What is Geopolitics?
August 14, 2017
Each week during the summer, FPRI holds a seminar exclusively for its interns. On July 14, Dr. Ronald Granieri, Executive Director of the Center for the Study of America and the West at FPRI, delivered the fifth talk on the history of FPRI and the history of the geopolitical movement, which has driven the organization since its founding in 1955.
“Knowing history does not guarantee that you’re going to be happy, but it does guarantee that you won’t be surprised that you’re sad.”
Robert Strausz-Hupé, the founder of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, was a leading exponent of the field of geopolitics, a political framework that supports the examination of international affairs in the context of culture, history, and geography, in addition to day-to-day political events. This framework originated as a reaction to America’s actions—or lack thereof—during the beginning of World War II. Strausz-Hupé believed that while Americans were content to hide from European events and lack understanding of them, should someone ever actually succeed in controlling Europe, the entire balance of power would shift and the United States would no longer remain unaffected. This concept of a new lens with which to examine politics encouraged Strausz-Hupé to leave his job in the financial industry and become a professor of international affairs at the University of Pennsylvania.
It was at Penn where Strausz-Hupé reflected more on the necessity for an organization that consistently utilized geopolitics to understand international relations. With the end of WWII and the beginning of the Cold War, he realized that the Soviets posed essentially the same threat as Nazi Germany with their dominance of Eurasia and that the use of geopolitics was more important than ever before. The Soviet Union, already in control of the largest land mass in Europe and slowly inching into Eastern Europe, needed to be contained, and only through making deliberate and well thought out policy decisions would the United States be able to contain that threat. In 1955, Strausz-Hupé founded the Foreign Policy Research Institute as an extension of Penn and laid the foundation of the organization to consistently utilize a geopolitical lens and advocate for a strong Trans-Atlantic partnership with Europe.
This outlook persisted into the 1960s when FPRI found itself sitting outside of the mainstream political spectrum and was stuck in an allegedly outdated Cold War mindset. By 1970, FPRI formally separated from Penn and became an independent think tank. Operating on its own, FPRI was forced to rethink its existence and foundation. This eventually resulted in a shift away from government-funded policy research and toward more academic research as well as programs catered to the broader, non-specialist audience. The organization’s original mission of bringing people together and providing new ideas to policymakers was preserved, but with an additional task of bringing those ideas to non-specialists who were making decisions about their own political opinions.
And so, FPRI still sees itself as an organization that examines politics, geography, history, and culture, and encourages a broader and deeper examination of political issues. Utilizing all of these fields in order to understand politics and make policy decisions can perhaps help ensure that failures of the past will not be repeated in the future. While history may not repeat itself, human beings have made all of history, and our failures tend to emerge from the weaknesses common to all humanity. Adding a historical perspective to politics adds a sense of humility because when considering a potential policy decision, history allows you to see whether or not someone else has thought about making that decision, and how it worked out for them.
Dr. Granieri concluded his lecture by advising us, as university students and future researchers, to “cultivate a broad curiosity.” While it can be very easy to specialize your interests so much that you know everything about one thing and nothing about anything else, understanding as much as you can about the world allows you to put things in context. Broad curiosity creates a solid foundation of knowledge that will encourage better decisions based on deeper understandings of the international environment.