Heartland Geopolitical Theory: An Idea That Dictates Contemporary Geopolitics – Analysis
By Matija Šerić
Geopolitics is a word that is used very often in public discourse. At the same time, many who use it do not know its true meaning. As can be read from the word itself, it is evident that geopolitics is a combination of politics and geography. According to the definition of the encyclopedia, geopolitics has three dimensions.
More precisely, geopolitics is: 1. a political expression of geographic determinism with the understanding that the soil on which a nation lives has a decisive influence on the forms of its social organization; 2. state/political activity based on the geographical content of international relations and the spatial-political relations within them; 3. research approach in political geography and in the study of international relations, focused on politically significant geographical elements such as the size and position of the territory, natural resources.
Geopolitical theories explain international political processes and events in all possible geographical areas of the planet. Geopoliticians treat the geographical space as a kind of stage that represents the terrain for political, diplomatic, economic and military games. Foreign policy makers use available means to achieve desired foreign policy goals. The nation-state mobilizes resources: people, weapons, and goods for security or expansion. Geopolitics combines the geographic framework of diplomatic-strategic relations with geographic-economic resources. Geopoliticians create attitudes with regard to the way of life and the environment they are focused on: sedentary peoples, nomads, landlocked inhabitants, maritime peoples.
The geopolitical theory Heartland of the English researcher Sir Halford Mackinder is perhaps the best example that explains why geopolitics became so popular among politicians and in the public space. The geopolitician and geostrategist Mackinder was the first to put forward several ideas that were adopted by the German geopolitical school in favor of German expansionist goals, and were later adopted by the Nazi regime led by Adolf Hitler during the invasion of the Soviet Union. The theory is still used today as a basis in geopolitical competitions, mostly between Washington and Moscow. The unstable geopolitical situation at the beginning of the 21st century and the increasing strengthening of Russia gives new momentum to geopolitical and geoeconomic theories that encompass the Eurasian region. Therefore, today in 2023, the Heartland theory is more than current and necessary to understand what is shown in the news every day.
Mackinder interpreted that international historical processes are based on the idea that the world is inherently divided into isolated areas where each of these areas has its own special purpose. He asserted that European civilization is a product of external pressure. His judgment that Europe and European civilization are the result of a centuries-long struggle against various invasions from Asia (eg Mongols or Ottomans) originates from the same idea. The Englishman believed that European progress and expansion were driven by the need to respond to pressure from Asia. Therefore, the Heartland or the center of the Earth, that is, the central part of the continental mass of Eurasia, serves as a pivot point for all geopolitical transformations of historical dimensions within the world island.
In 1904, Mackinder published an essay entitled “The Geographical Axis of History”. The following year, he published the article “Workforce as a measure of national and imperial strength”. The capital book in which the essence of Mackinder’s thought is centered was published in 1919 under the title “Democratic Ideals and Reality”. A quarter of a century later, in 1943, the magazine Foreign Affairs published an article that acquired a testamentary character: “The Round World and the Conquest of Peace”. Mackinder defined two main terms: the world island and the central mainland (Heartland). He considered the Heartland to be the most advanced geopolitical location. Oceans cover nine twelfths of the globe. One continent or a set of three continents (world island): Europe, Asia, Africa, covers two twelfths of the Earth. The rest, the last twelve, is covered by the two Americas and Australia. In that drawing of planet Earth, North and South America occupy a position comparable to Great Britain in relation to the European continent in relation to the world island.
Aware of the relative nature of the concept of “central location”, Mackinder pointed out that in the process of geopolitical processes, the Eurasian continent is at the center of the world, with the Heartland occupying the center of Eurasia. Mackinder’s doctrine implies that the geopolitical entity (state) that dominates the Heartland possesses the necessary geopolitical and geoeconomic potentials to eventually control the world island and the entire Earth. According to Mackinder, a retrospective analysis of military-political and socio-economic processes reveals geopolitical and geoeconomic unity. He highlighted the pivotal nature of the large Eurasian region: inaccessibility to seagoing ships but an easy target for nomadic conquering peoples throughout history. Mackinder was convinced that Eurasia possessed sustainable conditions for the development of military and industrial powers.
When structuring the geopolitical space in the form of a system of concentric circles, Mackinder conventionally placed a pivot point (pivot) in the center of the planet which includes the river basins of the Volga, Yenisei, Amu-Darya, Syr-Darya, and two seas or lakes (Caspian and Aral). These pivot points are impregnable to the attacks of naval forces, but they were able to sustain and support their large populations. The peoples that emerged from the area depended on horses and camels to travel long distances and be mobile enough to launch raids on Europe.
For historical and geopolitical reasons, the pivot point has become a natural center of power. Mackinder also defined an “inner crescent” that coincides with the Eurasian coastal areas. He described them as regions with the most intense civilizational progress. These included Europe, South, South-West and East Asia. The “outer crescent” was also defined, which included Great Britain, North and South America, southern Africa, Australasia and Japan: zones geographically and culturally foreign to inner Eurasia. Mackinder believed that historical processes were concentrated in the Heartland area, a territory inhabited by Turkic tribes whose incursions forced Europe to unite, and the Heartland was home to all the nomadic empires of the past.
Therefore, Mackinder insisted on preventive measures of various means to maintain control of the situation at the pivot point. One of them consisted of the “inner crescent” control. He identified the idea of Eastern Europe as the key to the Heartland by succinctly saying, “whoever rules Eastern Europe rules the Heartland; whoever rules the Heartland rules the world island; whoever rules the world island rules the world”. In later works, Mackinder referred to Eastern Europe as an integral part of the Heartland. In a very short period, he revised his theory twice and included the Black Sea and Baltic Sea basins (Eastern Europe) in the Heartland. In Eastern Europe, he included the areas of today’s Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Montenegro, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, Finland and the Baltic countries. This means that his famous formula can be formulated differently: Whoever rules the Heartland rules the world island, whoever rules the world island rules the world.
This premise is logical since the Heartland forms the largest plain on the surface of the globe: the Asian plain, the steppes of European Russia connect via Germany and the Netherlands with Paris, the heart of the West. Several of the largest rivers on the planet flow through that area, either towards the Arctic Sea or towards the inland seas: Caspian, Aral. The Heartland, at least in its eastern part, is closed to the intervention of outside forces. From a simple look at the world map, it can be concluded that Russia is in the center of the Heartland, so the theory can be reformulated: whoever rules Russia and its neighborhood rules the world. Through German geopoliticians such as Karl Haushofer, Adolf Hitler became familiar with this idea and was probably inspired by it. One theory that wanted to be scientific was integrated into the Nazi ideology and served as an argument for the conquest policy of the Third Reich.
The theory itself was built, on the basis of geographical schematism, by simultaneous consideration of one constant element (land-sea opposition, continentals-seafarers) and three variable elements (1. technique of movement on land and sea, 2. population and resources that can be used in the competition of nations, 3. the expansion of the diplomatic field). Writing at the beginning of the 20th century, while Great Britain’s destiny as a superpower seemed bright and unquestionable, Mackinder looks behind him to the past centuries, in order to discover in them the conditions necessary for the victory of the island nation in the future and to find out whether British dominance is destined to disappear the world. For Mackinder, land and water are opposed as the two most important elements for the political state of the world.
In fact, the geopolitical perspective of Mackinder, like some others, allows one to define and better understand the competition of great powers, but does not provide any concrete solution. Mackinder did not write anywhere that the US, Germany or Russia would have to carry out military aggression in order to achieve territorial expansion with the aim of conquering the central mainland. Hitler didn’t manage to do it, but that’s why Stalin did. The Heartland theory proved absolutely correct in practice after the end of World War II in 1945, when the Soviet Union expanded its zone of influence westward into Eastern Europe and included most of the listed Eastern European countries (all but Yugoslavia and Finland). The Warsaw Pact and the Council for Common Economic Assistance (COMECON) were the embodiment of the Heartland because together with Soviet Russia they formed a single political entity.
Such Heartland broke up in the period 1989-1991 which created new conditions on the world island. The Russian Federation inherited the largest part of the central mainland and this is one of the main reasons why Russia is a superpower today. According to the theory, as for other nations such as Great Britain, France and the USA, they can defend themselves against the threat coming from the Heartland, i.e. Russia, by uniting together with the peripheral states of the central land such as the Baltic countries, Poland, Ukraine, Georgia (de facto NATO alliance). Mackinder predicted in some way the creation of the NATO alliance and an attempt to surround (isolate) Russia from the Baltic to the Far East. Practice confirmed Mackinder’s settings. Therefore, it should not be surprising today that Russia and the United States are fighting for dominance in the Heartland because whoever rules the Heartland rules the whole world.