Sir Halford Mackinder and the Invention of Geopolitics

I. Aims and objectives

1. Aims

To provide a long overdue systematic reconsideration of the contribution of British Imperial Geographer and politician, Sir Halford J. Mackinder, to strategic thinking.

2. Objectives

– A systematic critical review of Mackinder’s geopolitical works and an evaluation of the concept of heartland.
– An exploration of the other key aspects of Mackinder’s strategic thought: his ideas on grand strategy.
– An analysis of the context of his strategic work, and their implications, both as part of a broader policy agenda and in terms of actual impact on foreign policy making.

II. Research context

The review of the literature has provided a range of possible starting points.

The case of Mackinder is unique among Twentieth Century geographers when it comes to academic interest he received. No less than three book length studies have been published on his life and works.

Such a landmark study as Brian Blouet’s Halford Mackinder A Biography (1987), provides an highly informative analytical account of the life of the British imperial geographer. Analysing the main phases of his career and the development of his thought, he stresses his key role in the establishment of geography as an academic subject in Britain and gives in three solid and very well documented chapters a very useful overview of his “geopolitical” thought. W.H. Parker in Mackinder: Geography as an Aid to Statecraft (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982) provides a competent treatment of his geographical thinking. James Trapier Lowe, Geopolitics and War: Mackinder’s philosophy of power (Washington: University Press of America, 1981) also deserves to be mentioned.

The last twenty-five years have seen, concomitant with the revival of geopolitics, a renewal of scholarly interest in its study. Work produced in this area falls broadly into two different traditions. First are the specialists of strategic studies, often proponents of neo-classical geopolitics, such as Colin S. Gray, in The Geopolitics of the Nuclear Era (New York: Crane, Russak, 1977) and The Geopolitics of Superpower (Lexington, UP Kentucky, 1988), for whom Mackinder’s geopolitical work was “grand theory at its best”. Secondly there are those from the tradition of political geography, in particular with the innovative perspectives developed by the school of critical geopolitics, the different threads of which are brought together in Gearóid Ó´Tuathail, Critical Geopolitics: The Politics of Writing Global Political Space (London: Routledge, 1996).  Political geographers have looked back at the history of the geopolitical tradition and Mackinder, as one of the founding fathers of classical geopolitics, has been closely scrutinized. Geoffrey Parker, Western Geopolitical Thought in the Twentieth Century (New York: St. Martin’s press, 1985) and Michael Heffernan, The Meaning of Europe: Geography and Geopolitics (London: Arnold, 1998) have in a very insightful manner placed Mackinder’s work in the broader context of the history of geopolitical thinking, whilst Gerry Kearns looks at his work in the context of fin de siècle theories of global closures (“Fin de Siècle Geopolitics: Mackinder, Hobson and Theories of Global Closure”, in P.J. Taylor ed., The Political Geography of the Twentieth Century (London: Belhaven Press, 1993), pp. 9-30).  G. Ó’Tuathail, attempting to develop an alternative critical understanding of Mackinder as a conservative intellectual in the Age of Empire, has convincingly argued that he is “best understood not as a Cold War geopolitician but as a British imperialist intellectual who championed social imperialism and fostered a romantic mythology as a means of dealing with uncomfortable change – particularily the rise of working-class socialism.” (“Putting Mackinder in his Place: Material Transformations and Myth”, Political Geography, 1992, 11, pp.100-118).

Nevertheless, despite such work, there exists no comprehensive exploration of Mackinder’s thought that sets it in its precise historical setting. Two insightful studies have however suggested a way forward in that direction: Paul Kennedy’s inspiring “Mahan versus Mackinder: Two Interpretations of British Sea Power”, in Stategy and Diplomacy 1870-1945, Eight Studies (London: Allen and Unwin, 1983) and Geoffrey Sloan’s suggestive synthesis, analysing the 1904, 1919, and 1943 versions of Mackinder’s heartland theory, “in the context of the unique periods of their formulation” (“Sir Halford Mackinder: The Heartland Theory Then and Now”, in C.S. Gray and G. Sloan, Geopolitics, Geography and Strategy (London: Frank Cass, 1999).  They both suggest how much such a line of enquiry deserves to be taken further, developed and refined. The absence of a systematic study of Mackinder’s strategic thought is most puzzling on account of its considerable influence on the history of the twentieth century. A classic study such as Raymond Aron’s, Clausewitz: Penser la Guerre (Paris: Gallimard, 1976) provides in this respect an excellent example of how to examine the ideas of a major thinker in their historical context.

III. Methodology

This project, resolutely interdisciplinary in orientation, will draw on the methodology, problematizing strategies and conceptual tools of such disciplines and fields as international history, the history of geography, with its emphasis on the contextualisation of geographical works, the tradition of political geography which blends research on mental maps with research on geopolitics; as well as security studies, social sciences and international politics.

Critical review of Mackinder’s geopolitical works

Correcting possible misunderstandings of geopolitical works by a comprehensive and careful study of Mackinder’s writing seems essential. Whilst, for some, Mackinder’s geopolitical work is “grand Theory at its best” (Colin Gray), one of the main criticisms levelled against classical geopolitics has been its lack of method. It therefore seems pertinent to look very carefully into this paradox. Mackinder’s methodology will therefore be carefully scrutinized, the internal coherence of his arguments will be tested; it will also be necessary to unravel the author’s textual strategies. Mackinder’s visual arguments also deserve a careful attention as visual sources, such as maps and diagrams, far from being simply illustrative but are also constitutive parts of his argumentation.

Modern scholars have, in effect, laboured either to substantiate or to debunk the theory of the Heartland. There is undoubtedly some merit in considering it as an “unproven thesis yet unchallenged” and to subject it to critical review it deserves as an intellectual construction. However, a complementary line of enquiry will be also to consider the heartland as myth and to argue that the most relevant question may not be whether the myth was true or false, but rather how it came to become so influential in international politics in the Twentieth century.

A key dimension of Mackinder’s strategic writing, which as hitherto surprisingly received little attention was his attempts at defining a “Grand Strategy” for Twentieth Century Britain. Much of his work, such as for example, but not only, his focus on national efficiency (social reform, education, manpower, imperial modernisation), his vision of both Empire and Britain’s future as a World power (Greater Britain, Atlantic alliance, grand alliance of maritime powers, etc.) do fit remarkably well with the textbook definition of Grand Strategy as “a comprehensive plan of action, based on calculated relations of ways and means to large ends” and would accordingly deserve further scrutiny.

Context and implications

Bearing in mind that Mackinder primarily defined himself as a geographer, it is important to apply to his work an “an approach to geography’s history that will do full justice to the intellectual and social context within which geographical knowledge is produced” (Livingstone, 1993). As far as the intellectual context is concerned, it is important to look at processes of cross-fertilisation with other sciences, as there was a close connection of geography with sciences, such as biology. Geography must however be replaced among other social sciences, the more so on account of Mackinder’s involvement with the London School of Economics since its foundation. The question of Mackinder’s dialogue/struggle with German political geography and Geopolitik also deserves to be looked into afresh.

Understanding better the context of international relations in which Mackinder’s work was produced is also essential. It is also crucial to engage fully with the specific key issues, in both past and current historiographical debates in the history of international relations. The context of the strategic debates and literature of the time deserve further exploration, in particular the question of the possible interaction with the works of Captain A.T. Mahan.

It is also essential to look at the implications of Mackinder’s works. Bearing in mind that “Geopolitical discourse is political from the very outset” (G. Ó’Tuathail), they deserve to be approached as being part of an instrumentalisation of geographical knowledge. It seems pertinent to look at the extent to which Mackinder’s political agenda and possible predetermining policy choices did influence his analysis of strategic issues as well as whether he was, consciously or less consciously, attempting to bring geographical truth to established policy principles. The use, and abuse, of Mackinder’s idea by German Geopolitik, and foremost by Karl Haushofer has already been well studied but the question of the actual impact of Mackinder on British foreign policy deserves to be very carefully revisited, likewise his reception in France and the United States.