Squaring the Heartland

With what’s currently going on in the world, it’s hard not to suddenly be an expert on geopolitics. But what’s an expert on geopolitics without a grand theory? We really can’t be too picky, time is of the essence, everyone else already has their analyses down, and something is better than nothing.

[Sound of wheel spinning]

Alright, Mackinder’s Heartland theory it is. The idea was first proposed in 1904 and is based on geographical features of the world and their implications. Specifically, it argues that areas that lack natural barriers will, given time, consolidate into united polities. Since the world we inhabit has flatlands stretching from France far into Russia, and since this is the largest area on earth that’s relatively flat, it’s configured to host the largest united polity, and hence the greatest geopolitical power. Given time, this area should get connected through railroads (an obsession with trains seems to be highly comorbid with having the type of brain that would come up with this stuff). Mackinder dubs this area “the Heartland”, and the continents it is connected to (well) being dubbed “the World-Island”.


Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland;
who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island;
who rules the World-Island commands the world.


OK, but what about history? The world is currently dominated by the USA, and before that, the British Empire, and before that, the French Empire, and so on, and so forth. None of these empires were based out of Mackinder’s heartland (France is not part of Mackinder’s heartland despite technically being part of the European Plain). While that might be true, it neglects the given time aspect of the argument. It’s definitely possible for a house of cards to both be in a state of construction, and inevitably trending towards coming down, at the same time.

There are some instances where a military power based out of the Heartland managed to leverage it for conquest though. Notably, the Mongols got to Kyiv, largely by expanding across the steppe. The Huns did something similar and got past Paris. Both cases are interesting to me since it seems like a bit of an emergent phenomenon that arose from the steppe being largely barren, but with plenty of cellulose. Humans aren’t great at surviving on cellulose though, so some type of intermediary is needed to turn the cellulose into calories fit for human consumption. Enter horses. Great for turning a barren steppe into food, and also great for transporting you around it, and for creating great hordes that organized militaries have a hard time dealing with.

Now, I have to say that the idea is quite tempting. It’s certainly the case that geography seems to play a large role in who ends up speaking mutually intelligible languages, where national boundaries are drawn, etc. It also seems to be the case that Russia’s current actions are motivated by the strategic issues associated with having to defend a much wider chunk of the European Plain, as it widens more and more the closer to Russia you get. Much better for Russia if they only have to defend a small chokepoint to safeguard their position.

European plain

But hold on a second. Russia already controls much of “the Heartland”, and while this has translated into some power, and definitely resource riches, this has not made them the dominant force in the world by any measure. They’re second in the world when it comes to military power, they’re the 11th largest economy, the 9th largest country in terms of population. It could certainly be that they just need more time, but the fact is that things aren’t really looking great, and even before the current situation, Russia had their whole demographic crisis to deal with (or not deal with), making them an outlier in terms of what the demographics situation should look like as a country develops. There was also that whole thing where they tried Communism, tried to not do Communism, had their country sold for pennies to a class of Oligarchs, while their country was largely run by the Mafia, and so on.

While we could find special exceptions for Russia, and try to say that inevitably, as time passes, someone is bound to control the Heartland, and given the configuration of the world that polity will control the World-Island and thus the world. Maybe it will be Russia, but maybe it will be some other country that we don’t have to keep making so many excuses for. China? or Germany after they once again turn to evil? Polska Stronk?

I do think that if we really look deeply at the excuses we have to make for Russia, and then try to look at what makes other countries work and succeed, we’ll be able to spot some interesting things. For one, it doesn’t seem like sheer size is the most important factor. If you’re going for population, you can fit a whole lot of people into a tiny amount of land. If you’re going for economic power. Well, it’s not like Manhattan, Canary Wharf, Hong Kong, Singapore, etc. require vast flatlands to do whatever it is they do.

There’s also such a thing as a resource curse, and having vast amounts of land does indeed seem to increase your chances of finding a few of those resources. A country set up on the back of its resource wealth will also be more prone to get captured by a small number of people, as the human capital in the country doesn’t matter that much, and largely have to be kept in check, and doesn’t have to be included in the running of the country.

Peering deeper into the human capital aspect of things. Most economic powerhouses are service economies, and while there’s certainly nothing preventing the controller of the Heartland to build a service economy, it does seem like the existing service economies benefit from agglomeration to a large extent. All the financial centers are very concentrated around specific locations, and even though there are many different financial centers in the world, they tend to focus on different types of finance and financial services. For the longest time, I couldn’t wrap my head around agglomeration within my own industry (software engineering). I’d look at the fantasy salaries my peers were making over in the US and just wonder why companies weren’t jumping on over to Europe to snatch up all the good engineers.

Well, I now work for a Mexican fintech with most of its engineering in Berlin (Klar we’re hiring, by the way). This made little sense to me when I first interviewed with Klar. Why would a Mexican fintech want to hire engineers so far away from the core of the business? It turns out the answer was that they didn’t, but that they had to. There just weren’t that many great engineers to hire in Mexico who could quickly jump in and work with the tech stack that we use at Klar. In Berlin it’s another story, it’s already a tech hub, and at a tech hub, there are both employers and a labor pool you can draw from as an employer (in our case, getting a few people from N26 might have helped). If what you offer is compelling to prospective employees, you can find the talent that you want.

Now let’s step back into the Heartland. Where’s the Silicon Valley of the Heartland? Is it inevitable that there will be one? I think, no, actually. Your power in the world is not determined by the amount of land that you control. Your power in the world is determined by way less tangible things, such as networks.

Note: I don’t mean to say that agglomeration is everything. But it is something. Why some countries are wealthy and other countries aren’t is a question that sort of spawned economics. There are of course a huge amount of other less tangible things that might play a role, such as the level of social cohesion and trust, domestication of the workforce, etc. All likely play a role. None of them are intrinsically tied up with the ability to control large swathes of land.

It strikes me that just as the Physiocrats believed that all wealth was downstream of agriculture, Mackinder did something similar but with land, for geopolitics. It’s tempting! Land is something you can see, touch, and stand on, and it forms the basis of everything else. It certainly sounds pretty persuasive at first glance and by comparison, vague things like agglomeration just aren’t as satisfying. How could it be that the most basic thing required for everything else is not the most important thing? While I believe that geography does play a role in what ends up happening in the world, I will have to admit that the Heartland theory is not what I’ll be championing while getting tipsy with people this summer. Back to the drawing board.

One response to “Squaring the Heartland”

  1. Nice post, Arvin. (This is Shark.) I think you gave Mackinder’s theory a good examination.

    MacKinder seems to miss two big things here. 1, while vast plains are easy to conquer, they are difficult to *hold*. The list of armies that have come sweeping out of the steppes like the scourge of God–starting with the proto-indo-europeans at the dawn of what we can piece together–is very long. But not long after one shows up, there comes another–and another, and another, and another. The center does not hold.

    Second, his “pivot area” (which, oddly, contains some big mountains in the south) has generally terrible weather. Just ask Napoleon. Sure, he marched his army from France to Moscow and conquered it easily enough, but then what? Then his men froze to death in the Russian winter.

    I can’t say what the future will hold, but looking back, the Eurasian steppe has rarely been the seat of any kind of great power. China, India, Rome, Byzantium… all have waxed and waned over the years without much “heartland” domination. As for Russia, the vast expanse of Siberia seems more like a backyard, a default zone they got because it’s just so cold that not a lot of people wanted it.

    Okay, that aside, I will say that his ideas about trains aren’t so bad! He was writing in 1904. Trains were a big deal in 1904. Cars weren’t. Railroads were crossing continents and did make it easier for nations to transport troops and so hold vast swathes of territory. Prior to the train, getting around by land was pretty hard (unless you were a steppe nomad–and then you had nothing worth taxing). Roads sucked. Wagons sucked. Carrying your belongings while walking sucked. Which is why our big empires back then had strong navies. Getting around by boat was easier than getting around by land.

    Thaaat said, given that he was writing in 1904, did a strong polity emerge from this “heartland”? Well, yes. I think the USSR did decently well for itself as one of the most powerful nations in the world for a while. It ultimately lost out to a nation that also controls a vast central plain united by rail lines, the US.

    As for the European plain, Hitler did do a pretty impressive job conquering large chunks of it, before he got stopped by the Soviets and the Americans. (Another case of easy to conquer, hard to hold?) But of course there was also WWI, in which no one went *anywhere*. I guess machine guns make it much easier to hold territory (and tanks and planes turn the tide and make it easier to take again).

    In the modern world, controlling these heartlands seems useful for economic growth in two ways: first, you stop marauding bandits from sweeping into your productive areas and torching everything. Second, you can grow food there. I’m pretty certain they don’t grow a lot of food in Manhattan.

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