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Geopolitics attempts to explain international politics in terms of geography—that is, the location, size, and resources of places. It tries to describe the relationships between geographic space, resources, and foreign policy. Several geopolitical theories have fallen into disrepute and are no longer used because they have been used to justify imperialism and wars of aggression. They also tended to emphasize only one material factor to the exclusion of cultural and ideological factors. A deeper understanding of international relations requires consideration of all factors that are pertinent to human life, taking into account historical, social, and spiritual aspects, as well as the physical and geographic nature of each nation.


Geopolitics attempts to explain international politics in terms of geography, based on factors such as the location, size, and resources of each area. In the words of Oyvind Osterud: [1]:

In the abstract, geopolitics traditionally indicates the links and causal relationships between political power and geographic space; in concrete terms it is often seen as a body of thought assaying specific strategic prescriptions based on the relative importance of land power and sea power in world history... The geopolitical tradition had some consistent concerns, like the geopolitical correlates of power in world politics, the identification of international core areas, and the relationships between naval and terrestrial capabilities.


Swedish political scientist Rudolf Kjellén coined the term "geopolitics" at the beginning of the twentieth century. Kjellén was inspired by the German geographer and ethnographer Friedrich Ratzel, who published his book Politische Geographie (Political Geography) in 1897. The term was popularized in English by American diplomat Robert Strausz-Hupé, a faculty member of the University of Pennsylvania.

Halford Mackinder

Geopolitics gained prominence through the theories of Sir Halford Mackinder of England with his "Heartland Theory" in 1904. Mackinder divided the world into two sections, the "World Island" and the "Periphery." The World Island included the great land mass of Europe, Asia, and Africa, including the Heartland, which included Ukraine, Western Russia, and Mitteleuropa. The "Periphery" included the Americas, British Isles, and Oceania.

The Heartland theory hypothesized the possibility for a huge empire to be brought into existence in the Heartland, which would not need to use coastal or transoceanic transport to supply its military industrial complex, and that this empire could not be defeated by all the rest of the world coalitioned against it. The Heartland contained the grain reserves of Ukraine, and many other natural resources. Comparing countries to cogs in a machine, he theorized that the Heartland was the largest cog, and countries surrounding it were the smaller cogs that moved as it moved.

Mackinder's theory can be summed up in his saying "Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland. Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island. Who rules the World-Island commands the world." His doctrine was influential during the World Wars and the Cold War, for Germany and later Russia each made failed attempts to seize and fortify the Heartland.

According to Mackinder's doctrine, the World Island, which contained sufficient natural resources for a developed economy, could send its navy to destroy or intimidate the nations of the periphery while locating its own industries further inland so the nations of the periphery would have a longer struggle reaching them, and would be facing a well-stocked industrial bastion. Also, the industrial centers of the Periphery were necessarily located in widely separated locations.

Influenced by Mackinder's theory, Adolf Hitler invaded Russia in 1941, which he saw as being necessary for world domination. Hitler did not reckon, however, with the determination and resilience of the Soviet people and the severity of the Russian winter, which combined to deliver a crushing blow to the Wehrmacht and was the beginning of the end for the Third Reich. Mackinder’s theory was further discredited when the Soviet empire, which occupied the Heartland, dissolved into separate republics amid economic chaos and rebellion.

Other Theories

Mackinder’s theory was opposed by Alfred Thayer Mahan who stressed the significance of navies (he coined the term sea power) in world conflict. American scholar Nicholas Spykman argued that it was also important to control what he called the "Rimland," which consisted of Western Europe, the Middle East, and southern and eastern Asia. These scholars saw naval power as the key to controlling key straits, isthmuses, and peninsulas that intersect ocean trade routes, such as the straits of Gibralter, the Bosporous, the straits of Molucca, the Suez Canal, and the Panama Canal. These strategic chokepoints have been hotbeds of imperial ambitions and intrigue throughout history.

A variation of geopolitical theory that emerged during the Vietnam War was the "domino theory," the idea that communism would seek to take over adjacent countries one by one, like a row of falling dominoes. This argument was used for U.S. intervention in Vietnam. The theory argued that the line had to be held in Vietnam to prevent Thailand, Indonesia, and eventually Australia from being at risk. This theory is no longer considered valid since the collapse of the Soviet Empire, conflicts between communist countries—such as border disputes between Mainland China and Vietnam—and the adoption of capitalism by China and Vietnam.

After World War I, Kjellen's thoughts and the term were picked up and extended by a number of scientists: in Germany by Karl Haushofer, Erich Obst, Hermann Lautensach, and Otto Maull; in England by Halford Mackinder; in France Paul Vidal de la Blache. In 1923, Karl Haushofer founded the Zeitschrift für Geopolitik (magazine for geopolitics), which developed as a propaganda organ for Nazi Germany.

Haushofer combined Mackinder's theory with some of his own and developed geopolitics into a pseudoscience. He argued that oceanic countries would have to grant lebensraum (living space) to the newer, more dynamic continental countries. Lebensraum was a key propaganda slogan justifying Hitler's invasion of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia that set World War II in motion.

Anton Zischka published Afrika, Europas Gemischftaufgabe Tummer (Africa, Complement of Europe) in 1952, where he proposed a kind of North-South Empire, from Stockholm in Sweden to Johannesburg in South Africa.

Recent Developments

Geopolitics in the past has focused on world conflict, based on the premise that the world contains a limited amount of space and all countries struggle among themselves to get enough to survive. Geopolitics, however, can also be used to foster peace between nations, as Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said, by geopolitical, I mean an approach that pays attention to the requirements of equilibrium. [2]

Since then, the word "geopolitics" has been applied to other theories, most notably the notion of the "Clash of Civilizations" by Samuel Huntington. At the same time historian William H. McNeill in his book The Rise of the West wrote about the influence of the Silk Road in linking global civilizations together. Stretching 5,000 miles from eastern China to the Mediterranean Sea and flourishing from 100s B.C.E. to 1500s C.E., that key trade route, named after the caravans of Chinese silks that traversed it to be sold in the West, effected what McNeill calls the "closure of the ecumene": his term for the great community of civilization, linked together from extreme East to farthest West, in which there have been no entirely independent civilizations since.

Gradual advances in maritime technology made sea routes safer and more convenient, leading to the demise of the Silk Road by the 1500s and the rise of maritime powers. A modern version of a land route linking the world together, however, has been proposed in creating a series of bridges and/or tunnels across the Bering Strait, linking Alaska in the United States and Siberia. This would be a vital link in the great project of creating a single land transit route spanning the globe from the tip of South America to England. The concept of an overland connection crossing the Bering Strait goes back at least a century. William Gilpin, first governor of the Colorado Territory, envisioned a vast "Cosmopolitan Railway" in 1890 linking the entire world via a series of railways. In the following years several other proposals were developed by others, including Joseph Strauss, designer of the Golden Gate Bridge, engineer T. Y. Lin, who like Gilpin, envisioned the project as more than simply a bridge but as a symbol of international cooperation and unity, and Russian railway engineer Anatoly Cherkasov soon after the end of the Cold War. The most recent proposal includes a global highway and rail system proposed by the Universal Peace Federation founded by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon.

As the world became smaller in the sense of global transportation becoming faster and easier, and neither sea lanes nor surface transport are threatened in a more peaceable world, all countries are effectively close enough from one another physically to mitigate the influence of geographic space. It is in the realm of the political ideas, workings, and cultures that there are differences, and the term has shifted more towards this arena, especially in its popular usage.


  1. Osterud, Oyvind. "The Uses and Abuses of Geopolitics,” Journal of Peace Research, no. 2, p. 191, 1988
  2. Kissinger, Henry. Colin S Gray, G R Sloan. Geopolitics, Geography, and Strategy. Portland: Frank Cass Publishers, 1999.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel. 1997.
  • Kissinger, Henry. Colin S. Gray and G. R. Sloan (eds.). Geopolitics, Geography, and Strategy. Portland: Frank Cass Publishers, 1999.
  • O'Loughlin, John and Henning Heske. From 'Geopolitik' to 'Geopolitique': Converting a Discipline for War to a Discipline for Peace. In: Kliot, N. and Waterman, S. (eds.): The Political Geography of Conflict and Peace. London: Belhaven Press, 1991.
  • O'Tuathail, Gearoid, et. al. The Geopolitics Reader. New York: Routledge, 1998. ISBN 0415162718.
  • Spang, Christian W. “Karl Haushofer Re-examined–Geopolitics as a Factor within Japanese-German Rapprochement in the Inter-War Years?” C. W. Spang and R.-H. Wippich (eds.), Japanese-German Relations, 1895-1945. War, Diplomacy and Public Opinion. 139-157. London, 2006.


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