Halford Mackinder’s new world

Prince Hassan of Jordan
14 August 2009

"Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; Who rules the Heartland commands the World Island; Who rules the World Island commands the World" - Sir Halford Mackinder, 1919

Prince Hassan is a senior member of the Jordanian royal family, and president of the Arab Thought Forum. His official website is here 

Also by Prince Hassan of Jordan in openDemocracy:

"Annapolis: a view from Amman"  (26 November 2007)

"The failure of force: an alternative option" (16 January 2009)

"Palestine's right: past as prologue" (11 February 2009)

"The WANA vision: regional model for global survival" (29 July 2009)Sir Halford Mackinder (1861-1947) was a geographer, not a geologist. He may have had had no inkling that the arid zone contained in his "Heartland" held beneath it much of the world's oil; however, he was sure that this broader area would be geopolitically the key to world power. The subtle and not-so-subtle battles that would ensue between the great powers to control the "World-Island", which controls the "Heartland"' - and with it, over half of the world's resources - were embedded in Mackinder's work, and revealed in the ensuing decades (see Gerry Kearns, Geopolitics and Empire. The Legacy of Halford Mackinder [Oxford University Press, 2009]).

Sir Halford Mackinder

This thinker of a century ago has many resonances for the political power-plays of today. The vital task of ensuring that the nuclear option is contained between the world powers and the regional mavericks (Israel, Pakistan and India) is one example. Another is the struggle for control of the "energy ellipse" from Eurasia to the Straits of Hormuz, which may emerge as the most crucial test of the east-west world power-balance in the next decade. A time of reckoning is approaching in west Asia (inclusive of Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and the Arab countries of the hinterland to the Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC]), especially with the GCC's continued (or perceived) development of the region's economic and financial power.

The United States and United Nations peace initiatives, the Arab peace plan, and Israeli responses to date, have added new elements to the equation of regional problem-solving and the high-risk war on terror. The military strategies of responding to extremism and low-intensity warfare tend to polarise societies further (Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq are but a few examples) and need to be rethought if hopes for a rapprochement between the Arab world and the west are to be realised. An authentic Euro-Atlantic policy towards the west Asian region also has to meet the great test of building stable relationships with Russia, India, China and the ESCAP zones of influence in south and east Asia.

The missing link

The initial euphoric effect of President Obama's oratory has now given way to more of a mood of "wait and see". The tasks his administration and partners face are enormous. There is a challenge here to regional actors. The emergence of a free and stable region on the southern flank of Nato and astride east-west communication lines, for example, would be a powerful enhancement of human security and global sustainability - even more were it to create regional, inner-directed "smart power" (see "The WANA vision: regional model for global survival", 29 July 2009). However, a continuing challenge to progress here is the lack of coherence or logical interconnection within the west Asian region. The region is not represented by an inclusionist Economic and Social Council (Ecosoc), where regional commons could be otherwise addressed methodically. Rather, the west Asian states attend UN plenaries in New York and Geneva as individual countries, with individual agendas. 

Also in openDemocracy, a weekly column by Paul Rogers which tracks issues of human security, social inequality and violence in the west Asian "heartland" an beyond

Some recent columns:

"A world in the balance" (13 November 2008)

"A world on the edge" (30 January 2009)

"A world in revolt" (12 February 2009)

"Climate change: a failure of leadership" (8 May 2009)

"A tale of two paradigms" (25 June 2009)

"The politics of security: beyond militarism" (2 July 2009)

"A new security paradigm: the military-climate link" (30 July 2009)

"The nuclear-weapons opportunity" (6 August 2009)

"Afghanistan: the wrong target" (13 August 2009)

This fragmentation affects the internal realities of these individual states too. The ongoing horrors of Iraq are an example, even as (in the concept of muhasa or quota-sharing) the issues of oil and the scheduled provincial elections contain the potential to drive citizens apart as well as to bring them together. Many share the view of President Obama who stated on 26 June 2009: "I haven't seen as much political progress in Iraq, negotiations between the Sunni, the Shi'a, and the Kurds, as I would like to see." 

President Obama's concerns are shared by those of us who have witnessed the nightmarish sectarian violence in Iraq that has been a feature of the country's most recent war. The meetings held with Iraqi religious leaders in 2003-o4 under the auspices of the World Conference of Religions for Peace (WCRP) taught a crucial lesson: to violate the rights and interests of others via over-zealousness of faith and denial of the other, is the essence of raging sectarianism and unacceptable to true faith. A collective recognition of this - and its corollary, that the adherence to and dissemination of one's own religious doctrine via calm dialogue is acceptable - would be a crucial step forward.

In this respect, I would suggest that the "Swiss cheese" of the Palestine archipelago, as depicted in a cartoon in Le Monde - of Palestinians vs Palestinians, and Israelis vs Israelis (settlers) - goes far beyond the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation.

In the long run, stability in the region can only be achieved by leaders of regional communities exercising their shared responsibility. The notion that the hatred of the moment - often targeted at supposedly monolithic groups ("the Israelis", "the Palestinians", or "the Iraqis") - can be fixed by arriving at an agreement solely reliant on American "help" is misguided. The role of the permanent members (P5) of the United Nations Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) is surely to support the region's peoples to help themselves; the primary role of the United Nations - although also a member of the Quartet along with the United States, the European Union - is to monitor the agreements reached within the region in the clusters of security, economy and legally binding frameworks.

The thread of security

The spirituality of Jerusalem, Mecca, Najaf and Karbala is symbolic of more than pilgrimage and devotional rights. The revival of a religious philanthropy of spirit would do much to undercut moral and economic deprivation. A cohesion fund to nurture citizenship could asymmetrically focus on training an estimated 50 million unemployed Arab young people under the age of 18 by 2050, and offer them social guarantees of their safe return from regions with labour shortages in Asia and the west. Furthermore, a social charter guaranteeing human rights and responsibilities could be an incentive to all public actors and be a crucial step towards including the alienated young in a common vision of the future.   

Moreover, if a fragile détente could grow between three areas of regional security -  human, natural and economic resource-management - a regional congress leading to engagement in the equivalent of a Helsinki process on globalisation and democracy is possible. Political issues such as federalism, national integrity, central authority and devolution could then become feasible as well as desirable goals of self-determination of a third sphere of governments, private sector and civil society working in harmony. Democracy cannot descend by parachute, or solely through the ballot-box.

The vision of the endgame for peace in the middle east and the world is upon us now. We are probably already living on borrowed time. Narrow nationalisms cannot deal individually with the issues confronting us. Only by cooperating transnationally, supranationally and regionally over natural and human resources and environmental and human-security issues, can we ensure Sir Halford Mackinder's prediction becomes a boon, not a bane.

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