'Geographic Pivot of History' in 21st Century

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On Jan. 25, 1904, British geographer Halford J. Mackinder read a paper titled “The Geographical Pivot of History” to the Royal Geographical Society in London. The German geopolitician Karl Haushofer in the 1920s called this paper “the greatest of all geographical world views.” In the 1950s, the American geographer Richard Hartshorne accurately described Mackinder’s paper as “a thesis of world power analysis and prognosis which ... has become the most famous contribution of modern geography to man’s view of his political world.” In 1962, New York University professor Anthony J. Pearce wrote that in “America and England ... most studies of global strategy or political geography have been based, in whole or in part, upon [Mackinder’s] theories.”

Mackinder became a member of the Royal Geographical Society in 1886. The Society’s membership, according to Brian Blouet, “consisted of men with a general interest in the world,” and included businessmen, army and navy officers, academics, diplomats, and colonial administrators. Mackinder had been writing about the causal relations between geography and history since at least 1890, when in “The Physical Basis of Political Geography” he sought to apply “geography to the lighting up of history.” “The greatest events in world history,” he wrote, “are related to the greatest features of geography.”

As a teacher at Oxford in the 1890s, Mackinder delivered lectures on “The Relations of Geography to History in Europe and Asia” and “The History and Geography of International Politics.” In 1892, he traveled to the United States where he taught at the University of Pennsylvania and delivered lectures at Swarthmore College and the Drexel Institute. The Philadelphia Public Ledger reported that Mackinder told his students that the purpose of geographical inquiry was to “study space relations on the earth’s surface, together with their cause and effect.”

Mackinder later identified the immediate world events that spawned “The Geographical Pivot of History” as the Boer War in South Africa and the Russo-Japanese War, especially the fighting in Manchuria. He noted that the contrast between Britain’s war against the Boers 6,000 miles by sea from London and Russia’s war against Japan roughly the same distance from St. Petersburg by land brought to his mind the contrast between Vasco de Gama’s rounding the Cape of Good Hope and Yermak’s trek to Siberia in the 16th century. “That comparison,” he continued, “ ... led to a review of the long succession of raids made by the nomadic tribes of Central Asia, through classical antiquity and the Middle Ages, upon the settled populations of the crescent of subcontinents: peninsular Europe, the Middle East, the Indies and China proper.”

Mackinder began the pivot paper by noting that during the preceding four hundred years, “the outline of the map of the world has been completed with approximate accuracy.” This signaled the end of the “Columbian epoch”; there were no more “new worlds” to discover and conquer. This meant also that the entire world was now a “closed political system.” “Every explosion of social forces, instead of being dissipated in a surrounding circuit of unknown space and barbaric chaos,” he explained, “will be sharply re-echoed from the far side of the globe, and weak elements in the political and economic organism of the world will be shattered in consequence.”

It would now be possible, he continued, to attempt to show a “correlation between the larger geographical and the larger historical generalizations,” and to highlight “certain aspects ... of geographical causation in universal history” as well as “setting into perspective some of the competing forces in current international politics.”

Mackinder asked his audience to consider European history as “subordinate to Asia and Asiatic history.” Modern Europe, he wrote, developed and evolved in response to a series of Asiatic invasions—by Huns, Avars, Magyars, Bulgars, Cumans, Khazars, Patzinaks, and Mongols. He memorably wrote,

For a thousand years, a series of horse-riding peoples emerged from Asia through the broad interval between the Ural mountains and the Caspian Sea, rode through the open spaces of southern Russia, and struck home into Hungary in the very heart of the European peninsula, shaping by the necessity of opposing them the history of each of the great peoples around—the Russians, the Germans, the French, the Italians, and the Byzantine Greeks.

Those Asiatic invaders emerged from the inner core of the Eurasian landmass that Mackinder called the “pivot region” and “heart-land.” He described this region as mostly a vast lowland plain, bounded by forests and ice in the north, mountains and desert in the south, impenetrable to sea power but suitable for mobile land power. Peninsular Europe, India, Southeast Asia and China, with most of the world’s population, formed what Mackinder termed “an inner or marginal crescent.” Meanwhile, Britain, North America, South Africa, Australia, and Japan formed “a ring of outer and insular bases for sea power and commerce.”

Mackinder showed the power potential of the pivot region by highlighting the Mongol invasions of the 15th century, when “the settled margins of the Old World ... felt the expansive force of mobile power originating in the [Eurasian] steppe. Russia, Persia, India, and China were either made tributary, or received Mongol dynasties.” During the Columbian epoch (1500-1900), however, sea powers took advantage of “the geographical condition of ultimate unity in the command of the sea” to reverse the relations of Europe and Asia. European sea powers which repeatedly had been threatened from land powers based in the Eurasian pivot, he explained, used their command of the sea and commerce to wrap their influence around the pivot region.

Scientific and technological developments in the late 19th century and early 20th century, however, were working to once again transform the relations of Europe and Asia, and the sea power-land power strategic dichotomy. The development of railways and motor vehicles, according to Mackinder, was shifting the strategic advantage to Asian-based land powers:

Russia replaces the Mongol Empire. Her pressure on Finland, on Scandinavia, on Poland, on Turkey, on Persia, on India, and on China replaces the centrifugal raids of the steppe-men. In the world at large she occupies the central strategical position held by Germany in Europe. She can strike on all sides and be struck from all sides, save the north.

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