Halford Mackinder’s Last View of the Round World

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Halford Mackinder’s Last View of the Round World

During WWII, the great British political geographer updated his Heartland theory, with typical prescience.

Halford Mackinder’s Last View of the Round World
Credit: James Lafayette

During the Second World War, the editor of Foreign Affairs asked the great British geopolitical thinker Sir Halford Mackinder to update his global worldview, which had been set forth largely in two works: his 1904 paper “The Geographical Pivot of History” and his 1919 book Democratic Ideals and Reality. Mackinder, then 82, responded with “The Round World and the Winning of the Peace,” which appeared in the July 1943 issue of Foreign Affairs and constitutes his last published words on the global balance of power.

Scholars of Mackinder and his geopolitical concepts too often ignore or downplay the significance of “The Round World and the Winning of the Peace.” In that article, Mackinder not only updated his Heartland concept, but identified other geographical features, including the Pacific and Indian Oceans and the Monsoon lands of India and China, which he predicted would play an important role in the future global balance of power.

In both 1904 and 1919, Mackinder identified the northern central core of the Eurasian landmass as the “pivot region” or “Heartland” of the world from which a sufficiently armed and organized great power or alliance of powers could bid for global hegemony. In both works, he recounted the successive waves of nomadic pressure emerging from the Heartland against the settled regions of Europe and Asia. He warned that technology and relative population distribution might produce a Heartland-based land power that could gain effective political control of the Coastlands of Eurasia and construct a navy superior to the sea powers of Britain and the United States.

In 1904, Mackinder wrote that “The oversetting of the balance of power in favour of the pivot state, resulting in its expansion over the marginal lands of Euro-Asia, would permit the use of vast continental resources for fleet-building, and the empire of the world would then be in sight.” This might happen, he warned, if Germany allied with Russia or China allied itself to Japan.

In 1919, Mackinder wrote that had Germany conquered Russia and France “she would have established her sea-power on a wider base than any in history, and in fact on the widest possible base.” He then warned, “must we not still reckon with the possibility that a large part of the Great Continent might some day be united under a single sway, and that an invincible sea-power might be based upon it?”

As Mackinder wrote “The Round World and the Winning of the Peace,” Germany and Russia were waging a great struggle for control of the Heartland. He began this article by explaining that the idea for the Heartland resulted from two events: the Boer War in South Africa and the Russo-Japanese War. He noted the contrast presented by Great Britain waging war against the Boers six thousand miles across the ocean and Russia fighting a war against Japan across a comparable distance on land. This suggested to him “a parallel contrast between Vasco de Gama rounding the Cape of Good Hope on his voyage to the Indies, near the end of the fifteenth century, and the ride of Yermak, the Cossack, at the head of his horsemen, over the Ural range into Siberia early in the sixteenth century.” This, in turn, according to Mackinder, led him to review the nomadic raids of the Steppe tribes against the peoples of Europe, the Middle East, the Indies and China, and suggested the possibility of attempting to correlate historical events with geographical conditions in an effort to understand geography’s impact on history, contemporary events, and the future.

Mackinder expressed his judgment that his concept of the Heartland “is more valid and useful today than it was either twenty or forty years ago.” Geographically, the Heartland was equivalent to the territory of the Soviet Union, minus the land east of the Lena River. If the Soviet Union defeats Germany, he wrote, “she must rank as the greatest land Power on the globe,” and “[f]or the first time in history” the Heartland will be “manned by a garrison sufficient both in number and quality.”

A second great geographical feature that Mackinder judged to be of almost equal significance to the Heartland was the Midland Ocean, which he described as “the North Atlantic and its dependent seas and river basins.” It consisted of a bridgehead in Western Europe, “a moated aerodrome in Britain,” and the United States and Canada. This was a remarkable prophecy of the North Atlantic Alliance that was created six years later.

Mackinder then described a “girdle of deserts and wilderness” including the Sahara, Arabian, Tibetan and Mongolian deserts, Lenaland in Siberia, Alaska, parts of Canada, and “the sub-arid belt of the United States.” Outside that girdle, Mackinder wrote, was the “Great Ocean (Pacific, Indian, and South Atlantic) and the lands which drain to it (Asiatic Monsoon lands, Australia, South America and Africa south of the Sahara).”

His final geographical feature was the “Monsoon lands of India and China.” He described this region as holding “a thousand million people of ancient oriental civilization” that will “grow to prosperity” and balance the remaining great geographical regions. “A balanced globe of human beings,” he wrote. “And happy, because balanced and thus free.”

A year after the article appeared in Foreign Affairs, Mackinder received the Charles P. Daley medal from the American Geographical Society. It was presented to him at the American Embassy in Britain on March 31, 1944. U.S. Ambassador John Winant praised Mackinder as “the first who fully enlisted geography as an aid to statecraft.

Francis P. Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century (Transaction Books) and America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War (University Press of America). He is also a contributor to Population Decline and the Remaking of Great Power Politics (Potomac Books).  He has written on historical and foreign policy topics for Joint Force Quarterly, American Diplomacy, the University Bookman, The Claremont Review of Books, The Diplomat, Strategic Review, the Washington Times and other publications. He is an attorney, an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University, and a contributing editor to American Diplomacy.