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.                           

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