“Who rules the Heartland rules the World Island. Who rules the World Island commands the world.” So wrote the geography professor and occasional member of Parliament Halford Mackinder in his 1919 book “Democratic Ideals and Reality.”
Mackinder’s Heartland was vaguely defined to include the Eurasian landmass from central Europe eastward across Siberia and the Himalayas to eastern China. And while it hasn’t dominated the world since — it glaringly excludes the United States — it still has great weight in what Mackinder called “the lands of outer or insular crescent.”
And it seemed to have great weight suddenly on Feb. 24 when, just days after a conference between Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and China’s President Xi Jinping at the Beijing Winter Olympics, Russian troops suddenly invaded Ukraine.
It’s true that the Russia-China alliance solemnified then has not proven to be an axis of steel. China has been skittish about supporting Putin’s aggression, abstaining rather than opposing United Nations resolutions condemning it. On the other hand, it has also spurned U.S. efforts at mediation.
Nonetheless, the apparent alliance of Russia and China, however strained, and their friendly ties with Iran raise dangers for the U.S. and its friends and allies that American leaders have been ignoring 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 to what George Orwell described in “1984.”
The key allies then were not Russia and China but Germany and Japan. The key event was the signing of the Hitler-Stalin pact on Aug. 23, 1939. This pact, and the almost simultaneous end of Russia-Japan skirmishes on the Manchurian border, gave two 20th-century despots control of most of the landmass of Eurasia — Mackinder’s Heartland.
Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin promptly carved up Poland and the Baltic states. Hitler sent his armies west and north, to conquer Denmark and Norway, the Low Countries and France. By May 1941, he was master of the Balkans all the way to Greece.
By any measure, that was a more serious menace to freedom and decency in the world than what we face today. Hitler, Stalin and the Japanese warlords were bent on further conquests, and on the mass murder of vast populations.
In those 22 perilous months in 1939-1941, it was hard to imagine how the totalitarians could be dislodged from their stranglehold on the Heartland. Britain stood alone in military opposition, fortunate to have evacuated 300,000 soldiers from Dunkerque and to have enough trained pilots to deny the Luftwaffe air supremacy over London. The U.S. was stuck in neutral, with public opinion polls showing overwhelming majorities opposed to entering the war.
Fortunately, both nations found leaders determined to achieve what, for a terrifyingly protracted moment, seemed impossible.
Winston Churchill was installed as prime minister the day Hitler invaded France, May 10, 1940, by Conservatives who had soured on appeasement and by a Labour Party disgusted with the establishment.
Franklin Roosevelt that year transferred aged warships to Britain and instituted a military draft, yet still won an unprecedented third term. Facing world crisis, voters did what Alexander Hamilton in Federalist 72 said the original Constitution allowed them to do: retain the incumbent “in stations in which, in certain emergencies of state, their presence might be of the greatest moment 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 eastward toward the Urals and southward toward Middle East oil fields came close to giving Hitler control of the Heartland. You can still see the monument marking the Nazis’ farthest advance on the highway from Sheremetyevo Airport to the Kremlin.
Today’s Russia-China alliance is obviously not nearly as formidable as the Hitler-Stalin axis. It may turn out that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine will backfire and cut Russia-China ties that are already frayed.
The leaders and people of Europe, suddenly alert to the need to strengthen their militaries, will take on responsibilities borne by the U.S. from the 1940s to the 1990s. Perhaps the West will set aside stringent climate policies based on models of the distant future that may prove no more valid than virologists’ COVID models of the recent past.
And perhaps Xi, having observed the foundering of Putin’s military strategy, based on optimistic assumptions that proved unwarranted, may decline to risk the uncertainties of an amphibious invasion of Taiwan.
Or so we may hope. But Ukraine, and the ghost of Mackinder, suggest we should ponder unhappier possibilities as well.
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