation saw the communists as a monolithic block, bent on
following the Heartland Theory to its final conclusion. This
fixation meant that the true nature of the Sino-Soviet split,
leading to two rival communist powers in dispute of the heartland,
remained unexplored and unexploited for 20 years, until Nixon's
1972 visit to China.
As far back as 1904, at the very first reading
of the Heartland Theory, there was already criticism. It was
pointed out then that both the ship and the rail were destined
to lose in importance to air transport, and this would render
the theory partly inoperable.19 In Mackinder's defence, it
should be stated that air transport remains, today at least,
at best an auxiliary means to project power. At best air transport
can only bring the advance, key elements into a trouble spot.
The bulk of the troops and supplies must come the usual way.
Against the numbers a land power could muster,
the small forces that can be brought in by air, would be grossly
insufficient. During the 1990-91 Gulf War, the early deployment
of the 82nd Airborne to Saudi Arabia may or may not have saved
that country from an Iraqi invasion. Certainly, in those early
days, had Saddam Hussein chosen to do so, those few, brave
men would have slowed down the Iraqi tank divisions about
as much as a speed bump.
Perhaps the worst criticism that can be levelled
at the Heartland Theory is that it is based on one view of
the globe, for "policy is made in the minds of men; its
contours may not concur with a true map of the world".20
See Map I and II and containment looked necessary against
the Soviet Union. To see Map III, is to perhaps see the Russian
view. The Soviet Union appears surrounded by enemies, and
no way is the rodina (or heartland, as the case may be) secure
During the Malta summit of December 1989,
a map similar to Map III may have been presented to President
Bush by President Gorbachev. The map is said to show a Soviet
Union surrounded by US bases and warships. Bush apparently
retorted that the map showed the Soviet Union as a large,
white, blob, with no indication of the vast military power
contained therein. He concluded by offering a counter-map;
"I'll get the CIA to do a map of how things look to us.
Then we’ll compare and see whose is more accurate".21
While it remains true that "nature in
large measure controls", just geography alone is a limited
view of affairs among nations; "relations among states
are governed by much more than the extent of their physical
proximity.... The way the populations of these countries organise
themselves, the resources available and their ability to exploit
them, the nature of their beliefs, fears and aspirations still
provide the basic raw material of international politics".22
If "man initiates", then it is up to men whether
to seek dominance over others, and not the dictates of geography.
Perhaps the secure heartland itself, so vital
to Mackinder's theories, has already ceased to exist. Mackinder
himself defined "the heartland [as] the region to which,
under modern conditions, sea power can be refused access...."23
Under "modern conditions", there is no spot on the
Eurasian landmass that cannot be targeted by nuclear missiles
fired from submarines; not to mention bombers and missiles
flying from American bases. Further, the increasing reach,
potency and accuracy of conventional weapons have to be taken
into account, as demonstrated so graphically during the Gulf
It is with some irony that Mackinder was
to pass away in 1947, the year many consider to be the start
of the 50-year life-and-death playing out of the Heartland
Theory, known as the Cold War. Is Mackinder still relevant
today? Despite the vulnerability of the heartland, which,
it must be added, will become vulnerable only in the event
of all-out war, the evidence seems to suggest so.
The Soviet Union may be gone, but Russia
and the Commonwealth of Independent States still remain. The
collapse of the land-based superpower may only be temporary.
Certainly much of the Soviet Union's military strength is
still in place, albeit now split into many hands. It has been
suggested that Russia, by letting go of Eastern Europe, had
seen it as a liability, and intended that this liability be
passed on to Western Europe, which, in turn, lulled into a
false sense of security, would disband NATO.24 Perhaps.
Certainly, if Russia is able to get its act
together, remove the last vestiges of Marxist dogma, and successfully
reclothe itself in free market capitalism, then it might one
day, again, become a superpower. And once again, the paramount
sea power would be faced with a land power rival for the world.
Kipling's "Great Game", now seemingly over, would
begin anew in earnest.
Today, with little fanfare, the US is building
up its influence and military presence in the Middle East
despite a general draw-down in its military commitments and
expenditure. Why? Oil is certainly a large part of the answer.
But in geopolitical terms, perhaps it is also to ensure that
these supplies do not become victim to a new land power aggressor,
and to prevent that land power's access to the seas - just
as Mackinder argued had to be done, and the British had carried
out through the 19th Century. Perhaps Kipling's "Great
Game" has not ended after all.
In the end, the basic argument of the Heartland
Theory is still relevant; "the great geographical realities
remain: land power versus sea power, heartland versus rimland,
centre versus periphery.... Mackinder died but his ideas live
1. Mackinder, H.J., Democratic
Ideals and Reality, p186.
2. Mackinder, "The
Geographical Pivot in History", p200.
3. Mackinder, Democratic
4. Eliot, G.F., as quoted
in Robin, W.C., "Struggle for the Heartland: An Introduction
to Geopolitics, p62.
5. Mackinder, as quoted
in Kennedy, P., Strategy and Diplomacy 1870-1945, p52.
6. Mackinder, ibid, p48.
7. Haushofer, K., as quoted
in Parker, W.H., Mackinder: Geography as an Aid to Statecraft,
8. ibid, p177.
9. Mackinder, Democratic
Ideals, op cit., p158.
10.Kennedy, op cit., p79.
11.The inside front cover
of Wilmot, C., The Struggle for Europe, is a map labelled,
"Distribution of German Divisions, June 6th 1944. "The
German had 59 divisions in France, but 157 divisions facing
12.Kennedy, op cit., p75.
13.Walters, R.E., The Nuclear
Trap: An Escape Route, p39.
Round World and the Winning of the Peace", p272-3.
Ideals, op cit., p.xi.
16.Brzezinski, Z., Game
Plan: A Geostrategic Framework for the Conduct of the US-Soviet
17.O'Sullivan, P., Geopolitics,
18.50 Nations signed the
United Nations Charter in June 1945. By September 1994, the
UN had 184 member states. (Sourse: The World Almanac, 1995)
19.Strausz-Hupe, R., Geopolitics:
The Struggle for Space and Power, p116.
20.Walters, op cit., p175.
21.Demko & Wood, Reordering
the World, p57.
22.Freedman, L., Atlas of
Global Strategy, p14.
23. Mackinder, Democratic
Ideals, op cit., p110.
24.Hall, G.M., Geopolitics
and the Decline of Empire, p107.
25.Parker, op cit., p175.
1. Brzezinski, Z., Game
Plan: A Geostrategic Framework for the Conduct of the US-Soviet
Contest (US, Atlantic Monthly, 1986).
2. Demko, G.J., & Wood,
W.B., Reordering the World.: Geopolitical Perspectives on
the 21st Century (US, Westview Press, 1994)
3. Freedman, L., Atlas of
Global Strategy (London, Macmillan, 1985).
4. Gray, C.S., The Geopolitics
of the Nuclear Era: Heartland, Rimlands, and the Technological
Revolution (US, Crane, Russak & Co., 1977).
5. Gray, C.S., The Geopolitics
of Super Power (US, University of Kentucky Press, 1988).
6. Hall, G.M., Geopolitics
and the Decline of Empire (US, McFarland & Co., 1990).
7. Kennedy, H.J., Strategy
and Diplomacy 1870-1945 (London, George Allen & Unwin,1983).
8. Mackinder, H.J., Democratic
Ideals and Reality, ed., Pearce, A.J. (New York, W.W. Norton
& Co., 1962).
9. Mackinder, H.J., "The
Geographical Pivot in History", in Dorplan, A., The World
of General Haushofer (New York, Kennikat, 1966), pg185-201.
10.Mackinder, H.J., "The
Round World and the Winning of the Peace", Foreign Affairs,
July 1943; reprinted in Pearce, A.J., ed., Democratic Ideals
of Reality (New York, W.W. Norton & Co., 1962), pp 265-278.
11.Nijman, J., The Geopolitics
of Power and Conflict (UK, Belhaven Press, 1993)
12.O'Sullivan, P., Geopolitics
(UK, Mackays of Chatham, 1986).
13.Parker, W.H., Mackinder:
Geography as an Aid to Statecraft (London, Clarendon, 1982).
14.Robinson, W.C., Struggle
for the Heartland: An Introduction to Geopolitics, Strategy
and Tactics, March-April 1994, pp58-66.
15.Strausz-Hupe', R., Geopolitics:
The Struggle for Space and Power (New York, G.P. Putnam's
16.Taylor, P.J., Political
Geography (UK, Longman, 1993).
17.Taylor, P.J., ed., Political
Geography of the Twentieth Century (UK, Belhaven, 1993)
18.Till, G., Maritime Strategy
and the Nuclear Age (Hong Kong, Macmillan, 1982).
19.Walters, R.E., The Nuclear
Trap: An Escape Route (US, Penguin, 1974).
MR Ronald Hee graduated from NUS with a BA
(Hons) degree in History in 1989. He was formerly with the
Singapore Discovery Centre, and before that he worked for
the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation.