If you’re ever wondering about Vladimir Putin’s geopolitical savvy, you could do worse than start with a remarkably prescient essay written by a staunch British imperialist of the early 20C, Sir Halford Mackinder. One of the founders of modern geography and an important contributor to developing the very concept of geopolitics, Mackinder wrote his essay, “The Geographical Pivot of History,” in 1904, arguing not only for a geographic perspective on international politics in general, but also insisting on the importance of eastern Europe and western Asia in the long-term arrangement of the Great Powers.
Fifteen years later, Mackinder urged the victorious Allies to pay attention to the region as they sorted out things during the Versailles Peace Conference after WWI. He articulated the core of his thinking, the “heartland theory,” this way: “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; Who rules the Heartland commands the World Island; Who rules the World Island commands the World.” He saw the “heartland” as a great swath of territory ranging from Moscow to Basra on the Arabian Sea thence east to cover what we call the “stans” and much of Siberia. The “World Island, of course is Eurasia.
In the center of the Heartland lies what is now Ukraine.
It’s not clear how much of agricultural economics Mackinder foresaw (have you checked the price of bread lately?), nor that he had any conception of the importance of the oil to be found in and on the southern fringes of the Heartland. (Oil wasn’t discovered in the Middle East until 1908 (and in Saudi Arabia until 1938)). So, we might call him lucky in setting forth this theory. On the other hand, both the Russian Empire and the British Empire (via India) had been mucking about in the region since the late 19C in the so-called “Great Game” of geo-political jockeying. In any event, Mackinder’s key point to the Brits, the French, the Germans, the Americans, and the Russians, was that geography matters and in his modern world of the early 20C, statesmen had damned well take on a global perspective (not merely one focused on European Great Power politics) in general and on the Heartland in particular. Hitler got it, too.
Now there’s been a lot of water under the bridge since then: three world wars (I, II, & Cold), the decline of Europe, the flourishing of Soviet Russia, the global reach of the US, the eventual re-emergence of China. The latter’s “Belt-and-Road Initiative” represents their awareness of the benefits of attention to the region. The US has been deeply involved across the region for 80 years, too.
If you stretch and tug Mackinder’s boundaries a bit, there’s little doubt that the Heartland is very much at the center of global affairs today. Furthermore, if you draw a circle around this region, from the Eastern end of the Mediterranean to the north of the Indian subcontinent to the Gobi desert to very gates of Kiev, you’ll find a disproportionately high concentration of global hot spots:
* Israel and Palestine
* Civil war in Syria
* Iraq and Afghanistan each edging into anarchy
* Iran on the cusp of another revolution
* Saudi Arabia embroiled in a civil war in Yemen
* 75 years of tension between India and Pakistan
* On-going rumblings between India and China
* Chinese suppression of Turkic peoples in its far west
* Perennial instability in the “stans” of Central Asia
And now, Russia launching a disastrous and destructive invasion of Ukraine.
We may be past the era of one country controlling the whole of this region. The best the US can likely do is support others to keep China from swinging its weight around too much. But the importance of the “pivot,” as Mackinder described it, will remain. Even after oil becomes a much smaller factor in global politics in a few decades, even after modern globalization has seemingly rendered much of geography secondary to webs of interconnection, even after Putin has extracted himself (or been himself extracted) from the Ukrainian debacle, the Heartland will remain central.
American distaste for far-flung foreign involvement, honed over a century of reluctant interventions may find its apotheosis in the Heartland. The threat of US engagement in WWI was enough to drive the Germans to despair and an armistice, we were essential to setting the world in order when Japan and Germany marched in the 1930s and 1940s. Vietnam and Afghanistan were costly temporizing steps. But, despite the whining of latter-day isolationists (especially of the Hawley-Cruz-McCarthy school) and the inability of “he-who-shall-not-be-named” to comprehend the nature of strategy and geopolitics, other than the US, there is no one else on the stage. (And there won’t be until India gets its act together (which will take 30 years or so at least)).
So, the Heartland is important (and, per Mackinder, has been so for many centuries); the US is the only global power, and the many overlapping and conflicting local maelstroms promise no relief or coherence. In other words, it’s not pretty but we have no real choice to be involved, unless we want to pretend that we can crawl back into our pre-modern autarkic shell.