the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2011 December 5


An analysis of Halford Mackinder’s ‘The geographical pivot of history’


“Who controls Eastern Europe controls the Heartland; who controls the Heartland controls the World Island; who controls the World Island controls the world.” This is Halford Mackinder’s own later, poetic summary of the geopolitical theory for which he is best remembered. The original statement of the theory comes in his 1904 presentation ‘The geographical pivot of history’. In this, he proposes a “pivot area”, sometimes called “heart-land”, that matches the Heartland of his later formulations. While often recapitulated by others in simplistic and vague terms — it is just that famous — the Heartland is in fact a carefully-considered and well-defined region with real properties that he analyzes deftly. The Heartland is, in other words, a more interesting concept than is often recognized. But it serves to describe a past long before Mackinder; even by his time, its value was quickly receding, and it tells us very little about the world of the present.

The Heartland is that area of the Old World (Mackinder’s “World Island”) in which rivers drain to internal basins, or to the frozen Arctic. As the world globalized around sea travel, following the exploration of the Portuguese, water and waterways defined a place’s relationship with the broader world. In reality, there had always been ample reason for humans to congregate near water, for consumption, agriculture, and fishing. Local navigation, as Mackinder notes, was millennia old. But tapping into the globalizing world required communication and travel that connected with the open seas — with the single, interconnected mass of navigable water covering the majority of the planet’s surface. The Arctic was not a part of this. And a place neither on the open sea, nor connected to it by navigable rivers, was missing a primary and easy means of access to the rest of the world.

Crucial to Mackinder’s model are two Old World features. The first is a continuous desert known variously as the Sahara and the Arabian. This has proven to certain cultures, notably the Arabs, a medium of movement. The adaptation of the Arabs to the desert has given them the advantage in this area, and they, through their numerous states, now control not only these desert areas, but also the resources adjacent, such as the fertile Nile Valley and Mesopotamia, and of course the great oil fields underneath the deserts. But historically, Mackinder is right; the desert is for the most part — for most cultures — an effective barrier, while the Mediterranean has in fact linked its shores and their cultures together. The southern shores of the Mediterranean are properly grouped with the northern, and therefore with the Eurasian cultural network. (But even without the Arabs, and their desert and eventually sea prowess, the Nile would still have linked the Mediterranean with Sub-Saharan Africa, so the desert is not a complete barrier. We can only remark on its approximate effectiveness.)

The second crucial feature is the steppe, the Central Asian grass belt extending from East Asia to Europe. This was, historically, a medium in which horseborne Asian nomads with a warrior culture could travel freely and effectively, spreading their power across the Old World. The Mongols were only the most successful such group; other cultures, such as the Cossacks and the Scythians, used the steppe to similar effect.

Mackinder notes the historical presence of four blocs of population and culture on the fringes of the Heartland, each tied to a major religion — Christianity (Europe), Islam (the Near East), Hinduism (India), and Buddhism (East and Southeast Asia).1 These are all connected to the outside world. But each is also vulnerable to the horsemen of the steppe, and each had its interactions with them — disappointing interactions, we might understatedly say. In point of fact, the horsemen conquered significant parts of each at one time or another.

The sea remains an important world feature even today; in some ways, its value has increased, as shipping has been made more efficient.2 Sea ports remain central to the world economy, and even river traffic remains, as a cheap means of moving grain, for instance, from farm to port. But the steppe has largely become irrelevant. It played a role in world history for only so long as lightly-armed cavalry could subjugate the fringe peoples of the Old World. That ceased to be the case long before Mackinder. Even the Cossacks were soon to see their last hurrah, and that came only because, in a northern Eurasia united by the Russian empire, there was little internal competition of the mechanized sort. Whatever successes cavalrymen might have in the short term against, say, German tanks, they could be no match for armor in a sustained war.

To his credit, Mackinder was defying the conventional wisdom for a British scholar in the days of empire, arguing for the value of land power when his compatriots were heady with sea power. And the resources of the Russian empire of his day, and its descendants (“the former Soviet Union”, as it is still commonly called) of our day, are impressive, he was right to believe, even as technology has changed and we are more likely to envy their oil and gas reserves. To the extent that the Heartland is more defensible, that those resources can be sewn up by a power because of the Heartland’s isolation, then Mackinder must be credited as well with anticipating the eventual strength of Russia and its Soviet variant. His suggestion of rail as increasing land power is surely true. This may have made it possible for Russia to continue to dominate what Mackinder defined as the Heartland. But it also weakened the definition of the Heartland. No longer were navigable rivers with an outlet to the open sea a crucial factor in projecting power inland. China or Britain could have seized the eastern endpoint of the Trans-Siberian railway and run their forces all the way back to Europe, if rail were so effective. And if not, then Russia could not project power eastward either.

And though Mackinder could not have predicted this, as the Arctic ice melts due to global warming and the Arctic waters become navigable, the definition of the Heartland used by Mackinder is no longer valid. Only the very interior of the Old World is now cut off from the open seas. (In fact, some interior-drainage rivers have now been essentially eliminated through irrigation diversion, and the Aral Sea is rapidly going extinct, but that doesn’t affect the interior’s isolation.)

In the end, it seems reasonable to acknowledge the Heartland as a real feature of world history: an area of tremendous resources, cut off from the open seas, whose southern extreme melded with the steppe, which was itself a key feature of Eurasian geography as history progressed. The last power to use the steppe to conquer land in Eurasia, namely Russia, seized the Heartland, and as technology changed and the state-system solidified, Russia benefitted from locking down the Heartland’s resources (which, though, have nothing to do with drainage patterns, and entirely to do with its being a huge piece of land; the US, after all, is also resource-rich). To project the Heartland’s value forward, as Mackinder attempted to do, looks prescient: Russia did become, for a time, a superpower. But it did not control the world, or even the World Island, and seems ever less likely to do so now. And if any future power is ever to make a play for any landmass and its resources, it will not do so by sailing a great fleet of conquest up a river.


1. This is not the best interpretation of religious groupings, but not far from the mark, either. As Samuel Huntington discovered, there is sense in identifying “civilizations” by religion, given the facility with which religion carries other cultural features, such as vocabulary and script.

2. Note the discussion of containerization by Paul Knox, John Agnew, and Linda McCarthy.


Samuel P. Huntington. ‘The clash of civilizations?’, p22-49 in Foreign Affairs, v72 n3 (1993 May-June).
Paul Knox, John Agnew, and Linda McCarthy. ‘The geography of the world economy’, fifth edition. Hodder, 2008.
Halford J. Mackinder. ‘The geographical pivot of history’, p421-37 in the Geographical Journal, v23 n4 (1904 April).


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