Geopolitics and the Struggle for Dominance

This essay is drawn from the author’s book, Geopolitics and the Quest for Dominance (Indiana University Press, November 2015).

With the Fall 2015 issue of Orbis: FPRI’s Journal of World Affairs devoted to a valuable collection of articles on the subject, Geopolitics continues its pronounced return to the center of scholarly debate, a return that has been noticeable in the literature over the last quarter-century. Indeed, “The Revival of Geopolitics,” a phrase former FPRI President Harvey Sicherman used in 2002, has itself been a theme of a branch of the literature. Since Halford Mackinder and others first deployed it in 1899, geopolitics has been an amorphous concept—a malleable, as well as controversial, term. Different working definitions have been advanced, and there is no universally accepted definition in English. All focus on the relationship between politics and geography, although that relationship has been very differently considered and presented. In this context, politics is approached principally in terms of the composition and use of power. The geographical factors vary, but space, location, distance and resources are all important. Geopolitics is commonly understood as an alternative term for all or part of political geography and, more specifically, as the study of the spatial dynamics of power. In practice, there is a persistent lack of clarity about whether geopolitics, however defined, or the spatial dynamics should be understood in a descriptive or in a normative sense. Moreover, what Sicherman termed in 2002 “the facts of geopolitics – the resources and locations of various peoples and states,” involve subjective as well as objective considerations, and the significance of the former are commonly downplayed. This is true across the varied dimensions of geopolitics.

The end of the Cold War posed major conceptual problems, encouraging both a total recasting of geopolitics and also the question whether the subject itself had outlived its usefulness. In the event, reports of the death of geopolitics proved totally unfounded. Instead, the second surge of writing on geopolitics  linked to the Cold War has been followed, from 1990, with a third surge. Moreover, this surge has been of considerable scale. From 1990 until 2014, over 400 academic books specifically devoted to geopolitical thought have appeared, a number that does not include more narrowly focused national studies. In addition, these books have appeared in a plethora of languages, including Arabic, Bulgarian, Chinese, Czech, English, Finnish, French, Greek, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Serbo-Croatian and Spanish. To write of a surge does not imply any necessary similarity in approach, content, or tone, but does capture the extent to which geopolitical issues and language still play a major role. This can be amplified if attention is devoted to references in periodical and newspaper articles, and in popular fiction.

Geopolitics has many benefits and offers many insights. Like many other subjects, 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. Structure and infrastructure are both man-made (whether frontiers or transport systems) and natural (notably place, distance, terrain, climate and resource-availability), interdependent in their influence. Many elements of geopolitics represent the interaction of structure and infrastructure, for example coast-hinterland relations. This very range of the subject poses problems for any attempt to offer a precise and concise definition and typology.

There is a distinction between an appreciation of the role of geography and geopolitics on the one hand, and, on the other, grand geopolitical theories. Nevertheless, whichever the focus, key issues can best be addressed in geopolitical terms, not least the availability of resources and the resulting significance of particular regions. 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 such changes as do occur. Thus, just as the consequences of the opening of the Suez and Panama canals or the building of the Trans-Siberian Railway in previous centuries involved geopolitical and geostrategic elements, so also will it be 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 in our day.

The return to geopolitics is a valuable tendency, but, like all such tendencies, requires a degree of care in order to appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of the genre, and to distinguish quality from faddishness. In particular, it is necessary to understand the dual, linked role of geopolitics as analysis and geopolitics as rhetoric. To pretend that geopolitical arguments are solely one or the other risks overlooking the major significance of perception in the assessment of spatial identities and interests and in the understanding of the norms of international relations.

There is of course an underlying reality that is part of the analysis: Argentina is an Atlantic power and Chile a Pacific one. There are plentiful oil supplies in Venezuela, but not in Spain. Proximity remains a key issue: ask any Ukrainian.

The consequences, however, that flow from such points are far less clear, and notably so once assessing how individuals consider their response. The famous New Yorker cartoon of a Manhattanite’s view of America brilliantly captures this point, with its observation that mental geography plays a fundamental role creating realities of great political weight. More generally, an increasing percentage of the growing world population is living in cities, and the human-created world weighs more heavily on realities and perceptions of space and its meaning. For example, maps may neglect or underplay the ethnic, economic and social weave of cities, preferring an account that puts an emphasis on the balder details of distance and the surface of roads, but, to those who live in the city, the latter has much meaning in terms of the former.

To say that the character of geopolitics changes, however, does not mean that geopolitical factors cease to be relevant. The level of decision-maker and commentator under consideration provides one level of complexity. Issues of geography can be more vital to regional and local participants than to great powers. The West Bank provides a good example, not least with differences between Israeli and American sensitivity to Israeli security. This factor of scale will continue to be significant, but scale is also transformed by technology, as shown for example by the deployment of longer-range missiles by Hezbollah, Hamas, North Korea and Iran since 2000.

One of the key challenges in geopolitical analysis will continue to be the fluctuating influence of geography at both the local and global levels. Writing about the latter occupies much of the geopolitical literature, and this may continue to be the case given current emphasis on globalization and global environmental change, as well as the academic, popular, and publishing pressures to offer global coverage. Yet the local—understood as state and sub-state levels—is a prime area for understanding of geographical and spatial impact on politics. The very widespread nature of this impact makes it difficult to reduce to the seductive clarity offered by the use of binary opposites to evaluate international challenges. Geopolitical discussion in the future may reflect a tension between the preference of some commentators for engaging with the complexities of the particular and, on the other hand, the seductive simplicities of broad-brush approaches. The latter will continue to engage the most attention, but they not only offer less than the full map, but also a scale and projection that are frequently misleading.