I can’t seem to find it, but I believe it was Keynes who has this wonderful quote on the fact that so much of the world around us is shaped by the ideas of long-dead thinkers who nobody actually reads and whose names have been largely forgotten. Today’s video is about one of those thinkers, Halford Mackinder. He’s not a household name, but he creeps around the margins of any large history book you will read, and he still inspires a lot of bad foreign and domestic policy in countries all over the world. His “World Island” or “Heartland” thesis is part of the list of justifications people will offer for interventionist US foreign policy. But Mackinder’s influence always remains somewhat subterranean. Because it kind of has to. Because his ideas are crap.
If you actually read one of Mackinder’s books, which I did, his ideas sound more like a half-assed dungeons and dragons game than a serious theory of history and politics. And when you dive in and examine his assumptions about the upcoming 20th century, you realize they were all wrong. His idea of looking at geopolitics as a whole is rightly influential. His actual ideas about geopolitics and their future are frankly laughable. It’s amazing how influential you can get if you give a veneer of respectability to the paranoid visions of militarists. Today’s video demolishes Mackinder’s ideas.
Video Transcript after the jump…
Hey There. Halford Mackinder is the most influential person you’ve probably never heard of. Mackinder was a British Geographer. He is seen as one of the founding fathers of geopolitics, which obviously makes him important to the work of this YouTube Channel. He’s tremendously influential, from the Kremlin to the Pentagon. His most famous words are these.
Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; Who rules the Heartland commands the World Island; Who rules the World Island commands the World.
If you are doubting the influence of this long dead British academic, let me point you to a Bloomberg opinion piece from June of 2019. James Stavridis, a highly respected and decorated retired US Admiral thinks these ideas are still worth talking about.
It’s very interesting stuff. You can see why defense industry folks across the world love it. The problem is that Halford Mackinder was just wrong. About basically everything. After about the eleventy billionth YouTube comment telling me that the US occupation of Afghanistan or US expansion of NATO was rational because of Mackinder’s principles I decided to actually read some of his work. I don’t think anybody else has done this recently, because the problems are pretty obvious.
The Geographical Pivot of History was first delivered as a talk in 1904. It was seen as revolutionary because it turned older British ideas about the importance of sea power upside down. He argued that what would matter in the future was the control of the center of Eurasia, not the coast lines that had been important up to that point. The railroad had ended the old primacy of the waves. The vast power of the Russian steppes would soon be what really mattered in geopolitics. The power of the Soviet Union made this look sort of clever for a bit, but I think it also kept people from re-examining just how drastically wrong Mackinder was about what the future would bring.
He was laughably wrong in the Short term. The 1904 essay talks about how impressive the Russian army in Manchuria was, and how it showed the growing might of the land power! In 1905 that Russian army was destroyed by the Japanese, a people whose power was very much based in the sea. That’s minor picture thing, but to illustrate just how wrong Mackinder’s whole thesis is in the big picture I’m going to actually have to read a passage from the essay:
“The spaces within the Russian Empire and Mongolia are so vast, and their potentialities in population, wheat, cotton and metals so incalculably great, that it is inevitable that a vast economic world, more or less apart, will there develop inaccessible to oceanic commerce”
Umm… does that strike you as describing what has happened over the past 115 years?
Is world culture awed by the achievements of the mega cities of Siberia? Have Kazakhstan and Mongolia taken their place among the world’s economic and population leaders? Has the Volga become the new Mississippi? Is suburban sprawl becoming a real issue in Vladivostock?
Sorry, I don’t want to rub people’s noses in it here. But this is important. This assumption, that Asia’s vast steppes were just about to become an economic juggernaut, is at the center of the whole world island thesis. The fact that it simply hasn’t happened 100 years later is really important. It kicks the feet out from under a lot of US strategic planning. There’s no there there. And, importantly, there’s not going to be a there there. The multi trillion dollar US presence in places like Afghanistan and Iraq is completely pointless. Halford Mackinder was a good geographer, but he didn’t understand much about economics, society or technology and how they were going to develop.
A lot of Mackinder’s mistake can be explained by the habitual British paranoia about Russia. It was part of the mental toolbox of every Victorian, and it led to many worse results than this silly theory about geography. Much more defensibly, Mackinder was forecasting a future that looked a lot like what had just happened in the United States over the course of the 19th century. In 1904 the United States looked to be developing exactly the sort of inland empire that Mackinder thought the railroads would bring to Eurasia. In 1900 five of the ten biggest cities in the United States were located far from the oceans. 100 years earlier none of these cities had been bigger than trading posts, and some of them, like Chicago, hadn’t existed at all. After growth like this the sky was certainly the limit!
It only seemed logical that something similar would happen on the vast inner plains of Russia. Unfortunately Mackinder, and a lot of other people mistook a temporary situation for a permanent condition. The filling in of the United States relied on a whole bunch of impoverished immigrant farmers whose highest aspiration was having some good agricultural land of their own. That hasn’t been the goal of economic migrants for quite some time. You make the money in the cities now, not by pioneering. This is just as true of the United States as it is everywhere else.
Depending on how you count Dallas, the US has gone from five of the ten biggest cities being in the interior to just two or three. The future for the US interior lies in resource extraction, mega-agriculture super cute renovations of ghost towns, and hopefully some expansion of the urban areas that already exist. None of this involves all that many people compared to the coastal mega-cities of Texas, California and Florida. Russia and the Stans simply aren’t going to be building the empires of the future on any of that. OH, and Mackinder also based his theory on the idea that rail travel would soon be cheaper than shipping by sea. That’s still not true a century later. Mackinder failed to foresee shipping containers. Believe it or not, the US has the best freight rail network in the world. Freight not Passenger. Over a hundred years after Mackinder’s writing, it’s still cheaper to send something from New York to LA by ship than it is by rail.
I’ve been a bit unfair to Mackinder here. He was a genius. The whole idea of looking at the big picture of geopolitics can be traced to him to some degree. He can’t be blamed for failing to predict the future. The problem is that his central idea is very, very wrong, and very serious people, like US admiral serious, still think there is something to his theories. If you want a way to look at the world and the future that’s more useful than hyperventilating about who holds the Eurasian world island, I suggest you check out my new book Avoiding the British Empire, available now in paperback and on the Amazon Kindle.
Thanks for watching, please subscribe, and come back next time, when we’ll point out why World War 3 will be the US’s fault.