Heartland Theory

In 3rd century BC, Greek philosopher Herodotus said, ’All geography should be read historically and all history should be read geographically’.

British political geographer Mackinder presented his paper ‘The Geographical Pivot of History’ in 1904 in order to elucidate the link between power struggle and geography. Mackinder’s heartland theory regards political history as a continuous struggle between land power and sea power with the ultimate victory going to continental power.

Mackinder divided the world and call Europe, Asia and Africa as ‘World Island’ which has 2/3rd of world land and 7/8th of population.

He arranged the landmass of the world in 3 tiers:
                                                                                                             Image source: Wikipedia
1. The Heartland: It is the huge area of inner Eurasia east and north of river Volga surrounded by mountains on three sides (S-E-W) and by ice-bound Arctic on the north. This was so called ‘pivot area’ that he later renamed as ‘heartland’. The distinguishing feature of heartland was that it was not accessible to sea powers and therefore it was strategically secure like a fortress. This was resource rich area having agriculturally fertile Russian grassland Steppes and coal fields.

2. Inner Crescent: The pivot area was surrounded by an ‘inner’ or ‘marginal’ crescent consisting of an arch of coastland. It included rest of Europe, W. Asia, E. Asia, and S. Asia. This  area was characterised by drainage into navigable seas.

3. Outer or Insular Crescent: North America, South America and Africa south of Sahara, Oceana were put in outer crescent category. 

Related Article: Rimland Theory by Spykman

According to Mackinder, outer crescent was not of much consequence but the pivot area and the inner crescent is where the world geopolitics was influenced.
For Mackinder, whoever could gain control of ‘World Island’ would be in almost unstoppable position to dominate the entire globe.

Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland,
Who rules the Heartland commands the World Island,
Who rules the World Island commands the world.

1919 modifications: By 1919, the world had already seen the WW I, the defeat of Germany and rise of Russia under communist regime. Mackinder redefined the boundary of pivot area and included the area which sea power can be refused access under modern conditions. He included Black Sea, Baltic Sea, middle and lower Danube, Asia Minor (Turkey), parts of Mongolia and Armenia. (Britain was defeated in Black Sea, Germany was not able to enter in Baltic Sea in WW I)

In his 1919 modification, ‘World Island’ included the whole of Africa, unlike 1904 when only Africa north of Sahara was included. 

1943 modification and concept of Midland Basin: In this modification Mackinder retained the importance of heartland but tried reinterpreting the roles of the countries of inner and outer crescent. He suggested that the power equation will undergo a change and was predicting rise of Americas under USA. Mackinder observed the cultural and historical similarity between US & Britain despite the Atlantic Ocean in between. He was able to foresee close economic and political ties between the 2 nations. This grouping he called as ‘Midland Basin’ which included N. America which was otherwise part of outer crescent.

Having predicted rise of Midland Basin as political power, Mackinder than predicted the future geopolitics as power struggle between Heartland and Midland Basin. After WW II, this prediction was fairly accurate because of the infamous superpower rivalry and cold war between US & USSR.

Evaluation: It was an innovative approach relating geography with political power struggle and he was fairly successful in predicting WW I, WW II & post war conditions.

One criticism was he repeatedly modified his theory, diluting his own ideas in subsequent revisions i.e. the theory is not comprehensive in it’s original form.

• He simplified history in a deterministic fashion as a struggle between land and sea powers. In reality history is influenced by the physical, socio-economic and cultural factors.

• He overestimated the advantage and isolation of the heartland. The heartland really is not as flat as he thought and the Heartland has physical limitations because cold, continental climate.

• The idea about Heartland’s relative isolation & political prospective of Britain, according to Mackinder was probably based on the Mercater’s map projection which inaccurately exaggerate the area in high latitudes & polar region.

• The mountains can’t actually deter the modern air force while the US can access the Heartland across the Bering strait & across the Arctic Ocean using the modern missile technology.

• In contemporary times, the basis of geopolitics is rapidly changing & political confrontations are no longer fought along conventional lines. Modern forms of conflicts include trade wars, cyber wars, WMD (weapons of mass destruction) which were alien in the times of Mackinder.

• The rising importance of trade has propelled the countries of South Asia, E. Asia, S-E Asia such as India, China, which could not have been predicted in Mackinder’s time.

• The contemporary world has also seen the rise of non-state players such as terrorism, drug cartels. Non state players also include the supra national players such as international institutions like UN, WTO, IMF, World Bank etc which are probably more important determinants in the global geopolitics. The rise of MNC’s further adds complexity in the ever changing & evolving world order.

• Climate change, SD based negotiations/conflicts/treaties are new area of geopolitics.

So it is a commentary or seminal paper rather than a theory.

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  Posted on Monday, September 14th, 2015 at 7:07 AM under   Geography