The Heartland Theory was established in 1904 by the British Halford Mackinder (1861 – 1947). It considers geopolitics and strategy in the light of a Russian-influenced „Heartland“.
Origin of the Heartland Theory
Mackinder was a geographer; he introduced the theory in a paper for the Royal Geographical Society entitled „The geographical pivot of history.“ He later incorporated it into his work Democratic Ideals and Reality. With the theory of a heartland, he wanted to warn his countrymen, who at that time were still living in the consciousness of the British Empire. His point was that the powers in the Heartland (or Russia, which was already dominant in this geographic region at the time) were very significant simply because of their location.
Mackinder worked very thoroughly on his Heartland theory and also looked at economic, technical and industrial resources as well as raw materials and population in the Heartland. He was really concerned with comparing land and sea powers. Britain had eventually built up its global position as a naval power, but Mackinder came to the conclusion that the land power in the Heartland – i.e. Russia – could become more powerful. After the end of the First World War, the researcher updated his theory, which is still considered highly significant today and appears more explosive than ever since Russia’s imperialist aspirations of recent years.
Geography: Heartland Theory
According to Mackinder, there is a world island and a „heartland.“ According to this theory, the world island consists purely geographically of the physically connected continents of Europe, Africa and Asia. In geographical terms, they together form the largest land mass on earth, and at the same time the largest number of people with the greatest economic power live here. Arranged in a crescent shape, Mackinder also identified coastal and offshore islands. He counted the entire American continent and Australia among the latter, while Great Britain, for example, is a coastal island. The Heartland (the Pivot Area) occupies the center of the World Island. It stretches between the Volga and Yangtze rivers and from the Arctic continent to the Himalayas. This area was already predominantly ruled by the Russian Empire, and later by the Soviet Union.
What does the Heartland Theory say?
It is an orthodox geopolitical theory based on a materialistic view of man. It is based on the competition of people and states who want to increase their geographical spheres of influence and thus their resources. For centuries, this had been achieved by naval powers such as the British in their Columbian Age, which had begun with the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus but was drawing to a close in the early 20th century. There were other theorists before Mackinder, such as Alfred Thayer Mahan, who believed that basically naval powers had a greater chance of dominance. This Mackinder absolutely challenged. He demonstrated that historically, maritime powers had always dominated at times and land powers at times.
The latter could also defeat naval powers by conquering their bases from land. Although Great Britain was able to effectively control the world’s oceans and thus many overseas territories with its fleet from the 16th/17th to the late 19th century, land powers gained significantly more influence as early as the second half of the 19th century due to new technological developments. These included the steam engine, the railroad, and finally motorized road transport. In the course of this, road and rail networks were significantly expanded, which strengthened the power of continental states. Russia, however, lagged behind more developed states in both technology and infrastructure at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Mackinder predicted, however, that this „heartland“ – European Russia and Western Siberia – would gain significantly more influence once it had the necessary transport routes, technology and a correspondingly high industrial and economic standard. Russia could then rise to become a powerful continental state, the dominant state of the „Heartland“ and finally the ruler of the „World Island“ (i.e. Europe, Africa and Asia). The next step would then be world domination. Mackinder believed that the ruler of Eastern Europe must also be the ruler of the Heartland, the latter the ruler of the World Island, and ultimately the ruler of the whole world. This was also due, Mackinder argued, to the fact that vast resources of raw materials and population would accrue to a state with this increasing influence.
A central statement of the Heartland Theory is: Whoever dominates Eastern Europe, dominates the world.
Derivations of Mackinder in the early 20th century
After 1918, Mackinder believed that Germany, the largest state in Central Europe, could concentrate on dominating Eastern Europe and then the Heartland, the World Island, and eventually the entire world. Germany, of course, was at that time considerably weakened by World War I, but, as is well known, Adolf Hitler later followed precisely this idea. Mackinder was already of the opinion that this war could have ended differently and that there would possibly be a new attempt by Germany to do so. In this he was right. Possibly Hitler was aware of the Heartland theory. In any case, all his efforts amounted to following its logic.
Current View of the Heartland Theory (2022)
In the spring of 2022, the Heartland Theory seems more topical than ever. Now that Germany has squandered its chance to dominate the Heartland and later the world some 80 years ago and Russia has become a modern state in the meantime, it is time for this state in the geographical center of the Heartland to finally also militarily assert its dominance as intended by the Heartland theory. Again, we do not know whether Putin knows this theory and to what extent he trusts its logic. However, he is behaving similarly to Hitler. This would not bode well for the near future, with Putin reaching for dominance in Eastern Europe. See: What is the Suwalki Gap?
Reception and Further Developments of the Heartland Theory
Of course, the theory has always been controversial. Orthodox representatives of geopolitics like to believe in it, even if they consider Mackinder’s conclusions somewhat simplistic. This is probably why he underestimated the role of the United States, which was quite foreseeable in the 1910s to 1920s. This was noted, among others, by the U.S. political scientist C. Dale Walton.
There is more criticism from other quarters. For example, according to some researchers, Mackinder is said to have simply underestimated the fact that the naval powers, for their part, could regain their old power in entirely new ways (for example, through technical innovations). This indeed happened, namely by the U.S. developing nuclear weapons and long-range missiles and bombers, which in turn could sensitively strike the Heartland. There were also scholars in the 1940s who considered the Heartland theory to be very well founded.
For example, U.S. geographer Nicholas J. Spykmans formulated the thesis at that time that the United States would have to enter the war to prevent control of the world’s island by powers such as Germany, which could actually use that domination to reach for the entire world. If there are currently politicians who believe in this theory, they would have to try with all their might to contain Russia’s expansionist ambitions.