“Who rules the Heartland rules the World Island. Who rules the World Island rules the world. So wrote geography professor and occasional MP Halford Mackinder in his 1919 book ‘Democratic Ideals and Reality’ .
Mackinder’s Heartland has been loosely defined to include the Eurasian landmass from central Europe eastward through Siberia and the Himalayas to eastern China. And though it hasn’t dominated the world since – it blatantly excludes the United States – it still carries great weight in what Mackinder called “the lands of the Outer or Insular Crescent”.
And it suddenly seemed to carry great weight on February 24 when, just days after a conference between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Winter Olympics in Beijing, Russian troops suddenly invaded Ukraine. .
It is true that the Russian-Chinese alliance celebrated then did not turn out to be an axis of steel. China has been reluctant to support Putin’s aggression, abstaining rather than opposing United Nations resolutions condemning it. On the other hand, it has also hampered US mediation efforts.
Nevertheless, Russia and China’s apparent alliance, tense as it is, and their friendly ties with Iran raise dangers for the United States and its friends and allies that American leaders have ignored until recently.
This Heartland axis of unfreedom is reminiscent of that axis of aggressors that dominated Mackinder’s Heartland from August 1939 to June 1941 – an alliance of totalitarian dictatorship that was the closest thing George Orwell described in “1984 “.
The main allies then were not Russia and China, but Germany and Japan. The key event was the signing of the Hitler-Stalin Pact on August 23, 1939. This pact, and the almost simultaneous end to the Russo-Japanese skirmishes on the border of Manchuria, gave two 20th century despots control of the most of the landmass of Eurasia – Mackinder’s Heartland.
Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin quickly divided Poland and the Baltic States. Hitler sent his armies west and north, to conquer Denmark and Norway, the Netherlands and France. In May 1941, he was master of the Balkans as far as Greece.
By any measure, it was a greater threat to freedom and decency in the world than we face today. Hitler, Stalin and the Japanese warlords were determined to continue their conquests and mass murder vast populations.
During those 22 perilous months of 1939-1941, it was hard to imagine how the totalitarians could be dislodged from their stranglehold on the Heartland. Britain was alone in military opposition, lucky to have evacuated 300,000 troops from Dunkirk and to have enough trained pilots to deny the Luftwaffe’s air supremacy over London. The United States was stuck in neutral, with public opinion polls showing overwhelming majorities opposed to going to war.
Fortunately, both nations found leaders determined to achieve what, for a terribly prolonged moment, seemed impossible.
Winston Churchill was installed as prime minister on the day Hitler invaded France, May 10, 1940, by appeasement-embedded Tories and a Labor party disgusted with the establishment.
That year, Franklin Roosevelt transferred old warships to Britain and instituted a military draft, but still won an unprecedented third term. In the face of the global crisis, voters did what Alexander Hamilton in Federalist 72 said the original Constitution allowed them to do: retain the incumbent “in those offices where, in certain emergencies of the state, their presence might be of the greatest importance to the public interest or safety”. .”
Hitler’s 4 million man attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941 ended the Nazi-Communist alliance. But German thrusts east towards the Urals and south towards the oil fields of the Middle East nearly gave Hitler control of the Heartland. You can still see the monument marking the greatest advance of the Nazis on the highway from Sheremetyevo Airport to the Kremlin.
Today’s Russia-China alliance is obviously not as formidable as the Hitler-Stalin axis. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine may backfire and cut the already frayed Russian-Chinese ties.
The leaders and peoples of Europe, suddenly aware of the need to strengthen their armies, will assume responsibilities carried by the United States from the 1940s to the 1990s. Perhaps the West will set aside strict climate policies based on on models from the distant future that may prove no more valid than the COVID models of virologists from the recent past.
And perhaps Xi, having watched Putin’s military strategy collapse, based on optimistic assumptions that proved unwarranted, might refuse to risk the uncertainties of an amphibious invasion of Taiwan.
Or at least we hope so. But Ukraine and the ghost of Mackinder suggest that we should also ponder more unfortunate possibilities.
Michael Barone is senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.