15 February 2024

GPT "remembers" Mackinder's Heartland theory for me (I'd forgotten his name)

Another in a series of conversations with LLMs Gemini and/or GPT.


There was, I believe, a British historian (not Toynbee), who conceived of the crucial importance of "central place" geographically in the power politics of national supremacy. In this theory, the British, and subsequently the US, utilized an alternative strategy of "containment" through (primarily) naval power, to overcome the inherent disadvantage of peripheral location, and to exercise dominance over more favorably situated "powers," such as, in turn or concurrently, Germany, Russia and/or China. 1. Please infer who it was I am talking about and describe his principal works (I genuinely can't recall; this isn't a test); and 2. Please comment on how technological advance since the early 20th century has to some extent falsified this concept, and made geographical positioning less critical (if that is, in fact, the case according to current geopolitical thinking).



The historian you're referring to sounds like Halford Mackinder and his Heartland Theory. Mackinder was a British geographer and one of the founding figures of both geopolitics and geostrategy. His ideas have had a profound influence on the strategic thinking of nations throughout the 20th century and beyond.

Halford Mackinder and His Principal Works

Halford Mackinder proposed the Heartland Theory in a paper presented to the Royal Geographical Society in 1904 titled "The Geographical Pivot of History." This theory was later expanded in his book "Democratic Ideals and Reality: A Study in the Politics of Reconstruction," published in 1919. Mackinder's theory posits that the control of Eastern Europe (the "Heartland") was key to global domination. He argued that the Heartland was naturally impregnable due to its inaccessibility and could be the base from which to project power globally.

His famous dictum, "Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; who rules the World-Island commands the world," encapsulates the essence of his theory. Mackinder's model was a challenge to the then-prevailing British naval hegemony, suggesting that terrestrial power could eventually overmatch sea power, especially if a single power managed to dominate the Heartland.

The Impact of Technological Advances on Geopolitical Strategy

Since the early 20th century, technological advances have indeed altered the strategic importance of geographical positioning, though not entirely negating Mackinder's insights. Several developments illustrate this evolution:

  1. Nuclear Weapons: The advent of nuclear weapons has made sheer territorial control less decisive in global power terms, as even geographically peripheral or smaller nations can wield outsized strategic threats.

  2. Air Power and Missiles: The development of long-range air power and missile technology, including ICBMs and cruise missiles, has reduced the security provided by geographical barriers. Powers can project military force directly over such barriers, diminishing the strategic value of controlling central landmasses.

  3. Space Technology: Satellites and space-based assets have transformed intelligence, communications, and navigation, enabling global surveillance and coordination beyond the constraints of geography.

  4. Cyberspace and Information Warfare: The rise of cyberspace as a domain of warfare and influence operations has further abstracted power from physical geography. Nations can influence others, interfere in elections, and disrupt infrastructure without traditional physical presence.

  5. Economic Globalization and Supply Chains: Globalization has intertwined the economies of nations, making economic power and resilience as crucial as geographical position. Supply chain vulnerabilities, as highlighted during crises like the COVID-19 pandemic, can exert a significant impact on national security.

However, geography remains a critical factor in geopolitical strategy. For instance, the importance of chokepoints like the Strait of Hormuz for oil transport or the significance of maritime routes in the South China Sea underscores continuing geographical considerations. Furthermore, the rise of China and its Belt and Road Initiative can be seen as an attempt to reshape global geopolitics not just through maritime power but also through terrestrial influence across Eurasia, which echoes Mackinder's Heartland concept.

In summary, while technological advancements have mitigated some of the strategic disadvantages of peripheral geographic positions and challenged some aspects of Mackinder's Heartland Theory, geography continues to play a crucial role in global power dynamics. The interplay between technological capabilities and geographical realities remains a central theme in contemporary geopolitical strategy.


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