The Origins of the Mackinder Forum

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The origins of the Mackinder Forum can be traced back to 1994, when the British Ministry of Defence appointed Professor Geoff Sloan as a Defence Fellow at St Antony’s College Oxford. His task was to research and write for the MOD a Defence Fellowship thesis on: “The Geopolitics of Anglo-Irish Relations in the Twentieth Century”. Sloan’s supervisor for this project was Professor Robert O’Neill, then Chichele Professor of the History of War at All Souls College Oxford. 

Professor O’Neill supported Sloan’s suggestion of setting up the Mackinder Forum at Oxford. O’Neill suggested how the aims and objectives of the organisation could be framed. It is one thing to set up an organisation; however, would be another thing to get a distinguished speaker to get it off the ground. 

Shortly thereafter in 1999, Sloan contacted General Sir Rupert Smith regarding an interview on NATO expansion. General Sir Rupert was then Deputy Supreme Allied Commander of NATO. He quickly agreed, and Sloan travelled to NATO Military Headquarters in Mons where the interview took place. During what amounted to a one-to-one tutorial in geostrategy and military geography, he presented the salient issues.  He took Sloan to a map of Eastern Europe and Russia, and with some marker pens talked him through the salient geographical features and their strategic and operational relevance moving eastwards from the Suwalki Corridor to Ukraine.  General Sir Rupert was both helpful and very insightful.  Sloan never forgot this meeting. 

His reaction to General Sir Rupert’s performance was to say: “Your knowledge deserves a wider audience.” His response was: “Get me an audience and I will come to Oxford and talk on this topic again.” General Sir Rupert was as good as his word. In 2000, with sponsorship from the Head of Defence Studies of the British Army, Colonel Archie Miller–Bakewell, the first Mackinder Forum met at Christ Church College, Oxford. General Sir Rupert gave a virtuoso talk on geo-strategy drawing on his operational experience of commanding an armoured division in the first Gulf War, and his experiences in the former Yugoslavia where he had commanded UNPROFOR.

In the early years of the Mackinder Forum, geopolitics and geostrategy gained enormous traction with the British Army and the MOD’S own think tank, the Development Concepts and Doctrine Centre. Both organisations were generous sponsors of the Mackinder Forum for the first ten years. 

Even more engaging was the esteem in which a generation of US policy makers held Sir Halford John Mackinder. In 2002, Sloan contacted the office of Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski, and asked if he would be willing to come to the UK and give a talk to the Forum. The initial response was yes, but his fee would be $15,000. The then Head of Defence Studies for the British Army had a sense of humour failure when Sloan put this figure to him. Telling Sloan to cancel immediately, he insisted that Brzezinski’s fee was more than his entire budget for the year! When Sloan got back to his office to cancel the invitation, he got a surprise response. Sloan was informed by Brzezinski’s admin that: “He would do it for Mackinder,” if a car was provided to meet him at Heathrow airport. 

Brzezinski delivered a spell binding talk on geopolitics. The next morning Sloan had breakfast with him. He couldn’t resist asking him when he first engaged with geopolitics. He responded that it was when he was a post- graduate student at Harvard. He and another student were assigned to present a paper on Mackinder’s geopolitics. Sloan said to him: “I don’t suppose you can remember the other student’s name.” “Sure I can,” he responded, “He was called Henry Kissinger.”

The Mackinder Forum has honoured the memory of Sir Halford John Mackinder by holding frequent seminars and lectures in the United Kingdom and the United States devoted to theoretical and practical discussions of geopolitical trends and crises, historical and contemporary.  Recently, the Mackinder Forum initiated a new Memorial Lecture Series in Geostrategy honouring Professor Colin Gray, one of the founders of the Mackinder Forum.  This lecture series is intended to provide officers attending military academies across NATO with a common intellectual experience.

If there has been a ‘true north’ of the Forum, it has been Mackinder’s mantra for the enduring rationale of classical geopolitics: ‘to give judgement in practical conduct’. It is this aphorism that has provided guidance for over two decades of sustained intellectual activity.

Professor Geoff Sloan