The Geographical Pivot of History

The Geographical Pivot of History
was an article submitted by 
in 1904 to the Royal Geographical Society that advanced his Heartland Theory. In this article, Mackinder extended the scope of geopolitical analysis to encompass the entire globe.

Importance of non-geographic factors

It is easy to regard Mackinder's theory as a kind of geographic determinism. But Mackinder emphasized that his theory was not so limited:

"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."
(quoted in Sempa 2000)

The World-Island and the Heartland

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

  • The World-Island, comprising the interlinked continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa. This was the largest, most populous, and richest of all possible land combinations.
  • The offshore islands, including the British Isles and the islands of Japan.
  • The outlying islands, including the continents of North America, South America, and Australia.

    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 ruled by the Russian Empire and then by the Soviet Union, minus the area around Vladivostok.

Sir Halford Mackinder's Heartland theory concept showing the situation of the "pivot area" established in the Theory of the Heartland.

Strategic importance of Eastern Europe

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 controls the world."

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 of 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 19th 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 20th 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 USA was isolationist until it became a belligerent 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 19th 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

In Germany up to 1945

Some influential Germans, such as Karl Haushofer both before and during the Third Reich, found this theory compatible with their desire to control Mitteleuropa and to take the Ukraine. The intention to take the latter was indicated by the slogan Drang nach Osten, or "drive to the east".

In the Western powers

Mackinder identified the geopolitical nightmare that was to haunt the world's two sea powers during the first half of the 20thcentury — 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.

Historical tests of the theory

Russo-Japanese War

The Russo-Japanese War of 1905 did not test Mackinder's theory, 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

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.
  • For the first time in 2 centuries sea-power was almost irrelevant - submarines could destroy convoys and were a serious threat to warships, and the war's greatest sea-borne invasion, at Gallipoli, was a disaster.
  • 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

The Russian Revolution of 1917 made the Heartland itself a threat to the global balance of power for the first time since the mid-19th 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 and enthusiasm than the Tsars had ever done.

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

German invasions of East Europe and Russia

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 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

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 feared.

Sea power in World War II

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:

  • The Battle of the Atlantic (1939-1945), in which Germany tried to prevent the USA from sending supplies to Britain (and Russia from 1941), and later to prevent a build-up of Allied forces in Britain as a prelude to the Allied invasion of Europe.
  • The Battle of Normandy was the largest seaborne invasion in history.
  • The Pacific War, which was decided by major US naval victories, particularly the Battle of the Coral Sea and the Battle of Midway - but perhaps one should regard these as air battles which were fought over the sea rather than over land. (In fact, during Coral Sea, the opposing navies never saw, much less directly fired upon, one another.)

But in terms of Mackinder's theory (especially as he developed it in the 1920s) World War II was 2 "Outer / Insular Crescent" powers (USA and Britain) plus the Heartland versus 2 "Inner / Marginal Crescent" powers (Germany and Japan) - see the image at the top of this page. And the bloodiest part of the whole war was Germany's attempt to invade Russia, which was completely consistent with Mackinder's theory.

The Cold War

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 U.S.).

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 USA 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 in difficulties. The most visible symptom was that it was actually producing less food than in Tsarist times and had to import grain from the USA 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).

Is Mackinder's theory obsolete?

Several developments since 1945 and especially since about 1970 could be regarded as making Mackinder's theory obsolete, or at least in need of upgrade to a more general theory. Mackinder's own formulations are evidently based on the situation of the early 1900s and his interpretation of history (mainly of the 19th century).

Bombers and missiles

Mackinder conceived his theory when launching an attack on another country took weeks or months and required efficient transport by sea (requires a strong navy) or land (requires good land transport). Now bombers can strike in hours and missiles in minutes, without the need for naval support or land transport infrastructure.

Experience from World War II onwards suggests that successful strategic bombing requires control of the target country's airspace. Such air superiority requires a strong economy with "virility, equipment and organization" - and a sufficiently strong economy requires a rather large land area (e.g. that of the USA).

More recently strategic bombing has sometimes proved ineffective - notably in the Vietnam War.

The other main application of bombers is surgical strikes such as those by Israel against Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor or by (mainly) the USA against Libya in 1986. But these raids were against opposition that was weaker than the attackers in every way, and therefore neither prove nor disprove any part of Mackinder's theory.

Missiles raise more complex issues, because most debate focusses on nuclear missiles. The theory of Mutual assured destruction led to a military stand-off between the USA and the Soviet Union in which the two sides competed via proxy wars and economic attrition. This was ultimately a contest between the size of the Heartland and the "virility, equipment and organization" of the US economy and neither proves nor disproves any part of Mackinder's theory.

The rise of China to great power status

When Mackinder was writing, China's military force was such that quite modest Western forces could defeat it (e.g. the Opium Wars) and even occupy its capital (e.g. during the Boxer Rebellion).

Mackinder did not foresee the rapid economic and technological progress China has made since about 1960, but his "Sino-Japanese empire" scenario showed that he was aware of China's potential - although he assumed that Japan would power China's modernisation.

The Middle East

Mackinder regarded the Middle East as part of the World-Island, but there is no evidence that he anticipated how oil would make some Middle Eastern states geopolitically important in their own right.

Technology and the hyperpower USA

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the USA has often been described as the world's only hyperpower, mainly because its technological superiority in both economic and military fields outweighs the greater size of Russia and China.

The pace of modern technological progress and its consequences are a major exception to Mackinder's theory, which was formulated at a time when visible change took at least one generation.

Asymmetric warfare

In Mackinder's time the best-known examples of asymmetric warfare were the Boer War and the rather unsuccessful British campaigns in Afghanistan, and neither example changed the global balance of power.

Asymmetric warfare is now widely regarded as the main threat to the USA's dominance as the sole hyperpower. The main elements of this threat are:

  • The use of some modern technologies which appear to favour the "underdog". Some are used mainly for propaganda, e.g. cheap video cameras and the World Wide Web. Others can be used for the planning and control of unconventional attacks, e.g. disposable mobile phones and encrypted email.
  • Willingness to use tactics which the opposition regard as illegal or even atrocious.
  • Giving a high priority to manipulating public opinion in the opposing country, in the country where war is being fought and in neutral countries; and particularly to exploiting any asymmetries in public reaction, e.g. to apparent atrocities by the "stronger" and "weaker" sides (a significant feature of the Vietnam War).

Asymmetric warfare is probably the most important exception to Mackinder's theory, which is fundamentally an economic theory of global political power and has nothing to say about the crucial psychological aspects of asymmetric warfare.


  • "CIA's Analysis Of The Soviet Union, 1947-1991 links to a large number of CIA analyses of Soviet economic, technological and military capability (as well as e.g. foreign policy), all in PDF format.
  • William R. Keylor, The Twentieth-Century World and Beyond: An International History Since 1900, 2006. ISBN 0-19-516843-7
  • Odom, W.E. (1998) "The Collapse of the Soviet Military". Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-08271-1
  • Sempa, F.P. (2000) "Mackinder's World" describes the background to Mackinder's thinking, the development of his theory after World War I (with many quotes) and its influence on geo-strategic thinking.