CEOL - Re-defining East and West: An old theory put up against new changes

By Catherine Lovatt

What is Europe? Geographical, political, economic and social definitions exist but are open to interpretation. One theory of particular personal interest has been that of H J Mackinder, who in 1904 introduced the concept of the Eurasian heartland. Although over 90 years old, the theory has been used to explain expansionist policies throughout the 1900s, emphasizing and distinguishing the geopolitical relationship between Western Europe, Eastern Europe and Asia.

The distinction between Western Europe and Eastern Europe is becoming less apparent with the majority of countries vying to become members of the European institutions. However, there have been several definitions of what is Eastern Europe as opposed to Western Europe.

It has been classified as the region where most non-Russian Slavs live or the region where the Russian, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and German empires battled for power and mastery. It has been described as the "marchland" of Europe where Western civilization merges with a culture that is non-Western and non-European, and it has been described as a "shatter zone" where mixed and fragmented nations have been pieced together into nation-states across the divisions of culture and civilization. Moreover, it has been classified as the region where Soviet domination and Communism formerly separated West from East.

The collapse of Soviet domination and Communist regimes across Eastern Europe has delineated traditional perceptions of distinction. Capitalism against Communism can no longer be used to clarify difference; instead vague and imprecise definitions exist. These too, are slowly being eroded as Eastern and Western Europe merge into a single "Europe".

Europe and Asia have been said to meet at the Urals, creating a mixture of Asiatic and European cultures and traditions across Russia. Traditionally, distinctions between Europe and Asia have been considered on a religious scale: the Occident against the Orient. Different histories have resulted in different political structures, cultures and societies noticeably separate from those experienced and witnessed in Europe.

A theory of national interests

The crossing of cultures and traditions both between Western Europe and Eastern Europe and Europe and Asia marked, for H. J. Mackinder, a region of potential strategic importance in determining the power centers of the future. In January 1904, he introduced his paper "The Geographical Pivot of History" to the Royal Geographical Society. The paper initiated the onset of a new geopolitical era: a method of political analysis which stressed the importance of geographical factors in determining national interests and international relations.

He questioned traditional perceptions, suggesting that, in the long run, land power was superior to sea power and he revised the prevailing Euro-centric view of history. During his lecture, he asked his London audience to "...look upon Europe and European history as subordinate to Asia and Asiatic history, for European civilization is, in a very real sense, the outcome of secular struggle against Asiatic invasion" (Milan Hauner, What is Asia to Us? 1992).

Mackinder's theory outlined a move away from Europe as the pivotal center of history. Instead, it was becoming eclipsed by a new geographical pivot of history, that of the Eurasian Heartland. The main advantage of this imaginary center of a world empire, enlarged by the African continent, or "World Island", was that it would be invulnerable to direct attack by sea power. Therefore, Mackinder prophesized that the fate of the world would depend on who controlled the heartland.

Mackinder suggested that the heartland would be controlled by Russia or a Russian-German combination, shifting the power center from western to eastern Eurasia. However, if Japan and China joined allegiances, then the centrifugal force could be transferred to Asia alone. Mackinder's theory proclaimed that one did not have to reside in the heartlandís pivotal point to control it, but whoever "rules Eastern Europe commands the heartland."

In hindsight, Mackinder's lecture provided a good prediction of the future, despite criticisms of his logic. Although untouched for several years, his concepts were seized by a German geographer, Karl Haushoffer, who popularized Mackinder's theory of a Eurasian heartland central to world dominance. Haushoffer's interpretations were discovered by the Nazis and used to justify their own expansion into Central and Eastern Europe.

Some fine-tuning

During the First World War, the success of the Germans in Eastern Europe encouraged Mackinder to expand the pivotal region of the heartland to incorporate vast sections of Europe, specifically Germany. Nonetheless, in 1943 he reduced the region after the Nazis suffered serious land defeats at the hands of the Russians.

To Mackinder, the defeats merely highlighted the power of the Eurasian heartland as occupied by Russia. His theory can also be used to explain Soviet dominance over Eastern Europe throughout the Communist era. Through control of the heartland, the Soviet Union could command the marginal crescent outside the boundaries of the heartland protecting itself through a wall of political support in the immediate geographical surroundings.

Consequently, divisions between East and West became more clearly defined, not only in terms of geography but also in terms of politics, economics and society. Communism provided a centralized political system controlled from the heartland (Russia) and administered in the marginal crescent (Eastern Europe and parts of Asia).

The political system directed the command economy which linked again with the marginal crescent. Russia directed their Communist neighbors and provided valuable trade links. Socially, the heartland and the protective periphery incorporated those people who were deemed by the West to be different in culture and civilization.

It could be argued that Mackinder's theory was too one-sided. He concentrated on the Eurasian heartland whereas an opposite heartland could also exist, for example, in America. This could help explain the confrontation of Capitalism and Communism: the opposite polar being America, which would have a periphery in Europe, South America and Canada. The two protective circles around the two heartlands, and the heartlands themselves, would therefore compete against each other for military, economic, political and social supremacy. In many respects this happened during the Cold War.

The heartland after 1989

With the collapse of Communism and the weakening of Russian dominance over Eastern Europe, Mackinder's theory could be considered redundant. Russia still maintains considerable influence and power over countries which were formerly members of the Soviet Union, but its influence has waned in Eastern Europe.

If the heartland still exists, it no longer dominates a protective circle of support. The battle between Western capitalism and Eastern Communism has been reduced to removing the traditional perception of what is East and West. Instead, Western and Eastern Europe are combining together, keeping their distinct nationalities but becoming one Europe instead of two.

It could be argued that global mentalities and attitudes are changing. World dominance, imperialism and expansion may no longer be the driving forces behind national and international development, leaving distinctions of a geopolitical nature no longer necessary. Acceptance into Euro-Atlantic institutions such as NATO and the European Union has become a priority for the countries of Eastern Europe. This does not necessarily mean that Mackinder's theory is no longer applicable. It could be possible that the pivotal heartland of history is once again shifting towards a new region - Europe, America or China.

There are many definitions of what Europe is and many categories of classification. Mackinder provided a broad geopolitical analysis that can be used to explain the distinction between Eastern and Western Europe. He almost predicted the future balance of power in Europe, and today his theories on the whole gain little mention. However, his models still apply if you are prepared to treat the heartland as in a continual state of flux, changing with the historical developments it encourages, redefining regions and transforming the balance of power.

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