Eurasian Politician

The Eurasian Politician - Issue 4 (August 2001)

Mackinder and Frontier Lands

By: Anssi Kullberg, 19th July 2001, Tartu

The deputy head of the department of strategy at Britannia Royal Naval College, Geoffrey Sloan, has written a very interesting essay on Sir Halford Mackinder (1861-1947), one of the founders of geopolitics and the father of the heartland theory. (Geoffrey Sloan: "Sir Halford Mackinder: The Heartland Theory Then and Now", in Colin S. Gray & Geoffrey Sloan (eds.): "Geopolitics: Geography and Strategy", London, 1999.) Mackinder himself had a quite colourful career, which included politics, geography, exploration, writing, strategic and intelligence duties, education, diplomacy as well as being discriminated.

As a geopolitician Mackinder differed greatly and for his honour from his predecessors, such as Rudolf Kjellén and Friedrich Ratzel, whose geopolitcs was dominated by mystical idea of state. The Kjellén-Ratzel tradition of geopolitics was later followed by German and Russian geopolitical traditions, which have since produced such totalitarian and darwinist schools of geopolitics as Karl Hauhofer and Carl Schmitt in Nazi Germany and the Russian tradition starting with czarist expansionism and ending at present ultra-nationalist Aleksandr Dugin. For Mackinder, however, the state (or empire) was no mystical "organism", and his view on history was never deterministic.

According to Mackinder, nevertheless, the birth of a world order exclusively divided by territorial states was a basis for the importance of geopolitics. Similarly, geography produced relatively unchanging conditions for human life, although the meanings geography got were constantly altered by technology and traffic. For Mackinder, geography represented "long duration", Braudelís longue durée. Strategy had emphasised the relevance of geography since the times Sun Tzu was writing (about 400-320 b.C.). According to Sloan, Mackinderís heartland theory was a classical combination of these: The stability of geography in long run, and the conditions it produced as the theatre of military actions.

The story of Mackinderís heartland theory begins at his lectures in the Royal Geographical Society in 1887 ("New Geography"). From the basis of ideas he had then presented, he developed a "whole theory" which he presented in 1904 in "The Geographical Pivot of History". The Boer War in South Africa in 1902 had caused great concern about Britainís future role in world politics, and in the afterplay following the war, it was identified that one of the weaknesses of the British had been "the geographic and cartographic ignorance of British officers during the conflict".

Lieutenant Colonel Charles AíCourt Repington, the military correspondent of The Times, published seven months after Mackinderís "Geographical Pivot" another essay, "Geography and War", where he connected geography with military operation in an obviously Mackinderian way. Repington stressed that the "new geography" created by Mackinder as early as in 1887 had different from all previous in one relevant sense: Mackinder always aimed at "whole picture", which considered all essential factors, in a most interdisciplinary manner. The core of his analysis was region, which had to be understood as a whole. In Mackinderís geographical synthesis the region was characterised by all different essential factors, while previous geography had only descriped one element at one time.

Mackinderís heartland theory had a social demand against the background of British-Russian colonial contest in Asia. The Western colonial powers had expanded their empires overseas, while Russia had expanded to Siberia, Far East, Caucasus and Central Asia. The heartland theory emphasised the power and advance that a land-based state had over sea powers, and the fact that Russia ruled the heartlands of the vast Eurasian continent, and was expected to seek further expansion.

However, quite soon after Mackinderís lecture Japan attacked Port Arthur, and Russia, the land power of the heartland, was humiliated in Manchuria in the Russo-Japanese War. The decisive victory of the Japanese in the sea battle of the Tsushima Straits in May 1905 was a fresh blow against Mackinderís heartland theory, for which reason his theory became more unpopular than it had been. In Russia, however, the same kind of geopolitics was noticed, and the czar paid increasing attention on Turkestan and China, probably planning further expansion in East Turkestan and Mongolia in order to get southern connecting routes to Manchuria. Namely, Mackinder seems to have failed to understand that even though Russia was a land power on the European front, her Far East was connected to the core areas only by the fragile Trans-Siberian railroad. Russiaís military mobility across Siberia or through the Caucasian and South Central Asian mountains has never been as good as the West has feared. Relatively soon after the defeat against Japan, Czar Nicholas II sent a young Finnish Colonel C. G. E. Mannerheim to an intelligence mission in Turkestan and China for 1906-1908.

Mackinder explained his heartland theory by a temporal periodisation. He claimed that the hegemony of sea powers that had prevailed from 1500s to the end of the 1800s was ending and a "Post-Columbian era" was to begin. Development of railroads and infrastructure would benefit the land power, the heartland, and encourage it to fulfil its "natural tendencies" to seek Eurasian and global domination by violent means. On the background of Mackinderís theory, there was a certain idea of the nature of the Eurasian Empire and its relations toward Europe and the West:

"It was under the pressure of external barbarism that Europe achieved her civilisation. I ask you, therefore, for a moment to look upon Europe and European history as subordinate to Asia and Asiatic history, for European civilisation is, in a very real sense, the outcome of the secular struggle against Asiatic invasion." (Mackinder, 1904, p. 423.)

Mackinder continued by analysing the nature of the Russian Empire, yet he speaks on a theoretical level about "the empire of heartland", seeing Russia as a natural continuation to the Mongol Empire. Already the Mongols had three primary historical dimensions for their expansionist endeavours: 1) Towards West, where they threatened Poland, Silesia, Moravia, Hungary, Croatia and Serbia. [I take the liberty to interprete "Siberia" as Silesia here, since I suppose it is a misspelling by Sloan or some other later reproducer of Mackinderís text. AKK] 2) Towards South-West to the regions between the Caspian Sea and the Hindu Kush. 3) Towards China. Russia shares the same tendencies and the same advantageous position that enables her to expand towards three dimensions.

Open steppes have been optimal for conquerors moving by horse. Later their expansion is supported by the development of railroads. (And even later, the tanks have been developed.) The plains benefit cruel, expansionist and aggressive conquerors and are likely to produce expansionist militarist empires. For solid, local, small and prosperous civilisations this kind of landscape is most disadvantageous, unlike mountainous regions (Caucasus, Balkans, Kashmir), which finally become the buffers of imperialist expansions and thereby decisive battlefields, and broken coastlines (Greece, Britain and Japan as islands). Europe as a whole is an example of broken landscape that has benefitted diversity, local rule, liberty and prosperity.

Mackinder rejects already in advance, like making a disclaimer, the possible accusations of historical determinism and state darwinism, the kind of which German and Russian geopoliticians were preaching as a "historical mission". According to Mackinder, finally the outcomes of the competition depend on the relative amount of people, their virility, equipment and organisation.

In 1919 Mackinder had developed his heartland theory to adopt into changing conditions. Now its heartland conception covered as frontiers the Baltic Sea region, the navigable Middle and Lower Danube, the Black Sea, Turkey, the Caucasus, Persia, Tibet and Mongolia. Amidst these remained the three land-based empires of Eurasia: Brandenburg-Prussia, Austria-Hungary, and Russia. These were controlling a region that was unreachable for the sea powers. He also made a point that in case the Heartland Empire would gain control over Arabia, it could rule the World Crossroads through the Suez.

Since 1918 the world population began to be adequate, according to Mackinder, for an empire to rise from the heartland and globally threaten the Western liberty. Besides Russia, he started to pay increasing attention on Germany and her "philosophy stressing order and goals", which Mackinder thought would produce a rising geopolitical threat. According to him, the most important would be to find a solution for the question of Eastern Europe, and by that to create a state of balance between the German and the Russian spaces. Thus, Mackinder supported creation of new states in East Europe and support for them. The buffer state strategy clearly started to gain importance in Mackinderís solution for the threat of the heartland.

In 1919 Mackinderís friend Lord Curzon became the foreign secretary, and this finally opened a chance for Mackinder to influence the top-level policies. Earlier he had remained very active in the House of Commons, but he did not possess the necessary political basement to rise to the Cabinet level. Besides, Curzon was sympathetic to Mackinderís ideas.

In 1920 Mackinder suggested drawing new international boundaries and splitting Russia into smaller states. He thougt Britain should stop supporting the aspirations to reunite Russia, and instead, start to support the independence of Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Dagestan. Dagestan included Chechnya and Ingushetia in Mackinderís times. He also recommended that Southern Russia, governed by the White troops, would be recognised as a separate state to that of Bolshevik Russia. Simultaneously he, however, demanded unyielding position in relation to the Bolsheviks. He thought a decisive geopolitical interest for Britain would be guaranteeing and controlling the railroad connecting Batumi to Baku. The route was almost identical to the presently planned Baku-Ceyhan pipeline.

Curzon sent Mackinder as the British high commissioner to Southern Russia, which was controlled by General Denikinís White troops. Mackinder was at the same time given secret intelligence duties. In his letter to his friend Curzon on 23rd November 1919, Mackinder refers to his obvious intelligence duties, argumenting for taking his "doctor" with him for a short mission: "I have reason to know that the YMCA are preparing a considerable humanitarian mission to South Russia, which I am told is to be backed by a large sum of money. The most experienced Anglo-Russian Ė men here like Bagge, Reilly, and Dukes Ė assure me that this charitable mission will probably do more to increase British influence among the Russian masses than anything else. My idea is that my Doctor would act as liaison officer in this respect." The gentlemen Sidney Reilly and Paul Dukes mentioned here belonged to the most skilful agents of the British Intelligence SIS in Soviet Russia in 1917-1919. (Christopher Andrew: "Secret Service", Heinemann, London, 1986, p. 319-324.)

Mackinder was opposed to Britainís blind support to Denikin, paid attention to the latterís stupid and inconsistent policies against Poles, Ukrainians, Caucasians and other non-Russians, and demanded that Britain would halt the massive support to the White generals and instead give them only lower-level defensive support against the Bolsheviks, while shifting to support independent non-Russian buffer states surrounding Russia. He believed that supporting Denikin would sooner or later lead to a Bolshevik victory, and a birth of a hostile empire of the heartland, whereas the only way to defeat the Bolsheviks would be splitting the Russian Empire.

Mackinder reported in 1920 that Kolchak, Yudenich and Denikin are wrong targets of support. The core of the problem was the heartland empire. It should be divided, not attempted to preserve. Russia had to be contained in the West by forming a frontier of new independent nations from Finland to Crimea and the Caucasus. Free buffers should be created in the Caspian and Caucasian region.

"It is only by strong immediate measures taken before the thawing of the Volga ice that the advance of Bolshevism, sweeping forward like a prairie fire, can be limited, and kept away from India and Lower Asia, pending the outcome of Poland and the Odessa. It must be remembered, moreover, that the very success of that Polish and South Russian advance, on a line extending from the Gulf of Finland to the Sea of Azoff, would tend to drive the Bolsheviks into Asia, and, it is essential, therefore, to regard the Caspian and Caucasian barrier as a part of the larger policy. But I cannot look upon a Caucasian barrier as more than a temporary expedient of a not very substantial character: the only final remedy is to kill Bolshevism at the source."

In result to their correspondence, Curzon asked Mackinder to produce a full intelligence report of the whole situation of Russia, and about Denikinís strange line against non-Russian states. At the same time Curzon gives the impression to Mackinder, that with such a report, they could influence the Cabinetís line in their Russian policy. In those times the Cheka had managed to uncover all operations of the British Intelligence in Bolshevik territories, and there was no reliable information about the conditions in Russia. For this reason, Curzon explained, opinions on Russian policy greatly and sharply varied at home.

Mackinder indeed produced a "holistic" report, which shows his goal to regional whole understanding and political solutions deduced from that. His report was a combination of an intelligence report and geopolitical views concerning the issue how to reach stability between Eastern Europe and the heartland by supporting the creation and preservation of numerous small countries. Curzon presented the report to the Cabinet and Mackinder defended it in front of the Cabinet, applying for his brave but correct conclusions as a "whole vision".

A memo summarising Mackinderís report remarked: "He would range up all the anti-Bolshevist states, from Finland to the Caucasus, giving them a certain amount of support. Denikin should be re-equipped for devensive purposes but on a more modest scale than before. We must be prepared to hold the Baku-Batum line and to take control of Denikinís fleet on the Caspian. Any policy of support to individual states merely involved waste of money without anything effective being done. It was necessary to adopt the whole policy or to do nothing."

However, Lloyd Georgeís government continued massive support for Denikin, and the "One Russia Policy". Mackinder was not believed, and especially his demand of supporting the independence of the buffer states was not backed by majority. Mackinder said that rejection of his suggestions would increase Russiaís probability to become a great might of the heartland, which would sooner than expected threaten Europe. He also predicted that this would inevitably lead to a "Jacobin Czar" to rise into power in Russia Ė a totalitarian and militarist dictator. Mackinder was removed from his duties in South Russia.

Before the WW II, he however developed yet third version of his heartland theory, in which he predicted that the Soviet Union would be in long run capable of more effective military production, based on her secured Asiatic heartland. At the same time Mackinder warned that Germany would rise into another competitor for the hegemony of the heartland, and become a land power that could destroy the Anglo-Saxon sea power. A Russo-German alliance would be worst possible nightmare. Mackinder, however, developed a solution for the sea powers to survive. This solution was "amphibious power" that connected sea power to the control of coasts and landings. This concept was successfully used by the Allies in the WW II. After the war, the theory of an Atlantic Alliance as the guardian of Europeís safety ("Midland Ocean"), which Mackinder had created at the age of 82, was incarnated in the shape of the NATO.

When the Soviet Union was split in 1991, the same situation that prevailed in 1919, was born again: A chain of small and fragile states from Estonia to Azerbaijan became independent to surround the imperial centre of the heartland, trying to preserve their independence. The development has witnessed another historical déjà vu, where most of the geopolitical ideas of Mackinderís times, the same phenomena and political solutions have been repeated. Still in his old days on the eve of the WW II, Mackinder wrote that his purpose had been to offer Britain and Europe a "whole view" which could have prevented the "Jacobin Czarism" to rise into power in Russia. The "Jacobin Czar" was described by Mackinder, already in early century, as "militarist Russia that aims at control Eurasia and the heartland".

The same situation prevailed in 1990s, and still prevails. The West first eagerly supported preservation of the Soviet Union and demanded the ethnic non-Russian republics to support Mikhail Gorbachevís shaky reformism. Later the West blindly supported Boris Yeltsin in all his war endeavours, until this policy again led to the rise of a "Jacobin Czar" and to Russian aspirations to follow policies aiming at the creation of a new Eurasian Heartland Empire. Perhaps one of the clearest signs of this is that Putinís Russia has embraced the geopolitics of Aleksandr Dugin like they were a new official ideology of the country. Dugin is an ultra-nationalist imitating the geopolitical views of the Nazi German Lebensraum geopoliticians and turning Mackinderís heartland theory into its demonic mirror image: Russiaís historical mission to become the Heartlandís Empire and to crush the "evil of Anglo-Saxon sea powers".

Also the West has waken up to recognise the new relevance and applicability of the heartland theory. Now in its core lies the Caspian oil. S. Frederick Starr noticed that "Central Asia is again the key for the security of all Eurasia". ("Making Eurasia Stable", Foreign Affairs, 75/1.) Zbigniew Brzezinski, who belongs to the leading experts of the United States on the field of "whole" strategy for Eurasian policy, considers the Eurasian heartland to be the key pivot in the "grand game" against empires that seek to destroy Western hegemony.