Thursday 25 January 2024

Godfather of British Geopolitics

On rail and sea, do both, as Britain used to do domestically and imperially. Jeremy Black is always a good read, and here he is on a figure long familiar to readers of this site:

The lecture that launched geopolitics in the Anglosphere was given 120 years ago, on 25 January 1904, to the Royal Geographical Society in London. The speaker, Halford Mackinder (1861–1947), didn’t invent the term, but did more than anyone else to give the idea currency, not least because he was a leading commentator of the world’s most powerful empire and naval power — two elements that featured so heavily in the concept.

As director of the London School of Economics, Mackinder was a well-connected academic who was also active in politics. He had joined the Conservatives in 1903, having been one of their allied Liberal Unionists. After two unsuccessful attempts to enter Parliament in 1900 and 1909, he was to serve as MP for Glasgow Camlachie from 1910 until 1922.

During Britain’s intervention in the Russian Civil War, he was High Commissioner to (anti-Bolshevik) South Russia in 1919–20. Subsequently, he was chairman of the Imperial Shipping Committee from 1920 to 1945 and chairman of the Imperial Economic Committee between 1925 and 1931.

The contemporary influence of Mackinder’s views is a matter for discussion. Yet the nature of the British state, which then lacked administrative and intellectual institutions for imperial planning and defence, increased the possibilities for ideas from external thinkers to make an impact. The gap was filled by circles of intellectual opinion sustained through meetings in London, including in clubland. Mackinder’s metropolitan milieu was therefore very much an active part of the debate about the power Britain should rightly wield and the anxiety about its ability to do so in a changing world.

There were, however, alternative strands to British geopolitics, and even Liberal Unionism, which arose from a Liberal split over keeping Ireland within the British Empire, was not homogenous. The Liberal Unionists broke with the Liberal Party to join the Conservatives in opposing Gladstone’s determination to introduce “home rule” or effective autonomy to Ireland. They used imperial identity as the key issue on which to resist the increasingly radical leftwards drift of Gladstone’s Liberal Party, which divided still further for a whilst over its response to British involvement in war with the Boer republics of South Africa in 1899–1902, whilst the Liberal Unionists were again solidly in support of the Conservatives.

However, Mackinder’s calls for a Greater Britain were part of a debate in which ideas of imperial defence, to which he was committed, clashed with the determination of the governments of the Dominions (Canada, Newfoundland, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa) to co-operate from a position that recognised their considerable autonomy. Military independence was part of this equation for Dominion leaders, notably so in Australia. Mackinder’s centripetal emphasis on a commonality of geopolitical pressure made sense of a British alliance with Japan and with the long-term build-up of a “Greater India” to resist Russia. But it scarcely accorded with Australasian and Canadian concerns about Japan and the United States respectively, South African interest in expansion in southern Africa, and Indian engagement with strategic concerns from East Africa to China as well as relations with Russia.

Geopolitics as advanced by Mackinder made much of the distinction between continental and oceanic states, which was also a feature of the thinking of the American naval commentator and strategist, Alfred Thayer Mahan. In part, this approach rested on British self-image, but Mackinder was aware that in practice the Greater Britain imperium included continental power — notably with India and its massive army.

In his 1904 lecture, Mackinder claimed that railways had moved the balance from sea to land power. He cited Russia’s construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway on the model of transcontinental lines in North America but, he argued, of greater geostrategic significance.

Mackinder had already claimed in his book Britain and the British Seas (1902) that the railways had altered the paradigm of economic potential away from maritime power. This view seemed borne out by the economic growth of America and Germany, both of which benefited greatly from the impact of rail, though each were also major naval powers. A powerful navy had enabled the United States to crush Spain in 1898. Indeed, by 1909, American battleships were being designed with larger coal bunkers, allowing a steaming radius of 10,000 nautical miles.

In his 1904 lecture, Mackinder claimed the Trans-Siberian Railway made possible the movement of forces rapidly around a Eurasian “Heartland” and “Pivot”, such that Russia could threaten its opponents, whether Japan, British interests in India or its European rivals. Mackinder presented the “heartland” of Eurasia as the pivot region of the world’s politics, past, present, and future, and claimed control over it would threaten other powers:

Europe and European history … subordinate to Asia and Asiatic history, for European civilisation is … the outcome of the secular struggle against Asiatic invasions … Russia replaces the Mongol Empire. Her pressure on Finland, on Scandinavia, on Poland, on Turkey, on Persia, on India, and on China, replaces the centrifugal raids of the steppeman … I have spoken as a geographer. The actual balance of political power at any given time is, of course, the product, on the one hand, of the geographical conditions, both economic and strategic, and, on the other hand, of the relative number, virility, equipment, and organisation of the competing peoples.

Concern about Russian expansionism was also expressed by Mahan in his The Problem of Asia: Its Effect upon International Politics (1900).

Mackinder’s ideas about rail and the “Pivot” were unrealistic, but he, like many, was convinced that change had become possible and reforms were needed to adapt to it. In his 1904 lecture, he argued that “a generation ago steam and the Suez Canal appeared to have increased the mobility of sea-power relative to land power”, but “trans-continental railways are now transmuting the conditions of land-power”. He didn’t grasp that ships would remain a more efficient way to transport bulk cargo, nor could he know how the containerisation revolution of the 1950s would further shift the balance in favour of the economics of the sea. But Mackinder also argued that alliance between the naval powers could restrain those of continental Eurasia, an approach that linked an imperial Greater Britain to America and Japan.

Mackinder’s rail-focused ideas paralleled those pursued in Germany, notably by Otto von Bismarck, for good relations with Russia, a stance abandoned under Wilhelm II, who was more interested in a naval build-up.

Geopolitics as geographical destiny has been a popular theme of much literature, most notably recently in response to the “War on Terror” and the rising great power animosity involving America, China and Russia. Superficially plausible, this approach is, however, misleading, for it downplays the role of human agency. Indeed, humans not only perceive and interpret their geographical context, but can also change it.

Trans-oceanic expansion exemplified this point, as in the long-range voyages that established human settlement in the Pacific. Subsequently, the European “Voyages of Exploration” created new geographical routes, for example round southern Africa to South Asia, and from Mexico to the Philippines. Engineering also served to create new marine routes, notably with the Suez (1869) and Panama (1914) canals.

With the politics of nodes and routes, there is a tendency to see places and links in static terms, as in the British naval base in Malta and the Suez Canal, but there could be both improvements and changes in vulnerability and protection. Thus, in the 1880s, there was interest in torpedo-carrying warships, and this put pressure on the idea of a close blockade. Indeed, it ensured an interest in defensible advance bases in order to reduce fleet vulnerability to torpedo attack.

At the same time, the geopolitics of power-projection was affected by the use from the late-19th century of breechloaders, rifled artillery, percussion detonators, and high explosives, all of which enhanced the possibilities of naval bombardment. This serves as a reminder that lines on the map — coastlines — can differ widely in terms of their defensibility, a point that greatly expanded with the use of air and missiles.

The creation of new routes continues at a breakneck speed at present, with transformative change both designed, as with the Chinese rail programme, and in part independent of direct human intention, as with global warming opening up Arctic searoutes. In turn, this emphasises human choice: the military, political and economic possibilities of the Arctic are being probed by Russia and discussed by other powers, including China.

There is also the extent to which the perception of geopolitical realities — whether unchanging or not — is shot through with political assumptions and commitments. This process extends to those who comment on geopolitics (myself included), for no writer can offer oracular judgment. Instead, it is important to note the degree to which analysis is essential to the wider politics of geopolitics.

Whilst history may not have proved Mackinder right about the power balance of rail versus sea, his ideas about the shifting potentials of a changing world and the need for proper analysis and preparedness have shaped geopolitics ever since.