Halford Mackinder is not much read these days. The British geographer and imperialist’s emphasis on the enduring strategic and political importance of the earth’s physical features and resources pricked the complacency of his Edwardian contemporaries, and his ideas had a certain vogue in the interwar years. Notoriously, the Nazis adopted a crude version of his view that whoever controls Eurasia – the ‘world island’ stretching from the Volga to the Yangtze – controls the world. In the aftermath of the Second World War it was widely assumed that geopolitics of this kind was obsolete. Values of democracy and human rights rather than the distribution of resources would shape the future. In fact the struggle for control of natural resources did not abate. An Anglo-American coup removed the democratically elected government of Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran in 1953 and re-established Western control of the country’s resources, while the Gulf War of 1990–91 aimed solely to secure global oil supplies. Mackinder’s ideas may have been rejected, but the geopolitical facts on which they were based continued to shape international relations.
John Darwin does not subscribe to any simple version of geopolitics. Yet Mackinder’s observation that the ‘Columbian epoch’ in which the world was ruled by European sea power was only an interlude in history might serve as an epigraph to After Tamerlane. Rightly, Darwin rejects the Whiggish narrative in which