Why Geopolitics Matters

Geopolitics has been one of the great strengths of the Foreign Policy Research Institute from the outset, and this strength has been strongly developed by Alan Luxenberg. As such, FPRI is a key organization that not only teaches America about the world, but also the world about the world. Indeed, of all the many prestigious American think tanks, FPRI is possibly the one that is most relevant for those outside America. This is both praise for FPRI and also a criticism of its counterparts. Their concern with partisan audience and ideological clarity can lead, in a global perspective, to a degree of introversion or even irrelevance.

Geopolitics is not inherently global. Indeed, one of its greatest American manifestations was as gerrymandering, which was very much the geographical politics of the locality. Yet, rather like the putative Amazonian butterfly, the locality has of course a wider impact. Most obviously, the unitisation of America in the form of its political configuration had a crucial consequence for its politics, as with the spread of slavery, and continues to have such an impact.

The global dimension, however, is not always ably handled by commentators for whom the detailed impact of local circumstances is subordinated to the alleged exigencies of a model, indeed classically their model. With many commentators, this approach is frequently linked to a tendency to depoliticize the politics of their own country, so that their prospectus also becomes the necessary one. With his characteristically intelligent wry skepticism, Alan Luxenberg is apt to understand this problem, and FPRI has been open, in a most welcome fashion, to different accounts of global developments and American needs.

That openness flies in the face of geopolitics as rhetoric, for the latter, the consciously or unconsciously subjective use of the approach, sits alongside, and as part of a continuum, with the objective use. The key instance is the concept of strategic culture, which is useful, in an objective sense, as an account of the long-term climate of opinion and assumptions that frames policy. As such, it is also inherently political.

This situation does not make geopolitics less significant, not least because it is readily apparent that the full range of the social sciences are inherently political, whether in content, analysis, or exposition. So also with the use of history. Indeed, geopolitics, which is where geography, history, and international relations come together, is affected by the inherently political character of each. To suppose some abstract or pure geopolitics that is not thereby affected is to offer a misleading neo-Platonic approach. For example, we might think we all know strategic over-reach when we see it, but the idea of such over-reach faces the serious conceptual difficulty of assuming a clear-cut measure of strategic reach and geopolitical concern, whether in military or in other terms. From a different dimension, current debates over the value, context, and future of geopolitics can be fitted into the model of geopolitics as a form of response to problems. In short, it is, like most forms of analysis, a way to shape the complexities of existence.

The subject has been made more contentious by the development of an explicitly critical geopolitics from the 1970s. While this offered a homage to post-modernism, it drew in practice more clearly on a Marxisante tradition because such a rival geopolitics had been offered by the Soviet Union from the outset, and notably so with the Comintern. Marxist commentators in the West, such as J.F. (James Francis) Horrabin, provided a wider stage for these ideas, as in his The Plebs Atlas (1926).

The heavily politicized nature of geopolitics under the Third Reich led to the subject falling into disfavor for a while, but to do so was to throw the baby out with the bathwater. In practice, indeed, the idea of “containment” was inherently geopolitical, as was the Cold War as a whole. As an interlinked struggle in many localities between global ideologies and powers, this was axiomatic—even if the relationship in question varied greatly.

What was less so was the situation after the end of the Cold War. The idea of a unipower that had “ended history”—providing a form of isotropic geopolitics, the concept advanced in the 1990s—could not last in the face of the reality and volatility of world affairs. This, indeed, has led to a competition to define the international politics of the world that developed from the beginning of the 2000s. Different accounts of geopolitics were an aspect of this competition, and these differences can be seen between, and within, individual countries.

Obvious contrasts are “national” ones at the level of particular states, but there are also broader conceptual contrasts. A classic instance is provided by that between classical realist geopoliticians and critical geopoliticians who are particularly influential in Western academe, notably that of the United States. The latter tend to reflect an almost axiomatic anti-Western approach and, in particular, to press for change in the world. As such, these critical thinkers differ from the classical school, which sought, and seeks, to appreciate the world as it is, or, in a more hostile light, not only to do so, but also to defend it accordingly. This is presented, by both supporters and opponents, as Realpolitik, but that is a construction as well as an objective description.

In practice, there is political commitment on all sides of the discussion, but Realpolitik approaches tend to seek an understanding of all players in order better to ground their analyses and proposals. In contrast, critical geopolitics frequently rests on a weak and naïve understanding of what it does not like. Adopting an inherently critical approach toward such overlapping categories as American public culture, consumerism, the West (an abstraction that somehow tends not to include the critic in question), neoconservatism, imperialist geopolitics, and claims to objectivity is not only repetitive, discursive, and somewhat exhausting, but also tends to rely on problematic theory, scant use of evidence, and argument by assertion. Alongside Manichaeism in the case of self-styled critical geopoliticians comes the problems posed by projecting their own frame of reference onto others.

More positively comes the value of assessing contrasting realist perspectives. These can relate to particular countries, specific issues, individual time sequences, and so on. These perspectives are most valuable when they engage with the dynamic and contested character of strategic culture, while also reflecting an evidence-based approach. For example, there has recently been much academic discussion of support for Brexit as reflecting a form of regret for British imperialism and great-power status. This has extended to a critique of Brexit alongside that of the interventionism of the “New Imperialism that was concealed behind the War on Terror.”[1] In practice, this analysis is deeply flawed. These policies were associated with the Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, and David Cameron governments, none of them noted for their Brexit sympathies. Moreover, House of Commons’ speakers against interventionism include some prominent Brexiteers such as Julian Lewis. Brexit is/was a matter more of Little Englanders than global interventionists. In short, an engagement with geopolitics can reflect what is by any standard intellectual confusion.

China is of much greater significance than Britain and the state that appears to be pursuing geopolitical ideas most aggressively. Resting on the Maoist perception that foreign pressure had held China’s development back, there was a determination to project power, both in order to prevent that situation and so as to be able to impose it on others. The traditional land-based focus on the development of expanding rings of security around a state’s territory has been applied to the maritime domain in a major expansion of geopolitical concern. “Near China” has been refocused to include the East and South China Seas. Xinjiang and Tibet similarly reflect the ambition to extend power.

Yet, the former leads to a clash with the United States as the land-based policy does not. Moreover, while the sea can seem a buffer in the way that frontiers do not, the Chinese use of the situation is not operating in this fashion. Indeed, in part as a consequence of significant domestic interest, naval strength has become symbolic, ideological, and cultural, as much as based on “realist” criteria of military, political, and economic parity and power. Again, the strategic culture dimension of geopolitics has been ever thus, but it is all-too-easy to forget the point.

This is also the case with the extension of Chinese ambition to more distant locations. However conceptualized, this is a development of Cold War policies, notably in the 1960s and early 1970s, but with more edge and with the support of a strong navy, an element absent until relatively recently. There is also a greater degree of geopolitical coherence than that offered by competition with the Soviet Union as a result of the Sino-Soviet rift. Indeed, the very different context then and now of Chinese-Soviet/Russian geopolitics is a reminder of the inherent volatility of the issue as well as its relationship with a wide range of what can be seen as total politics/history.

So also with the analysis of geopolitics. That also is inherently a product and aspect of this totality, rather than an element that can be readily separated out. This is apparent, for example, whether the frame of reference is the United States, China, or a lesser power. As a consequence, analysis has to consider the porous nature of government processes and the extent to which politics leads to a tendency to draw on a wide range of influences and to entail the perception of these influences.

FPRI offers a bridge to consider these and other different accounts of geopolitics. It will work best if it can maintain a humane skepticism toward any supposedly universal account of the subject.


[1] R. Gildea, Empires of the Mind: The Colonial Past and the Politics of the Present (2019); and S. Ward (ed.), Embers of Empire in Brexit Britain (London, 2019).