World order, Heartland, European sea powers, post-Columbian Epoch

For more information about the "Exploring Geopolitics, Geoeconomics and Geostrategy" Summer School, please click here

Interview by: Leonhardt van Efferink (October 2011) Tags: World order Heartland European sea powers post-Columbian Epoch Pivot Area theory

Dale Walton

Dale Walton

Dale Walton book cover

Dr. C. Dale Walton is a Lecturer in International Relations and Strategic Studies at the University of Reading. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Hull.

His research interests include strategic relationships and security in Asia, geopolitics and the changing geostrategic environment, and U.S. military and strategic history.

This interview is about Dr. Walton’s most recent book, “Geopolitics and the Great Powers in the Twenty-first Century: Multipolarity and Revolution in Strategic Perspective”. It focuses on the decline of U.S. unipolarity and the emergence of eastern Eurasia.

He also is the author of “The Myth of Inevitable U.S. Defeat in Vietnam” and a co-author of “Understanding Modern Warfare”. His forthcoming “Grand Strategy and the Presidency: Foreign Policy, War, and the American Role in the World”, will be released in early 2012.

More information on his work can be found here:

Website of Dale Walton

Halford Mackinder, Nicholas Spykman and Critical Geopolitics

What are the key concepts and ideas of Halford Mackinder?

“Sir Halford Mackinder was a key—arguably the key—figure in the development of classical geopolitics, and his ideas continue to influence geopolitical discussion today.”

Sir Halford Mackinder was a key—arguably the key—figure in the development of classical geopolitics, and his ideas continue to influence geopolitical discussion today. It is impossible to give full justice to his worldview in a short discussion, but I would say that his most important contribution was in developing what is commonly known as the ‘Heartland theory.’

Mackinder first put forward a variation of the Heartland theory forward in 1904—at that time, however, he referred to the Heartland as the ‘Pivot Area.’ His conception of the geographical boundaries of the Pivot Area/Heartland changed somewhat over time, but the region always consisted of a vast territory comprising much of Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and Siberia.

“Mackinder saw the political history of Eurasia as being driven largely by landpower forces surging out of the Heartland.”

He saw the political history of Eurasia as being driven largely by landpower forces surging out of the Heartland—the most famous example of this being the Mongols in the thirteenth century—and attempting to conquer European, East Asian, and South Asian polities.

How can they help to understand contemporary world politics?

“Mackinder did not believe that geopolitics was static—physical geography might only change with excruciating slowness, but technology and social organization can change rapidly. “

Mackinder did not believe that geopolitics was static—physical geography might only change with excruciating slowness, but technology and social organization can change rapidly. Therefore, I would say that, influential as the Heartland theory has been, that it becoming less salient in describing current geopolitical problems.

“Indeed, Nicholas J. Spykman’s work, which builds on, but also critiques, Mackinder’s ideas, is, in my view, probably is more directly useful in describing the geopolitical conditions prevailing today.”

Indeed, Nicholas J. Spykman’s work, which builds on, but also critiques, Mackinder’s ideas, is, in my view, probably is more directly useful in describing the geopolitical conditions prevailing today.

“Mackinder, however, offers great and enduring insights into the intimate relationship between geography and politics.”

Mackinder, however, offers great and enduring insights into the intimate relationship between geography and politics. It is not possible to have a rich understanding of strategy in any period of human history without grasping the web connecting people, physical geography, and technology.

To what extent do critical geopolitical concepts and ideas inform your work?

Critical geopolitics, to be frank, has not had a large influence on my work. One of the themes that I address briefly in Geopolitics and the Great Powers in the Twenty-First Century is the vast gulf between classical and critical geopolitics.

“The worldviews of classical and critical geopoliticians simply are too radically different to allow for an academically fruitful dialogue — they cannot agree on the shape of the game board, much less the rules of the game.”

These two strains of thought simply are based on such different underlying assumptions—classical geopolitics being broadly Realist in its outlook, and critical geopolitics essentially having its origins in the Frankfurt School — that there is little common ground.

The worldviews of classical and critical geopoliticians simply are too radically different to allow for an academically fruitful dialogue — they cannot agree on the shape of the game board, much less the rules of the game.

The world order I – definition and history

How would you define the concept ‘world order’?

“I would describe a ‘world order’ as the way in which political power is distributed globally and expectations in the international community of how that power will be used.”

With ‘big definitions’, I favor simplicity!

So I would describe a ‘world order’ as the way in which political power is distributed globally and expectations in the international community of how that power will be used.

What is the difference between the Columbian Epoch and the post-Columbian Epoch and why is it relevant?

In Mackinder’s view, the seafaring polities of Western Europe made a critical ‘breakout’ through the use of seapower for exploration, trade, and overseas empire-building — he called this the Columbian Epoch. During this age, the seapowers (very much including England/the United Kingdom) enjoyed a critical advantage.

However, Mackinder believed that the Columbian Epoch was coming to an end during his own lifetime — he argued this in his 1904 paper that I mentioned above.

I think that Mackinder’s vision of the Columbian Epoch was a major historical insight, but in Geopolitics and the Great Powers in the Twenty-First Century, I argue that Mackinder was not quite right in his assumptions about it end.

“The European seapowers proved more resilient than Mackinder thought likely, and, with the aid of the United States, defeated challenges to their political independence.”

The European seapowers proved more resilient than he thought likely, and, with the aid of the United States, defeated challenges to their political independence. Thus, the twentieth century was the Columbian Epoch’s ‘old age’ — it slowly wound down, with Europe remaining the center of geopolitical struggle and the main battlefield for a NATO-Warsaw Pact war, if such an event were to occur.

“The collapse of the Soviet satellite governments in Central Europe and the fall of the Soviet Union then allowed the opening of a new, Post-Columbian Epoch.”

The collapse of the Soviet satellite governments in Central Europe and the fall of the Soviet Union then allowed the opening of a new, Post-Columbian Epoch.

Comments are closed.