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'The Geographical Pivot of History'

HDN | 1/25/2004 12:00:00 AM |

'Who rules Eastern Europe commands the Heartland, 'Who rules the Heartland commands the World Island, 'Who rules the World Island commands the World' Dr. Kaldone G. Nweihed On Jan. 25, 1904, Sir Halford Mackinder solemnly strode into the Royal

  • 'Who rules Eastern Europe commands the Heartland,
  • 'Who rules the Heartland commands the World Island,
  • 'Who rules the World Island commands the World'
  • Dr. Kaldone G. Nweihed

    On Jan. 25, 1904, Sir Halford Mackinder solemnly strode into the Royal Geographical Society in London and delivered a lecture. One hundred years have fully elapsed since the British geographer -- also known as "administrator, author, explorer, politician and public servant," -- spoke, while the echoes of that lecture: "The Geopraphical Pivot of History" have not totally subsided. Right or wrong, scientist or dreamer, Mackinder kept three generations discussing his essay and trying to fit the mainstream World events along a whole century in either the framework of his geopolitical thesis or in the opposite currents it generated.

    The Englishman who was the first to climb Mount Kenya in 1899, had already started in Oxford to expound his advanced views based on the close relationship and mutual cause-effect between history and geography. The latter he defined as the "science of distributions," building on a biological tradition that focussed on the interconnection of physical factors as the basis for political geography. In 1902 he had already written a major book mainly concerned with the political geography of his island nation, not after having taken his thesis on the geography-history relationship to several lecture halls in Europe and Asia in 1893-1894.

    A professor who dares ask his students to define "precisely" Mackinder's views, would know in advance that precision is not, "precisely," a virtue that adorns geopolitical studies. Kjellen, Ratzel, Mackinder, Spykman, Haushofer, Mahan, Maull, threw light on different angles in which they thought the great events of history could be primarily explained in terms of fundamental geographical realities and methods, universally agreed upon to define geopolitics. Neverthless, the continuous interest in rereading and reinterpreting Mackinder et al questions what Charles Clover wrote in Foreign Affairs (1999): "Few modern ideologies are as whimsically all-encompassing, as romantically obscure, as intellectually sloppy, and as likely to start a third world war as the theory of geopolitics."

    The Columbian Epoch

    Mackinder began his lecture by an appraisal of what he called the "Columbian epoch," i.e., the age of great explorations that determined the nineteenth-century rounding not only of the physical map of the globe-continents and oceans -- but also that of its peoples and potential resources, as far as such knowledge could have been acquired. "In 400 years," "Mackinder said, "The outline of the world map has been completed with approximate accuracy." By inferring that the subsequent flow of travellers (expeditions, sailsmen, missionaries) was bestowing on the World "for the first time a closed political system," Mackinder was in a way ushering the age of globalization in its primary stage. While the term "Columbian" was meant to pay tribute to Christopher Columbus, the Admiral of the Ocean Sea, it is fair to mention that the discovery and navigation age had actually begun at the hands of the Portuguese, before the Papel Bull Inter Coetera divided the newfound lands and seas between Spain and Portugal in 1493, soon to be modified by the bilateral treaty of Tortedesillas that allowed Portugal to expand its horizons towards the heartland of Brazil. Then came the Dutch, the French, the British and in oceanic dimensions, the Scandinavians. Since childhood, Halford Mackinder was fascinated by the stories of English sailors, especially Captain Cook's voyages to the Pacific. Cook's sailmaker is said to be buried in the Parish Church graveyard of Gainsborough, a small river port on the Trent in Lincolnshire where Halford John Mackinder was born in 1861 to the town's respected physician.

    As if foreseeing our contemprary era at the outset of the current century, geopolitical theoritician Mackinder had predicted: "Every explosion of social forces, instead of being dissipated in a surrounding circuit of unknown space and barbaric chaos, will be sharply reechoed from the far side of the globe, and weak elements in the political and economic organism of the world will be shattered in consequence." Forty years later, when sent by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on a goodwill tour of several allied countries, his ex republican opponent Wendell Willkie could not agree less. The book he wrote on that mission he titled One World.

    The Heartland thesis

    Mackinder was appointed to an Oxford Readership which later allowed him to branch, as its first principal, into the Christ Church University Extension College during the zenith of the Victorian Age, when Britannia did rule the waves. His 100-year old controversial essay was delivered just after the formal closure, by the calender, of a dynamic age that continued to shed its lights on the early 20th century until the outbreak of World War I. By 1904, the British empire had reached its maximum territorial extension, except for the African territories later lost by Germany and the Arab provinces of the Ottoman empire occupied by Great Britain (and France) in 1918. With such a formidable background, the so- called "Father of Geogpolitical Studies" could afford to address himself to the reading of the future of the globe.

    Like U.S. Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan but from the opposite angle, Mackinder stressed the dialectical opposition between continental masses and the oceans, between land and sea, on the basis of the physical composition of global space. Simple enough! A dichotomy discussed by Sardinian author Domenico Alberto Azuni as applied to Ancient Greece, devoloped by Belgian historian Jacques Pirenne in his Les Grands Courants de l'Histoire and even considered valid for the interpretation of the conduct of States in international relations by the French jurist Charles Rousseau. Mackinder's specific contribution consisted of animating the land masses he distinguished on the physical mapamundi and assigning them names and roles in the big game of power politics.

    Europe and Asia, Eurasia, is to be regarded one single continental mass. Not that such an obvious fact was not known; Mackinder wanted to stress the fact that the "continuous land, ice-girth in the north, water-girth elsewhere, measuring twenty-one million square miles" posed a permanent reality, irrespective of cultural and economic factors that may interfere.

    Eurasia and Africa formed a World Island whose Heartland was to be found in the "Steppes of Central Asia" (Borodin?). To the east and south of this "Heartland" are marginal regions, arranged in a vast "Inner Crescent," accesible to ships, from the envolving oceans. Within the Heartland, with no waterways to the sea, the mobility (and therefore power) is left to horsemen; in the "Inner Crescent" it would be challenged by the ship.

    In a sense not to be later disdained by Arnold Toynbee in his Study of History, Mackinder noted the succesion of nomadic people that roamed and submitted the Heartland from within (Scythians, Sarmatians, Huns, Avars, Mongols), from the 6th to the 15th century, as they conquered (or threatened to conquer) civilizations and societies settled in the "Inner Crescent." Once Europe dominated seapower and turned its ships to control the Inner Crescent with factories, ports and seats of colonial authority, the Heartland lost the initiative, but not its potential geopolitical weight. While Europe expanded overseas to the Inner Crescent, the Heartland fell prey to a Russian state based in Europe, stretching westwards to Eastern Europe and eastwards to the Pacific Ocean. The northern-central core of Eurasia would be the "pivot state." Germany, the Austro-Hungarian empire, the Ottoman empire, India and China would be land masses with access to the sea, therefore forming the "inner crescent" while the insular-surrounding nations of Great Britain, United States, Japan and the Dominians of Canada, Australia and (soon) South Africa, would constitute the "Outer Crescent."

    He was the one who coined the term "Region of the Five Seas" to denote the crossroads pivot of the World Island: the region surrounded by the Eastern Mediterranean, Black Sea, Caspian Sea, Persian Gulf/Sea of Oman and the Red Sea. In other words, the region whose heartland is Anatolia.

    Mackinder understood that by enlarging its boundaries so as to encompass the "Inner Crescent" or part of it, whether in Europe or in Asia, the "pivot state" would acquire such resources as to become a threat to the "ocean frontage nations." For a geographer his stature, ideological terms such as "western democracies," "free world," may or may not have been the adequate ones: his theory was supposed to outlive superstructural developments by the sheer weight of its specific nature.

    Right, Wrong or in Between ?

    A lot has been written about Mackinder's theory, but not in a steady rhythm. In fact, just one year after the lecture was delivered, Russia's sky turned foggy for the Czar, deposed twelve years later to make room for the rise of a Communist "Pivot State" that would inherit the empire and add to it East Europe, en route to the Far East on the Asian "Inner Crescent". Indeed, the Cold War began just around the time Mackinder passed away in 1947, and during a half century it dictated the balance of power. The United States, Western democracies and the spiritual leadership of a corageous Pope who together succeeded in forcing the surrender of the "Pivot State" by political forfeit, achieved so by starting from an "Outer Crescent," literally named after an ocean: NATO. The Atlantic charter signed by Churchill and Roosevelt on a battleship became a symbol of the West's reply to the Axis challenge: an amalgam of Mackinder's geography and the ideological essence of the powers that fought to conserve its heritage read as the "Outer Crescent" by the English geopolitician. As the dominant power in the European "Inner Crescent," Hitler tried in vain to conquer the Heartland; the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact soon lost a potential magnetism it had never really possessed.

    After World War II, geopolitics as a matter of study retreated to backyard grounds. Having been abused by the Nazi exponents of territorial expansion led by General Karl Haushofer (who, though acquitted, committed suicide a year before Mackinder died,) it was treated less than a scientific order and more of a political scheme to justify Nazi expansion. Except for a few exceptions, and until the late seventies, it usually did not figure as a separate assignment in the curricula of Western universities; in the political language of the Eastern block it was outright anathema. Some brushstrokes in Latin America where it survived with dignity in military schools and literature that claimed a disputed border province or aimed at the extension of maritime jurisdiction. Brazil, Chile and Argentina were the outstanding sponsors.

    Once the Cold War was over, the world of Halford Mackinder seemed to rise from its dispersed ashes like an undaunted phoenix. Christopher J. Fettweis wrote in 2000: "Today, almost a century after his "Heartland" theory came into being there is renewed interest in the region Mackinder considered the key to world dominance. The Heartland of the Eurasian landmass may well play an important role in the next century (i.e. the current,) and the policy of today's lone superpower toward that region will have a tremendous influence upon the character of the entire international system."

    The most serious challenge to Mackinder's Heartland thesis came from Yale professor Nicholas Spykman (1893-1943) who reversed the directions of geopolitical weights established by Mackinder, calling the Outer Crescent by a better name: the Rimland. Spykman argued that it was the Eurasian Rimland, the coastal continental belt that would contain the so-called Pivot State, and not vice versa. His work America's Strategy in World Politics was the basis for the containment theory ushered by John Foster Dulles and carried on along the Cold War till the end of the Soviet Union.

    However, it is true that the advantages of sea-power that slowly and steadily started to strangle the Heartland as from the late XIXth Century, had obviously decreased with the rise of air and missilistic power, whose advocate was the Russian born (Tiflis 1894) American aviation expert Alexander Seversky, author of Victory Through Air Power (1942). The United States did not command a land route to landlocked Afghanistan: the war unleashed against the Talibans and associate extremist organizations needed just that amount of seapower (bases and aircraft carriers), but the rest of the job dropped from the sky.

    Five centuries ago, the Rimland had sent its fleets to the "Inner Crescent around Eurasia." There came the Portuguese, followed by the Dutch; the French and the British. On the first appearance of the Portuguese fleet in the Red Sea, having sailed all the way around the Cape of Good Hope, three almost simultaneous reactions took place on the Asian side of the Inner Crescent: In 1501, the Savafid dynasty took control of Persia; in 1517 Yavuz Sultan Selim turned southwards to Syria, Arabia and North Africa; in 1526 Baber installed the Mogul empire in India. It was another distinguished Englishman who had revealed: "To every action there is an equal and opposite reactions."

    Technology, science and material progress were bound to dilute and subsequently overcome the effect of the triple reaction. By Mackinder's time, the Asian Inner Crescent had been incorporated, save few exceptions, in the empires of West Eurepean Rimland colonial powers: Great Britain, France, the Netherlands. The outcome of World War I witnessed the end of four Inner Crescent empires: two in Europe (Germany and Austria- Hungary), one, bicontinental, the Ottoman empire and China in Asia, though the latter had collapsed a few years earlier. So came the fall of the Heartland's Czarist Russia. The victory of the Rimland or the Outer Crescent was complete. In both World Wars, the role of the United States was crucial: the Outer Crescent or the Rimland was coming to the rescue of the beleaguered European part.

    Now, for this first time since the end of what Mackinder called the "Columbian epoch," the Heartland in Central Asia is free from the Pivot State behind, whether Czarist Russia or the Soviet Union. Mackinder's theory is again at test, with the difference that the concept of "rule", now in the 21st century should not be considered in political or military terms: The age of globalization is also the age of economic control, which may well replace the idea of "rule." There are enough resources in the "Heartland" as to justify Mackinder's concern.

    The Heartland and Turkey

    In Mackinder's lexicon and era, the ageing Ottoman empire ranked in the Inner Crescent around the Heartland. Little attention was paid in those days outside the empire, to the cultural and historic roots of the Turkish nation in Central Asia and the Heartland as a whole. Indeed, the Ottoman thrust aimed West, not East. South was only added after the Europeans turned around the Cape of Good Hope. This may not be the proper space to discuss the Panturanian movements registered during the latter phases of the Ottoman era and which fizzled out upon the construction of the Turkish Republic on one hand and the consolidation of Soviet control in Central Asia on the other. During 70 years there rose a sort of a "South Iron Curtain" between Turkey and the peoples of Turkish heritage beyond the Caspian Sea and in Transoxiana. The South Iron Curtain was pulled down upon the desintegration of the former Soviet Union, clearing room for the rebirth of Eurasia in cultural terms understandable to Turkey and the peoples of the East. In a two full page interview with 9th President Suleyman Demirel, Yusuf Kanli and Ilnur Cevik of Turkish Daily News, published on April 30, 2003, the title read: "Eurasia is the Turkish Heartland." President Demirel's definition of the term meant an "11 million square kilometer geography, 200 million people, history, culture, environment, important resources. One of the most important subjects of the post 1989-era and today."

    The concept of Eurasia as may be reflected in the history and traditions of the Turks, defined by President Demirel, refers to a "land that includes most parts of Asia, the Caucasus, Anatolia, the upper portions of the Indian subcontinent, Iran, the Arabian peninsula, northern Africa, the Balkans, the Western Urals, northern Idil (Volga) region where the Altinordu state had ruled, and southern Russia. This entire land mass was greatly influenced by the Turks."

    This may not be the Mackinder geophysical concept of both Europe and Asia totally locked in one landmass, but it definitely encompasses to a great deal what he envisged as the "Heartland." Given the historic and cultural background of this "Turkish Heartland," a new age of economic, technical and cultural cooperation between the Turkish Republic and the old-new nations of the Caucasus and Central Asia lies ahead. The pipeline from Baku to Ceyhan via Tibilisi will launch Turkey onto the oil map of the Middle East, or rather Mackinder's Region of the Five Seas. Although not an oil-producing country, the oil corridor will put Turkey right in the center of this map, especially after the gas pipeline from Kazakstan is linked to the one now under construction, and political conditions in the Caucasus and South Russia achieve sufficient stability.

    The fall of the "South Iron Curtain" that had kept Eurasia separated from the Region of the Five Seas during long decades has brought the "Heartland" back into the centrum of the World. So did the extremist Taliban regime that controlled Afghanistan for several years. Most probably there will be no need for someone to "rule" over it so as to control Eurasia and than the world; probably there will be a world of cooperation based on equality, freedom, human rights and mutual respect among the member States of the international society. By its own means and with its resources, the Hinterland Mackinder so assiduosly studied, may gradually consolidate its own identity and mission on the basis of a coordination relationship and not that of supra and/or subordination, as implied from any analysis rooted in the values of 19th century power struggle and imperialism. In this sense, Turkey will be the natural bridge located between the Heartland and both Crescents; the Inner, in which it is naturally located, and the Outer -- also called the Rimland -- where the western values of democracy, freedom and open society have found abode. In this sense, Mackinder's lecture, delivered one hundred years ago, would pass the test with high degrees.

    Dr. Kaldone G. Nweihed

    Ambassador of the Bolivian Republic of Venezuela to Turkey writing as retired Professor of International Relations at Simon Bolivar University, Caracas and Lecturer at Los Andes University, Merida Venezuela.

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