When discussing the history, scope, and effectiveness of geopolitical theories The Geographical Pivot of History by Sir Halford Mackinder is the definitive starting point (for the western world). It is a remarkable departure from the sea-based theories of political power that previous works of geopolitics had revolved around in the 18th and 19th centuries and according to Mackinder, was due to the fact that (in 1902), “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.”  This seminal work gives several accounts of the geographical effects on the developing balance between land and sea power, empires and raiders, and aspects of continental rivalries.

Mackinder refers to the Eurasian continent as the “world-island” that contains two-thirds of the world’s population. He asks the reader to consider “Europe and European history as subordinate to that of Asia and Asiatic history” since the history of Europe is characterized as “the outcome of the secular struggle against Asian invasion.”  For over a thousand years horsemen from Asia traversed the broad region between the Caspian Sea the Ural Mountains to strike at the European peninsula. Opposing these invaders shaped the history of Europeans (Russians, Germans, French, Italians, and Byzantine Greeks) as the horsemen’s lack of mobility was exposed in the forests and mountains. Their power base was the steppe lands, or Central Asia.

Halford Mackinder was a geographer and this is a work that puts an emphasis on the historical scope of political geography. In the first portion Mackinder admits “My concern is with the general physical control, rather than the causes of universal history.” He then identifies the defining nature of certain geographic relationships, particularly the “Pivot” or “Heartland” area of Eurasia, in the later portion. He asks “Is not the pivot region of the world’s politics that vast area of Euro-Asia which is inaccessible to ships, but in antiquity lay open to the horse-riding nomads, and is to-day about to be covered with a network of railways?” This area is landlocked and possesses no waterways to the ocean. The north is hedged by a sub-arctic forest and it is surrounded by mountains or the inland Caspian Sea to the south, east, and west. This region features a broad steppe-land that is easily traversed and this favored the mobility of the steppes’ horsemen. Throughout history this is where the territory of empires ended and began.

Outside of the Pivot area is the marginal or inner crescent, which is part continental and part oceanic and beyond that is the outer crescent, which is entirely oceanic. To the south, east, and west of the heartland lie what Mackinder called the “marginal regions” of the inner crescent which he divided into four geographic areas. Asia possesses two of these regions that he called monsoon lands (China and India) that are each angled away from each other, one to the north and one to the south. Europe and the “lands of the five seas” or Middle East are the other two regions surrounding the pivot. These geographic regions coincide with the spheres of influence of the four major religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity.

The historical scope with which Mackinder identifies spatial determinism, a specific interpretation of the term: geopolitics, is ground breaking. His organization of land and sea power with regards to geography was recognized and built upon, most notably, before and after WWII and after the fall of the Soviet Union. While this work does not provide any testable hypotheses for US foreign policy, the stated geographical relationships compelled it to be the progenitor of further geopolitical strategies. The division of the Eurasian continent or world island into pivot or heartland region, inner crescent, and outer crescent was Mackinder’s observation of a “certain persistence of geographical relationship[s].” He identified what was then the Russian Empire as the central strategic position, or heartland, of the world island and the notable states of the inner crescent as Turkey, Germany, Austria, South Africa, India, China, Japan, Britain and the US. He summarized his Heartland Theory in a later work:

“Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; who rules the World-Island controls the world.” (Mackinder, Democratic Ideals and Reality 1919, 106)

The Geographical Pivot of History

Nicholas J. Spykman’s The Geography of the Peace built upon Mackinder’s work in a much more extensive and focused manner. Spykman’s work is a containment strategy in a military sense as it attempts to define a number of geographic and geopolitical concerns to the disruption of peace from the Soviet threat in the post WWII era (where he correctly assumes an allied victory in 1942, the time of the writing). He considers geographic and geostrategic roles in peace and war, security, factors of foreign policy, location with regards to world power, and power potential. This is all done before he addresses “Mackinder’s World.”

Spykman claims that due to Mackinder, “we can now take up in detail the specific regions into which we have divided [the world] and analyze their meaning in terms of power potential and the politics of global security. We must evaluate the role which each zone has in the past played in international society” Beginning with the heartland, Spykman explains that there is a new mobility in the Eurasian land mass due to improvements in infrastructure of rail, road, and airplanes but the natural obstacles of transportation will keep the central Asian region from realizing its power potential for the immediate future.

Spykman redefines Mackinder’s Inner Crescent as The Rimland, which is the intermediate region between the Pivot and the seas and he also considered this area as the “Eurasian Conflict Zones.” He elaborates on Mackinder’s broad definitions: the monsoon lands according to Spykman are two different geopolitical categories whose power will be expressed as two different units, India and China, and he refers to “Asiatic Mediterranean” as an area of significance in the future of an independent Asian world. While he is critical of the assumptions of the Pivot, he states that “Like all good geopolitical analysis, however, the Mackinder study represented a picture of the constellation of forces which existed at a particular time and within a particular frame of reference.”

Spykman’s Eurasian Conflict Zones

While other scholars have attempted to redefine or reinterpret Mackinder or Spykman or both, Samuel P. Huntington set forth an evolutionary piece of geopolitical theory in 1993’s The Clash of Civilizations? Huntington presents his work as a theory of culture and civilization that utilizes a modernization theory of political violence. As such, it is also very much a geopolitical theory since civilizations are in part defined by a specific, generally fixed territory. His hypothesis is that conflict in the post-Cold War era will be between differing cultures or civilizations instead of those of an ideological nature. He argues that this conflict will take place along “cultural fault lines separating these civilizations from one another.” He pays special attention to Islam, noting that its cultures are to likely be the primary clash in the future of the Western world.

Huntington identifies six main reasons why civilizations will clash: basic differences between civilizations (history, language, culture, tradition, and religion), increasing global integration/knowledge of other civilizations, economic and social modernization/separation of local identities, “growth of civilization-consciousness”, that differences in culture are now much more apparent, and the increase of economic regionalism. He also describes the “fault lines” at which these clashes will take place. Conflict, according to Huntington, will take place at both the micro and macro level. At the micro level, the territorial boundaries of civilizations are replacing ideological and political boundaries and it is along these lines that opposing groups will clash. On the macro level, core states or civilization-states will compete for economic and military power as well as the influence of international institutions and religion.

Huntington’s Civilizations

These sources are by no means definitive of the western study of geopolitics but rather the lines of demarcation for the advancement of this school as a whole over of the last century. While all three uniquely address geopolitics they also transcend into other academic disciplines as well: Mackinder’s Pivot is a fantastic read of history and geography, Spykman is concerned with the military strategy and geostrategy of Soviet containment, and Huntington’s Clash is a political violence theory that views the world through the lens of anthropology.

Scholars such as Yves LaCoste, Dimitri Kitsikis (who does not care for publishing in English or allowing English translations apparently), Karl Haushofer, and Gerard Toal have all made significant contributions to the study of geopolitics in the 20th century but ultimately they did not fit the scope of this work. Kitsikis’ Intermediate Region is particularly intriguing but it seems to be a reassessment of the Eurasian continent in terms of its regions and civilizations and their geographic implications.  Mackinder’s regions of the marginal crescent are redefined again with influence of Spykman, it seems. A number of journalistic sources will also be used in my analysis to note the number of realtime develoments that either support or refute my thesis. Most of those sites can be found in the sidebar.

A note on content

The planned Regions & Resources of Central Asia post is still in the works but due to a crisis of sources (no Kitsikis available) I had to readjust the scope of my research accordingly. Those pesky midterms got in the way, too. Future posts will be as follows:

Regions and Resources: A Central Asian Primer, The Northern Distribution Network (NDN), The Definition of Geopolitics: Part I, The Great Game/Tournament of Shadows in the 21st Century and of course the occasional In The News posts will still happen if there are relevant events that take place. Cheers.