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1.2  The Two World Wars and the Cold War

Heartland Theory & Rimland Theory

1 December 2016

Mackinder’s Heartland Theory

With the publication of “The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783” in 1890, Mahan's dictum that whatever power rules the sea also ruled the world wielded a great influence on not only the US but also Russia, Japan, France, Germany and even Great Britain. A naval arms race soon began with each nation seeking to out-build the others. It was about then that another geopolitical theory, taking a diametrically opposing point of view from Mahan’s, emerged. It came from Sir Halford Mackinder who published the paper "The Geographical Pivot of History” in 1904, which many say marks the founding moment of geopolitics, followed by a short book Democratic Ideals and Reality in 1919. In his publications, Mackinder pointed out that the Eurasian landmass[1] is the centre of the world and that the continent’s centre region (i.e. Central Asia and Eastern Europe), which he called the Heartland, is the strategic pivot of the Eurasia continent because it is able to sustain large populations, has easy accessibility to all the other regions from its centralized location and yet is impregnable to attacks by sea powers. Mackinder thus postulated that whichever land power controls the Heartland controls Eurasia and therefore commands also the world.


Mackinder’s Heartland Theory came at a time when the traditional sea powers were in a state of relative decline. Increased mobility that the sea provided did put European naval powers at a distinct advantage over their territorial adversaries. But with the advent of railroads, land powers were becoming nearly as mobile as those of the sea. Moreover, because land powers in the Heartland region could access any region in the periphery from its centralized location on the continent, their improved mobility would tip the balance of power in their favour. Hence, Mackinder hypothesized the possibility of an emergence of a huge heartland empire which could not be defeated even by all the rest of the world coalitioned against it because of the natural advantages it enjoyed.


Mackinder’s theory, however, did not get too much attention because of the naval arms race which culminated in the World War I (WWI) in 1914.


World War I: US Internationalism & Wilsonian Idealism


At the outbreak of World War I or the Great War, as it was known then, Roosevelt emerged from retirement urging President Woodrow Wilson (served 1913 – 1921) to enter the conflict early on the side of the Triple Entente—Britain, France, and Russia—lest the threat spread to the Western Hemisphere.


Like many American leaders before him, Wilson asserted that a divine dispensation had made the United States a different kind of nation. But unlike Roosevelt, whose propensity to use the growing US military might to influence global geopolitics helped redefine America’s international role, Wilson sought for America to remain neutral in international affairs. He not only denounced the concept of balance of power, which he thought to be a process that would lead to war, he also rejected established diplomatic methods which he decried as “secret diplomacy”.[2] Instead, Wilson promoted the US as a disinterested mediator in a system of international arbitration meant to forestall war. In 1913, Woodrow Wilson launched a “new diplomacy” to negotiate an array of international arbitration treaties so that any disputes could be submitted to a disinterested commission which would investigate and arrive at a recommended solution. The thirty-some such treaties concluded in 1913 and 1914, however, failed to resolve the conflicts brewing in continental Europe. By July 1914, Europe and much of the rest of the world were at war.[3]


Wilson chose for the US to stay neutral initially but when German submarines repeatedly broke its promise and indiscriminately sank US vessels in the Atlantic Ocean causing loss of American lives and goods, President Woodrow Wilson broke with tradition and sent US troops to fight in Europe in 1917.


Despite leading the US into a war, Wilson proclaimed that America had intervened not to restore the European balance of power but to “make the world safe for democracy”. Imbued by America’s historic sense of moral mission, he maintained that America’s purposes were not self-interested but universal:


We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind.[4]


Moreover, Wilson thought that war, in general, could be prevented. Firstly, Wilson believed that it was the scheming of autocracies, not any inherent contradiction between differing national interests or aspirations, that caused conflict. If all facts were made openly available and publics were offered a choice, ordinary people would opt for peace. Hence, Wilson asserted that not only was democracy the best form of governance, it was also the sole guarantee for permanent peace. A rules-based, peaceful international order was therefore achievable but only with the destruction of every arbitrary power anywhere.[5] As such, American intervention was intended not simply to thwart Germany’s war aims but also to alter Germany’s system of government. Thus, even when Germany declared itself ready to discuss an armistice, Wilson refused to negotiate until the Kaiser abdicated.[6]


Secondly, Wilson reasoned that war was caused by the very international politics designed to prevent it, namely, balance-of-power politics. All of the major states were engaged in a competitive pursuit of power that often led to war to prevent any other state from becoming so powerful that it could dominate the rest. Wilson thus thought that war could be avoided by putting in place international law and agreements to bring predictability to world politics. An international organization could also be established to promote collective security, instead of the traditional alliance building, as the means for realizing national defence. At Versailles where the armistice was signed between the warring nations, a League of Nations was established at Wilson’s behest to organize collective security on a global basis.


Based on Wilson’s conception, all member states would pledge themselves to the peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance to the neutral application of a shared set of rules of fair conduct.[7] A violator of this principle would be labelled an aggressor and resisted in unison by all the other league members. The key element of the League of Nations system was the distinction Wilson made between alliances and collective security. No alliances, “separate interests,” secret agreements, or “plottings of inner circles” would be permitted within the League, because this would obstruct the neutral application of the system’s rules. International order would be refounded instead on “open covenants of peace, openly arrived at.”[8] League members would implement not the traditional European balance of power that fostered organized rivalries but a community of power to promote organized common peace.  Given the optimistic tone, Wilson’s proposal to replace alliances with collective security was deemed idealistic.


The First World War thus not only bolstered US’ nascent shift from regionalism to internationalism, which had only begun with the 1898 Spanish-American War and Roosevelt’s mediation in the 1904 Russo-Japanese conflict, but also marked the genesis of Wilsonian idealism.[9]


Failures of the League of Nations & World War II


Wilsonian idealism’s dominance as an intellectual perspective, however, did not last long. In 1919, the Senate rejected US membership in the League and America returned to being an isolationist even though it was by now a major global actor. Moreover, the optimism of the idealists seemed increasingly misplaced as euphoria of WWI victory quickly gave way to distress over the rise of Fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany. World politics was also getting increasingly conflictual because of rising protectionism as countries struggled to recover their economy from the ongoing Great Depression.


Critics of idealism, who referred to themselves as realists, argued that the idealist principles were defective because they described a world that did not exist. Sentiments of idealism were soon replaced by those of rising realism.[10] For the realists, world politics was not something that could be avoided nor was it an arena in which laws or international institutions and agreements could safeguard US’ national interests. Rather, world politics was a constant struggle for power that was carried out under conditions that bordered on anarchy. There was little room for embracing universal principles or for taking on moral crusades.


As economic depression and the likelihood of another world war set the stage for 1930s to be a disastrous decade, the failings of Wilsonian idealism to forestall conflicts and foster permanent peace became increasingly apparent.[11]


To begin with, alliance building allows states with congruent interests or similar apprehensions to come together in advance to deal with or even pre-empt specific strategic threats, either named or implied. An alliance thus entails specific expectations and creates a formal obligation to act in a precise way in defined contingencies. Generally, the more congruent the shared interests between alliance partners, the more cohesive the alliance will be. Collective security, by contrast, is a legal construct that addresses no specific contingency. It defines no particular obligations except joint action of some kind when the rules of peaceful international order are violated. The League of Nations, for example, was founded on a moral principle aimed not at a specific issue but at the violation of norms. Because the definition of norms was subject to divergent interpretations, the operation of collective security was unpredictable. In the event of violations of the norm, collective security requires member countries to identify violations of peace identically and be prepared to act in common against them. In reality, the variegated national interests of member countries usually work against the grouping from achieving such a common stand. Hence in the run up toward World War II, the League of Nations was impotent in the face of the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, the Italian attack on Abyssinia, the German derogation of the Locarno Treaty, and the Japanese invasion of China. Its definition of aggression was so vague and the reluctance to undertake common action so deep that it proved inoperative even against flagrant threats to peace. Moreover, little could be done to the three Axis powers when they “legally” withdrew from the League of Nations, the Washington Naval Treaty in 1922, and the Kellogg-Briand Pact in 1928, leaving them “free” to pursue their expansionist ambitions leading eventually to the break out of the Second World War.[12]


Next, since the 1815 Congress of Vienna, wars had ended with an agreement on the restoration of the balance of power that promoted status quo based on Old Europe territorial arrangements. At the end of WWI, however, that old arrangement of maintaining balance of power through alliance building had been broken by Wilson’s concept of world order which called for demarcation and self-government of nation states as defined by ethnic and linguistic unity. It was thought that the implementation of the principle of self-determination would in time lead to spread of democracy which would in turn help to foster permanent peace. In practice, ironically, the redrawing of Europe’s map on the new principle of linguistically based on national self-determination actually ended up enhancing Germany’s geopolitical prospects. Instead of being surrounded by three major powers (France, Russia, and Austria-Hungary) before the war, which helped to deter any German ambition of territorial expansion, the post-WWI Germany now faced a collection of small states built on the principle of self-determination. Many of the new states consisted of people who had never previously set up a stable government for themselves, but each of them containing large masses of Germans clamouring for reunion with their native land. In Eastern Europe and the Balkans, the nationalities were so jumbled that each new state included other nationalities, compounding their strategic weakness with ideological vulnerability.[13] In the end, these small nascent states created after the Congress of Vienna became easy picking for the expansionist Germany.


US’ Responses to World War II under Franklin Roosevelt & Harry Truman


Against this backdrop of failings associated with collective security in specific and Wilsonian idealism in general, World War II erupted in 1939. The Heartland Theory espoused by Mackinder in 1904 had since been enthusiastically taken up by the German school of Geopolitik embraced by the German Nazi regime. Thus, much to Mackinder’s disapproval and displeasure, there were suggestions that his Heartland Theory had indirectly inspired Hitler’s grand design for control of the Eurasian landmass.


All these whiles, the US took no action to counter Italy’s war against Ethiopia, Nazi Germany’s remilitarization, Francisco Franco’s victory in the Spanish civil war, or Japanese advances in China. Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), who served as the 32nd president from 1933 to 1945, conducted his foreign policy within the consensus of American isolationism. Although not an isolationist, Roosevelt feared that too activist a role in world affairs would detract from his efforts to revive the American economy from the Great Depression and to rebuild the American society through his New Deal legislation. In 1935, 1936, and 1937, after hearings held by Nye Commission concluded that bankers and commercial interests had lobbied President Woodrow Wilson into WWI and profited handsomely from the war, the US Congress passed a series of four Neutrality Acts designed to keep the United States out of WWII and to prohibit Americans from lending money or selling weapons to belligerents. [14]


FDR’s outlook had changed somewhat with the outbreak of the war. He circumvented the Neutrality Acts by inventing the Lend-Lease Program in 1939 to allow the financially devastated British government to receive US goods in return for leases on their overseas possessions. FDR also invoked the Monroe Doctrine, stating that the North Atlantic fell within the Western Hemisphere and authorized US ships to patrol these sea lanes.[15] Hitler kept US out of the war by not making the same mistake committed by Germans in WWI. It was Japan’s attack of Pearl Harbour Hawaii on December 7, 1941 that eventually caused the US to revoke its neutrality and isolationist stance. Within days, America entered World War II.


FDR did not live to see the end of the war from which the US not only emerged victorious but also acquired new interests in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere around the globe. More importantly, WWII saw the beginning of the end of the British and French empires and the rise of the US and Soviet Union as superpowers in a geopolitically bipolar world.


Under Harry S. Truman, the 33rd US president, ‘realism’ became the dominant conceptual foundation on which US foreign policy came to be based. Motivated in part by a desire to establish a buffer zone between itself and Western Europe, the Soviet Union moved quickly to establish Soviet-controlled regimes in Eastern European states of Romania, Bulgaria, and Poland. These actions were interpreted as proof of Soviet Union’s expansionist ambitions and public opinions in the US turned against the Soviets. The mistrust and misunderstanding between the two superpowers soon caused both sides to adopt aggressive stances toward each other and the world divided into two blocs as Cold War descended on Europe.


Cold War & Heartland vs. Rimland Theories


Believing that an economically vibrant Western Europe was the best defence against communism, the US invested heavily in the Marshall Plan in 1948 to help with reconstruction and revitalization of the European economy. It also created NATO in 1949 to stop the westward advancement of communism in Europe. In response, the Soviet Union created the COMECON in 1949 and Warsaw Pact in 1955 to consolidate its territorial gains. Hence, at the end of WWII, Stalin succeeded what Hitler failed to achieved when the Soviet Union became the latest continental power to achieve that dominance over the Heartland of Eurasia.


To contain the westward expansion of Soviet Union, the US resorted to an opposing Rimland Theory postulated by Nicholas Spykman in 1942 which basically theorizes the reverse of Heartland Theory. According to Spykman, whoever controls the Rimland (i.e. the economically more developed coastal regions) commands the Heartland and hence also the Eurasian continent and the world.


US strategy of global hegemony after WWII thus entails its control of Rimland (i.e. Western Europe) to encircle the continental Heartland of Eurasia, as theorized by Spykman, while its unassailable naval fleets dominate the strategic sea passages vital for its world supremacy, as postulated by Mahan.


Unlike at the end of WWI when American leaders withdrew from Wilsonian idealist internationalism, Truman’s embrace of realist internationalism helped lay the foundation for America’s cold war foreign policy. In April 1950, the US State Department issued the National Security Council Paper (NSC-68) which divided the world into forces of “slavery” and “freedom”. It argued that the US should embark on an immense military buildup and use force as needed to resist communism, the force of slavery, anywhere and everywhere. Truman accepted the recommendations and by the end of his presidency, the military had been expanded and reorganized to become a fundamental and permanent component of US Cold War strategy.[16]

PREVIOUS1.1  From Isolationism to Regionalism & Imperialism (Manifest Destiny & Mahanism)

NEXT1.3  Integration of Europe & Implosion of Soviet Union



[1] Mackinder used the term “world island” by which he meant the Euro-Asian-African landmass. See “Halford Mackinder”. New World Encyclopedia.

[2] See Kissinger. (2014). Pg 151.

[3] See Treaties for the Advancement of Peace Between the United States and Other Powers Negotiated by the Honorable William J. Bryan, Secretary of State of the United States, with an Introduction by James Brown Scott (New York: Oxford University Press, 1920).

[4] See Woodrow Wilson, Message to Congress, April 2, 1917, in U.S. Presidents and Foreign Policy from 1789 to the Present, ed. Carl C. Hodge and Cathal J. Nolan (Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2007), 396.

[5] See Woodrow Wilson, “An Address at Mount Vernon,” July 4, 1918, in Link, Papers, 48:516.

[6] See Kissinger. (2014). Pg

[7] See Woodrow Wilson, Message to Congress, April 2, 1917, in President Wilson’s Great Speeches, 18. Quoted in Kissinger (2014). Pg 154.

[8] See Wilson, Address to a Joint Session of Congress on the Conditions of Peace (January 8, 1918) (“Fourteen Points”), in President Wilson’s Great Speeches, 18. Quoted in Kissinger (2014). Pg 154.

[9] See Mead, W. R. (2001).

[10] See Hastedt, Glenn. (2004). ”Realism”. pp 429

[11] See Kissinger. (2014).

[12] See Kissinger. (2014). Pg 155.

[13] Lloyd George, Wilson memorandum, March 25, 1919, in Ray Stannard Baker, ed., Woodrow Wilson and World Settlement (New York: Doubleday, Page, 1922), 2:450.

[14] See Hastedt, Glenn. (2004). pp 351.

[15] See Hastedt, Glenn. (2004). pp 436.

[16] See Kalaitzidis, Akis & Streich, Gregory W. (2011). pp 152

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