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Imperial Subjects: Geography, Geopolitics and Halford Mackinder

Imperial Subjects: Geography, Geopolitics and Halford Mackinder

Halford Mackinder (1861-1947) is certainly back in vogue. Robert Kaplan (in Foreign Affairs), Paul Kennedy (in The New York Review of Books) and John Bellamy Foster (in Monthly Review) note that in both the United States and in Russia neo-Conservative thinkers are making regular use of Mackinder's geopolitical ideas. This research (funded in part by the British Academy) aims to develop a contextual and a comparative approach to Mackinder's work. A contextual approach tries to understand Mackinder's ideas with reference to their political, institutional and intellectual settings. A comparative approach explores the work of Mackinder's contemporaries to highlight the distinctive moral and political emphases of Mackinder.

The project explores what we might mean by an imperial subject in Britain around the turn of the twentieth century. In the first place, Mackinder himself was clearly an imperial subject. He dedicated himself both academically and politically to the cause of the British Empire. In the second place Mackinder's ideas about the geographical strategy of the Empire contributed greatly to the development of Geopolitics, an applied academic study that has served the cause of various empires. The third imperial subject is Geography itself. Mackinder developed the subject matter of Geography so that it might educate a generation of imperial citizens.

The project also tries to identify different types of imperialism. In the first place, one can distinguish between theoretical and practical imperialism. Mackinder made contributions to both. His writings on the theory of imperialism, beginning with his paper on 'The Geographical Pivot of History' (1904) proved important to a whole series of subsequent imperialist thinkers including Karl Haushofer, Isaiah Bowman, Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Mackubin Thomas Owens. Mackinder's geopolitical vision had a number of important features. It was global, based on the inevitability of empire and the use of force. National (even civilisational) survival depended upon limiting access to natural resources through controlling the relations between the land power of the heartland and the sea power of the rimland (to use Spykman's later formulation). These are the strategic ideas upon which later geopoliticians have drawn explicitly. However, there are more basic assumptions about space, environment and identity that are drawn upon implicitly by other geopoliticians. This bundle of ideas can be termed 'the naturalisation of empire' since it hides the moral, political and economic dilemmas of imperialism presenting its practice as a purely technical matter, cloaking morality with false objectivity.

In practical terms, Mackinder was part of an imperialist ginger group within British politics. This group of imperialists were committed to colonialism and to the projection of British control over other peoples. They believed in the superiority of British civilisation and agree with Cecil Rhodes that it would be good for its denizens if as much of the world as possible were under British rule. However, there was another style of imperialism that focused less upon British superiority than upon issues of global governance. We might term this Liberal Imperialism although the term 'Liberal' is used in such a variety of ways that it is open to ready misinterpretation. Perhaps we could distinguish between physical and moral imperialism, recognising of course that they might come to the same thing. This moral imperialism stressed the democratic forms of a state that wished to be a member of the global communion of states. Intervention, here, was justified not by the ambitions of core states (as with physical imperialism) but by the needs of peripheral peoples. This distinction is far from absolute and the dialectical relations between these two poles are vital to the practice of imperialisms, past and present. This is explored through a close study of Mackinder's mission in South Russia 1919-20 where he was sent to co-ordinate efforts against the Bolsheviks.


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