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Mahan and Mackinder: Addressing the False Dichotomy in the Eurasian Pivot theory

Mr. Philip Reid was Visiting Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • Occasional Paper No. 59

    Halford Mackinder’s 1904 paper: The Geographical Pivot of History, has been an object of scholarly contention for more than eight decades. Endlessly regurgitated, the process of the Mackinder review has become a niche within International Relations theory that has evolved over time but retained a number of core themes. Contemporary ‘critical’ accounts continue to rely on an entrenched anti-Positivist dialectic that dismisses the military or political importance of space, as well as a damning, yet admissible, genealogical link to the German ‘anthropo-geographers’ of the late-19th Century. Other longstanding critiques of the Pivot Paper draw attention to the implications of modern technologies for the contemporary understanding of strategic space and the depth Mackinder affords his Eurasian ‘Heartland’. While in places contradictory, Mackinder’s principle contribution to the realist literature rests on his having expressed more succinctly than the other authors of his generation, the strategic relationship between a smaller, offshore maritime state and a larger continental power under conditions of global closure and this can neither be lightly dismissed nor emphatically accepted. Cursory readings of the Pivot Theory have permitted the distortion of the debate and the hyperbolic citation of Mackinder’s name and signature concept in news media and academia. The popular ‘Mahan versus Mackinder’ dichotomy, is perhaps the most familiar manifestation of this. The careless misrepresentation of what was in many ways a shared rather than contradictory worldview, as well as the shifting strategic landscape in the early-Twenty First Century, justifies another review of Mackinder’s ideas, as well as those of Alfred Mahan. This paper gives a brief synopsis of the Pivot Theory’s critical legacy and weighs the enduring relevance of the Edwardian Weltanschauung in the context of contemporary developments on a Eurasian land mass that has witnessed the breakneck political and economic rise of a second industrialized and ambitious power in the ‘Heartland’.

    About the Author

    Philip Reid is presently a visiting fellow at Pembroke College, University of Oxford. He was a visiting fellow with the MP-IDSA West Asia Centre in 2018/2019 and a Visiting Research Fellow at the OSCE Academy, Bishkek, from 2020 to 2021. Following a career in UK Defence, Philip has published numerous papers and articles on the Belt and Road Initiative and Chinese foreign policy more broadly. Most recently Philip served as a regional adviser on China and Central Asia but his service career also saw active deployment in the Greater Central Asia region. Philip read Classical Persian Literature for his MA and his wider research interests include both the China-Iran relationship and Islamic languages and culture more broadly.