In a supposedly post-modern world geopolitics can seem passé. With a dismissive wave of the paw, self-described progressives can (and do) condemn it as a pernicious remnant of a rapidly dying past. Critics argue, for example, that classical geopolitics has always been suspect as an explanatory device. It imposes a geographic determinism on international relations that is just too narrow in scope. And by the way, critics ask, just what do we mean by “geography”? Even if you believe that geographical factors deserve pride of place in transnational politics, don’t global politics increasingly play themselves out in at least five domains – on land, at sea, in the air, in space and ultimately in the protean world of cyberspace? And don’t the on-going interactions between these domains compound further the fluidity of events and their influences?
Second, critics are right to ask if geopolitics isn’t a self-justifying “language” of empire. As a mode of political analysis and interpretation, wasn’t it first crafted by those who were prepared to rationalize empire – Friedrich Ratzel, with his not so implicit sympathy for lebensraum, and Halford MacKinder, with his Great Game-tainted focus on the Eurasian World Island? And what about the prominent 19th century American navalist and geopolitician, Alfred Thayer Mahan; wasn’t there a self-serving circular logic at the core of his beliefs – e.g., large blue-water navies exist for the protection and destruction of foreign-based trade, but trade also seems to exist, at least in Mahan’s universe, to support the existence of battleship-centric navies? These founding fathers of geopolitics were not only Westerners, but they were also very much creatures of their time – a time of Great Power colonial rivalries where “land grabs” were at the core of international relations. Their version of geopolitics was both an analysis and a justification for Western political behavior. Where, therefore, is a geopolitics of the developing world, non-Western critics continue to ask. Is such a construct even possible, or is it a contradiction in terms?
Finally, and as hinted above, there is the growing “deterritorialization” of transnational politics to consider. If the structure of the international system is indeed changing in significant ways, the sources of this change are not primarily geospatial, or so many progressives will argue. Instead, the weakening of the nation-state as the final and unfettered arbiter of international relations is largely attributable to intangibles. They are familiar to us all – the more sophisticated capacity of international organizations and institutions to provide services and perform oversight functions, and increasingly attractive and therefore compelling norms or beliefs, to include the ideas human security, cosmopolitan citizenship, and non-state-based notions of legitimacy and sovereignty. Of course, economic globalization, with its diffusion of financial power into the hands of multinational and non-state actors, is another factor at work here, as is the resulting rise of identity politics to new levels of prominence.
In the latter case, human beings are starting to define themselves in new ways. That a national identity would ipso facto infer a political identity that no longer holds true, at least in the West. Yes, one can be an Italian, with all the cultural trappings that infers, but that identity does not necessarily have to have a political component to it. One can be a cultural Italian but also “boutique” his or her politics in far-flung ways. In short, people are accumulating two, three, or four identities now and then targeting what they revolve around. What this means in practical terms is that they respond to narratives now, not necessarily geopolitical “facts on the ground.” They can (and do) create virtual identities and communities around values and causes that are decoupled from “the real.” Political myths, totems and obsessions can therefore abound and psychology, rather than geospatial truth, is often in the driver’s seat now. A Malaysian, in short, might care more about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict than he or she might about local political realities.
The above three problems – the implicit geographic determinism of geopolitics, its Western and Great Power roots, and the growing deterritorialization of modern politics – all seem to point to its growing obsolescence as a tool used for political analysis. As an explanatory tool, it just seems too reductive; its vision seems just too . . . small. But wait, I would argue. It is because of the growing “unreality” of international politics – its growing deterritorialization and reliance on compelling narratives – that we need to retain the geospatial approach. For example, consider the radical extremists who in the name of a politicized Islam are struggling to create an internet-based and therefore global ummah – a virtual ummah free from the shackles of history, of the weight imposed by time and place. The attraction of this type of modern politics is that it sweeps away all the frictions and toe-stubbing problems we confront in our “real” lives.
This literally unreal world provides its adherents with a purity of purpose the smeared and bleared real world can never provide. And curiously enough, in going virtually global you get to narrow your world vision rather than expand it. You get to cut off language and logic from reality; you get to create architecturally elegant worlds based on shaky foundations. In short, you get to feel your politics instead of necessarily thinking them. This tendency, I would argue, is one of the great dangers of modern transnational politics. It encourages a politics of attitude, of gesture, and of feeling that you are on the right side of history. It is a satisfying pose, of course, but it is ultimately (and literally) theatrical. Enter then the geospatial view. Despite its arguably limited perspective and dubious pedigree, it can serve as the proverbial finger in the dyke. It helps keep us grounded (pun intended); it rubs the logic of the real in our face. It reminds us, for example, that the Indian Ocean might become a Chinese lake, as Robert Kaplan argues; it reminds us that Jordan, if it doesn’t negotiate the turbulence created by the Arab Spring properly, just might geographically splinter along Palestinian and Bedouin lines, etc. All these issues and more we will discuss on the ISN website over the next two weeks. We leave it to you to decide how many cheers you would like to raise for the concept of geopolitics. For me, I raise at least two.