By Rachel Dryden, former Ax:son Johnson Research Assistant in Applied History

5 July 2021 – The Centre for Geopolitics convened a discussion with regional experts and practitioners (including current UK and Serbian Ambassadors), on the relevance of Halford Mackinder’s thinking about the Balkans in the early-twentieth century, to British policy today. The discussion focused, in particular, on Serbia which, during World War I, many saw as the core state in the region. The speakers emphasised the role of the Western Balkans in London’s strategic calculations in the 1910s, especially after the First World War when the imperial powers in the region were in retreat. Expert speakers focused, in particular, on the historic question of small nations and their quest for statehood, which provided a legitimising narrative for eventual British support for dismantling the Austro-Hungarian Empire and blocking the expansion of Italy across the Adriatic. Speakers argued that Mackinder saw British interest being in the establishment of a regional order based on nation states, rather than the establishment of the multinational Yugoslavia.

Participants had differing views on how relevant some of the issues Mackinder addressed were in today’s interconnected, globalised world.  The Balkans remains a zone of geopolitical competition, albeit among a broader set of political actors, that now includes the US and China, as well as Russia and others. Participants concurred that regional stability remained a potential risk for which sustainable solutions were elusive. They considered the role of bilateral trade, the palliative of integration with the EU, and the role of outside powers in working for a sustainable regional stability. A small minority of participants referred to intractable challenges for nation states given the diverse ethnic geography of the region and the inherent difficulty in aligning international borders and ethnic boundaries.  Others thought that the region needed to focus on cooperation and connectivity, not difference and division. Some participants concluded that outside powers did not have ‘better answers today to the big questions in the region than they did a century ago’.

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