mercoledì 4 novembre 2015

The problem of Justification and Legitimation in non-pluralistic societies

The political theoretical literature often focuses its attention on the dialectics between two core ideas of political thought, the idea of justification and legitimation. At least in principle, the two ideas should be seen as complementary since they should represent two faces of a same coin. However, this is true if we consider the pluralism typical of liberal-democratic societies, in which there can exist different potential justifications in reciprocal conflict but still laying within a common institutional and moral framework that upholds legitimation, especially regarding human rights, civil liberties, intellectual freedom, political diversity, etc. Nevertheless, what would be the case of a non-democratic regime? Would justification and legitimation still be complementary and convergent, at least in moral means, in an authoritarian country? In other words, may legitimation tolerate, or even support, justification in a country where human rights and liberties are challenged or perhaps banned? Additionally, an even more worrisome question could be whether legitimation could be extorted by the political ruling elite that legitimizes its power through a specific justification – an ideology, for instance – through the means of mental manipulation and the thorough use of propaganda for the purposes of fostering consent. The issue is delicate and troublesome, as we can imagine, but to start dealing with it is best to stress the meaning of the words legitimation and justification, as conceived in political theory.
Legitimation represents the way to provide political and institutional legitimacy, which implies an historical and cultural process through which institutions become legitimate in the eyes of a given social group because it connects to them a system of norms, values, customs and behaviours that accepts as valid. Throughout history, the idea of legitimation gave birth to different kind of societies: democratic societies legitimized by the people’s will, revolutionary societies legitimized by an ideology, transcendental societies legitimized by divine right, traditional societies legitimized by hereditary succession, and so on. Today, the liberal-democratic model typical of Western civilization seems to have created at least the spectre of a common worldwide majoritarian form of legitimation that focuses on the respect of basic human rights, tolerance, freedom of thought and rule of law. As we can see, legitimation implies a bottom-up approach, which starts from the subjects to reach the ruling institutions.
On the contrary, justification represents a top-down and subjective substantive, which denies pluralism and other means other than a single one to interpret the world and to discern the truth. Justification is a typical philosophical approach claiming that there is only one correct interpretation of reality and all others are wrong. As we can detect, justification alone is insufficient to create a complete normative conceptual standard, because it also needs legitimation in order to gain social consensus. For instance, some concepts like the forbiddance of murdering or stealing are generally supported by social consensus because they are both justified by political institutions through common sense and legitimized by public opinion. Thus, it is only through the combination of justification and legitimation that a society can develop pluralism. The very idea of pluralism itself is  based upon the idea that there is not a single truth, but many potential truths that may be likewise correct.   
Now, let us imagine living in a country where the political elite and ruling class or party upholds a strong justification that considers as the basis for its legitimacy, but that contrasts in a manifest way some basic standards of justice and equality, and that nonetheless enjoys the legitimation of the majority of its population. In this country, the masses have been politically and culturally indoctrinated by means of propaganda or mental manipulation and thus consider perfectly valid and fair, from a positivistic point of view – albeit not from a naturalistic one – the justification of its political elite. So being things, how can legitimation transform itself into a tool that counterbalances, refines or accomplishes justification if it becomes an instrument subjected to justification? In other terms, is legitimation a still effective parameter to identify pluralism if it has been subordinated and shaped for the purposes of upholding and making cohesive the political justification that leads a society?
Historically speaking, many examples can be quoted. First of all, let us think of the Nazi regime in Germany, a regime supported by a deeply articulated ideology founded on racism and intolerance – the final political output of a European tradition rooted at least already in the 18th century – that profited of a strong popular legitimation due to the spirit of revanchism subsequent to the German defeat in World War One on one hand and to the sophisticated propaganda machine built by the Nazi political elite on the other. Although from a naturalistic point of view, human beings consider as negative and undesirable the idea of discriminating or murdering other human beings, in the Nazi state and satellites the people legitimated the elite’s justification of getting rid, for instance, of the Jews, because the positivistic ideology on which the Nazi legitimacy based was made fair by propaganda and rhetoric. Similarly, the Stalinist conceptual justification based on a violent application of the Leninist-Marxist ideology, which for instance considered as enemies of the people the relatively affluent farmers – the kulaks –, enjoyed the legitimation of the people, which had been extorted by the regime through means of terror and methodical distorted propaganda. Moreover, let us recall the horrible operations of ethnic cleansing in the Balkan region, which repeatedly occurred at least twice during the 20th century: Serbian chetniks, Croatian ustashas and Bosnian Islamic fundamentalists, just to quote the majoritarian groups of former Yugoslavia, engaged in an unbelievable campaign of mass murdering in the name of religion and territorial hegemony despite belonging to the same ethnic group and speaking a common language. Same considerations can be drawn when considering the Rwandan genocide of 1994, the Turkish genocide of the Armenians during World War One, and, nowadays, the horrible violence perpetrated by the jihadists of the Islamic state against ethnic minorities and other religious groups.
All of the above-mentioned cases – but many more could be quoted – show us treacherously that a political-theoretical justification, even when patently violating the main principles of human rights and pluralism, can somewhat enjoy a legitimation by the people, or at least by an influent group of it, that can transform a totalitarian or one-sided ideology into a valid model advocating a polity. In conclusion, this is why we believe that justification alone cannot be sufficient as a conceptual standard to legitimize a state or regime because it bears a one-way oriented view of the truth and of reality. At the same time, we also reckon that legitimation alone too cannot suffice, because there is a risk that it may be manipulated or extorted by an apparently reasonable ideological justification that hides intolerance or violence. Hence, in order to obtain a naturalistically fair, equal and just polity, we think that justification and legitimation should surely combine, but that this combination should be based upon the principles of pluralism, tolerance, civil liberties and rule of law. If that is not, then the risk is to create political entities careless of naturalistic principles that upkeep only their positivistic, unilateral, view of things, leading directly to tyranny and ferocity.  


mercoledì 30 settembre 2015

The need for geographical studies and the aid of geography to other sciences according to Mackinder

Back in the year 1887, Sir Halford J. Mackinder published, for the benefit of the Royal Geographical Society, a motivating article entitled On the Scope and Methods of Geography. The issue that Mackinder wished to raise was of fundamental importance for the future and purposes of the very knowledge and teaching of the science of geography. He purely asked himself and his audience what is, in fact, geography and whether it could have been rendered a proper discipline rather than just being a mere body of information. To answer these questions the best thing was primarily to understand which were, and still are, the true scopes and methods of the geographic science. With his article, Mackinder tries to demonstrate that not only geography is a proper discipline, but also it is necessary for the natural evolution and speculation of many others.
Mackinder begins his dissertation describing the role that geographical societies had, especially during the nineteenth century, in actively promoting the exploration of the world. Thanks to the helpful support of these societies, explorers, merchants and travellers had been able to discover, for the profit of all humankind, an increasing number of new lands and countries. The result had been that the world was already almost wholly unveiled, thus becoming a closed geographical – and political – system. When the article appeared, the only lands that needed to be more thoroughly explored were yet the Polar regions, as well as some areas in New Guinea, Central Africa, Central Asia, and in the Tibetan peaks. Being so things, this continuous work of the geographic societies and of the pioneers of world explorations would alone suffice for admitting the value of geographic research and discipline.    
The Royal Geographical Society of London
The second issue that Mackinder rises refers to the nature of geographical studies. He questions whether geography should be considered as one single subject or rather as the addition of several. In other words, should political geography and physical geography be considered as separate or combined? Moreover, should they be considered as self-existing and self-sufficient or merely some appendices of history and geology respectively? Mackinder answers arguing, as other geographers had already stated, that men are the creatures of their environment, and thus people and territory combine into one single, self-sustainable, subject known broadly as geography. This does not mean that within the geographic studies several branches exist, that partition the subject in smaller disciplines: this fact, however, does not interfere with the general acknowledgment of geography as one coherent philosophical and epistemological system. Each sector of the entire geographical scheme deals with a specific matter. For instance, the function of physical geography is to trace the interaction between humankind and natural environment. In fact, it is a specific characteristic of geography to suggest the influence of locality, or best to say, the change of anthropological variations in contact with environmental diversities. If physical geography fails in doing so, then it turns into mere physiography: a sub-subject of geography itself.    
The definition that Mackinder gives to geography is the following: the science whose main function is to depict the interaction of man in society and so much of his environment as varies locally. This explanation allows us to comprehend the general definition that may be given, instead, to geopolitics, that of “expression of political power over landscape”. As we can see, the elements that interact here are two:

1) The varying natural environment.
2) The communities of men that struggle for existence more or less favoured by their several environments.

As for political geography, it cannot exist if it is not built upon and subsequent to physical geography. The function of political geography is to detect and demonstrate how much does the natural environment interfere in forging the destinies of an entire nation or race of human beings, and how relevant it is to understand the strengths and weaknesses of a country. What counts above all else is to stop considering physical geography as a younger sister, if not a maiden, of geology, and political geography of history. Mackinder perceives clearly the huge gap that still lay between the natural and social sciences and suggested that the geographer, being the master of a half-humanistic and half-scientific subject, could build the bridge over such abyss, linking together the two branches of knowledge. As we have seen, geography itself too divides in several sub-categories, though it ought to be studied and considered as a whole. The distinction, in Mackinder’s overview, between geology and geography is that the geologist looks at the present in order to interpret the past, and the geographer looks at the past that he may interpret the present. Physiography asks for a given feature, “Why is it?”; topography, “Where is it?”; physical geography, “Why is it there?”: political geography, “How does it act on man in society, and how does it react on it?”.                           
Howsoever, natural environment is influenced, according to Mackinder, by three elements:

1) The configuration of the earth’s surface.
2) Meteorology and climate.
3) The outputs that countries offer to human industry.

To understand fully how environment affects the history of civilization and political destiny of a race of men, Mackinder offers the example of the influence of England’s south-eastern physical geography in moulding the English historical character. With accurate descriptions, following the historical periods of the Celtic, Roman and Anglo-Saxon rule over Britain, the English geographer exposes exhaustively how geography influences greatly human settlements and history. The results of these geographical studies are that “from a consideration of the folding of the chalk and of his hardness as compared with the strata above and below it, may be demonstrated the causes of the two great promontories, the two great inlets, and the three great upland openings which have determined the positions, the number and the importance of the chief cities [including London] and divisions of South-eastern England”. Indeed, the same methodological approach could be applied for describing any other geographical region and historical evolution.
Geography, Mackinder continues, must benefit of a separate sphere of work from other subjects, although some may closely be linked to it. In fact, all other subjects involved in a geographical reasoning should be analysed in order to understand whether they truly are pertinent to the main line of geographical argument. It is true, however, that the bounds of all sciences must naturally be compromises, especially when considering geography, which includes features belonging to the subjects of geology, palaeontology, zoology, botany, meteorology, anthropology, history, demography and sociology. As Mackinder said, “knowledge is one, but its division into subjects is a concession to human weakness”!
As for the relations of geography with history, the geographer must turn to history for verifying the relations that he suggests. The historian finds full occupation in the critical and comparative study of original documents, having no time – or will – left to scan science for himself with an holistic view to selecting facts and ideas which he requires: and this is, in fact, the geographer’s own duty.  
As above mentioned, environment and community are the two main topics to consider, and to blend, when studying geography. What definitions can we give of them?

- “Environment”: the term means a natural, exclusive and locked, region. The smaller the area included the greater tends to the number of conditions uniform or nearly uniform throughout the area. Thus, we have environments of different orders, whose extension and intension vary inversely.   

- “Community”: the term means a group of men bearing certain characteristics in common. The smaller the community the greater tends to be the number of common characteristics. Community are of different orders and species: races, nations, provinces, towns.

Geography should then question what the effects would be of exposing, for instance, two communities to one environment (think of two different ethnic groups dwelling within the same land) or one community to two environments (think of the English race into the three different environments of Britain, America and Australia). Indeed, everywhere, at all latitudes and in all ages, all political questions will depend as the result of physical-geographical inquiry. It has been shown and demonstrated that certain conditions of climate and soil are needed for the aggregation of dense populations. A certain density of population seems necessary to the development of civilization. Wide plains, for instance, seem especially favourable to the development of homogeneous races, whereas a heterogeneous landscape tends to encourage a variegated racial offspring. The course of history at every given moment, whether in politics and economics or in any other sphere of human activity, is the result of the interaction between natural environment and human society. Furthermore, as to set an example, it has been detected that two environmental conditions favourable to the development of civilisation are somewhat the density of population and the ease of communication, like in the Ganges valley for instance. Of course, a wealthy civilised country is a regional temptation for a conqueror, be it a land or a sea conqueror: this one too is a geographical constant. “Geographical selection”, as interesting as it can be, leads statesmen and peoples to choose the best geographical locations to build harbours, commercial warehouses, cities, metropolises, fortresses, and so forth: it bears exactly the same meaning that “natural selection” enjoys in biology.                
Finally, with this article Mackinder helped the mindful men of his time to render to geography its honourable merit. Its chief value and achievement is its inherent and holistic breadth: “geography satisfies at once the practical requirements of the statesman and merchant, the theoretical requirements of the historian and scientist, and the intellectual requirements of the teacher”. In Mackinder’s final remarks we may read: “Without geography, the student, the scientist and the historian would lose their common platform”. All of this to make understand how important this discipline is.

The Royal Geographical Society Circlet


H. J. Mackinder, On the Scope and Methods of Geography, Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society and Monthly Record of Geography, Vol. 9, No. 3, March 1887.

martedì 29 settembre 2015

The evolution of Mackinder’s thought under the circumstances of World War Two

In July 1943, while the Second World War was still roughly unrolling and its outcome was not clearly certain, Sir Halford J. Mackinder published an article on Foreign Affairs entitled The Round World and the Winning of the Peace. The main purpose of it was to detect whether the strategical concept of “Heartland”, already expressed in the earlier thought of the geopolitical author in the article The Geographical Pivot of History (1904) and in the essay Democratic Ideals and Reality (1919), had lost its significance under the conditions of modern warfare, especially in relation to the rise of airpower.     
Mackinder begins his dissertation by rebuilding the entire idea of Heartland in order to underline its intrinsic and everlasting relevance. He begins recalling his childhood memories on what had meant for the English public opinion the French defeat at Sedan, in 1870, against the Prussian army. Though being a young boy at that time, Mackinder remembers England’s deep concern for what had been a total victory of the new Prussian/German warfare machine against that Power, France, which only some sixty years before had been stopped with difficulties and sacrifices at Trafalgar and Waterloo. Still, in 1870 the importance of that Prussian victory was not yet clear enough: Britain would understand it only when her supremacy over the seas would be at stake. At that time, the only danger Britain saw to her overseas empire was in the Asiatic position of imperial Russia. Indeed, British sea power on one hand and Russian land power on the other held the centre of the international stage.
However, things changed when, at the turn of the twentieth century, the newly born German empire began to build a high seas fleet: this sudden event could truly challenge Britain’s supremacy on the oceans. It also meant that the German nation, already owning the greatest organised land and occupying the central strategical position in Europe, was about to add to herself a sea power strong enough to neutralize the British one. Moreover, in those years the United States of America too were arising as to become one of the world’s Great Powers. In other words, Germany and the United States were quickly coming up alongside of Britain and Russia in the imperial scenery.
At this point, Mackinder considers the events whence the idea of the Heartland came out. These were two: 1) The Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) and 2) the Russo-Japanese war (1904-5). In fact, the contrast presented by the British wars against the Boers fought in South Africa and the war fought by Russia in Manchuria across the land breadth of Asia naturally suggested a parallel contrast between western Europe rounding, thanks to Vasco da Gama, the Cape of Good Hope whilst sailing towards the Indies, and eastern Europe riding with Yermak the Cossack over the Urals into Siberia. This comparison, in turn, led to a review of the long succession raids made by the nomadic Turanian folks of Central Asia through classical antiquity and the Middle Ages, upon the settled inhabitants of the Marginal Crescent of the Eurasian subcontinents: Europe, the Middle East, the Indies and China proper (see the Geographical Pivot of History for an exhaustive summary). Consequently, Mackinder stated, in 1904, as follows:

“Within the present decade [1900-1910] we are for the first time in a position to attempt, with some degree of completeness, a correlation between the larger geographical and the larger historical generalizations. For the first time we can perceive something of the real proportion of features and events on the stage of the whole world, and may seek a formula which shall express certain aspects, at any rate, of geographical causation in universal history. If we are fortunate, that formula should have a practical value setting into perspective some of the competing forces in current international politics”.

Indeed, the word “Heartland” occurs for the first time in Mackinder’s thought in 1904, although at the time the meaning of the term was more descriptive rather than technical. The author preferred to expose his geopolitical theories using other expressions such as those of “Pivot Area” or “Pivot State” to describe what would have become later the Heartland. As somebody may remember, in his Geographical Pivot of History Mackinder had introduced the issue of the strategical relevance of the world’s pivotal area in the following terms:

“The oversetting of balance of power in favour of the pivot State, resulting in its expansion over the marginal lands of Eurasia would permit of the use of vast continental resources for fleet-building, and the empire of the world would then be in sight. This might happen if Germany were to ally herself with Russia. In conclusion, it may be well expressly to point out that the substitution of some new control of the inland area for that of Russia would not tend to reduce the geographical significance of the pivot position. Were the Chinese, for instance, organised by the Japanese, to overthrow the Russian Empire and conquer its territory, they might constitute the yellow peril to the world’s freedom just because they would add an oceanic frontage to the resources of the great Continent [Eurasia]” (Emphasis added).

As we can see, it is all a matter of world hegemony, because that Power who controls the Heartland would be able to rule the rest of the world especially when adjoining sea power radiating from the Marginal Crescent to the inner land power of the Heartland itself.       
Later, in the year 1919, at the end of the First World War, Mackinder reformulates his theories in the well-known essay Democratic Ideals and Reality. At that time, the “pivot” label was no longer adequate to the international situation as it had emerged from the events of that first common global crisis and war. The entire idea of “Pivot Region” hence changed in a more subtle and complicated fashion, not merely describing a geographical reality, into the concepts of “Ideals”, “Realities” and, above all, “Heartland”. Nevertheless, what we need to highlight most is that the 1904 thesis, though changing the main idea of the subject evoked, was still perfectly valid, in Mackinder’s eyes, for the world’s international situation of 1919. Pivot area and Heartland were the terms used to describe an everlasting reality: that of the supreme hegemony of the Power that would have controlled the area at issue.
Whilst describing once again the breadth of the Heartland, Mackinder delimits its borders by saying that it includes the northern part and the interior of Eurasia, and that it extends from the Arctic coast down to the central deserts, with its western limits given by the broad isthmus that separates the Baltic Sea from the Black Sea. The British geographer does not hide the fact that the very concept of this area cannot admit of precise geographical definition on map, but he adds that it includes three clear physical-geographical features:

1) There is in this region by far the widest lowland plain on the globe.
2) Navigable rivers flow across this broad plain, some of which go northwards to the Arctic Sea and are inaccessible from the oceans because of the glaciation of this sea, and others move into inland waters such as the Caspian Sea, with no exit to the ocean.
3) There is a grassland area that until the half of the nineteenth century presented the ideal conditions for the development of high mobility by nomadic camel-men and horsemen.

The Pivotal Region (1904) and the Heartland (1919)

In 1943, when Mackinder presents the article The Round World and the Winning of the Peace, he can now affirm in safety that the territory of the Soviet Union corresponds to that of the Heartland. He believes however that this statement is true save for one direction: the area around the Siberian river Lena, which he calls Lenaland: in his opinion, this vast region is not included in Heartland Russia. Heartland Russia lies instead west of the river Yenisei.
The idea of the Heartland as fully englobed within the Soviet Union raises the strategic concern for the succeeding Warsaw Pact alliance of States, that permitted the USSR, an almost wholly Heartland Power, to assume the characteristics of a sea power, by adjoining portions of the lands laying on the Marginal Crescent, and confirming Mackinder’s statement on the ruler of eastern Europe as ruler of the Heartland and consequently of the World Island.
To fully understand the strategical values of the Russian, or best Soviet, Heartland, Mackinder confronts the area with France. France, he says, has a sufficient space both for defence in depth and for strategical retreat, and except for her north-eastern borders she is safely enclosed by natural frontiers: the seas, the Alps, the Pyrenees. Similarly, Russia repeats the pattern of France but on a greater scale: in its rear lies the vast plain of the Heartland, useful for defence in depth and strategic retreat; away back this plain recedes eastwards into the natural bulwarks of the inaccessible Arctic shores, the Lenaland wilderness behind the Yenisei, and the fringe of mountains from the Altai to the Hindu Kush, backed by Gobi, Tibetan and Iranian deserts. Indeed, these cited natural barriers possess such a breadth and substance that by far exceed in defensive value the coasts and mountains that engirt France. It is true, notes Mackinder, that today icebreakers can be able to transform the Arctic Sea into a navigable seaway, but it is also true that, despite this, it is unlikely to consider as realistically feasible a complete land invasion from there.
Two years before the end of the Second World War, Mackinder foretold that if the USSR would have conquered Germany it would have become the world’s greatest land power, as well as the power in the strategically strongest defensive position by wholly controlling the Heartland, which is the greatest natural fortress on earth; the citadel of land power on the greater mainland of the world, Eurasia. What the author foresaw would become even more realistic after the split of Germany into the two German republics and after the creation of the Warsaw Pact alliance system.
At this point, Mackinder introduces the idea of creating after the war, in case of victory of the Allies,
a new world order based upon a cooperation of western sea powers with the Soviet land power in order to encircle Germany and to compel her to fight continually on two fronts. For the purposes of future peace, the geographer stated that the Germans must realize that every further war fought by Germany would be against two unshakable fronts: land power to the east in the Heartland, and sea power to the west in the Northern Atlantic basin. In terms of western alliance, Mackinder divided the roles of the sea power democracies within the frame of a very sharp strategical concept. He believed that within the westerner fellowship of sea powers the United States and Canada would represent the area useful for strategic retreat or depth defence, Britain a kind of moated forward stronghold - like a Malta on greater scale -, and France the defensible bridgehead on the Continent. We will come back to these concepts later. As the great strategist he was, Mackinder reckoned that “sea power must in the final resort be amphibious if it is to balance land power”, and this statement reveals the very important strategic role that France may have. He also believed that the three (four with Canada) western Powers should cooperate with Russia to avoid a new German awakening in the future.
However, at this time of history Mackinder cannot be unaware of the relevance of airpower as disturbance factor for his land power/ sea power theoretic scheme. Although fully understanding the potential changes in geostrategic issues given by the fast and ubiquitous mobility of airpower, he is still certain that despite aircraft warfare the relevance of the Heartland and of the other elements of his theory stay unchanged.
At this point Mackinder introduces an extremely important geographical description, unheard by him before in his previous writings, about the so-called “Global Geographical Girdle”. This girdle can be considered as a new geographical interpretation of the world map according to Mackinder, and it is, we believe, the lawful evolution of the previous interpretative map based on the World-Island-Marginal Crescent-Heartland concepts (see once again The Geographical Pivot of History). Moreover, the idea of a world’s geographical girdle, or belt, can be fully understood only whit the rise of airpower and of the international system succeeding the Second World War, with a new, fundamental role of the United States of America and the Northern Atlantic Ocean. In Mackinder’s words, a girdle revolves around the northern Polar Regions: it begins as the Saharan Desert, and follows with the Arabian, Iranian, Tibetan and Mongolian deserts, and then extends in the wildernesses of the Lena region (“Lenaland”), Alaska and the Laurentian shield of Canada to the sub-arid belt of the Western United States. This girdle of deserts, wastelands and wildernesses is a feature of the first importance in global geography: within it lie two related features of almost equal meaning:

1) The Heartland, which is set in a girdle of broad natural defences: the ice-clad Polar Sea, the forested and rugged Lenaland, and the Central Asiatic mountainous and arid tableland. The Heartland girdle is nonetheless incomplete because of the open gateway that goes from Peninsular Europe into the inner plain through the broad isthmus that separates the Baltic Sea from the Black Sea.
2) The basin of the Midland Ocean (i.e. the North Atlantic) with its four subsidiaries seas: the Mediterranean, the Baltic, the Arctic and the Caribbean.

Outside the girdle is the Great Ocean, which includes the Pacific, the Indian and the Southern Atlantic, and the lands that drain to it: the Asiatic Monsoon lands, Oceania, South America, and Africa south of the Sahara.

Mackinder's new geographical world division (1943) 

After giving birth to this completely new subdivision of the world’s map, Mackinder ends his article considering two more elements: the new role of Germany in the international system and the geographical concept of the Midland Ocean. As far as Germany is concerned, this nation should be discouraged in the future from waging new wars by the new threat given by the continuous possibility of a clash on two fronts against the amphibious nations of America, Britain and France on one hand and the land power of the USSR on the other. As for the “Midland Ocean”, this expression represents nothing more than the North Atlantic Ocean itself, of fundamental strategic interest after World War Two. The Midland Ocean includes some dependant seas and river basins and should be controlled by the amphibious powers, each of them with a proper strategic role, of which we had already spoken before:

1) France would be the bridgehead of the North Atlantic sea power fellowship in the Continent.
2) Great Britain would be a kind of moated aerodrome forward stronghold.
3) The United States and Canada would represent the territorial reserve of manpower and the supply of agricultural and industrial outputs.         

Within this post-World War Two frame Mackinder believes that China and India should bear the role of counterbalancing the other Powers, and playing a central part in helping to develop the Southern Hemisphere’s populations.   

The Midland Ocean

In short, what Mackinder truly auspicates for the future global peace is the idea of balancing the world powers, in order to make the peoples of the world free. Doubtlessly, we can affirm that Mackinder’s political and social thought directly descends from the historical British notion of “balance of powers”.     


H. J. Mackinder, The Round World and the Winning of Peace, Foreign Affairs, July 1943.                           

giovedì 10 settembre 2015

The Geographical Pivot of History in Mackinder’s earlier thought

In April 1904 Sir Halford John Mackinder, Reader in Geography in the University of Oxford and Director of the London School of Economics and Political Science, one of the fathers of geopolitics and geostrategy, published a valuable and original article in the Geographic Journal of the Royal Geographical Society, introducing the famous theory of the so called “geographical pivot of history”.
This theory, which would later profoundly influence the geographer’s further theory of the “Heartland”, consisted in a brief analysis over the world’s pivotal area and in how the supremacy over this broad landmass could influence the creation of a hegemonic world empire.
Mackinder begins his argumentation with a lengthy historical dissertation on the geographical discoveries that commenced in the XV-XVI centuries to show how they had affected on the political quest for world hegemony. At his time (1904) - Mackinder considers - the entire world has been completely discovered and conquered, and no land was left that could be owned because undiscovered. Even the inner regions of Asia were ending the long path for their discovery that had begun with Yermak the Cossack by land and Vasco da Gama by sea. Africa too had been almost wholly explored and partitioned by European colonialist powers. Indeed, the post-Columbian age managed to transform the world into a closed political system of worldwide scope, thus leading all international actors to confront each other: international relations could finally become organic and systemic. During the time the author writes, at the beginning of the twentieth century, a correlation linked together all larger geographical and historical generalizations. It was already possible to consider the world’s events as a whole in terms of geographic width: history and geography blend already. This is clearly unveiled when considering how strong and competitive the different geopolitical forces were in international politics. Within this perspective, the aim of Mackinder’s study was that of describing the physical features of the world that had been - and still were - most coercive of human action and presenting the chief phases of history as originally linked to them. This, in other words, meant nothing more than exhibiting human history as part of the life of the world organism, and we may certainly underline how intensively Ratzel’s geographical determinism echoes in this statement.                       
After debating the pros and cons of the alleged European superiority in the history of civilization, Mackinder states that the birth of nations is the result of the pressure of a common tribulation. In other words, using examples like the Hun invasion of Europe or the birth of France, the author believes that nations are wrought under a common need to resist against outer forces. At this point, Mackinder introduces one of the most brilliant ideas that his entire paper would explicate based upon a new interpretation of European history: Europe’s entire destiny and development - he says
 - rely on its relationships with Asia. In other terms, Europe and European history are subordinate to Asia and Asiatic history because European civilization is the outcome of the secular struggle against Asiatic invasions. This revolutionary - yet almost obvious - idea is one of the milestones on which Mackinder’s thought rests and is essential to understand all further implications of his theory.
Now, Europe presents a remarkable contrast that splits it up into two distinctive parts: Russia occupies half the continent, joining the European peninsula with the Asiatic landmass, and the Western powers the remaining territorial appendices. This partition shows a physical contrast between the unbroken lowland in the East and the land variety in the West, and some may consider the existence of a possible correlation between natural environment – its flatness or diversity – and political organization – more representative and centrifugal regime on one hand or more despotic and centripetal on the other. As far as Eastern Europe is concerned, a separation line exists that cuts Eastern Europe into two separated areas: the forest and marsh region in the north, from the Baltic region to the Urals, and the steppe region, from Western Ukraine to Western Turkestan. Beyond this line, while we move westwards, lays peninsular Europe, which commences including three distinguishing natural environments next to its eastern borders: the Hungarian great plain - or Puszta - ; the Carpathian Mountains; the German woods. The above-mentioned separation between forest/marsh and steppe regions slowly diminished during the XIX century because of Russian cultivations, but it had been formerly very coercive for humankind to inhabit.
The arrival in the European peninsula of the Turanian people (V-XVI centuries) - an historical phenomenon that started manifesting with the Hunnish invasion and continued with that of the Avars, Bulgars, Magyars, Khazars, Patzinaks, Cumans, Mongols and Kalmyks - gave birth to the secular struggle between nomadic Asians and settled Europeans. Through the vast gateway between the Urals and the Caspian Sea, thousands of these horsemen originally coming from Mongolia and Turkestan flooded into the fertile and rainy European lands, giving shape to the idea of a common European fellowship united against the Asiatic invaders. Indeed, these continuative nomadic invasions and raids influenced the birth of Western European nations, settling them in their current lands, creating a common European identity, and uniting the European kinsmen after centuries of brotherly struggles against each other. To give examples, the birth of France reflects the expulsion of the Huns from the lands of Gaul, and Austria - formerly Ostmark, or eastern frontier - was in fact a marchland founded by Charlemagne against the oriental invasions. Even the birth of Muscovy before and Russia later is a close consequence of the humbling Mongol yoke, in which Mackinder sees the reason of Russia’s lesser development compared to the rest of Europe and of its peculiar political despotism.
In the author’s words:

“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 Byzantines Greeks”.  

Parallel to the mighty threat of the Asiatic horsemen, another rival mobility power emerged through the river ways and sea ways and waged war against Europe: that of the Vikings in the north and of the Saracens in the south. Whilst the nomadic Asians forced the European frontier in the east, the Norsemen and the Saracens began raiding the continent’s coasts and towns from all other directions – west, north, south. The European settled peoples, while laying gripped between these two pressures, tried to answer with a major cohesion and unity amongst them: both pressures turned to be stimulating, in a way or in another, leading some countries to unite, like France or England, and others to divide, like Italy. At this point Mackinder introduces also a brief note of racial anthropology, bringing back the existence of brachycephalic skulls in eastern and central Europe up into France as a direct consequence of the Asiatic invasions, in contrast with the majority of dolichocephalic skulls in the north, west and south. Nonetheless, the full meaning of the Asiatic influence upon Europe is understandable only after the Mongol invasions (XIII-XV century), indeed the most devastating of all.          
After considering the influence and relevance of the Asiatic nomadic invasions in moulding the European history, civilization and identity, Mackinder focuses on some of Eurasia’s main characteristics from a geographic, demographic and geopolitical point of view.
First, the author detects that the concentration of the world’s population can be found along the relatively small margins of the Eurasian continent, which are closely related to rainfalls: Europe, China and India. If we consider the Sahara desert as the natural, impenetrable, southern border of Europe, rather than the Mediterranean Sea, we can observe that Eurasia was severed for many centuries from central and southern Africa; at the same time, the oceans separated it from the Americas and the Australasian archipelago. This meant that Eurasia represented for many time a closed system focused on the interaction of the populations of its crowded but limited outskirts with the relatively underpopulated but huge inner core. Truly, the continuous landmass of Eurasia, excluding the deserted Sahara and Arabian Peninsula, represents half of all the land on the globe. The core of Eurasia, though mottled with desert patches - that from Syria reach Manchuria passing through Persia - is on the whole a steppe-land that supplies a wide-spread pasture, and there are not a few river-fed oases in it, but it is entirely unpenetrated by waterways from the ocean. In fact, this land is a perfectly appropriate area for the maintenance of sparse horse-riding nomads. Steppes spread continuously from the Hungarian Puszta until the Little Gobi of Manchuria and except in their westernmost extremity, they are untraversed by rivers draining to an accessible ocean. Moreover, each of the Eurasian steppes - whether the Magyar, the Ukrainian, the Turkestanian or the Mongol - present different sea-level locations and specific characteristics. Now, from each of these steppes, originating from the easternmost ones, different Mongolic hordes repeatedly stroke the peripheral rich regions of Eurasia, creating often some tributary or vassal states, if not some real dominating dynasties in Europe, the Middle East and China. Eventually, Russia, Persia, India - despite the natural Himalayan barrier - and China were rather made tributary or received Mongol dynasties. The Seljuk Turks, for instance, overthrowing the Saracen dominion of the Middle East from Baghdad and Damascus - and helping the beginning of the crusades and the unification of the Christian nations of Europe - could spread their power over the so-called “Five Seas”: the Caspian, the Black, the Mediterranean, the Red and the Persian.
Still, how can we conceive Eurasia and in which geographical terms can we describe it? Mackinder describes Eurasia as a continuous land, ice-girt in the north, water-girt elsewhere, with an extension of 21 millions square miles (three times North America), whose centre and north have no available waterways to the oceans but, except in the subarctic forest, are favourable to the mobility of horsemen and camelmen. Here, for the first time, the British geographer introduces some key words of his lifetime studies. To east, south and west of the Eurasian HEARTLAND are marginal regions, ranged in a vast CRESCENT accessible to shipmen: these rim regions that represent the Crescent are four, according to their physical conformation. (Each of them, curiously, embrace a different majoritarian religion or creed: Buddhism; Brahmanism; Islamism; Christianity). The macro regions are:

1)  The Indian Subcontinent;

2) Eastern China and Indochina;

3) The European Peninsula;

4) The Nearer East.

The first two are characterized by the monsoons, and may be considered monsoon lands; together with the third region, they host 2/3 of the world population. The fourth area, though thinly populated, includes the abovementioned “Five Seas” region, or the eastern Mediterranean Sea, the southern Black Sea, the southern Caspian Sea, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. Its geostrategic relevance lays on the fact that it partakes of the characteristics both of the marginal belt and of the central core of Eurasia; its weakness/strength descends from its sea-gulfs and oceanic rivers that lay it open to sea power influence and projection.
In considering the evolution of sea power and land power, it is historically detectable that the isthmus of Suez, before being severed, divided sea power into two parts: western (Mediterranean and Atlantic) and eastern (Indo-Pacific), without a continuity line. At the same time the wasteland of Persia, vertically extending from Central Asia to the Persian Gulf, separated, due to nomad-power, India and China from the Mediterranean world. Since the beginning of historical ages, for instance when the civilized ancient oases of Babylonia, Assyria and Egypt were weak, the steppe-peoples could threat the open tablelands of Persia and Asia Minor as forward posts whence to strike through the Punjab into India, through Syria into Egypt, through the Straits into the Balkans and Europe. The natural rival of horse mobility, typical of the Turanian peoples of inner Eurasia, is represented by the shipmen power of the Marginal Crescent dwellers: let us think, for instance, at the Saracens and their sea power - or, best to say, their blend of sea power and camel/horse land power -, that could forge a vast empire also thanks to their central strategic position between the western and eastern oceans and within the geographical Eurasian southern hub. Indeed the main difference between the Saracens and the Turk/Turanian people was that the former blended both sea power and land power whereas the latter possessed only land power.                          
Mackinder does not ignore of course the relevance of river-ways for the rise of civilizations. In fact, he states that the beginning of all greater civilizations relied on two main geographical elements: either the navigation of river-ways connected with the oceans (e.g. China/Yangtze; India/Ganges; Babylonia/Euphrates; Egypt/Nile), or the thalassic power given by navigation (e.g. the Greeks; the Romans; the Vikings; the Saracens).      
Advancing through the centuries until the age of oceanic discoveries, Mackinder believes that the main result of the doubling of the Cape of Good Hope and the prosecution towards the Eastern Indies was that of connecting the western and eastern coastal navigation around Eurasia. This primary event managed to neutralize the strategical advantage of the central position of the steppe-nomads by pressing upon them in the rear, thus delineating neatly the contraposition between LAND POWER and SEA POWER that will be the basis of all subsequent rivalry of powers for hegemony over Eurasia. Moreover, the discovery of the Americas, or Western Indies, reversed the relation of Europe and Asia: whereas in the Middle Ages Europe was caged between an inaccessible desert to south - the Sahara -, an unknown ocean to the west - the Atlantic -, and icy or woody wastes to north and northeast, and in the east and southeast threatened all the time by nomadic horsemen, now it emerged upon the world, wrapping its influence around the Eurasian land power which had always menaced its own existence. Before 1492, England and the British Isles were nothing more than the outmost outskirts of Eurasia, located at the end of the world; afterwards, they assume a central position, becoming in fact the very centre of the world, laying just in-between the oceanic connections of the Old world with the New. After 1492, as new lands and continents were being discovered, the Americas, Australasia, Trans-Saharan Africa and Japan became a ring of OUTER and INSULAR bases for sea power and trade inaccessible to the land power of central Eurasia.
However, during the Tudor age, while Western Europe began its expansion over the seas, at the same time Russian power started carrying from the principality of Muscovy a tireless expansion through Siberia thanks to Cossack explorers and settlers: such momentum would have imposed the Russian rule to the shores of the Pacific Ocean and Alaska within less than three centuries.
Somewhat Mackinder notices in the seaward western and the landward eastern expansion of Europe the prosecution of the ancient opposition between Romans and Greeks, exemplified in the political - and religious - separation into two parts of the Roman Empire. As Teutonic folks were overall civilized and Christianised by the Romans, so were the Slavic ones mostly by the Greeks. Being so things, the Romano-Teutonic European stock embarked upon the ocean enforcing sea power whilst the Greco-Slavic rode over the steppes, focusing on land power, and conquering the Turanian lands.   
It is true that during the XIX century the Russian railways had subjugated the Eurasian steppes, linking together and rationalising these vast landscapes. The Russian army in Manchuria, whose placement there was possible thanks to railway communications, looked like an evidence of mobile land power at the same extent than how the British army deployed in South Africa showed the evidence of mobile sea power. Thanks to the connection of the Eurasian core due to Russian railways Mackinder already foresaw and predicted the birth of a Eurasian specific economic area: the richness of the resources of the Russian Empire and Mongolia - Mackinder writes - is so big that the creation of a more or less apart economic world is inevitable and will be inaccessible to oceanic commerce, and therefore self-sufficient.

After this rather long premise, Mackinder finally introduces in his study the description of what he considers the so-called PIVOT REGION of the world, both in geographical and geopolitical terms:
The pivot region is that inner continental vast landlocked area of Eurasia inaccessible to ships. Though nowadays covered by railways, this area was once lay open to the horse-riding nomads. It is landlocked - or best to say seasonally landlocked - because the only waters that coast it are those of the northern icy sea adjacent to the Arctic Ocean. Let us then divide the world into five main parts according to Mackinder’s world representation:

1) Pivot area (or Heartland): it is wholly continental and includes the major part of Russia (especially central Russia and Siberia), the eastern part of Caucasia, most of Persia, the whole of Turkestan (from present-day Kazakhstan to the land of the Uyghurs in Chinese Xinjiang), Afghanistan and Mongolia.

2) Outer (or insular) crescent: it is wholly oceanic and includes the Americas, the British Isles, all of Sub-Saharan (or Black) Africa, the whole of Oceania including the Indonesian archipelago and Australasia, the Japanese Isles and Alaska.    

3) Inner crescent (or marginal crescent, or Rimland): it is partly continental and partly oceanic and includes all of Western  Europe, the majority of Eastern Europe, Ukraine, the western part of Caucasia, the Anatolian peninsula, the northern part of the Near East, the Persian coast, the entire Indian subcontinent, Tibet, northern, southern and eastern China (but not western), Indochina, Manchuria and the Kamchatka peninsula.                                                 

4) The Desert: it is inaccessible and includes the wastelands of the Sahara and of the Arabian Peninsula.  

5) The Icy Sea: it is inaccessible - at least during the winter - and coincides with the Arctic Ocean.

Given its position of main holder of the pivotal area, Mackinder considers Russia (the Russian empire of yore) the potential hegemonic empire of the world, though penalized for not blending land power with sea power. The author believes that just like the Mongol empire in the past, Russia had the power and the possibility to threaten and pressure all of its rims: Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, Turkey, Persia, India and China. Considering the world at large, the Russian tsardom occupied the central strategic position, the same that the German kaiserdom held in relation to Europe. Due to its position Russia could struck on all sides and be struck from all sides, save the north.
Now, the main concern that Mackinder wants to raise is the following: what if the state that controls the pivotal area, Russia, would expand over the marginal lands of Eurasia, in other words into the inner crescent/Rimland?  If Russia would add its continental resources with the possibility to use them for fleet edification and sea power building then the ultimate world empire would be born. In other words, and this is the main point of Mackinder’s lesson, if the Heartland (pivotal area) unites together with the Rimland (inner crescent) under the rule of the same power this would lead to the birth of a hegemonic incontestable world empire.
Concretely speaking, and remembering that Mackinder speaks as an Englishman for the interests of his own nation, if in 1904 Germany would have allied with Russia the pivotal area and the inner crescent would have significantly joined together, and this could have led France to ally with over-sea powers that belonged to the outer crescent (Great Britain, the United States, Japan, etc.). Within the frame of a potential German-Russian entente countries like France, Italy, Egypt, India, Korea would become bridge heads in which the two block of powers (continental pivotal powers and oceanic marginal powers) would compete and interact, even in terms of warfare. In such a scenario, the strategic role of India appeared even more important for Great Britain: indeed the British military front stretched from the Cape of Good Hope through India to Japan. Things could become even worse if South America was to join Germany instead of the US in a hypothetical world war: an outer-outer crescent would now encircle the outer crescent. The Nearer, Middle and Far East questions - Mackinder reports - were all related to the unstable equilibrium of inner and outer powers in those areas of the marginal crescent where local power is weak.
At conclusion of his study, Mackinder underlines that the pivotal region will always be strategic, no matter which power would control it. Was it to be controlled by China, for instance, China would become a real threat to the world by fusing together the ocean frontage with the exploitation of the inner resources of the vast Eurasian continent: what Russia could not yet do.       


H. J. Mackinder, the Geographical Pivot of History, the Geographical Journal, Vol. 23, No. 4 (Apr., 1904), pp. 421-437.
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