Revisiting Mackinder’s ‘Round World’
Seventy-six years ago, the editors of Foreign Affairs invited Sir Halford Mackinder (1861-1947), the British geographer, educator, geopolitical theorist, and statesman, to revisit his “Heartland” theory of world politics. Mackinder, then age 82, acceded to the request and wrote “The Round World and the Winning of the Peace,” which was published in the July 1943 issue of the journal. It was Mackinder’s “last word” on his influential global worldview and, unfortunately, it is his least remembered article on geopolitics.
It is an article worth revisiting today because Mackinder and his geopolitical concepts are being cited by many observers as relevant to our 21st century world, particularly China’s rise to world power. Mackinder’s ideas are indeed relevant to 21st century geopolitics, but those ideas evolved over his lifetime and were rooted in a lifelong study of the relationship between geography and history. More attention should be paid to both the intellectual roots of his geopolitical worldview and his “last word” on the subject.
Born on Feb. 15, 1861, in Gainsborough, England, Mackinder was a practicing geographer and an educator who played an important role in establishing geography as an independent field of study in England. He made the first successful ascent of Africa’s second-highest peak, Mt. Kenya, in 1899. He was also a member of the prestigious Royal Geographical Society and contributed to the Society’s Geographical Journal. Between 1910-22, he sat as a Conservative Member of Parliament. During Russia’s Civil War, Mackinder served as Britain’s High Commissioner for South Russia and in that capacity recommended that Britain strangle Bolshevism in its cradle before it became a threat to the world’s democracies. He chaired the Imperial Shipping Committee and Imperial Economic Committee, and joined the Privy Council in 1926.
Mackinder’s study of the relationship between geography and history produced a series of articles and books that formed the intellectual foundation for his global geopolitical worldview. In 1887 in The Scope and Methods of Geography, he explained that political geography must be “built upon” physical geography, and that geography’s main function should be to explore the “causal relations” between geography and history.
Three years later, Mackinder wrote The Physical Basis of Political Geography, where he attempted to show that “the greatest events in the world’s history are related to the greatest features of geography.”
Beginning in 1902, Mackinder wrote a series of books that surveyed the world in geo-historical terms: Britain and the British Seas (1902), Our Own Islands: An Elementary Study in Geography (1907), The Rhine: Its Valley and History (1908), Eight Lectures on India (1910), Lands Beyond the Channel (1910), The Nations of the Modern World (1911), and Distant Lands (1912). Those works were the building blocks of his geopolitical synthesis, but they are little remembered today.
Mackinder is remembered most for two geopolitical works: The Geographical Pivot of History (1904) and Democratic Ideals and Reality (1919). Together, those works explained his “Heartland” theory of world politics as initially conceived. Mackinder identified the northern-central core of Eurasia as the “pivot state” or “Heartland” of the globe. This region, he wrote, was essentially landlocked and therefore impenetrable to sea power. The region also featured a lengthy lowland plain that would enable a sufficiently armed land power to expand to the west, east, and south.
Mackinder wrote that the “pivot state” or “Heartland” for the first time in history hosted a numerically sufficient and well-organized population. Moreover, the industrial revolution had enhanced the mobility of land power and contributed to the cohesiveness of large continental states. As he wrote in Britain and the British Seas, “The European phase of history is passing away, as have passed the Fluviatile and Mediterranean phases.” The great threat to the global balance of power was that a Heartland-based continental power could conquer and then organize the resources of the Eurasian landmass to build invincible sea power and overwhelm the remaining insular powers (i.e, Britain and the United States).
In the 1904 article, Mackinder viewed Russia as a potential global hegemon, but he also suggested that a more organized and technologically- advanced China could pose a similar threat because China “would add an oceanic frontage to the resources of” Eurasia. In 1919 in Democratic Ideals and Reality, in the wake of the First World War, Mackinder warned that Germany, with its defeat of Russia, had almost conquered the Heartland, and he predicted that unless a balance of power was restored on the Eurasian continent the struggle for the Heartland would be renewed. He slightly revised the boundaries of the “pivot state” and renamed it the “Heartland.” He described the continents of Eurasia and Africa as a single geopolitical unit and called it the “World-Island,” which combined incomparable resources and potential insularity. He famously recommended that an “airy cherub” should whisper to Western statesmen at the Versailles peace conference: “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; Who rules the World-Island commands the World.”
During the inter-war period, German geopolitical theorists led by Karl Haushofer seized on Mackinder’s writings and constructed a blueprint for German expansion. The German geopoliticians divided the world into Pan Regions and their advocacy of German expansion melded well with Nazi notions of lebensraum after Hitler came to power. Hitler’ invasion of Soviet Russia renewed the struggle for the Heartland, and that struggle decided the outcome of the Second World War.
In the United States, Mackinder’s ideas surfaced in a popular sense when the events of the Second World War appeared to confirm their prescience. Democratic Ideals and Reality was reprinted in 1942. That same year, Henry Luce’s Life magazine ran a feature story on Mackinder’s geopolitical ideas and their impact on the war. By 1943, it appeared that the tide of the war had shifted against Germany. The editors of Foreign Affairs looked to the postwar settlement and invited Mackinder to update or revise his Heartland theory.
Mackinder began The Round World and the Winning of the Peace by explaining the origins of his Heartland concept. Surprisingly, he identified Britain’s War in South Africa and the Russo-Japanese War as the events that inspired his idea of the Heartland. Britain and Russia, respectively, used sea power and land power to wage war over comparable distances. Those two events reminded him, he wrote, of “Vasco da Gama’s rounding the Cape of Good Hope on his voyage to the Indies . . . and the ride of Yermak, the Cossack, . . . over the Ural range into Siberia.”
Then, Mackinder reviewed the series of raids conducted by “nomadic tribes of Central Asia, through classical antiquity and the Middle Ages, upon the settled populations of the crescent subcontinents: peninsular Europe, the Middle East, the Indies, and China proper.” Geography enabled a Central Asian power to expand over the coastlands of Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Those coastlands had access to the sea, or what he called in Democratic Ideals and Reality, the “World Ocean.” A Central Asian-based power could, therefore, become the world’s dominant land and sea power.
With that background, Mackinder in The Round World and the Winning of the Peace, looked to the postwar settlement. He judged his Heartland concept to be “more valid and useful today than it was either twenty or forty years ago.” He again revised the geographical boundaries of the Heartland and wrote that for practical purposes it was equivalent to the territory of the Soviet Union, excepting the land east of the Lena River.
The Soviet Union, he wrote, will emerge from the war as the greatest land power on the globe. “The Heartland is the greatest natural fortress on earth,” he continued. “For the first time in history it is manned by a garrison sufficient both in number and quality.”
Mackinder added a new geopolitical feature to his global worldview: the “Midland Ocean,” which consisted of “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.” This was a remarkable foreshadowing of the North Atlantic alliance six years before it’s founding. “What a pity,” Mackinder lamented, “the alliance negotiated after Versailles, between the United States, the United Kingdom and France was not implemented. What trouble and sadness that act might have saved!”
He completed his global sketch of the world by identifying and briefly describing three other geographical regions: a “girdle of deserts and wildernesses” within which lie the Heartland and the Midland Ocean; the “tropical rain forests” of South America and Africa on either side of the South Atlantic Ocean; and “the Monsoon lands of India and China” that will grow to prosperity and balance the Heartland and Midland Ocean. The result, he hoped, was a “balanced globe of human beings. And happy, because balanced and free.”
Too many of today’s observers apply Mackinder’s concepts to our 21st century world without considering his “last word” on the subject in this seminal article. Mackinder foresaw the rise of China and India but viewed their rise as contributing to, instead of upsetting, the global balance of power. What he envisioned in The Round World and the Winning of the Peace was a tri-polar world where the Heartland, the nations of the North Atlantic basin, and the Monsoon lands of East and South Asia would balance each other.
Mackinder’s ideas and concepts are back in vogue, and that is a good thing. But it is important to recognize that Mackinder’s strategic outlook changed, or at least evolved, in response to major world events. He was a geopolitical empiricist not a geographical determinist. Those who invoke Mackinder’s ideas as originally conceived in 1904 and revised in 1919, while neglecting his 1943 Round World article, not only do him an injustice but also risk misapplying those ideas in ways that Mackinder never intended.
China’s aggressive military moves in the East China and South China Seas and the Indian Ocean, its diplomatic and economic expansion via the Belt and Road Initiative, its strategic cooperation with Russia, and its growing influence in Africa are causes for concern. China is expanding its influence and global footprint across Mackinder’s World-Island. If Mackinder were alive today, his advice to Western statesmen would likely be to pursue policies that buttress the tri-polar world he envisioned in 1943.
Indeed, the logic of Mackinder’s Round World article leads to a renewed appreciation for the Nixon-Kissinger approach to geopolitics, which sought for the United States to have better relations with Russia and China than they had with each other. The goal then, as now, is to promote the geopolitical pluralism of Eurasia so that, in Mackinder’s words, we have a “balanced globe of human beings.” Mackinder never wavered from his goal of measuring “the relative significance of the great features of our globe as tested by the events of history” so that the Western democracies could “best adjust our ideals of freedom to [the] lasting realities of our earthly home.”