Halford J. Mackinder was an English geographer, academic and politician. Born in the 1860s and deceased shortly after the end of World War II, he is largely known for a reading at the Royal Geographical Society of his 1904 paper, The Geographical Pivot of History. In this work, Mackinder describes in sweeping detail the preceding two thousands years of human activity—how geography, along with climate, religion, commerce and war, shaped the world of the time of his writing and facilitated the meteoric rise of the then-dominant Continental European powers. On this foundation, he then delivers, in an inspiring if admonitory crescendo, his famous "Heartland Theory"—a geopolitical analysis of the importance of these powers controlling what is modern Central Asia in the coming (20th) century—for which he is most singularly remembered.
The goal of this post is to reimagine The Pivot in content and form for the 21st century. First, I'll reintroduce the paper's main ideas. Then, I'll play with the following question: what might Mackinder write if he were alive today?
The Geographical Pivot of History
Mackinder begins his famous work by asserting that in 1904, the world stands at the exit of the Columbian epoch: a 400-year period of European expansionism, in which European states—principally French, Spanish, Dutch, English and Portuguese—sent their generals, scientists and engineers to explore, detail, and ultimately subjugate people and land in the furthest reaches of the globe—transforming themselves from provincial, land-based powers into global empires, now dominant at sea, and transforming the "known world map" from an ill-lit, half-built cabin deep in an unnamed wood to an immaculate Grand Hotel with a different European powerhouse in every single room. As such, in 1904, his continent's powers sat atop a now-familiar world, shoulder-to-shoulder, with nowhere to go but down.
With the stage set thus, Mackinder invites us to step back, inhale deeply, and reflect—with a bias towards Continental Europe, no doubt, owing implicitly to its then-dominant stature, and perhaps to Mackinder being English himself—on some of history's broadest currents through the lens of geography: what was, what is, and what will be utterly crucial in the coming 20th century—his "Geographical Pivot."
The Continental European landmass comprises an intricate series of mountains, valleys and peninsulas. These features, in turn, provide Europeans with ample physical barriers between which a multitude of politically and culturally distinct nation-states could and did take root. In stark contrast, Mackinder then describes the Russian landmass, one of an altogether different geographic profile: dense mixed and deciduous forest to the North; dry, arid steppe to the South, relatively inhospitable to both life and agriculture; unendingly flat throughout. Unlike Europe, this geography bred a different type of person and society: regional capitals like Kiev, Moscow and Kazan took root just north of this dividing forest-steppe frontier, whereas the sandy steppe itself spawned, well, a thousand years of nomadic invaders—Huns, Avers, Bulgarians, Magyars, Khazars, Patzinaks, Cumans, Kalmuks, Genghis Khan's Mongol hordes, and others—hardened by its brutal conditions, in sync with the land's silent whisper of "keep on moving, life won't survive here."
In its first 1,500 years following the death of Jesus Christ, Continental Europe evolved largely on land. Corralled from the West by the Atlantic, as yet uncrossed, the North by the Scandinavian tundra, the South by, in effect, the immense sweep of the then-impenetrable Sahara, and the East by roughly 7,500 kilometers of remaining Eurasia comprised primarily of hostile Central Asian Steppe, separating Berlin from Beijing and the Pacific Ocean. As such, the bulk of Europe's military and political growth remained on its home turf. And implicitly, as the only game in town, land power reigned supreme.
On the heels of the Renaissance around 1,500 A.D., things changed. Emboldened and energized by cultural and economic development at home, European explorers took to the seas in zealous pursuit of additional sources of wealth and knowledge abroad. In 1498, Vasco de Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope, traveling directly from Europe to India without traversing the Middle East. In 1492, Columbus, the namesake of the Columbian age itself, crossed the Atlantic and reached the Americas. Over the next 400 years, European nation-states swiftly amassed empires of global proportions, subjugating previous inhabitants under their economic, military and political control, and becoming, new in history, the preeminent titans of sea power throughout.
The following map shows European exploration routes during this era. (Though it only covers years 1492-1682, the general trend it shows continued until the time of Mackinder's writing.)
Simply, Europeans went everywhere! Except the Russian Empire. Except Mongolia. Except the Central Asian Steppe.
In 1904, following 400 years of global domination, European historians were wont to consider their own stories, self-development and influence as superior to that of others. In response, in his paper, Mackinder implores us to reconsider the map of pre-Columbian Continental Europe, and the ways in which, owing to this map, the development of European society itself was shaped considerably from the outside in.
Indeed, until Columbus, the Atlantic Ocean remained uncrossed, thereby serving as an impregnable natural border to the West. Likewise, the menacing infinity of the Sahara to the South remained uncrossed until the mid-19th century. Conversely, the cold and cheerless tundra to the North played host to the Viking Age, a 200-year period of disruption and settlement in and around the North Sea—the British Isles, Ireland, Iceland, Greenland, the Faroe Islands, and others—as well as descents down the rivers Dnieper and Volga wherein the Vikings lived and traded with peoples in Kievan Rus and the Eastern Roman Empire.
Finally, east of the Carpathians (in present-day Romania), sweeping north-east to the Ural Mountains (approximated by Chelyabinsk, Russia on the map below) then south-east through both Kazakhstan and Mongolia, is, well, what? What protected and will henceforth protect Europe from an intruding Eastern neighbor? On what natural borders can it count? Here, Mackinder (figuratively) smiles, stands up, cooly eyes the crowd, and concludes: "Nothing." Then, he reminds European historians what actually happened before the recent Columbian epoch that has so warped their perception and egos.
In reality, the 5th to 16th centuries saw unending progressions of inveterate Asiatic invaders crossing the ceaseless Central Asian Steppe and hammering the European land powers like pestle to mortar. Furthermore, there is evidence that these invasions sparked the formation of many of the modern Continental European states themselves! Mackinder writes:
A large part of modern history might be written as a commentary upon the changes directly or indirectly ensuing from these raids. The Angles and Saxons, it is quite possible, were then driven to cross the seas to found England in Britain. The Franks, the Goths, and the Roman provincials were compelled, for the first time, to stand shoulder to shoulder on the battlefield of Chalons, making common cause against the Asiatics, who were unconsciously welding together modern France. Venice was founded from the destruction of Aquileia and Padua; and even the Papacy owed a decisive prestige to the successful mediation of Pope Leo with Attila at Milan. Such was the harvest of results produced by a cloud of ruthless and idealess horsemen sweeping over the unimpeded plain—a blow, as it were, from the great Asiatic hammer striking freely through the vacant space.
In other words, though European society had matured significantly in the preceding 2,000 years, evolving from land-based principalities to sea-faring, nation-state empires of global reach, its geography had, and will always, stay the same. In 1904, transcontinental dominion notwithstanding, the Steppe to Europe's East lay flat, barren, uninterrupted—and un-mastered by Europe as ever.
N.B. By 1900, the majority of Latin American states, their own colonial history predominantly that of Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese imperialism, had already gained independence.
And finally, in 1904, why was this so significant? Among his esteemed and learned colleagues at the Royal Geographical Society, representing in turn the titans of contemporary global order, why was Mackinder so acutely preoccupied with the final "piece of the puzzle"—the "Heartland"—so influential in Europe's pre-Columbian history?
As a barren steppe, the Heartland lacks the stone and timber necessary for road-making. As such, throughout the majority of history, it was best traversed in the same fashion as that of the Asiatic invaders: on lunky horse and camel. However, in 1904, a recent technology was poised to radically alter this fact, to substantially accelerate the pace with which the Steppe could be crossed, to transform the perennial Steppe Invasion from a dainty pestle into an earth-fracturing pneumatic drill. This technology, introduced in Britain around 1830, was the railroad, and the steam-powered trains to which it played host.
The following graph shows the growing number of rail passengers per year at the time of Mackinder's writing, which we can understand as a proxy for the growing number of miles of railroad itself:
Here, Mackinder concludes, delivering his key insight as well as the Heartland Theory itself in one grand sweep:
A generation ago steam and the Suez canal appeared to have increased the mobility of sea-power relatively to land-power. Railways acted chiefly as feeders to ocean-going commerce. But trans-continental railways are now transmuting the conditions of land-power, and nowhere can they have such effect as in the closed heart-land of Euro-Asia, in vast areas of which neither timber nor accessible stone was available for road-making. Railways work the greater wonders in the steppe, because they directly replace horse and camel mobility, the road stage of development having here been omitted. [...] As we consider this rapid review of the broader currents of history, does not a certain persistence of geographical relationship become evident? Is not the pivot region of the world's politics that vast area of Euro-Asia which is inaccessible to ships, but in antiquity lay open to the horse-riding nomads, as is to-day about to be covered with a network of railways?
Though Mackinder's thesis is specific to 20th century Continental Europe, I think there is a broader framework at play. Personally, I read Mackinder to be saying the following:
In the present day, there is a global hegemon. This hegemon is content, if haughty, with its place in the world. Modern history presented this hegemon with a task, a challenge, an "unclaimed space on which to plant its flags," and the hegemon did just that.
Well, not quite: there is still some space it failed to claim. And this particular space, as it goes, facilitated singular and outsized destruction in the past. So, hegemon beware!
There is today a novel technology neatly poised to reify this destruction on a much grander scale than ever before.
With this framework in mind, what might Mackinder write if he were alive today?
The United States
In the past 100 years, the United States has transformed itself from a non-interventionist island nation of lofty ideals into a heavyweight champion of military might, economic preponderance, and cultural dominance at global scale. To wit, 1918 saw President Woodrow Wilson delivering his Fourteen Points touting "freedom of the seas and free trade and the concept of national self-determination," while 2020 America maintains ~1,000 military bases in ~100 countries, controls ~30% of the world's wealth, and cannot count on seven sets of hands the number of times its CIA has intervened in foreign countries since its establishment in 1947. Though its detractors are harsh, and though President Donald Trump's foppishness and distinctly isolationist bent may indeed alter this course, the fact remains that the United States is Mackinder's unambiguous contemporary hegemon—his Continental Europe of 1904—eminently comfortable, if decaying, in its gold-rimmed seat on top of the world.
Continental Europe achieved its own preponderance by winning the war of global land: occupying—with lust, zeal and greed—as much of the map as it could throughout the Columbian era. In turn, the United States reached its current seat by winning the war of global ideas, which Europe lost: from the brutal, hellish ruins of a 77-year Battle Royal from 1914 to 1991 between fascism, communism and free-market democracy—in other words, not over who gets what of an empty map, but how we live where we currently are in a map already full, encompassing the two World Wars and the Cold War—the United States and the ideas it represented emerged victorious, while Continental Europe fell to ruin. From then on, the United States became the global imperial much like the Columbian Europeans, patrolling the space of ideas with weapons and money—both as a beachhead-plus-lighthouse for the ideals of democracy, along with frequent foreign interventions to this effect—instead of the seas themselves, cementing its role as global hegemon in the process.
The modern war of ideas
Whereas the 20th century fought over what I will call "macro-ideology"—how nation-states should self-organize in the broadest of political, economic and social terms—2020 America is home to vicious wars over, in comparison, "micro-ideology": conduct in the workplace, gender identity and bias, police brutality, racial justice, who "belongs" where, and an infinity of other like topics that animate a sizable chunk of our current social discourse.
In this fight, people have taken to the street. To wit, the May 2020 murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin sparked humungous, long-lasting protests around the country and world. In 2017, the day after Donald Trump's inauguration, the Women's March protesting his anti-women rhetoric became the largest single-day protest in U.S. history. Throughout the Trump presidency, white nationalist groups have variously assembled—the infamous 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville as the most prominent example—declaiming in fire and fury, well, who really knows—to much public attention and even counter-protest.
Nevertheless, for all of the issues over which we currently fight, do we not, as Ross Douthat writes in The Decadent Society, conduct the majority of these battles on our screens rather than in the streets themselves? Are the Brownshirts of our time not smashing the heads of their adversaries in the public square, but instead patrolling the forums of Reddit and the "I don't know who needs to hear this; Thread 🧵:"'s of Twitter, throwing flame in the form of an ironic tweet at whoever disagrees? Has physical violence not largely been replaced by reputational violence, i.e. our modern cancel culture? For the majority of Americans, is the intensity of our political beliefs really commensurate with our corresponding actions in "meatspace"? Or do we say these things to our like-minded friends, feel these things when we come home from work, and then, out for blood and looking to fight, we take to the internet for twenty minutes to throw a few punches and be punched right back, then ice cream, Netflix, and early to bed?
Protest and demonstration in the streets is not dead. However, in terms of dynamism, large-scale impact, and sheer number of combatants, the Internet truly is the preeminent battlefield of our time.
The remaining space on the map
As the dust settled over the world in 1991 following 77 brutal years of physical and psychological war over macro-ideology, the United States emerged on top, much like Mackinder's post-Columbian Europe following its own implicit victory—territorial and economic expansion unprecedented in history. Nevertheless, in our modern day, there exists a new space on the map of human interaction that the United States has not conquered, the space where our current war for micro-ideology is largely waged, and, as it was ultimately a fight for ideology that felled the previous global powers, a space of critical importance. This space, of course, is the Internet: the Mackinderian Digital Heartland.
The practical nature of battles online
Mackinder's dictum about the importance of the Central Asian heart-land stemmed from the impending technological revolution in its harmful potential: whereas the invaders used to crosse the Steppe on camel and horse—slowly, in other words—they would soon be racing under starry desert skies on steam-powered train.
Presently, ideological battles online take place with text, video and audio authored manually by humans; in other words, slowly! It is humans that write tweets and think-pieces to which other humans respond. It is humans that start digital media campaigns, create YouTube content, stoke the fires that lead to real-life demonstration and violence, and even coordinate large-scale protests themselves.
So, what happens when a technology comes along that stands to turbo-charge the speed and chaos with which these battles take place? What happens when the text, video and audio that comprise these battles are created not by humans, but by algorithms—unaccountable, indefatigable, at times sloppy, and brutally fast? Finally, what happens when human combatants, who we currently "eliminate" from battle via reputational assassination, are replaced by algorithms that are immune to this deadliest weapon?
Mackinder on artifical intelligence
A 21st century Halford Mackinder would look at the deafening roll of artificial intelligence innovation in models that generate video, audio and language and be rightfully crapping his pants. Because simply, these models have the ability to do to our already-chaotic online debate not what trains, but 3D-printable intercontinental ballistic missiles, would have done for the Steppe Invaders of centuries past.
To make this claim, we don't have to go much past the recent advent of OpenAI's GPT-3, neatly explained in the following video:
In essence, and borrowing from the video, "GPT-3 is an extremely sophisticated text predictor. A human gives it a chunk of text as input, and the model generates its best guess as to what the next chunk of text should be." In other words, and in terms of online battle, it reads what's written, and responds. However, crucially, whereas a human might reply to 1 or 2 posts over a 5-minute period, GPT-3 could create or reply to thousands.
To demonstrate the ability of these models, college student Liam Porr recently generated the following blog post using GPT-3. In effect, he fed a title and prompt (about human productivity) to the model, asked it for a few different drafts, selected the best one, edited it minimally, then hit publish. The post itself quickly earned the top-spot on vaunted Hacker News, seemingly on the merits of its content alone. Take a look and see for yourself.
Finally, what happens when our online battles are fueled by such high-quality content generated by models like GPT-3 at warp speed? In a world whose news cycle already changes by the hour? In which social media is already such a dominant force?
Honestly, your guess, and Mackinder's guess, are as good as mine.
How to control the Digital Heartland, and what's at stake
Implicit in Mackinder's admonition is that control of the Central Asian Heartland means the same type of control with which European then-empires came to dominate the rest of the world: economic, political or outright military dominion (and to wit, this is in effect what Hitler then tried to do). Unfortunately, he neglects to offer more specific guidance—especially with respect to the impending explosion in railroad construction in which he places so much concern. With this in mind, how might a 21st century Mackinder encourage the United States to "control" the Digital Heartland? By crafting then backing the internet's dominant ideological current, a la victory in the Cold War? By creating a monopoly on the internet's infrastructure and data, i.e. controlling the servers on which online war is waged, and owning the data that it generates? By training, employing and overseeing the bulk of the researchers that build the artificial intelligence itself? Or perhaps by gaining ownership over the specific platforms, like Twitter and Reddit, on which combatants clash?
To me, the answer is not necessarily clear, and a deeper analysis of this question is the subject of a future post. Nonetheless, it is clear that the eventual conclusion of this war—the "1991" of our current age—has the real potential to spawn some sort of parallel, supranational organization or hegemony rooted more in a sense of identity and ideological affiliation, in which your figurative "digital passport" does not have the name of a sovereign physical territory embroidered on its front, but instead, a way of thought or belief picked from amongst the micro-ideological multiplex that is the modern internet.
A closing warning
As 1904 Continental Europe stood at, in his view, the exit of the Columbian era, Mackinder leaves us with one final warning about the practical reality of the coming world order. Whereas pre-Columbian Europe was "pent into a narrow region and threatened by external barbarism," and Columbian Europe was characterized by "the expansion of Europe against almost negligible resistances," a now post-Columbian Europe will take an altogether different hue:
From the present time forth, in the post-Columbian age, we shall again have to deal with a closed political system, and none the less that it will be one of worldwide scope. Every explosion of social forces, instead of being dissipated in a surrounding circuit of unknown space and barbaric chaos, will be sharply re-echoed from the far side of the globe, and weak elements in the political and economic organism of the world will be shattered in consequence.
To me, his second sentence is utterly jarring: if Mackinder worries thus about the consequences of an "explosion of social forces" in a "closed political system," what would he say about combat on our modern internet—in which social forces, quite literally, can reach and ignite the remotest corners of the world minutes after their birth? In which further explosions of these forces are, as the military-industrial complex is to traditional warfare, bolstered by the advertising industry, wherein wealthy and powerful executives have a direct incentive to throw kerosene on the flames? And how would he feel about the fact that, in a broad sense, this fiery battlefield is increasingly hard to leave—as we learn more, bank more, socialize more, and work more online?
To paraphrase Robert Kaplan in Chapter 9 of The Revenge of Geography, "though Mackinder was often attacked as an arch-deterministic, a charge not wholly unfair, no doubt, owing to the fact that geography was his subject, and geography itself can by its very nature be deterministic, Mackinder was no mere fatalist: ultimately, he believed that geography and the environment could be overcome, but only if we treat those subjects with the greatest knowledge and respect."
In other words, a 21st century Mackinder might say that the technology that we currently build does not have to invite an invasion of the Huns. It does not have to poison social order. And finally, as artificial intelligence combatants are increasingly whisked off to wage internet war, he'd hope that we don't inadvertently burn it all down before we get much further.
Many thanks to Abishur Prakash for reviewing an earlier draft of this piece.
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