GEOPOLITICS IS POLITICS taking place in regard to geographical circumstances, territorial relations and aspirations of political entities. It derives from the spatial settings of place as well as from territoriality as a universal dimension of human (and animal) behavior. While the spectrum of geopolitical action is very wide, it is never just derived from “geographic imperatives.” There are always underlying motivations, constructions and lines of thinking behind geopolitics, whether we speak of geopolitical theories or geopolitical action. In order to understand the relational and proportional settings of contemporary geopolitics, it helps to construct some kind of picture of the asymmetric “geopolitical ideologies” that influence the motives and ideas behind the geopolitical activities of various states and other political actors.
At the same time, geopolitics should not be confused with the field of POLITICAL GEOGRAPHY. Both disciplines have in common the search and identification of an area of study that concerns the connection and mutual interaction between geography and politics. Political geography deals with the study of the existing relations between spatial facts and the political processes, and therefore constitutes the spatial analysis of political phenomena. It concerns the spatial attributes of the political process or can be seen as the study of existing relations between spatial facts and political processes. Geopolitics, on the other hand, is an approach to international politics that insists on the significance of geographic territory and its resources. It represents the study of the geographic distribution of power among the states of the international system, paying particular attention to the rivalries of the major powers. From a slightly different point of view, geopolitics could be seen as an expression of the foreign policies of states, where those policies are determined by the state’s location, natural resources, and physical determinants. Thus, geopolitics and geopolitical analysis constitute the study of international politics seen from a spatial or geocentric perspective. Where political geography deals with the interaction of geographical factors and politics, the interactions of political power and space, geopolitics tries to provide a geographic interpretation of these events by studying the geographical aspects of political phenomena.
A Swedish political scientist, Rudolf Kjellen, originally coined the term geopolitics in 1899. Kjellen viewed the state as a living organism and, in developing his ideas, saw geopolitics as the study of the state as a geographic organism whose spatial phenomena could be a land, a territory, a space, or a country. Kjellen believed that in order for a state to be strong, its government had to put in practice five complementary types of policies in order to be successful in its natural expansion. For Kjellen, the aim of the discipline was to demonstrate the role of the geographic characteristics in the conception of the state and the practice of statecraft to the statesman and decision maker.
According to Friedrich Ratzel, the state is a territorial entity with two essential coordinates: the space (raum), which he viewed as the total surface or aerial extent of territory, and the position (lage), which he referred to as the situation of the territory in relation to other states. Ratzel was also interested in two other ideas: the concept of space itself, namely the sense and meaning of space, and what he called vital space.
There is one definition of geopolitics that seems to be particularly well expressed. In the words of Osmo Tuomi, the geopolitics that emerged in the last decades of the 20th century is by no means comparable to the old framework and theoretical points of view, namely the eternal confrontation between sea power and land power developed during the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th. For Tuomi, theoretical geopolitics studies the relation between physical space and international politics, develops models for the spatial division of the world into cooperating and competing parts for historical, economic and political reasons, and analyzes how the participants interpret the political, economic, and military consequences of this division. The geopolitics of a state or other territorially defined society relates to its pursuit of geographically dimensioned aims that are connected with its economic and political position, security and culture.
With the end of World War II, new perspectives emerged for the study of geopolitics and political geography. The international system in the postwar period changed dramatically the notion of the balance of power and introduced strategic bipolarity and nuclear deterrence, concepts responsible for the ideological, political, cultural, and geographic confrontation between the two superpowers and the respective spheres of influence and blocks of allies. It was during this period that geopolitical theory cut drastically with the international situation that had prevailed up to that time, and the realities of the world situation were constantly assisting the development of new weapons, strategies, and techniques for conducting war.
The resurgence of both political geography and geopolitics began in the late 1960s and early 1970s as they ceased to be mere instruments in service of the military establishment/sphere and started to be objects of analysis by academics and researchers who wanted to construct critical reasoning and discourses with respect to the disciplines in question. The renaissance has been particularly manifest after the end of the 1980s, compared with the exclusion and distancing that it suffered after 1945 and for approximately three decades thereafter.
As one legitimate area of study, geopolitics and political geography deal with complicated if not problematic issues like GLOBALIZATION, deterritorialization through constant flows of information and finance, and transnational phenomena that transcend the boundaries of states and seem somehow to erode the concept of sovereignty itself.
In some respects, we live in a world that is becoming boundless, without physical and territorial borders, that bases itself on an increasing, more frequent, and perceptible interdependence among players. In this sense, some authors speak about the end of geopolitics because of profound impacts created by economic globalization. Information technologies and communication are progressively forming and reforming domestic politics and the foreign relations of states, raising doubts about the existence of borders, boundaries, territorial demarcations, and sovereignty itself.
Another major change in the study of geopolitics and geopolitical analysis started in the late 1980s and continued throughout the 1990s: Critical geopolitics. This line of study demonstrates that geopolitical issues and themes can be found in popular culture, movies, or mass media, that is, the press, TV and radio. These same issues are therefore seen as important forms of popular geopolitics. In comparison to formal geopolitics, the insight of critical geopolitics tries to determine in what manner and to what extent geographic labels do not imply some strong causal relation between physical geography and the behavior of the state and its political structures.
For some theorists, critical geopolitics takes issue with the traditional theories of political geography and opposing positions of geopolitical theories by analyzing their discourses and their role in spatial formation and development. In order to achieve an alternative form of geopolitics, one that intends to serve as the equilibrium in the hegemonic balance, the critical approach offers an examination of the suppositions that sustain particular geopolitical constructions, that is, production and use of geographic knowledge in various orders of power and space. In doing so, critical geopolitics tries to uncover the hidden geographical assumptions in foreign policy decisions and actions.
Following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of the old Soviet system in 1991, a new phase in the international system of states began to take form, thus paving the way for the end of communism as a socioeconomic doctrine and a new orientation in foreign policy. The revival of geopolitics and political geography after years of relative neglect has highlighted primary concerns such as the role of geographical scale in establishing political identities. New threats to world security emerged, like regional conflicts, violent nationalism, religious fundamentalism, and sharp inequality between the rich north and the underdeveloped south. Some authors believe we live now in a more unpredictable and unsafe world. The disintegration of the Soviet empire has created a vacuum on the huge landmass that was Mackinder’s HEARTLAND. And that heartland was also the region that in the past was the heart of the country with which the United States was struggling for global primacy. Geopolitics has once again gained special attention from Russian scholars and policy makers.
And once again, the concept of the heartland is retaining its credibility among Russian authors. Here is demonstrated the high interest in geopolitics, where the Eurasian theory provides a simple definition of the belief that RUSSIA is a unique power and does not need to Westernize in order to “obtain” and reach modernity. At the same time, the orthodox version of geopolitics means the Eurasian heartland is, in geographical terms, the milestone for the formation of an anti-Western movement, whose aim once again is to ultimately expel the “Atlantic” influence from Eurasia.
Today, geopolitics is a concept built on a plurality of issues within the theoretical framework of international relations and its study. In a widely interdependent and rapidly transforming world characterized by extremes in complexity, geopolitical perspectives can be very useful in defining the international system. This is particularly so with regard to the extent to which geopolitics is able to provide useful explanations of, as well as point out barriers and obstacles to, stable geospatial relations.
In this sense, geopolitics should be taken seriously, for it constitutes in itself a social element and a technological reasoning that helps in the construction of our images of the world. According to John Agnew, this imagination has provided meaning and rationalization to the practice of geopolitics to the extent that it has defined the ideological space from which the geographic categories upon which the world is organized and work are derived.
Geopolitics and political geography then simultaneously justify and legitimate a confrontation like in the days of the Cold War or give a picture of the inequalities that characterize the present (and past) world economy with regard to the representations of a world without limits, borders and boundaries. In the present state of the world, frontiers and borders seem to vanish because of the changes around the notion and function of territoriality. This points as well to the processes of globalization, a term highly used (and abused), but also a sometimes ill-defined one that can confuse all forms of economic, political, and cultural theories. The functions of the border and the sovereignty of the state are rendered less important and are therefore reduced to a more irrelevant perspective.
In a sense, geopolitics attempts to explain why some countries have power and other countries do not. This basic focus is clearly not new to the modern world. For as long as there have been human societies, there have been groups with power and control and those without. In many regards, this social psychological view of human spatial behavior can be seen as a history written in the language of territory and territoriality, both of which are natural expressions of humans as biological forms.
The special connection between the spatial qualities of countries and international relations has been observed since the Greeks. The Greek geographer and philosopher Strabo believed that geography was destiny, and that the presence of a given set of geographical circumstances automatically led to some form of political order.
The ancients were true ecologists, for they assumed a strong organic relationship between environment and society. In his book The Politics, Aristotle remarked on the impact of climate on human character and, ultimately, politics by indicating that it requires no stretch of logic to see geography and topography as both antecedent to and resultant of climate. But not everyone agreed. Writing in the 16th century, Jean Bodin took exception to the Aristotelian belief in the dominance of geography, arguing that reason, as exercised by statesmen, could overcome the tyranny of geography. Not long after, however, Napoleon Bonaparte returned to the original view, with a bold belief that the politics of a state is its geography.
The formal link between geography and political science that we drawn upon today began a little more than 100 years ago, when the idea of geography being destiny received new emphasis and a name (geopolitics) from Rudolph Kjellen, a Swedish political geographer. Under the general influence of the Age of Reason and a belief that science could be applied to benefit human society, Kjellen sought a science of international politics grounded in empirical bedrock. And for Kjellen, what better bedrock could be found than geography? In short, Kjellen’s motivation was bound up with the contemporary conviction that serious inquiry needed to be linked to science rather than to the traditional conception of the humanities.
In 1890 Alfred Thayer Mahan wrote The Influence of Sea Power upon History, spelling out the necessity of sea power in facilitating trade and peaceful commerce. Mahan, therefore, believed that the country that could control the seas possessed the greatest power in the world. Thus, the development of a strong navy was an essential ingredient to a powerful state in addition to the country’s location. Geographically, this meant that the country with the most power would be the one whose relative location was accessible and connected to other areas via a long coastline and good harbors. Mahan also saw the expression of this power as belonging north of the Suez and PANAMA CANALs.
The late 19th century was a period where the social sciences began to embrace the notions first identified by Charles Darwin when he wrote Origin of Species. This evolutionary approach took hold in many schools throughout Europe, particularly in Germany, which believed in a kind of social Darwinism as a working explanation for the evolutionary development of the states of the world, European countries (GERMANY) being the ultimate expression of the theory. The Germans became instrumental in developing this new idea into the field of geopolitics (geopolitik) and modern statecraft. In 1897, German natural scientist Friedrich Ratzel developed his “organic theory,” contending that the state is like an organism that is attached to the Earth and that it competes with other states in order to survive. Further, like all living organisms, the state needs living space or Lebensraum in German.
Also in the late 19th century, Sir Halford MACKINDER proposed what has become the most widely discussed concept of geopolitics. Mackinder was interested in political motion, observing that the spatial distribution of strategic opportunities in the world was unequal. In his 1904 book Democratic Ideals and Reality, Mackinder developed his thesis with a disregard for Mahan’s theory, suggesting that advances in technology were forcing a reevaluation of both spatial concepts and military strategies. As an example, he indicated that with the development of railroads, countries no longer needed to depend on the navy to move large armies. Accordingly, Mackinder believed that the focus of warfare would shift from the sea to the interior portions of countries and continents; something he called the HINTERLAND.
Mackinder then developed the idea of a “pivot area,” located in the northern and interior parts of the Eurasian continent where the rivers flow to the Arctic or empty into salt seas. This area would be pivotal, he believed, as it would be easy to defend and hard to conquer. In later works, he began to refer to the pivot area as the “heartland,” and devised his famous Heartland Theory. According to this theory, Mackinder believed that “He who controls the Heartland controls the World Island (Eurasia and Africa) and he who controls the World Island, controls the world.”
Another German, Karl Haushofer, was a leading proponent of Mackinder’s Heartland Theory and developed a theory around the idea of pan regions. Haushofer divided the world into three pan regions, blocs of power, based on the complementarity between North and South. His ideas represent an early conceptualization of the CORE AND PERIPHERY concept, where a northern core would be connected to a southern periphery. The three pan regions were Anglo-America with Latin America as the periphery; Europe (which he saw as controlled by Germany) with Africa and INDIA as peripheral areas; and JAPAN and its periphery, Southeast Asia. After World War I Rudolf Hess heard Haushofer’s lectures and later introduced him to Adolf Hitler, who ignored the subtleties of Haushofer’s teachings and used these geographic theories to advance the Nazi cause.
After World War II the study of geopolitics fell into disrepute because of its association with Nazi Germany and the fact that geopolitical theory ascribed a single cause to the success or failure of a country and that did not take into consideration human choice. This was known as determinism, later to be more fully developed as environmental determinism with geographic factors as the foundation for “environment.”
Nicholas Spykman was a proponent of this environmental determinism approach, integrating economic, political, and military points of view into the theory. According to Spykman, states with locations north of the equator would always be more important than those south of the equator. Spykman also disagreed with Mackinder’s Heartland Theory, believing that both sea and land power were important. In advancing his ideas, he believed that the real potential of Eurasia was in the “inner crescent,” a region that included Western Europe, the MIDDLE EAST, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Far East. He called this region the Rimland, suggesting that its importance lay in the fact that the region had access both to the sea and to the interior regions. Spykman extended Mackinder's reasoning on the importance of the Heartland by stating: “Who controls the Rimland rules Eurasia; who rules Eurasia controls the destiny of the world.”
During the Cold War years, policy makers relied on the Rimland Theory as justification for the policy of CONTAINMENT, that is, at stopping the spread of communism. Unfortunately, this led the geopolitics movement in America to take on highly simplified and distorted views whose primary purpose was to serve political ends. Geography was somehow pushed out of the geopolitical equation during this period, when it like economics and other social sciences, began to seek more refined scientific status through mathematics and the development of regional science. Practicing geopoliticans were now chosen from such fields as international relations and history, sometimes even from the military, but not from geography. Geography meant distance, size, shape, and physical features that were all static. The idea of geography as spatial patterns and relations that reflect dynamic physical and human processes was absent.
In an extension of conceptual ideas first developed by Mahan for sea power and later by Mackinder with reference to railroads, A.P. de Seversky, writing in Vitory through Air Power, believed that the development of air power made land battles obsolete. His contention was that whoever controls the skies would control the world. At the time of his writing, the United States and the Soviet Union were the two most important air powers. He used an azimuthal equidistant projection centered on the North Pole to show the air dominance of the two countries. He went on to indicate that there was an area of intersection visible on the map that he called the “area of decision,” and that whoever controlled this area would be the dominant geopolitical power in the world.
During the 1970s, Immanuel Wallerstein developed a world-system theory of geopolitics, where the world-system was a social system having boundaries, structures, member groups, rules of legitimization, and coherence.
According to Wallerstein, there were two varieties of this so-called world-system. One could be viewed as comprised of a world empire where there is a single political system over most of the area. In the other form, there could be several subsystems within the world-system, but no single political system existing equally throughout the overall space.
Wallerstein used economics as the cohesive factor in his world-system theory and saw the world economy as the base upon which the world-system was built; something he believed took original form in Europe during the 16th century and was made possible by a division of labor that was both functional and geographical. Within this world-system Wallerstein identified three geographic areas: core states, peripheral states, and semiperipheral states. The advanced countries of the world economy represented core states. They all were believed to have strong state structures, national cultures, and highly integrated populations.
Within the model, trade, technology, and finance connected the economic powers as core states whereby they were also exploiters of the periphery. Peripheral states were weak and typically either colonial states or states with relatively low degrees of autonomy. The third region was comprised of semi-peripheral areas, those places that act as a buffer between the core and the periphery. As a reflection of determinism, Wallerstein believed that the world-system was already fully developed by the 1950s. As such, no country would be able to enter the system and successfully compete, and those countries currently in the periphery would probably never be able to catch up.
The spatial patterns geographers see in the world today are difficult to conceive of as being containable within national boundaries. The world has become an interdependent system where the nation-state is part of a shared area. One of the proponents of this theory is Saul Cohen, who wrote Geography and Politics in a World Divided. Cohen divided the world into geostrategic regions, one Maritime Realm, which is dependent on trade and has an external focus, and a Eurasian Continental Realm, which is continental in composition with an interior focus. Within each realm there is a further subdivision into first-order states (the ones that are the most powerful). According to Cohen, Japan, the United States and the European Community represent the current first order states within the Maritime Realm, while CHINA and the Soviet Union are the first-order states within the Continental Realm. Cohen’s model also included what he called shatter belt states, which separate the realms or serve to separate regions within the realms.
There were also a group of independent states such as PAKISTAN, INDIA, THAILAND, and VIETNAM, and gateway states that acted as linkages between realms and regions. And finally, Cohen identified states that are asymmetrical. That is, states that are in a region but behave quite differently from the others in the same region.
Geopolitics analyzes politics, history and social science with reference to geography. Although U.S. diplomat Robert Strausz-Hup’s popularized use of the term (for English audiences), the discipline gained most of its attention through the work of Sir Halford Mackinder and his formulation of the Heartland Theory. In January 1904, he introduced his paper “The Geographical Pivot of History” to the Royal Geographical Society. The paper initiated the onset of a new geopolitical era: a method of political analysis, which stressed the importance of geographic factors in determining national interests and international relations.
He questioned traditional perceptions, suggesting that, in the long run, land power was superior to sea power, and he revised the prevailing Eurocentric view of history. During his lecture, he asked his London audience to “look upon Europe and European history as subordinate to Asia and Asiatic history, for European civilization is, in a very real sense, the outcome of secular struggle against Asiatic invasion.”
This theory involved concepts directly opposed to those of Mahan about the significance of navies in world conflict. The Heartland Theory hypothesized the possibility that a huge empire might to be brought into existence that did not need to use coastal or transoceanic transport to supply its military industrial complex.
If this were so, then such an empire could not be defeated by all of the rest of the world together if they joined against it. The basic notions behind Mackinder’s theory involved a change in thinking where the geography of the Earth was being re-divided into a new variation of the notion of the “old world” (most of the Eastern Hemisphere) and the “new world” (the Western Hemisphere and Oceania). The difference was that the archipelagoes that were traditionally able to defend themselves using naval power, Great Britain and, prospectively, Japan, were taken from the old world (the world island), where they had been major players, and added along with the PHILIPPINES, INDONESIA, SRI LANKA, and MADAGASCAR to another part of the world now renamed the “periphery.”
The other world islands, AUSTRALIA and NEW ZEALAND, were already part of the “new world” as a result of their relatively short histories and extreme distances from the heartland. Not only was the periphery noticeably smaller than the world island, it necessarily required a great deal of sea transport to function on a technological level equal to that of the world island, given a lack of sufficient natural resources for a developed economy.
Also, the industrial centers of the periphery were necessarily located in widely separated locations, making it rather easy for the world island to send its navy to destroy each one of them in turn, with little chance of a united resistance. The world island could also locate its industries in regions further inland than the periphery, thus providing a well-stocked industrial bastion. This region Mackinder termed the heartland. It was essentially comprised of UKRAINE, western Russia, and what today we call Central Asia. Most important in all of this was the fact that the heartland contained the grain reserves of Ukraine, as well as many other natural resources. It could feed and sustain itself for long periods without outside support.
Mackinder’s theory outlined a move away from Europe as the pivotal center of history. Instead, it was becoming eclipsed by a new geographical pivot of history, that of the Eurasian heartland. The main advantage of this imaginary center of a world empire, enlarged by the African continent, or world island, was that it would be invulnerable to direct attack by sea power. Mackinder said that the fate of the world depended on control of the heartland. He suggested that the heartland would be controlled by Russia or a Russian-German combination, shifting the power center
from western to eastern Eurasia. However, if Japan and China were to join allegiances, then the centrifugal force in the balance of power might be transferred to Asia alone. One of the more interesting features of Mackinder’s theory was his recognition that one did not have to reside in the heartland’s pivotal area to control it.
FUTURE POWER CENTERS
The crossing of cultures and traditions both between Western Europe and Eastern Europe and Europe and Asia marked, for Mackinder, a region of potential strategic importance in determining the power centers of the future. It could be argued that Mackinder’s theory was too one-sided. He concentrated on the Eurasian heartland, whereas an opposite heartland could also exist, for example, in America. This could help explain the confrontation of capitalism and communism: the opposite polar being America, which would have a periphery in Europe, South America, and CANADA.
With the collapse of communism and the weakening of Russian dominance over Eastern Europe, Mackinder’s theory could be considered a little out of date. Although Russia still maintains considerable influence and indeed some power over countries thatwere formerly members of the Soviet Union, that influence has waned measurably in Eastern Europe. If the heartland still exists, it no longer dominates a protective circle of support. The battle between Western capitalism and Eastern communism is now progressing toward a combining together, possibly through the EUROPEAN UNION, keeping distinct nationalities but becoming one Europe instead of two.
It could be argued that global mentalities and attitudes are changing. World dominance, imperialism and expansion may no longer be the driving forces behind national and international development, as much as the growing importance of economic integration, global trade, and financial stability. This does not necessarily mean that Mackinder’s theory is no longer applicable. It could be that the pivotal heartland has just shifted from one means of control to another, where the new region of focus in the 21st century seems to be “he who controls China’s markets, controls the world.”
It remains to be seen just how necessary geography and topography really are to sound explanation and analysis of our political world. A general case can be made that such considerations are increasingly less important: that technological innovations in communications and transportation are making geographical constraints less constraining, at least for the industrialized world.
Goods and services are increasingly global in character, and national borders are increasingly porous, giving enormous advantage to administratively flexible market-states but harming and undermining those states that cannot or will not adapt to globalizing dynamics. Military technology for countries at the highest level is also less constrained than ever by geography, topography, and climate. The next generation of scientific-technical advances will accelerate such processes, making the old constraints imposed by geography and topography completely obsolete.
However, while geography may not seriously constrain the United States and a few other advanced societies, it will continue to constrain most of the states of the world most of the time.