Mackinder and Sea Power
In 1901, Great Britain still ruled the seas, though she would soon be challenged by Kaiser Wilhelm II’s Germany. There had been no European general war since 1815, when allied powers combined to defeat Napoleon Bonaparte’s brief revival at Waterloo — and even then, as Wellington said, victory was a close-run thing. In 1830 and 1848, revolution had reared its ugly head, and smaller wars had been fought in the 1850s in the Crimea, and during the 1860s and early 1870s to bring about Italian and German unification, but the Concert of Europe, supplemented by the Congress of Berlin and Bismarck’s skillful diplomacy, had maintained general peace.
As the 19th century turned into the 20th, the map of the world was European, reflecting the decades-long scramble for empire. Britain’s empire was held together by her sea power. British garrisons were positioned at strategic locations throughout maritime Eurasia and Africa — at Gibraltar, Malta, Suez, Aden, the South African Cape, Colombo, Singapore, Hong Kong, and elsewhere. “[T]he object of the vast British annexations,” explained the great British geographer Halford Mackinder in Britain and the British Seas (written in 1901 and published the next year), “has been to support trade open to all the world.”
Mackinder is often inaccurately described as a geopolitical exponent of land power vis-à-vis sea power. In truth, he viewed sea power and land power as complementary. His grand conception of global geopolitics had both sea and land elements. But as a British strategist and statesman (he served in Parliament from 1910-22), Mackinder valued sea power as the key to Britain’s global leadership.
Mackinder explains value of sea power
The most important chapters of Britain and the British Seas are “The Position of Britain,” “Strategic Geography,” “Imperial Britain,” and the book’s concluding chapter. Here, Mackinder foreshadowed his later and more well-known geopolitical works: The Geographical Pivot of History (1904), Democratic Ideals and Reality (1919), and The Round World and the Winning of the Peace (1943).
“[T]he most important facts of contemporary political geography,” Mackinder wrote, “are the extent of the red patches of British dominion upon the map of the world, and the position of the hostile . . . frontiers.” The map serves as “the cartographical expression of the eternal struggle for existence as it stands at the opening of the 20th century.” Mackinder explained that Britain’s “career of annexation” built upon its own momentum for reasons of strategy:
Britain undertook the conquest of India in the course of trade-competition with France; she extended her Indian domain to prevent interference with her rule from without; she became
mistress of Egypt and of the Cape because they command the roads to the Indies; she conquered the Sudan for the purpose of ensuring the water supply of Egypt; she has annexed
Rhodesia and the Transvaal in order to protect her position at the Cape.
Owning the oceans key to defending Britain
“The command of the sea,” Mackinder wrote, is “necessary for the effective defence of Britain.” Britain’s squadrons in the Mediterranean Sea, the Indian Ocean, the China Seas, the South Seas, the Pacific Ocean, the West Indies, and the Falkland Islands, he noted, maintained the “imperial road” and defended the empire.
Geographically, Mackinder wrote, Britain “is an island group, set in the ocean, but off the shores of the great continent.” The oceans, he noted, cover three-quarters of the globe. He sensed that a “new balance of power” was emerging between “five great world-states, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and America.” The great question that would determine future events, he explained, was whether Britain could successfully withstand the challenge to her naval supremacy. And that challenge, he wrote, would emanate from large continental powers that could overtake Britain as “mistress of the seas.”
In the 20th century, first Germany (twice) then Soviet Russia challenged Anglo-American sea power. Today, 120 years after Mackinder wrote Britain and the British Seas, the United States as the geopolitical successor to Great Britain, is on the receiving end of a similar challenge —this time from China, a continental giant that is challenging American sea power. Just as in 1901, the question that will determine the future course of world history is whether the United States will successfully withstand the challenge to her naval supremacy. What Mackinder wrote 120 years ago remains true today: “The unity of the ocean is the simple physical fact underlying the dominant value of sea-power in the modern globe-wide world.”