Founder Editor in Chief: Octavian-Dragomir Jora ISSN (print) 2537 - 2610
ISSN (online) 2558 - 8206
Contact Editorial Team PATRON The Idea
Heartland vs. Rimland

Heartland vs. Rimland

The last decade saw more and more thoughts on, opinions, and claims that a new world order is just around the corner and the old system of bipolar and then unipolar world will belong in the history books. The “Pax Americana” period is living its final days, marking the beginning of a not so long interregnum characterized by a vaguely-defined so-called “multipolar world”. Since it is unstable in the longer term, multipolarity will most likely segregate and in the end will lead to a world dominated either by a single power, probably China, or, more likely, by another bipolar world divided on an East-West gradient politically and economically, but, more importantly, on ideology and in terms of the proposed social model. This could mean the end of globalization as we know it in its Anglo-Saxon form, but does not mean that globalization itself will be gone completely. It just may very well take another shape, under a presumable new “Pax Sinica”, or a half-half globalization in case of bipolarity, meaning one type of international system in the Western, democratic and capitalist world and another form in the authoritarian states in Eurasia. Pretty much like in the Cold War, with the main difference that these two global systems can cooperate economically much more than in the previous setting.

There are already plenty regional or global powers that put under a serious question the political and economical US domination onto the world: Russia, China, Iran, sometime the others BRICS members and so on. The desire to replace the USD as the main currency for world economy is just one eloquent example, and even if it is a long-time ambition and a long shot in terms of success, the idea itself that US dollar should be put under question it is a premiere of the last decades.

Either way, the idea of a new global stage implies major transformations, both at theoretical and practical level. There is no wonder that in times of ambiguity new theories may appear, but old ones may also be unearthed and reshaped to fit the current geopolitical circumstances. What supposition will prove to be the correct one is hard to say ex ante since history showed us that predictions do not always come true, but nevertheless the analytical process must take into consideration all options.

One good example of such theories brought back to life in the latter years are the ones that try to explain the rise and downfall of hegemonic powers based on the primacy of geography. 

Mackinder’s Heartland theory 

The first revitalized concept we should take into consideration is Halford John Mackinder’s Heartland hypothesis. Stated in 1904 within the Royal Geographical Society, it can be summarized as follows: Europe, Asia and Africa compose a single landmass – the Worlds Island or Afro-Eurasia, and this area contains most of the world’s resources and population. The rest of the continents and islands (including Great Britain) are just offshore or outlying territories with little to no importance.

Then Mackinder divides Afro-Eurasia into two main zones – the Heartland and the Inner Crescent (an area that will later be called Rimland in other theories), bounded by some arbitrarily chosen landmarks. The former consists of the continental area between the Volga and Yangtze rivers, the Arctic Ocean and Himalaya Mountains, approximatively overlapping in terms of geography with the Siberian plain and plateau, the Kazakh steppe, Mongolia, Tibet and parts of the Chinese plains, and politically with the Russian Empire and the Chinese former empire. The latter consists loosely of coastal China, Indochina, India, the Arab world, the Mediterranean space, all of Europe and Scandinavia.

The main idea is that who controls the Heartland controls the World Island, and the power that controls this landmass controls in fact the entire world. Therefore, Central Asia is considered the pivot of world politics (Chowdhury & Hel Kafi, 2015, p. 58).

We can think of two main reasons behind Mackinder’s logic. The first is very simple to comprehend because it is about natural resources, including fertile land for agriculture in the well-known concept that the holders of resources and food can control all of humanity. Indeed, the Heartland or pivot area as it is known is rich in mineral resources and it has a great agricultural potential in comparison with other not so friendly zones in Africa, the Middle East, the Mediterranean shores and so on. It must be taken into consideration that it was 1904 when this postulate appeared and it was not yet known how important the oil and gas resources or rare metals would be for the next century.

The second reason is not so intuitive, because it was more like an alarm signal for Great Britan and all of Western Europe: the Russian Empire and China have the means to dominate in terms of riches and population, and will dominate if the old world will let them. So be advised that the wheel is turning towards countries with huge area and/or huge population.

Moreover, even the security problem was half-solved since Mackinder considered that the Heartland is quite well naturally protected from a possible large-scale invasion: by deserts and mountains in the South and by the unfriendly polar area in the North. This leaves vulnerable only two sides, East and West, but then comes the other factor: being such a huge landmass it is extremely difficult to traverse and to transport and maneuver huge armies over long distances, and in a short time, and this is a natural barrier as well.

His arguments do and do not hold water since there were cases in history in which military forces could conquer the entire area – the Mongol empire, based on speed and very slender and flexible logistics, had troops which could cover the area, but then again, a modern army with heavy artillery needs a huge logistical effort to be deployed and supplied on such a wide battlefield. It was stated that railroads will surpass this shortcoming, but in fact just some 37 years later when the Axis powers invaded the USSR it proved that even modern transports could not keep the pace, and the invaders’ supply lines were stretched to the maximum and beyond.

Still, the fact that the Heartland is connected to the Western peripheral space by a large plain corridor starting from Germany and going all the way to the Ural Mountains combined with the lack of any real natural barrier makes it a vulnerability and an incentive for external power to try to conquer the vast agricultural areas. Even if large military campaigns like Napoleon’s or Nazi Germany’s did eventually fail in their goals, still the Heartland was affected by the destruction, and from this point of view we must admit that it is not a very good argument of an impenetrable defense. So…it cannot be conquered? Maybe not, but being under a constant threat does not creates an ideal place for long term development.

In 1919, after the war and the formation of the USSR, Mackinder nuanced his theory a bit by stating that Eastern Europe is the new focal point, a narrower pivot within the pivot, placed at the border between the Heartland and the Rimland. This is an area that covers modern day countries like Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, and South-Western Russia and is a low flatland perfectly suited for agriculture, and, after the war that ravaged Europe, famine was a real threat. Again, the message was quite a warning in itself: do not let Eastern Europe fall to Communism and Sovietization because it will grant the USSR a great advantage.

So, strictly from a geographical point of view, Mackinder did underline some of the fundamental geopolitical principles: geographical factors indeed do shape history and political decisions, but reality proved that these are not the only ones, and not always the most prominent. Stating that a power located in a certain area will dominate the world just because it has some potential natural advantages is a too broad assumption.

The theory had its fair share of supporters among scholars of the 20th century, one of most notable ones being Zbigniew Brzezinski. He considered Central Eurasia as the “Great Chessboard” of the world, giving it a determining role in the geostrategic evolution of the 21st century. He implied that some states are the major players (China, France, Germany, Russia) gathered around this chessboard, and some others (Azerbaijan, Iran, South Korea, Turkey, Ukraine) are the “critically important geopolitical pivots” (Singh, 2020, p. 533). 

Spykman’s Rimland theory 

From the same sphere of geography dictating the emergence of hegemonic powers comes the opposite theory to Mackinder’s Heartland, namely Spykman’s theory. This is based on the same thinking, but with a 180 degree opposite reasoning: the crescent surrounding the Heartland, or the Rimland how it came to be known is the “true seat of power” and the entity who will rule the coastal areas and the high seas will dominate the World Island and eventually all of the world. Based on the access granted by sea routes, resources, population size, economic achievements, and economic potential all combined (in other words, competitive advantages), Spykman considers that Peninsular Europe and the Coastal Far East as “the currently most significant world geopolitical zone” (Wilkison, 1985, p. 81). Moreover, in his opinion a United Europe in alliance with a United Far East would dominate the Heartland, and eventually the whole world.

Nicholas Spykman founded his Rimland concept on a series of empirical assumptions and critical observations about how geopolitics and global power actually emerge. The theory was developed in 1942 and published in 1944 in the book “The Geography of Peace” and is a response and a critique of Sir Halford Mackinder’s Heartland Theory. Bear in mind that in 1942 the world was in the middle of World War 2, so the idea of peace was a sensitive and subjective wish. One may consider that the hidden meaning of this theory was to point out to the US that it must not retreat into isolationism after the conflagration, but neither should it embrace international idealism such as the one promoted by the League of Nations in the 1920s, as it was considered naïve (Holmila, 2020, p. 959). Also, the Rimland preeminence should be considered in the context of the fear that “countries such as Germany and Japan would control the European and Asian rimland” (Yamamoto, 2016, p. 16) and, therefore, the entire world.

The first thing that should be pointed out is that these contradictory theories have in fact the same referral points: one extensive world-island divided into an inner core and a marginal rim, plus some outer islands connected by seas and oceans. In fact, Spykman used Mackinder’s vision of Earth geography, but just to state the opposite. So, from this point of view, these are two linked theories.

Spykman’s main arguments are based on the idea that marginal areas surround and can control the vast Heartland, by simply “engulfing” it, figuratively speaking. The Rim can encircle the core and may permit or deny contacts and exchanges, according to the Rim’s policies and politics. The reverse is not valid, as the Heartland cannot confine the Rimland, and by this the advantage goes to the marginal crescent, not the inner areas. In a militaristic perspective, we can consider the inner lands as a besieged stronghold surrounded by a very dynamic enemy. And we all know that a surrounded citadel cannot establish a permanent connection with the outside.

Other than political and military power, there is another key factor in Spykman’s reasoning: world commerce – the driving force of development, civilization, and wellbeing. It is well known and proven that “access to the sea confers a competitive advantage on a nation over one that does not possess such a possibility” (Sánchez Herráez, 2021, p. 4). In this view, the marginal areas that have access to seas and waterways can transport goods cheaper and faster from one point to another, and by this the Rimland benefits from a broad range of goods and materials, but also of ideas, technological discoveries, and know-how. At the same time, the raw materials, manufactured items, and agricultural products of the Heartland must be exchanged for commodities and articles that are not available inside its land. This is done by directing the flow of commerce through the Rimland trade hubs, places that are usually located on the shores of the seas or at the junction of main commercial routes. By this the big harbors of Europe, the Middle East, India, or China thrive on commercial gains, and not on the hard labor of the land or raw materials. This view is not especially new since it was postulated before, by Alfred Thayer Mahan, in 1890. At the peak of the industrial revolution and railroad boom, Mahan pointed out that while rail transport will serve mostly internal trade (short distance) the bulk of the international trade will be conducted by sea (Mayer, 2008, p. 18). And history proved him right.

On the big picture Spykman’s theory makes some sense, since the Rimland is focusing more and more on commerce, services and exchanging ideas, all of them being superior tiers in the sectorial division of activities (tier 3 and 4), while Heartland is more prone to tier 1 – agricultural and mining and tier 2 – manufactured products. 

Critics of both theories 

There are two types of criticisms that can be raised: general counter-arguments that question the entire setting and the division of the world and specific arguments for each theory.

Firstly, dividing the entire world into 3 concentric curves is a serious limitation that does not take into account the details for each part of the world. For example, putting half of China and the Middle East into the same category – the outer rim – is a shortcoming since there are so many differences. Secondly, considering these categories as homogenous: one Heartland at the same level of development, one Rimland that acts the same in every part etc. Thirdly, only the physical geography was taken into consideration (mountains, seas, oceans), and not climate, land fragmentation, demographics, ethnicity or any other series of factors. Eliminating climate and demographics oversimplifies the model, but also impairs the entire result due to the fact that a series of very important parameters are ignored. Let’s take for example the climate: considering to be the in same the category and with the same potential for development parts of Sahara in Nord Africa or from Arabian desert with fertile Europe or coastal China is a complete nonsense.

So no, the Heartland and the Rimland cannot be considered homogeneous.

Moreover, ignoring entire continents and areas like the Americas, Australia and Oceania and simply putting them into the “outer islands” category is not just a miscalculation, it is a serious mistake. The reality proved it, and for more than 60 years the main power in the world economically, militarily, and politically was the United States, a country from the… non-important areas.

One last but very important aspect is time-dynamism. Both theories consider that either the Heartland or the Rimland will dominate the world endlessly. In fact, history has shown that nothing lasts forever and all powers, no matter how big or small, rise and decline within some period. So even stating that a certain distribution of power is supposed to exist indefinitely is again a serious flaw.

Regarding specifics, for Mackinder’s theory there are plenty of counter arguments. The Heartland in itself could not achieve supremacy because of three factors: harsh climate, uneven population dispersion and long distances for transporting large quantities of goods by road or train. Even inside the Heartland’s main power – the USSR – the marginal areas meaning the European part and the Far East were somehow privileged in developing policies in comparison with the central Siberian plain and plateau. Also, what Mackinder defines as protective barriers in the North and South against invaders can be seen also as confinement barriers for the ones inside. Furthermore, the defensive thinking – the Heartland is protected against external attacks – is a losing strategy in the long run since it is reactive not proactive…the initiative will always be on the other side, which will be the main actor.

Other critics point out that Mackinder did not take into account technological development when he defined the Heartland fortress. Airplanes, telephone, satellites, the Internet tend to surpass the “unbeatable” geographical barriers. And of course, the fall of the Soviet Union was due a socio-economical self-implosion rather than an external invasion. One last aspect that no one seems to be taking into consideration is that the Outer Islands as Mackinder calls them, meaning the Southern half of Africa, South-East Asia, Australia, Oceania, and both Americas combined are actually bigger in terms of area and at least as rich in natural resources as the Heartland. Therefore, these lands cannot be neglected in terms of world geopolitics. Simply put, Mackinder’s speculation is too oversimplified and too Eurocentric to really be considered a Grand Theory as some of its supporters claim.

Spykman’s theory is not without its critics either. One major flaw for Spykman’s concept is that it relies on Mackinder conceptualization of the world and his division of geography. From this point of view, it is not an independent thesis, but more of a critique to an already flawed theory. Another possible flaw is considering the entire Rimland as a unitary entity that behaves and acts in a coordinated manner. History proved that this is an aberration. When did the entire Outer Rim ever unite in order to confine and constrain the Heartland with some sense of success? … never. It cannot be done since there are too many different countries with divergent agendas.

The argument of commercial flow and trade advantage can be partially correct. It is only valid to a certain extent because it applies for a special series of items – oceanic fish, exotic goods and so on, and not for an extended range of products that can be produced and consumed within the Heartland. The theory does not explain or does not take into consideration the intra-Heartland trade, even if transport by land is logistically more difficult than the one by sea. Still, it can be done, and it was done.

Overall, we have to point out that Spykman was more adored in reality than Mackinder. In fact, he was not a fervent “geographical determinist”; he considered geography as “the most important, but not the only important factor of international politics and power relations” (Bordonaro, 2009, p. 2). Which is the most important factor remains an open debate until this day… 

The model closer to reality 

In our humble opinion, both theories are wrong because both syllogisms are based on a faulty or an incomplete set of premises. Considering and explaining world hegemony only on certain segments of geography and ignoring other parameters is insufficient for a sound theory. It is well known that a complete theory does not exist (yet) that could explain the entire geopolitical stage, and this is simply because the element of hazard plays a role. It is not the most prominent, but it is there.

So what model is closer to the truth then? We would be inclined to choose the centers of gravity model. Powers appear, rise, and fall within an interval of time, longer or shorter, and then other centers of power take their place and so on. It does not matter if the center of power it is located in the Heartland, Rimland or Outer Islands, although the geography does play a role in favoring one or another country’s rise.

There are 3 main factors that can generate a seat or a center of power when they intersect, even partially: a) geographical favorable factors – climate, land etc.; b) resources, and in this class enters all types of riches of the soil, but also population, money or even being located on a main commercial route; and c) information in a wide sense, including the most important of all – technological advantages. Overall, there is the hazard factor that can make all the previous factors converge or not. This would explain why the Mongol Empire – a Heartland power – could cover up 23 million square kilometers. They had the numbers; they had the routes to travel East-West and, most importantly, they had the technological advantages in terms of military power and logistics – fast moving mounted archers. Of course, in time these advantages tend to erode as the other pretenders to the status of hegemon elaborate counter measures and even develop their own innovations. Again, this applies to the Colonial Empires as well – whether Rimland or even Outer Island powers. In the case of the British Empire, the main advantage was its superior navy, both commercially and militarily, combined with naval artillery and naval deployed infantry. Speculating this advantage, Britain ruled half of the world for almost a century, but then the trump card faded and other powers rose, as the empire begin its decline.

The gravitational centers of power theory takes into consideration the limited timeline, as well as the idea that there can be more than one center and these can be allied or rivals, as the times would require. There is no homogenous Rimland or Heartland, but there can be more multiple cores within same category. Each center has its own area of influence, with some state entities gravitating around the center as long as the center represents a true force. Of course, just like in electromagnetism, if two centers are too close, it usually triggers a reaction of mutual rejection, translated in the geopolitical sphere through serious armed conflicts (France vs. England, Britain vs. Germany and others).

To conclude, the ephemeral centers of power that can become regional or even world hegemons are more likely to appear when resources intersect with knowledge and a favorable natural environment. And, since nothing lasts forever, when these competitive advantages begin to fade for one center, others will rise. It is true that it is not easy to predict such an evolution, but empirically it is the “model” which is closest to reality. 

The sunset of a theory... or two 

In light of the events in the ex-Soviet space, it is not surprising that Mackinder’s theory and implicitly Spykman’s symmetrical theory were revived, especially after the Crimean annexation. Geostrategists and political analysts try to put in a theoretical and conceptual frame the real-life political actions of a leader who does not always act according to the book. And they do so by trying to oversimplify the reality so that it may fit the frame.

In fact, our geopolitical reality exceeds in complexity any theory. In other words, there is no theory that can explain and hopefully predict the entire spectrum of political, military, or economic actions.

What is true about these two theories is the fact that geography is indeed an important factor, and many times it did shape political decisions. What is not true is that it is the defining one or even the most important. Supposedly if a geographical factor is disadvantaging a country but there are other important factors that compensate, then that country has the potential to became a superpower for a period of time, in spite of geography. One partially fitting example is the Empire of Japan prior to the Second World War: the geography did not give Japan an extensive advantage, but nevertheless through technology and economic development it became a World Power.

Back to our times of war and unrest, the answer is no, the Russian Federation will not dominate the Eurasian landmass simply because it is a Heartland power. But it may dominate again Europe or a vast part of if it will be given a free hand, if it will acquire a range of technological advantages and the necessary resources, plus a coherent alternative model to shape the future society. So far, none of these prerequisites are fully attained.

On the other hand, neither will Western powers (the USA and the EU) be able to dominate the world just because they are settled in the Rimland and Outer Islands. The US did dominate the world in the last few decades, but thanks to its other strong points. Yet the technological advantage of the West begins to erode as other states raise their level of sophistication, especially in the military field. Indeed, it may be an arms race to the bottom, but no one will have an absolute advantage over the long term. The change in the war model and the transition to UAVs and other new technologies is strongly eroding the military advantage held by the traditional Navy, Air Force, and terrestrial heavy armored war machines.

Beyond the never-ending dispute of what types of powers are more inclined to be a hegemon and to rule the world – thalassocracies (maritime powers) or tellurocracies (land-based powers), what is true and undeniable is that, in our days, like it was at the beginning of the 20th century, the purpose of these principles is firstly to raise an alarm. The between-the-lines messaging of these judgements are correct in essence, even if the theories by themselves can be faulty. 

Photo 1 source: PxHere.

Photo 2 source: Adnan Kapo


Chowdhury, S. K.; Hel Kafi, A., “The Heartland theory of Sir Halford John Mackinder: justification of foreign policy of the United States and Russia in Central Asia”, Journal of Liberty and International Affairs, Vol. 1, No. 2, 2015.

Holmila, A., “Re-thinking Nicholas J. Spykman: from historical sociology to balance of power”, The International History Review, Vol. 45, No. 2, 2019.

Mayer, M., “Geopolitics and ideology in US grand strategy”, in M. Mayer, US Grand Strategy and Central Asia: Merging Geopolitics and Ideology, Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies, 2008.

Sánchez Herráez, P., “21st century: The return to the struggle for Rimland?”, IEEE Analysis Paper, 12/2021.

Singh, A., “Brzezinski and Mackinder theories: Role and influence on the political construction of Eurasia”, Vestnik of Saint Petersburg University, International Relations, Vol. 13, No. 4, 2020.

Wilkinson, D., “Spykman and Geopolitics”, in Zoppo, C. E., Zorgbibe, C. (eds.), On Geopolitics: Classical and Nuclear, NATO ASI Series, Vol. 20, Ed. Springer, Dordrecht, Netherlands, 1985.

Yamamoto, T., “National Security Policy and Contemporary Geopolitics”, The Policy Science Association of Ritsumeikan University, Journal of Policy Science, Vol. 10, 2016.




The Market For Ideas Association

The Romanian-American Foundation for the Promotion of Education and Culture (RAFPEC)

Amfiteatru Economic