The Geographical Pivot of History

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The Geographical Pivot of History, sometimes simply as The Pivot of History is a geostrategic theory, also known as Heartland Theory.[1] "The Geographical Pivot of History" was an article submitted by Halford John Mackinder in 1904 to the Royal Geographical Society that advanced his Heartland Theory.[2][3] In this article, Mackinder extended the scope of geopolitical analysis to encompass the entire globe.

The World-Island and the Heartland[edit]

Map of the "Heartland Theory", as published by Mackinder in 1904.

According to Mackinder, the Earth's land surface was divisible into:

The Heartland lay at the centre of the world island, stretching from the Volga to the Yangtze and from the Himalayas to the Arctic. Mackinder's Heartland was the area then ruled by the Russian Empire and after that by the Soviet Union, minus the Kamchatka Peninsula region.

Strategic importance of Eastern Europe[edit]

Later, in 1919, Mackinder summarised his theory as:

"Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland;
who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island;
who rules the World-Island commands the world."
(Mackinder, Democratic Ideals and Reality, p. 150)

Any power which controlled the World-Island would control well over 50% of the world's resources. The Heartland's size and central position made it the key to controlling the World-Island.

The vital question was how to secure control for the Heartland. This question may seem pointless, since in 1904 the Russian Empire had ruled most of the area from the Volga to Eastern Siberia for centuries. But throughout the nineteenth century:

  • The West European powers had combined, usually successfully, in the Great Game to prevent Russian expansion.
  • The Russian Empire was huge but socially, politically and technologically backward—i.e., inferior in "virility, equipment and organization".

Mackinder held that effective political domination of the Heartland by a single power had been unattainable in the past because:

  • The Heartland was protected from sea power by ice to the north and mountains and deserts to the south.
  • Previous land invasions from east to west and vice versa were unsuccessful because lack of efficient transportation made it impossible to assure a continual stream of men and supplies.

He outlined the following ways in which the Heartland might become a springboard for global domination in the twentieth century (Sempa, 2000):

  • Successful invasion of Russia by a West European nation (most probably Germany). Mackinder believed that the introduction of the railroad had removed the Heartland's invulnerability to land invasion. As Eurasia began to be covered by an extensive network of railroads, there was an excellent chance that a powerful continental nation could extend its political control over the Eastern European gateway to the Eurasian landmass. In Mackinder's words, "Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland."
  • A Russo-German alliance. Before 1917 both countries were ruled by autocrats (the Tsar and the Kaiser), and both could have been attracted to an alliance against the democratic powers of Western Europe (the US was isolationist regarding European affairs, until it became a participant of World War I in 1917). Germany would have contributed to such an alliance its formidable army and its large and growing sea power.
  • Conquest of Russia by a Sino-Japanese empire (see below).

The combined empire's large East Asian coastline would also provide the potential for it to become a major sea power. Mackinder's "Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland ..." does not cover this scenario, probably because the previous 2 scenarios were seen as the major risks of the nineteenth century and the early 1900s.

One of Mackinder's personal objectives was to warn Britain that its traditional reliance on sea power would become a weakness as improved land transport opened up the Heartland for invasion and / or industrialisation (Sempa, 2000).

Influence of the theory on foreign and military policy[edit]

Colour representation, using a modern projection of the world.

In the Western powers[edit]

Mackinder identified the geopolitical nightmare that was to haunt the world's two sea powers during the first half of the twentieth century — Great Britain and later on the United States. The nightmare was that if Germany or Russia were allowed to control East Europe then this could lead to the domination of the Eurasian land mass by one of these two powers as a prelude to mastery of the world.

Influence of the theory on other geopolitical models[edit]

Evidence of Mackinder’s Heartland Theory can be found in the works of geopolitician Dimitri Kitsikis, particularly in his “Intermediate Region” model. There is a significant geographical overlap between the Heartland or “Pivot Area” and the Intermediate Region, with the exception of Germany-Prussia and north-eastern China, which Kitsikis excludes from the Intermediate Region. Mackinder, on the other hand, excludes North Africa, Eastern Europe and the Middle East from the Heartland. The reason for this difference is that Mackinder’s model is primarily geo-strategic, while Kitsikis’s model is geo-civilizational. However, the roles of both the Intermediate Region and the Heartland are regarded by their respective authors as being pivotal in the shaping of world history.

Historical tests of the theory[edit]

Russo-Japanese War[edit]

The Russo-Japanese War of 1905 did not confirm Mackinder's hypothesis, because:

  • Japan's most decisive successes were at sea, and the Heartland theory regards land power as more important than sea power.
  • Japan's limited land successes incurred very high casualties and were in Korea and in parts of Russia which were outside Mackinder's definition of the Heartland (see map at top of page).

World War I[edit]

Though the theory was first conceived before World War I, developments in that war did not disprove it and perhaps gave it some support:

  • The war was fought almost entirely on land, although Mackinder had not envisaged the vast systems of trenches in Europe.
  • The development of mechanized military transport and tanks, both needing petroleum, was unforeseen by Mackinder but fitted easily into the theory, as Russia's major oil reserves were located on the western shore of the Caspian Sea.

Russian Revolution[edit]

The Russian Revolution of 1917 made the Heartland itself a threat to the global balance of power for the first time since the mid-nineteenth century, since the Heartland's new government took industrialisation (including modern transport) very seriously, had an ideology which aspired to world domination, and apparently commanded far greater popular support than the Tsars had ever done.[citation needed]

See "The Cold War" below for analysis of the outcome.

German expansion in Central Europe and Russia[edit]

Following several centuries of German settlement in the east, Germany annexed Austria in 1938, extorted control of large parts of Czechoslovakia in 1938, triggered World War II by invading Poland in 1939 and invaded the Soviet Union as far as Moscow in 1941.


  • Germany's control of Eastern Europe was too short-lived to be a real test of the Heartland theory.
  • The Soviet Union's transport infrastructure was still poor in 1941, so one of Mackinder's preconditions was not fulfilled.
  • Germany had also invaded a large part of Western Europe, and the need to garrison its conquests limited the resources it could devote to war with the Soviet Union.
  • The Soviet Union limited the impact of its own territorial losses and Germany's territorial gains by relocating many of its factories east of the Urals. Mackinder had not considered this possibility and it could be regarded as a weakness in his theory.

Japanese control of East Asia[edit]

Japan occupied Manchuria in 1931, invaded China in 1937 and much of Southeast Asia during World War II.

But this did not constitute a real test of Mackinder's "Sino-Japanese empire" scenario:

  • Japan's control of these territories was too short-lived to increase Japan's economic and military resources.
  • China in particular was resentful and rebellious rather than the willing partner that Mackinder had imagined.

Sea power in World War II[edit]

Mackinder's theory implies that modern land transport makes sea power less important than land power. But sea power played a much larger part in World War II than in World War I:

But in terms of Mackinder's theory (especially as he developed it in the 1920s) World War II was 2 "Outer / Insular Crescent" powers (US and Britain) plus the Heartland versus 1 "Inner / Marginal Crescent" power (Germany) and another Outer Crescent power (Japan). The bloodiest part of the whole war was Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union, which was completely consistent with Mackinder's theory.

The Cold War[edit]

The Cold War period (late 1940s to late 1980s) was long enough to present a real test of Mackinder's theory, as the Soviet Union:

  • controlled Eastern Europe and the Caucasus throughout this period and was therefore in a position to threaten or extend its influence into Western Europe and the oil-rich Middle East.
  • was apparently at a similar economic and technological level to the major Western powers (principally the US).

As a result the Western powers' main objective during the Cold War was to limit the Soviet Union's expansion and influence by any means which would not lead to a nuclear war. Some Western pundits doubted whether the West could survive in the long term (centuries), and hardly anybody seriously considered attempting to reduce the Soviet Union's territory or influence.

But Mackinder had pointed out that "The actual balance of political power at any given time is… the product, on the one hand, of geographical conditions, both economic and strategic, and, on the other hand, of the relative number, virility, equipment and organization of the competing peoples."

And there was increasing evidence that the Soviet Union lacked "virility, equipment and organization":

  • Despite alarm in 1957–1960 about the "missile gap", in 1961 the US realised that its nuclear weapons exceeded the Soviet Union's in both number and quality.
  • By the mid 1970s it became apparent that the Soviet Union's economy was experiencing difficulties. The most visible symptom was that it was actually producing less food than in Tsarist times and had to import grain from the US from the early 1960s onwards.
  • The Soviet war in Afghanistan showed severe weaknesses in the Soviet army's training, morale and equipment which were symptoms of economic and social decay (Odom 1998).

United States' foreign affairs and the Heartland[edit]

Arguably, the United States has also been using the Heartland Theory in their guidelines in foreign affairs. The US has military bases all over the world and has kept good allies with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait which keep a United States influence in the Middle East, close to the Pivot Area. Having military presences in Afghanistan, the Iraq War and the NATO expansion in Europe gave the United States even more power in an area that is pivotal to having control of the Heartland.[4]


K. S. Gadzhev, in his book Vvedenie v geopolitiku (Introduction to Geopolitics) raises a series of objections to Mackinder's Heartland to start with that the significance physiography is given there for political strategy is a form of geographical determinism.[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Charles Kruszewski, "The Pivot of History", Foreign Affairs, April 1954
  2. ^ Mackinder, H.J., "The Geographical Pivot of History", The Geographical Society, Vol. 23, No.4, (April 1904), 421-437
  3. ^ Mackinder, H.J., Democratic Ideals and Reality. A Study in the Politics of Reconstruction, National Defense University Press, 1996, pp. 175–193
  4. ^ Piotr Dutkiewicz, Robert J. Jackson, NATO Looks East, Greenwood Publishing Group, 1998, p. 5
  5. ^ Anita Sengupta, Heartlands of Eurasia: The Geopolitics of Political Space, Lexington Books, 2009

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]