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Home > Back Issues (Journal) > Journal V24 N3 (Jul - Sep 1998) > World Conquest : The Heartland Theory of Halford J. Mackinder

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World 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 the World

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 Russia.

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 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 from attack.

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 War.

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 on".25


1. Mackinder, H.J., Democratic Ideals and Reality, p186.

2. Mackinder, "The Geographical Pivot in History", p200.

3. Mackinder, Democratic Ideals, p150.

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, p159.

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 Russia.

12.Kennedy, op cit., p75.

13.Walters, R.E., The Nuclear Trap: An Escape Route, p39.

14.Mackinder, "The Round World and the Winning of the Peace", p272-3.

15.Mackinder, Democratic Ideals, op cit., p.xi.

16.Brzezinski, Z., Game Plan: A Geostrategic Framework for the Conduct of the US-Soviet Contest, pp22-23.

17.O'Sullivan, P., Geopolitics, p117.

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 Sons, 1942).

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.

Last updated: 18-Jul-2005






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