Rethinking geopolitics

Geography and politics are closely intertwined, although that no more means that all geography is political than that all politics is geographical.
rethinking geopolitics
An American map of the West Coast of Africa from Sierra Leone to Cape Palmas, 'including the colony of Liberia'. Credit: Everett Collection Historical / Alamy Stock Photo
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This essay originally appeared in ‘The Return of Geopolitics’, Bokförlaget Stolpe, in collaboration with the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, 2019.

Geopolitics, whatever its drawbacks as a formal analytical system, has many benefits and offers many insights. It is a means for argument as well as analysis, for polemic as well as policy; and these categories are not rigidly differentiated. Geopolitics focuses on human society, but also on the contexts within which, and through which, it operates. Geopolitics thus highlights the basic (but often silent) structure and infrastructure of human interaction, as well as the issues involved in formulating and implementing policy. This structure and infrastructure are both man-made, whether frontiers or transport systems, and also natural, notably place, distance, terrain, climate and resource availability. Man-made and natural both interact and are linked in their influence. Many elements of geopolitics represent an interaction of structure and infra-structure; for example, coast-hinterland relations. This very range of the subject poses problems for any attempt to offer a precise definition and typology.

From a different perspective, contrasting definitions of geopolitics and its application pose a series of problems. The extent to which politics, both international and domestic, can be variously interpreted indicates the difficulties with any narrow definition of geopolitics and, whether linked to that or separate, the problems with any overly didactic account of geographical determinism. Yet, returning to a point that deserves reiteration, there are objective factors, such as location, space, distance and resources. As a result, it is pertinent to consider their impact on the formulation and execution of policy. Concern with such factors asserts a commitment to objective reality based on material factors. However, linked to this, there can be a misleading tendency to downplay the role of the human perception of the situation and the extent of choice. The nature of choice and the factors involved in the latter play significant roles, as with related aspects of the study of international relations.

To take another approach, the tendency to treat geopolitics as a subject focused on international relations begs two questions. First, why should geopolitics not address other forms of politics that have a spatial dimension? These include the dimension of activity on city streets and the politics of urban development. Geopolitics for the Baltic region can operate at the level of Lund and Stockholm, as much as the response to Russian expansionism. This question is particularly valid, given the more general issue of geographic perspectives on history. The likely consequences of smaller-scale geopolitics, within individual states, on geopolitics at the state level will probably increase the variations between these latter geopolitics.

Secondly, if attention in geopolitical studies is restricted to, or focuses on, international relations, how far is the treatment of the subject to depart from the classic political agenda? This is an agenda primarily of states, but also of international institutions, agreements and attitudes. These can be seen as the accumulation of state views, or as an international system in which the system has a role of its own. States are the constituent parts, but alongside a system that affects their attitudes and behaviour.

The second question has engaged most attention. There is a preference, in some circles, for alternative voices, indeed critical geopolitics, as well as for transnational and comparative approaches and concerns. This development is of considerable value. Nevertheless, there can be a tendency, not least in some of the work on transnationalism, to underplay the place of the state and, indeed, to argue that it has been greatly weakened by the energy and demands of global capitalism. However much it may have taken on unsustainable domestic goals, it is far from clear that effective governance can be organised in alternative forms to that of the conventional state. Furthermore, the state remains the key player in international and domestic politics, as well as a vital source of identity and legitimacy. Indeed, an emphasis on the state as a key player became more pronounced as a consequence of the recession that began in 2008 as well as being challenged by this recession. Despite assumptions about the decline of the state, that recession encouraged protectionism in both government policy and public attitudes, notably in opposition to large-scale immigration. Thus, there has been pressure against such immigration from the governments of Australia, Britain, France, Germany and the US, which has increased since 2013.

There is a distinction between an appreciation of the role of geography and geopolitics and, on the other hand, grand geopolitical theories. Nevertheless, whichever the focus, key issues can be addressed as geopolitical, not least the availability of resources and the resulting significance of particular regions, when considering other regions or localities with different characteristics. Geopolitics is also definitely useful as a concept when discussing the influence of geography (for example, distance and propinquity) on inter-state politics. Linked to this is the issue of communications, with geopolitical considerations providing an explanation of reasons for change and a key measure of the importance of changes. Thus, just as the consequences of the opening of the Suez and Panama canals in the late 19th century and the building of the Trans-Siberian Railway involved geopolitical and geostrategic elements, so also with the likely opening of sea passages through the Arctic, to the north of both North America and Russia, as the ice melts under the impact of global warming.

The value of routes is also a matter of cultural expression for political goals, as with the Chinese welcoming of Gavin Menzies’ tendentious theory that the Chinese circumnavigated the globe in 1421. The China Daily was happy to claim in July 2004, that the Chinese did so well before Columbus and Magellan and their admiral of the early 15th century, Zheng He, was commemorated in 2005, while his voyages were highlighted in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Some other uses of spatial elements in the past, such as patterns of settlement or territorial extent, constitute a geopolitics that is designed to be of political value in the present and the future. These elements constitute the prime basis for territorial claims.

Changes to communications and transport routes serve as a reminder of the dynamic spatial dimensions, not only of power, but also of interest, specifically state interests and those of, for example, major companies, and of the concern that accompanies them. Interests and interest lead to, and reflect, commitments and tasks, both of which are very important to geopolitics. The spatial component of state interests is made dynamic not only by changes in particular states, and in the means of state action, for example military technology, but also in relationships within, and between, larger regions. Thus, for example, the geostrategic interests of the great powers have been very important for the Nordic-Baltic region and have helped direct its geopolitics. This dynamic interaction has ranged across issues such as trade, notably in naval stores and iron, as well as the Danish Straits as a choke-point into the Baltic, Finland as a threat to, or security zone for, St Petersburg, and the Norwegian fjords as bases for forces attacking trans-Atlantic communications, or for threatening Russia’s White Sea ports.

At the same time, it can be very difficult to establish likely policy developments from a discussion of geography, and Baltic history exemplifies this, not least in relations between Denmark and Sweden. Moreover, alongside the recent, and apparently well-deserved, emphasis on Chinese expansionism can come the far more prosaic argument that the Chinese will continue to cede safeguarding their export routes across the Pacific to the American navy, but are less certain about the ability of other navies to defend the maritime routes to, and in, the Indian Ocean. The 1990s policy of Deng Xiaoping – ‘to observe carefully, secure our position, hide our capacities, bide our time, be good at maintaining a low profile, never claim leadership’ (a maxim released in 1995) – is not one that inherently can be explained in geopolitical terms. In contrast, the Chinese concern that a North Korean collapse would lead to a Korean reunification around South Korea that brought American power to China’s border is much more readily discussed in these terms. In practice, it is unclear how far a reunified Korea will look to the US and not least because of tensions with Japan and a determination to benefit from economic links with China.

Attempts to consider how best to manage American-Chinese relations face the problem that geographical zones of influence do not correspond with the political views and ideologies of either party, while the range of modern weapons technology acts as a further complication. There is also the key issue of the views of other powers, such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan and the powers around the South China Sea, which will not be happy to accept the idea or consequences of zones of influence. The idea that zones of influence will prove the best way to manage the transition in Sino-American relations appeals to realists, but does not capture the range of factors involved in global politics, nor the pressures arising from these factors.

Such points indicate the value, but also the complexity, of geopolitics, as well as the need to assess it in terms of competing and changing values. If geopolitics is seen along the line of HJ Mackinder’s adage – ‘Who controls the Heartland commands the World-Island’ – then geopolitics can be too general and vague and of use largely for rhetorical purposes. Such purposes are indeed pursued by politicians, commentators, the military and others. Geographical situation does not dictate preparedness, strategy or doctrine. Indeed, the changing nature of values and their clear consequences for conventional geopolitical assessments were clearly demonstrated in 2014, when it emerged that, short of resources and poorly-prepared, the German military would be totally unable to meet its NATO commitments, a point publicly admitted by the defence minister. Moreover, some of the geopolitical concepts, such as that of a geopolitical centre, are problematic. This point can also be made about much of the argument surrounding the so-called return of geopolitics.

In terms of conceptual plasticity and ambiguities in application and implementation, geopolitics reflects the situation with earlier theories of international relations, such as the balance of power. In part, this is a question of the inherent problems of social science analysis. However, there were also more specific issues. A crucial one was the degree to which theories, such as the balance of power, containment and geopolitics, were supposedly descriptive or proscriptive. In the first place, there was the issue of whether they referred to what supposedly naturally occurred, or what it was regarded as desirable should occur. Linked to the latter came the use of similar language by competing parties with widely differing intentions and application.

There was also the wider grounding of theory. The balance of power, as classically developed, rested on ideas and metaphors derived from physics and this reflected the thrall of Newtonian physics in the 18th century. In turn, geopolitics owed much to the influence of biological science since the 19th century and, in particular, of Social Darwinism.

However, if what is meant by geopolitics is that geography is an essential factor in understanding a country’s foreign policy, but not one to be seen or presented in automatic terms, then geopolitics is more clear-cut, meaningful and, indeed, important. For example, it is impossible to understand the history of American, British and Russian strategic and foreign policies without taking into consideration their geographic circumstances.

Looked at differently, state interests can be approached in terms of the ability of competing groups to define these interests in the light of their particular views. In this perspective, geopolitics emerges as a central part of the debates in which such views are advanced and are identified with those of states. Thus, geopolitics becomes an argument about power, rather than solely a discourse of power in which there is no argument or debate apparent. Indeed, in considering the treatment of Mackinder’s ‘heartland’ theory in post-Soviet geopolitical discourse, Mark Bassin and Konstantin Aksenov have emphasised the conceptual plasticity of the theory, going on to suggest, in a 2006 issue of Geopolitics, that ‘the popular appeal of geopolitics more generally rests significantly on its ability to generate what it calls ‘objective’ geographical models of political relations which, in fact, are open to reinterpretation and even realignment, in response precisely to those shifts in historical, political, and ideological context which it claims categorically to transcend.’

These responses provide an obvious subject for study by those interested in a historicised approach to geopolitics, including historians. Similarly, the changing use of particular arguments is best understood in terms of a discussion of the historical context. More generally, conceptual plasticity helps explain the appeal, or at least use, of a range of geopolitical theses.

Self-styled ‘critical geopolitics’, with its emphasis on how material realities are inserted into discursive contexts, and the more recent attempts to develop a Marxist, or at least, marxisant geopolitics, can be readily and valuably incorporated into an account of geopolitics as an argument about power. This is an aspect that is particularly effective in terms of academic concerns in recent decades. From this perspective, the nature of ‘critical geopolitics’ becomes an understandable factor in light of the dynamics of the debate and the determination to advance concepts of interest.

Yet some of the literature is so uncompromising that it scarcely invites such incorporation. For example, in 1996, Gearóid Ó Tuathail closed his Critical Geopoliticsin which he presented standard geopolitics as being ‘organically connected’ to militarism – by claiming: ‘Critical geopolitics is one of many cultures of resistance to geography as imperial truth, state-capitalised knowledge and military weapon. It is a small part of a much larger rainbow struggle to decolonise our inherited geographical imagination, so that other geo-graphings and other worlds might be possible.’

There was no attempt in this passage, or elsewhere, to conceal the sense of political imperative that at least some of the ‘critical geopoliticians’ espouse. In short, ‘critical geopolitics’ is an aspect of a politicised debate. At the same time, it is important to stress the diversity and dynamism of ‘critical geopolitics’ literature which, indeed, has different proponents, including feminist, post-colonial and post-structuralist wings. The same is the case with Marxist geopolitics.

This is not the place to discuss the epistemological and philosophical aspects of objectivity. Instead, I would argue for objectivity as valid and possible as an aspiration, whatever the difficulty in execution; and I would also draw attention to the role of autonomous sub-cultures, for example cartographers. That geopolitical arguments (often in the form of maps) have been exploited for propaganda purposes, often brilliantly so, does not mean that they are without values, or indeed, simply systems to control territory, by allocating it, or by manipulating the understanding of spatial issues. It is necessary, in practice, to understand the nuances of perception and, therefore, representation and to ‘unpick’ texts, at the same time as appreciating the inherent problems of geopolitical analysis and exposition. For example, a ‘Map of the West Coast of Africa… including the colony of Liberia’, published in Philadelphia in 1830, can readily be castigated for its assumptions and languages. Tribes are stereotyped, as with the Dey – ‘an indolent and inoffensive people’ – and the interior is presented as lost in benighted obscurity:

At a distance of from 30 to 60 miles inland, a belt of dense and almost impassable forest occurs along the whole of the coast, of from one to two days’ journey in breadth, which nearly prevents all intercourse between the maritime and interior tribes, and some of the principal causes why the inland parts of this section of Africa are so entirely unknown to the civilised world.

The last remark now seems ridiculously Western-centric, but there was still the practical problem in 1830 of how best to depict Liberia with the information available and such issues remain pertinent today.

Geopolitics can be regarded as similar to cartography and as worthy of discussion in these terms, notably those of the inherent difficulty of the subject and the practical problems involved. At the same time, there is no coherence to geopolitics. The lack of coherence is not a matter of chronological change, nor of differing national cultures, or understandings of geopolitics, although each of those factors is relevant. Instead, there are differing understandings and uses of geopolitics, not least, but not only, between political geographers and political scientists and between scholars and those in the public sphere, whether as commentators or as planners.

Such a typology and matrix need to allow sufficiently for overlaps and mutual impacts. Moreover, categories in geopolitical use and presentation shift and are capable of a variety of analysis. This point is particularly the case with political geographers, a group that can be taken to cover geopolitics in its varied manifestations. ‘Critical geopoliticians’ are prone to regard old-school political geographers as reactionaries. Thus, one aspect of the history of geopolitics is of the differing definition of geography and geographers and of the changing use of political geography. This is a point that can be greatly amplified by considering the varied definition of geography and the contrasting use of geographers around the world at present.

A further dynamic dimension in the use of geopolitical analysis is that of time. Space and distance seem fixed by the scale, but the very notion of both has changed over time (as have their depiction and measurement)2 and these changes have greatly affected the understanding of power. Moreover, the rates of change, both actually and in perception, are not constant. For example, journeys and concepts of space and time in 1780 were more similar to the situation 230 years earlier than 230 years later. As a separate element, time is more generally significant because a lack of historical awareness weakens some of the use and understanding of geopolitics, other than in terms of somewhat facile comparisons across time. For example, inappropriate geopolitical continuities can be advanced.

To sum up, geography and politics are closely intertwined, although that no more means that all geography is political than that all politics is geographical. A key dimension in which geopolitics is useful is that of the global scale, but geopolitics is also of crucial value in the understanding of particular states and communities, their character, composition, development and interactions. If the interconnection of areas in a region is a sphere for geopolitical consideration, then there is no reason why the region in question should solely be that of the globe. Indeed, more attention in geopolitics needs to be devoted to sub-global levels, rather than to the lure of the world question. The quest for a single explanatory factor, or indeed means of analysis, is unhelpful. Linked to this, geopolitical writing would benefit greatly from a measure of scepticism in assessing influences and in drawing conclusions, and also from offering more questions than answers. That, however, would be of limited value for most commentators.

Jeremy Black

Jeremy Black is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Exeter and was previously Professor of History at the University of Durham. He is a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of America and the West at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a senior fellow at Policy Exchange, as well as an advisory fellow of the Barsanti Military History Center at the University of North Texas. In 2000, he was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire for services to stamp design, as adviser to the Royal Mail from 1997.

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