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.