The Heartland Theory

The Heartland Theory

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Introduction

Revived only recently, the geopolitical approach to international relations was as a modern concept first formulated by Sir Halford John Mackinder in a 1904 paper, appropriately titled the Geographic Pivot of History. Influenced by the gradual decline of British imperialism, as well as both world wars, Mackinder continued to develop his geographical approach to power relations and politics, finally formulating the Heartland theory in 1943. The highly particular circumstances of his time are reflected in the context of the theory; however, it remains the fundamental concept in modern geopolitics.

 

The Heartland theory develops the notion of the world as a closed system in which existing powers, states, and peoples no longer live independently and in isolation from one another. Instead, they continually interact and thus influence events far beyond their own borders.

The fluidity of global interactions is reflected clearly in the projection of the Old World’s power far beyond the historic borders of Europe and the Near East. Colonialism and imperialism defined the asymmetric power relations that regulate physical borders of varying powers, however, the contemporary globalized world similarly demonstrates inter-state influences. Mackinder theorized that

“the actual balance of political power and any given time is, of course, the product, on the one hand, of geographical conditions, both economic and strategic, and, on the other hand, of the relative number… and organization of competing peoples.”

Mackinder developed his theory based on the permanent geographical realities such as flora and fauna, related population density, resources, as well as topographic elements. He aimed to derive historic generalizations founded on the causal role of geography2, which resulted in the formulation of the Heartland theory as a struggle for power between continental and maritime powers. Due to the great economic and technological developments, state power cannot be projected merely across oceans, but may now span economically and militarily across any landmass. Declining maritime powers such as the British Empire are therefore challenged by traditionally continental states, namely the Russian empire.

While Mackinder underestimated the growing U.S. power and global influence due to its sea-power classification, his emphasis on the crucial role of technology in state power and geopolitics corresponds to the contemporary conditions of modern warfare, as well as communications.

“Mackinder’s 1904 description of Eurasia as the geographical pivot of history emerged at a critical moment … and can be seen as a clear and succinct summary of existing geostrategic ideas embellished by new geo-economic considerations”.

Additionally, Mackinder’s pivot area was characterized as a vast region in Eurasia with geographic advantages such as rich natural resources, as well as natural security from any sea power. Any state controlling this region was a pivot state with the ability to disrupt existing global power relations at the expense of maritime powers4. Mackinder referred to this pivot region as the Heartland, covering the core of the World Island –the latter consisting of the Eurasian continent and Africa.

The Heartland includes Slavic East Europe, considered a distinct entity from West Europe and spanning from the middle of present-day Germany to Volgograd, as well as present-day Russia and Central Asia5. The Heartland is surrounded by the Inner Crescent, consisting of continental West
Europe, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia, as well as the Outer Crescent, consisting of the Americas, the UK, Africa, and Australia6. Again basing his historic narrative on geographic elements, Mackinder proposed that

“all the settled margins of the Old World sooner or later felt he expansive force of mobile power originating from the steppe”.

The Heartland theory theorizes precisely of this geopolitical expansionism stemming from the steppe – the Heartland. Hence, Mackinder’s main thesis stipulates three crucial conditions for a unipolar global dominance: Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; Who rules the World-Island commands the World.

Who rules the Heartland?

Tsarist Russia, spanning across East Europe and North Asia, was according to Mackinder in a unique position; by 1904 when Mackinder first wrote about the concept of the Heartland and the pivot area, Russian (East European) political and economic domination over the Heartland has already been fully established9. In light of the changing world order after his first work on the Heartland theory in 1904,

Mackinder continually developed the concept until 1943. The circumstances of both world wars confirmed his assertions. Russia was both in the past and in the present day, with its East European capital, vast territory, and Slavic cultural, religious, and linguistic characteristics considered the most powerful state in East Europe.

Following World War, I, Allied attempts to overthrow the 1917 Bolshevik regime in Russia demonstrated the importance of Russian domination in East Europe10. Furthermore, World War II and Axis’ expansionism into the Heartland via East Europe by Germany, as well as via East Asia by Japan, demonstrate the struggle for power among the state dominating the Heartland and those located in the Inner Crescent. The Cold War, too, underlines the importance of influence over East Europe in global politics. Although Mackinder underestimated the extent of U.S. power rise and the scope of modern warfare which surpasses the duality of maritime and continental powers, his premise remains confirmed.

Heartland and Rimland theory

In the 21st century, the geopolitical discussions of international relations in East Europe focus on the struggle for influence between the Atlantic alliance (referring to NATO, as well as the broader West European-North American multilateralism), and Russia – the continental power. The imperial and Soviet legacies continually reaffirm Russia’s status as the principal nemesis of the Anglo-American alliance, as the cycle of numerous ‘restarts’ and hostile acts continues to guide great-power relations.

Furthermore, the recurring failure of such struggles between maritime and continental powers, or the Anglo-American alliance and the Russian-dominated Heartland, reaffirms the relevance of Mackinder’s thesis11. Thus, the historic expansionism from the Heartland is reflected in tsarist Russian imperialism, the Soviet Union, as well as contemporary Russian foreign policy. Although the post-Soviet order in Central Asia allowed for the diversification of stakeholders in the region, namely the USA, China, Turkey, and Iran, the fact remains that Russian influence cannot be underestimated.

The consolidation of the Russian state borders around most of the Heartland provides it with a pivotal position in Eurasia, from which it can project power onto Scandinavia, Central Asia, East European countries, Turkey, Iran, and even India12. Correspondingly, the geopolitical approach to the global order was revived after the Soviet dissolution and adapted to accommodate for the modern struggle for the expansion of spheres of influence via multilateral institutions such as the EU/NATO or EEU/CSTO.

Both the actors and their strategies described in Mackinder’s Heartland theory remain highly relevant in the global order, however, modern conditions of politics in the international arena stimulated the development of the theory to include neo-imperial policies of global superpowers and the geo-economic approach to international relations.

Central Asia as the core of the Heartland

One of the key elements of Mackinder’s theory, that is after more than a century again witness to an external power struggle, is Central Asia – the core of the Heartland. Central Asia – present-day Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan – served as a backdrop against which Mackinder formulated the Heartland theory in the early 20th century based on its historic role as an arena for competition among empires. Central Asia’s role as the chessboard on which the British and Russian empires played ‘the Great Game’, as well as its contemporary economic, political, and security significance allow for the application of the Heartland theory in examining the motivations, strategies, and (conceivable) outcomes of such struggles.

Central Asia’s geographical location at the core of the Heartland has throughout history demonstrated a source of great strategic importance – ‘the vast zone of Central Asia had long been the geographical pivot of history and would remain the pivot of the world’s politics”13. Populated by ethnically diverse nomadic peoples without established political institutions of governance, it was first integrated under external domination with the Hun empire, followed by a cycle of various geopolitical actors14. In the 16th century, it responded with little resistance to the initial Russian ‘pivot’ and the advance across Siberia.

Almost immediately, tsarist Russia encountered a challenger and was forced to negotiate with the Mongol Empire for control over the steppe. By the 19th century, ethnic Russians transferred their focus from East Europe to achieve domination over key areas of the Heartland under the Russian empire – Central Asia and Central Caucasus.

Soon after, Russia’s imperial aspirations presented yet another opponent, resulting in the intense political and economic competition between the Russian and British empires, known as the Great Game. Furthermore, Russian influence over the Heartland was challenged by the Ottoman empire, whose geopolitical tactics relied on the use of ideological ties with the Heartland to underpin its physical expansionism.

The Heartland in the contemporary global orde

The consolidation of Russian control over the Heartland peaked during the Cold War when détente between the two superpowers facilitated their autonomy and independence in their respective spheres of influence. Soviet Socialist Republics in Central Asia were established in the 1920s and 1930s in an effort to prevent the spread of Pan-Turanism which, although being discredited globally after World War I and the dissolution of the Ottoman empire, remained the main ideology to which the peoples of Central Asia related16. Instead of establishing borders among S.S.R.s according to historic borders between the autonomous Bukhara and Khiva, and Turkestan, as previously imposed by the tsarist rule, the Soviets divided the region irrespective of ethnic, linguistic, cultural, and historic elements17. The resulting S.S.R.s diminished the threat of Pan-Turanism, as they interrupted existing links among the peoples of Central Asia.

After the dissolution of the USSR, the five newly independent states inherited this division. Initially, the end of the Soviet ‘empire’ and Yeltsin’s policy of divorce signified the end of Russian rule over Central Asia. The end of the consolidated Russian rule facilitated external powers’ gradual expansion into the region despite the legacy of Russian influence.

Furthermore, the power asymmetry that resulted from the economic, social, and political instability and backwardness of the Central Asian states allowed for the growth of dependency relations with states outside of the Heartland, namely the U.S. Despite the transformation of the global order that occurred in the 1990s and a shift away from imperialism and overseas spheres of influence, Mackinder’s Heartland theory remains applicable to the examination of international relations, especially in Central Asia.

The geopolitics of the contemporary world, however, differ from the geopolitics of Mackinder’s time. The renaissance of geopolitics thus requires an adaptation of the Heartland theory in accordance with
modern conditions are often described as the New Great Game– the concept of competition in influence, power, hegemony, and profits in Central Asia.

The Heartland in the future

The competition between the USA and Russia for influence over the Heartland is only one of the numerous aspects of the New Great Game. The Central Asian rivalry between Pakistan and India, for example, also highlights the relevance of the Heartland in pursuing their strategic interest19. The third subset of the New Great Game may also be the Iranian – Turkish competition for leadership among the Islamic populations of Eurasia20. Because of the Heartland’s position at the core of Eurasia and the intersection of three distinct components – Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, the region’s geopolitical importance, although different than that initially imagined by Mackinder in the early 20th century, will likely remain significant for all global or regional powers. While Central Asian countries as a result have unprecedented potential for pursuing multi-vector policies and extracting maximum benefits from external powers, their balancing act may further undermine regional stability. As long as ‘great power chauvinism’ guides national security objectives of the USA, Russia, and others, the Heartland will remain at the center of global order.

FAQ

What is defined as the heartland theory?

Sir Halford Mackinder published the Heartland idea in 1904. According to the premise, whoever controls Eastern Europe also controls the Heartland. Additionally, it endorsed the concept of global supremacy. Explanation – A revised version clarifies that whoever controls the heartland also controls the globe island.

What is the heartland theory AP Human Geography?

The Heartland Hypothesis. a geopolitical idea advanced by British geographer Harold Mackinder that any political entity located in the heart of Eurasia may eventually grow strong enough to conquer the world.

Where is the heartland theory?

The Heartland stretched from the Volga to the Yangtze and from the Himalayas to the Arctic.

Does the heartland theory still apply today?

This demonstrates that the Heartland theory continues to have an impact on the United States and Russia’s Central Asian foreign policy outlooks. Control of the Eurasian landmass (Europe, Asia, and the Middle East), which he argued for, is still seen as the key geopolitical prize.

What is Heartland’s thesis?

He argued that Britain’s maritime might could not reach Russia’s enormous central lands, that the huge Eurasian territory contained an impenetrable ‘Heartland,’ and that whoever controlled this Heartland would govern the world.

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