Geopolitics Research Paper

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The idea of geopolitics evokes mixed reaction. It is understood variously as: a set of geographically determined ‘laws’ governing a state’s strategic destinies; the geographical underpinnings of Realpolitik; and a scholarly analysis of the geographical factors underlying international relations and guiding political interactions. Widely embraced by policy makers, geopolitics has encountered scholarly criticism for its sometimes deterministic doctrines and lack of moral considerations.

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1. Definitions

Geopolitics is a product of its times, and its definitions have evolved accordingly. Johan Rudolph Kjellen, who coined the term in 1899, described geopolitics as ‘the theory of the state as a geographical organism or phenomenon in space’ (Kjellen 1916). For Karl Haushofer, the father of German Geopolitik, ‘Geopolitics is the science of the conditioning of political processes by the earth … of political space organisms and their structure … [and] aims to be equipment for political action’ (Haushofer et al. 1928). In 1939, Derwent Whittlesey, the American political geographer, dismissed geopolitics as ‘a dogma … the faith that the state is inherently entitled to its ‘‘place in the sun’’.’ In contrast, Edmund Walsh espoused an American geopolitics based upon international justice, and ‘a combined study of human geography and applied political science … dating back to Aristotle, Montesquieu and Kant’ (1944).

Saul Cohen defined geopolitics as a mode of analysis, relating diversity in content and scale of geographical settings to exercise of political power and identifying spatial frameworks through which power flows (Cohen 1973). Recently, Gearoid O’Tuathail argued that ‘geopolitics does not have a singular, allencompassing meaning or identity … it is discourse, a culturally and politically varied way of describing, representing and writing about geography and international politics’ (1998).

Because geopolitics straddles two disciplines— geography and politics—its approaches vary according to frameworks of analysis common to each. While most early theories and concepts in geopolitics grew out of geographical thought, historians and political scientists often failed to adapt their later theories to the dynamic, complex nature of geographical settings.

2. Stage One—The Race For Imperial Hegemony

Geopolitical thinking can be traced back to Aristotle, Strabo, Bodin, Montesquieu, Kant, and Hegel. Nineteenth century precursors include von Humboldt, Guyot, Buckle, and Ritter. Modern geopolitics has developed through four stages—the race for imperial hegemony, German Geopolitik, the Cold War era, and the post-Cold War years. The theories of its founders, Ratzel, Mackinder, Kjellen, and Mahan, reflected their era of intense nationalism, state expansionism, and overseas empire-building. Their principles and ‘laws’ reflected national perspectives and experiences, as well as the influence of social Darwinism.

2.1 Ratzel

Friedrich Ratzel (1844–1904), German natural scientist and ‘father’ of political geography, was the first to treat space and location systematically in his comparative studies of states (1897). He provided successor geopoliticians with a ‘scientific’ basis for state expansionist doctrines that reflected Germany’s nineteenth century experiences and ambitions for the future. During the last half of the century, Germany emerged as continental Europe’s chief economic and military power. Unified under Bismarck’s leadership and victorious in its wars with Austria and France, Germany had enlarged its territory, expanded its heavy industries, and enacted social reform. With the aid of a new powerful naval fleet, Germany posed a serious threat to Britain and France as it acquired an overseas empire in Africa and the Western Pacific, and commercial footholds in East Asia.

Ratzel based his system upon principles of evolution and science (1882 1891). He viewed the state as an organism fixed in the soil, whose spirit derived from mankind’s ties to the land. His geographical ‘laws’ focused on space (Raum) and location (Lage), the former dependent upon and contributing to the political character of groups living in the space, the latter providing space with its uniqueness. He introduced Lebensraum (living space) as the law driving states to expand. Ratzel’s ‘organic’ theories of state growth fitted Germany’s view of its future as a youthful, aggressive, capitalist ‘Giant State.’

2.2 Mackinder

Halford Mackinder (1861–1947), who established geography as a university discipline in Britain, was concerned with safeguarding the British Empire’s political, commercial, and industrial primacy, in an era when command of the seas no longer guaranteed world supremacy owing to the wider reach and speed of rail. For Mackinder, geographical realities lay in the advantages of centrality of place and efficient movement of ideas, goods, and people. He theorized that the inner area of Eurasia, characterized by interior or Arctic drainage and impenetrable by sea power, was the ‘pivot area’ of world politics (1904). He warned that rule of the heart of the world’s greatest landmass could lead to world domination. A Eurasian landpower (be it Russia, Germany, or even China, and especially an alliance of the first two) that gained control of the pivot area would outflank the Maritime world. Eleven years later, the English geographer James Fairgrieve (1915), who coined the term ‘Heartland’ opined that China was in an excellent position to dominate Eurasia.

In Democratic Ideals and Realities (1919) Mackinder, now using the term ‘Heartland,’ and taking into account advances in land transportation, population increases, and industrialization, enlarged his map to include Eastern Europe from the Baltic through the Black Sea as Inner Eurasia’s strategic annex. This became the basis for his dictum, ‘Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; who rules the Heartland commands World-Island; who rules WorldIsland commands the world.’ The warning to Western statesmen was clear—the key to world domination lay in the middle tier of German and Slavic states, or Mitteleuropa. Mackinder’s world-view guided Lord Curzon’s imperial strategies in South Asia and South Russia (Blouet 1987), German Geopolitik between World War One and Two, and for Western containment strategies of the post-World War TwOvera. Foreseeing Britain’s decline as the world’s leading power (Mackinder 1924), he advocated that Western Europe and North America constitute a single community of nations—a forerunner of the North Atlantic community concept.

Whereas Ratzel’s theories of the large state were based on concepts of self-sufficiency, closed space, and totalitarian controls, Mackinder was strongly committed to cooperation among states, democratization of the Empire into a Commonwealth of Nations, and preservation of small states. He bridged the academy and politics, serving as a Conservative and Unionist member of Parliament (1910–1922), and as British High Commissioner for South Russia (1919–1920). Initially a Liberal Imperialist and proponent of free trade, he eventually became committed to a preferential tariff system to protect British imperial unity. During World War Two, Mackinder presented a global strategy based upon two equal power units— Heartland and Midland Ocean (the North Atlantic)— separated from two other regions (Monsoonal Asia and South Atlantic lands) by a mantle of empty deserts and mountains. He felt that, ultimately, Monsoonal Asia (India and China) would emerge to challenge a combined Heartland Midland Ocean (1943).

2.3 Kjellen

Johan Rudolph Kjellen (1864–1922), the political scientist who, in 1899, coined the term ‘geopolitics’ was influenced by both his Swedish background and Germany’s growth into a giant state. He viewed the impending breakdown of the Concert of Europe and the drift towards war and chaos as the death-knell for small states like Sweden (Parker 1998). Adopting Ratzel’s organic state concept, he considered Germany’s emergence as a great power inevitable and desirable. Sweden’s needs would be fulfilled within the framework of a new Mitteleuropean bloc from Scandinavia and the Baltic, through Eastern Europe and the Balkans, dominated by ascendant Germany.

A Conservative member of the Swedish parliament, Kjellen viewed geopolitics as the ‘science of the state,’ whereby the state’s natural environment provided the framework for a power unit’s pursuit of ‘inexorable laws of progress.’ The dynamic organic approach led Kjellen to espouse the doctrine that political processes were spatially determined (1916). Moreover, since giant states in Europe could be created only by war, he viewed geopolitics as primarily a science of war (Gyorgy 1944).

2.4 Mahan

The global perspective of Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan (1849–1914) was also Eurasian-centered (1900). For Mahan, the northern land hemisphere, connected by Panama and Suez, was the key to world power; within that hemisphere, Eurasia was the most important component. Mahan recognized Russia as the dominant Asian land-power whose location made it unassailable. However, he felt that its landlocked position put it at a disadvantage, because, contrary to Mackinder’s opinion, sea-movement was superior to land-movement (1890).

Mahan argued that world dominance could be held by an Anglo–American alliance from key bases surrounding Eurasia. The critical zone of conflict lay between the thirtieth and fortieth parallels in Asia where Russian landpower and British seapower met. He viewed the USA as an outpost of European power and civilization, its Pacific shoreland and islands extensions of the Atlantic–European realm. Indeed, he predicted that an alliance of the USA, Britain, Germany, and Japan would one day hold common cause against Russia and China.

3. Stage Two—German Geopolitik

German Geopolitik emerged in reaction to Germany’s devastating defeat in World War One. Humbled by the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was stripped of its overseas empire and important parts of its national territory, and the social cohesion forged by Bismarck’s policies was shattered. The Socialist Weimar Republic was beleaguered by class warfare and attempts to overthrow it by Communists on the Left and racist militant nationalists and aristocratic conservatives on the Right. Unemployment was rampant and inflation raged. Within this setting, Haushofer and his colleagues established the Zeitschrift fur Geopolitik (1924–1939) and the Institute for Geopolitics at the University of Munich. Undoing Versailles by restoring the lost territories and rebuilding Germany as a world power undergirded the pseudo-scientific ‘laws’ and principles of Geopolitik that served Nazi Germany.

3.1 Haushofer

Karl Haushofer (1869–1946), the general who became a political geographer, was not an original thinker. The Geopolitik of the German geopoliticians whom he led (Otto Maull, Erich Obst, Ewald Banse, Richard Hennig, Colin Ross, Albrecht Haushoffer) was based essentially upon the writings of Kjellen, Ratzel, and MacKinder. Mahan, Fairgrieve and the American geographical determinist Ellen Churchill Semple were also influential. The organismic-Hegelian philosophy of Geopolitik came from Ratzel directly or via Kjellen. Lebensraum and autarchy became slogans for doctrines whose consequences were conflict and total war. Three geographical settings permeated the literature of Geopolitik: Ratzel’s large states, Mackinder’s World-Island, and Pan-Regions. The organic growth of Germany to its west and east was regarded as ‘inevitable.’ To gain mastery over World-Island, it was necessary to dominate the USSR and destroy British seapower. The geopoliticians posited that German control over Pan-Europe (including Eastern Europe) would force the Soviet Union, regarded as an Asian power, to come to terms.

During most of the 1920s and 1930s, Haushofer espoused continental pan-regionalism based upon complementarity of resources and peoples: PanAmerica, Pan-Eurafrica, and Pan-Asia, with the USA, Germany, and Japan as respective cores. His position on the USSR was ambiguous. He proposed variously a German–Russian alliance, a Pan-Russia–South Asia, and a Japan–China–Russia bloc. His call for Germany, the USSR, and Japan to form a Eurasian pan-region that would dominate World-Island, influenced the German–Soviet pact of 1939, made moot by Hitler’s subsequent invasion of the Soviet Union. The principles of Geopolitik were designed to fulfill German national and imperial aims, without concern for contradictions.

Haushofer’s extraordinary influence derived from his close ties to Rudolph Hess, his aide-de-camp in World War One and subsequent student at the University of Munich. Through Hess, he gained access to Hitler from 1923 to 1938. Doctrines such as Blut und Boden (blood and soil), Rasse und Raum (race and space), and Lebensraum were incorporated into Mein Kampf and became ideological tenets of the murderous Nazi regime. He also advised Hitler at Munich 1998. With Hess’s flight to England in 1941, the influence of the Geopoliticians upon Hitler ended. Haushofer was imprisoned briefly at Dachau (ironically, he had a Jewish wife), and his son Albrecht, also a geographer with links to aristocrat military circles, was killed by the SS for involvement in the 1944 Generals’ Plot to assassinate Hitler. Haushofer and his wife committed suicide in 1946.

4. Stage Three—The Cold War: State-centered vs. Universalistic Approaches

Onset of the Cold War re-awakened Western interest in geopolitics by historians, political scientists, and statesmen. Geographers distanced themselves from geopolitics because of the taint of German Geopolitik.

4.1 State-Centered ‘Political’ Geopolitics

American Cold Warriors embraced geopolitics as a basis for national policy aimed at confronting the Soviet Union and International Communism. Building on early geographically derived geopolitical theories, and holding static interpretations of global and regional spatial patterns, they introduced into the lexicon of Cold War geopolitics such political–strategic doctrines as containment, domino theory, balancing linkages, and linchpin state.

Germany and Japan emerged as the key military bases for the USA and its allies in the struggle to contain Soviet and Chinese continental power, thrusting the Allies’ World War Two enemies into the strategic forefront. Military alliances forged as part of containment produced mixed results. NATO, established in 1949, has proved an enduring strategic instrument. However, SEATO, formed in 1954 to oppose the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia after France’s withdrawal from Indochina, collapsed with the US defeat in Vietnam, and was disbanded in 1977.

In the Middle East, the Baghdad Pact (later called the Central Treaty Organization) was even shorter- lived (1955–1959). Its members included Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, and Britain. Iraq’s subsequent withdrawal to pursue a non-alignment policy left the pact with no Arab representation and therefore limited capacities to counter Soviet influence in Egypt, Syria, and South Yemen.

Western foreign policy was not long confined to containing the Eurasian continental power along Heartland’s borders, but adopted a strategy of checking the spread of Communism throughout the Third World. The idealistic vision that had prompted the USA to support freedom and democratization among colonial peoples quickly gave way to expedient realpolitik—propping up right-wing dictatorships in order to stop the threat of Communism.

Another popular geopolitical doctrine, ‘domino theory,’ was first proposed by William Bullitt (1947), who feared that Soviet Communist power would spread, via China, into Southeast Asia. It was adopted by both the Kennedy and Nixon administrations, rationalizing American intervention in Vietnam to ‘save’ the rest of Southeast Asia (O’Sullivan 1982).

Domino theory was an important argument for extending Western containment policy well beyond the Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern shatter belts into the Horn of Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa, Central America and Cuba, South America, and South Asia. These regions became battlefields for both superpowers, each supporting local surrogates militarily, politically, and economically. The goal was to protect or gain sources of raw materials and markets, while denying the enemy overseas military bases.

The imagery of ‘dominos’ persists. Threat of the spread of Kosovar Albanian irridentism to Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Greece precipitated NATO’s air war against Yugoslavia. Ironically, the result has been Serbian ethnic cleansing of the Kosovars, further destabilizing the region.

A third doctrine, ‘linkage,’ introduced into geopolitics by Henry Kissinger in 1969, was based upon the theory of a network that connected all parts of the world’s trouble spots to the Soviet Union, and that US involvement in any single conflict would have an impact upon overall superpower balance (Kissinger 1979). Linkage rationalized continued US fighting in Vietnam long after the war had been lost.

Linkage was applied to detente with the Soviet Union and accommodation with China. To maintain the balance of power, the Nixon administration sought Moscow’s agreement on strategic arms limitations and mutual nuclear deterrence, and tried to play China off against the USSR. The logical consequence of this policy was non-intervention in the 1968 Czech up- rising, acquiescing to the Brezhnev Doctrine, which held that military force was justified to keep the socialist countries of Eastern and Central Europe within the Soviet camp. The threat of credibility loss also served as a driving force in NATO’s war against Yugoslavia.

Zbigniew Brzezinski’s geopolitical world-view was based on the struggle between Eurasian landpower and seapower. For him, the key to preventing Soviet world dominance lay in US control of ‘linchpin’ states (1986). These were defined by their geographical locations which enabled them to exert strategic military and/or economic influence. The designated linchpins were Germany, Poland, Iran or Pakistan- Afghanistan, South Korea, and the Philippines. Their dominance by the USA would effectively contain the Russian ‘Imperial’ power, protecting Europe and Japan and, in the case of South Korea and the Philippines, preventing encirclement by China.

For Brzezinski the US–Soviet conflict was an endless game, and linchpin control was a necessary part of US geostrategic game plan. In this there is little consideration of the geopolitical complexity of the global system and of the multiplicity of forces beyond superpower reach that had become active agents in the system.

4.2 Universalistic Geographical Geopolitics

When geographers re-engaged in geopolitics in the 1960s and 1970s, they developed theories based upon universalistic holistic views of the world and the dynamic nature of geographical space. Three approaches predominated: a polycentric, international power system; a unitary, economically based world system; and an environmental and socially ordered geopolitics. These fresh geographical theories which challenged bi-polar Cold War geopolitics had little appeal to the Cold Warriors and failed to make their way into ‘political’ geopolitics.

The polycentric or multinodal multilevel power approach rejected the Heartland theory of world domination, as had Halford Mackinder in his later writings. His reinterpretation became a take-off point for those geographers who developed theories of geopolitical polycentrism. In the USA, Saul Cohen proposed a flexible hierarchy of two geostrategic realms, geopolitical regions, shatter belts, national states, and subnational units within a system that evolved through dynamic equilibrium forces (Cohen 1973). The USA, European Union, and Japan are the cores of the Maritime realm, and Russia and China of the Continental. This developmental theory posited that the structural components of the global system had evolved from a stage of undifferentiation with relatively few parts, to specialization integration with many parts at different geo-territorial levels (Cohen 1982). Equilibrium is maintained by moving from one stage to another through responses to short-term disturbances.

In England, Chrone presented a geopolitical system of 10 regional groupings that were also hierarchically ordered, and had a historical and cultural basis (Chrone 1969). In Chrone’s view, the world power balance was shifting from Europe and the West towards Asia and the Pacific. He predicted that the Pacific Ocean would become the future arena of confrontation for the USSR, the USA, and China.

Peter Taylor, the English geographer, broke away from the ‘realistic’ school of power-centered geopolitics in applying a world-systems approach based upon global economics (1989). He drew upon the work of Immanuel Wallerstein (1983), who argued that the world economy means a single global society, not competing national economies. Taylor integrated the Wallerstein model with George Modelski’s cycles of world power (1978), and presented power and politics within the context of a cyclical world economy in which nation states and localities are fitted.

Taylor, as Wallerstein, viewed global conflict in North/South terms (rich nations vs. poor nations), arguing that capitalist core areas aggrandize themselves at the expense of the periphery. This offered a geopolitical frame for the North–South dichotomy that the 1980 Brandt Report highlighted in its study of Third World issues.

An environmentally and socially oriented geopolitics was promoted by Yves LaCoste in France with the establishment of the Journal Herodite. In moving towards a ‘new geopolitique,’ he sought to overcome the national chauvinism of the ‘old’ geopolitics by focusing on the land, not on the state. Herodite linked geopolitics to ecology and broader environmental issues, as well as such matters as world poverty and resource exhaustion. Much of LaCoste’s work was inspired by the French human geographer and political anarchist, Elisse Reclus, who believed it essential to reshape the world’s political structure by abolishing states and establishing a cooperative global system. While this French geopolitics did not produce systematic geopolitical theory, it did put the spotlight on applying geopolitics to significant global problems.

5. Stage Four—The Post-Cold War Era: Competition Or Accommodation?

The end of the Cold War has generated a number of new approaches to geopolitics, in addition to those that continue from the earlier era. For some, it heralds a ‘new world order’ and the geopolitics of US global hegemony. President George Bush, addressing Congress in 1990 defined the policy behind the war against Iraq as envisaging a new world order led by the USA, ‘freer from the threat of terror, stronger in the pursuit of justice, and more secure in the quest for peace … a world in which nations recognize the shared responsibility for freedom and justice’ (Bush 1991).

In contrast, Robert Kaplan’s geopolitics of anarchy is based on a world divided into the rich North and the poor South. He concludes that the South, especially Africa, is doomed to anarchy and chaos. His map of the future, dubbed the ‘last map’ is an ‘ever mutating representation of chaos’ (1994).

Neither of these predictions has come to pass. In most cases, the overthrow of Communist regimes has not led to stable, free-market economies. The restraints upon the unilateral application of US military, economic, and political power are evident from the failures to gain US objectives in Iraq, Somalia, and Haiti. In southeastern Europe, Russia and China have been called upon to help mediate the NATO–Yugoslav conflict.

Chaos theory gives inadequate attention to the regional and global systemic forces that contain turbulence and absorb its positive aspects into the system. Indochina has been stabilized under the leadership of Vietnam. Nigeria has led the community of West African states in attempts to restore order in countries plagued by civil war. The West cannot ignore instability in the South despite regarding it as ‘quartersphere of strategic marginality.’ This is necessitated by humanitarian considerations, as well as fear of the spread of nuclear weaponry and massive out-migrations.

The main thrust of post-Cold War geopolitics continues to follow the two streams of the previous era—the nation-centered/political and the universalistic/geographical. Political geopoliticians advocate projection of Western power into Central and Eastern Europe to weaken Russia’s Heartland position at its western edge. They also advance strategies for penetrating the Caucasus and Central Asia, and for playing China off against Russia.

Brzezinki’s prescription for maintaining US global hegemony is to achieve primacy in three parts of the ‘Eurasian Chessboard’: the West—Europe; the South—Middle East and Central Asia; and the East— China and Japan. He advocates pulling Ukraine and the Black Sea into the Western orbit, strong engagement in Central Asia and the Caucasus, and support of Chinese regional dominance in peninsular southeast Asia and Pakistan. China would be limited to regional power status by the globally framed US–Japan strategic alliance. On the assumption that Russia’s weakness is a permanent condition, this strategy seeks to prevent Russia from reasserting strategic control over ‘near abroad’ states, or from joining with China and Iran in a Eurasian anti-US coalition (Brzezinki 1997).

Advancing a geopolitics of ‘the West against the Rest,’ Samuel Huntington argues that world primacy can be maintained by dividing and playing off the other civilizations (1993). His thesis is that the fundamental sources of conflict will not be ideological, but cultural, and the fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines. In dividing the world into Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, SlavicOrthodox, Latin American, and possibly African civilizations, he makes little allowance for religious, ethnic, economic, or strategic divisions. He also assumes the permanence of the fault lines, despite the massive changes that are brought about by demography, migrations, and modernization.

Geographical geopolitical theory continues to reflect the universalistic approaches advanced during the Cold War. Building on the works of Taylor and LaCoste, ‘critical’ geopolitics applies social scientific critical thinking to ask how power works and might be challenged. This school views the following as central to geopolitical studies: analysis of discourse—rhetoric, metaphors, symbolism (O’Tuathail and Agnew 1992); feminist approaches to the subject of national security; and the geographies of social movements, particularly in relation to newly radicalized and participative democracy (Painter 1995).

In contrast, reality-based, polycentric geographical geopolitics emphasizes the continuous proliferation and inter-connectedness of the various parts and levels of the world. The current number of 200 national states could increase to 250–275 within the next quarter of a century. As the pace of devolution quickens, some of these new geo-territorial entities will be highly autonomous ‘quasi-states.’ Regional geopolitical restructuring is also a continuing process. Just as Southeast Asia has disappeared as a shatter belt, so may the Middle East. The effort to detach Eastern Europe from the Russian Heartland is underway. However, with Russia’s revival, the region could serve as a gateway between Europe and Russia.

In addition, the network of global cities—centers of capital flows and financial services, linked ever more closely by cyberspace, tourism and immigrant communities—will emerge as a major new geopolitical level, promoting policies sometimes contradictory to national interests. International social movements, such as environmentalism, are also influential in shaping national and regional policies, including military ones.

Whatever the course of geopolitical restructuring, we are entering an era of power-sharing among a wide variety of states of different sizes and functions. Geopolitical theory will continue to be a valuable tool for understanding, predicting, and formulating the structure and direction of the world system.


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