Colliding Approaches in New ‘Great Games’

Map: Bibliothèque nationale de France

One obvious take away from our discussion of future forecasting over the last two weeks is that the future has not, does not, and will not occur in a vacuum. Change occurs in a complicated world populated by myriad contexts. But how do we explain these contexts effectively, especially if, in our view, the fundamental structures of the international system are currently undergoing comprehensive, paradigm-shifting change? What constructs or frameworks have maximum explanatory power, not only when it comes to characterizing all this change properly, but also in helping vector our responses well?

Geopolitics, as an explanatory construct and how-to guide for harried foreign policy establishments, has historically taken pride of place here. Indeed, the vocabulary of international relations is saturated with long-familiar geopolitical terms. But, and it’s an important “but” here, are the conceptual baggage and analytic vocabulary first bequeathed to us by Friedrich Ratzel and Halford Mackinder as applicable today as they once were? And what about the actual manifestations of this conceptual baggage – e.g., the traditional geopolitical arrangements, contours and rules of the road that have served us so well in the modern era? Are they now being irretrievably stressed, strained and changed by circumstances around them or are they managing “to hold the line”? Needless to say, members of the geopolitical school feel that any declarations of their theoretical and actual demise are flat out absurd. There are Great Games occurring all around us, they argue. The Arab Autumn, the testy and varied actors vying for influence around Pakistan-Afghanistan, the complex resource politics of Africa, the territorial rush to claim the melting Arctic by self-described Nordic states – what are these phenomena if not 21st century examples of the Great Game?

Indeed, they are real examples of this time-honored political phenomenon and we will look at all of them next week in some detail. However, these confirmations of the continued relevancy of geopolitical thinking and geopolitics itself do not mean that that the geopolitical school of international relations is not divided over just what geopolitics means and represents. Is classical geopolitical thought just as applicable today as ever? Is geopolitics just another word for Western political hegemony? To break free from this hegemony, must we develop genuinely non-Western geopolitical forms? Are such forms actually possible? And will they account for the structural changes occurring in the international system in more accurate and user-friendly ways? As we discussed last week, there are several schools of thought on all these geopolitical issues. This week, we turn to colliding geopolitical approaches in potential new ‘Great Games’ throughout the international system.

Geospatial Politics – A Philosophical Defense

Geopolitical Child Watches The Birth Of The New Human by Salvador Dali. Photo: Gigi Mazzarini/flickr

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?

Warfare in the 21st Century – The Advent of (Semi)-Perpetual Peace? (Part 8/8)

Photo: Mikel Daniel/flickr

I closed yesterday’s blog by asking: “So, am I right to assume that Hybrid Warfare is (and will be) the new norm in our back-to-the-future world, or are we slowly but surely vanquishing violence?” The very idea that organized violence and its effects are in irreversible decline is absurd to many a self-proclaimed realist, and for at least three reasons. First, there exists and will always remain the pesky problem of human nature. In other words, Immanuel Kant was right; human beings are indeed “crooked timber.” When you kludge other factors to eternally perverse human nature, to include competition for resources, a structurally defective international system, and inevitable political frictions, the idea that war and its noxious effects are on the wane is seemingly absurd. Indeed, as of the autumn of 2011 weren’t there 18 wars of varying intensity occurring around the globe?

Second, realists tend to dismiss or at least underestimate the evolving power of norms (to include the concept of political legitimacy) and human rights. In their minds, these wispy intangibles are largely fair weather phenomenon. They have not, nor will they ever gain decisive power or influence over time. They represent, in short, superstructural fluff, as Karl Marx might have put it. People honor and practice agreed upon norms and rights when they can, but they invariably jettison them when they must. As a result, norms and rights cannot stand up to the biting winds of war, let alone exercise due influence during periods of genuine crisis.

The Great Paradigm Shift: Denial and then Acceptance II (Part 7/8)

Photo: Sari Dennise/flickr

9-11 introduced a moratorium if not outright end to the intramural squabbling then occurring over the nature and direction of Military Transformation, both in the case of the U.S. Army and Air Force (see yesterday’s blog) and to a lesser degree among NATO allies.  The soon-to-follow second Iraq War, however, showed yet again that old paradigms die hard.  What came to be known as Phase 1 of this war would not have confused Jomini or Clausewitz.  Nor would they have been disoriented by the rationalist (i.e., Jominian) principles behind it either.  It was Phase 2 of the war, of course, that became the problem.  Because the U.S. and its allies remained fixated on long-familiar conventional operations, they were slow to see that three of the supposedly unrepresentative forms of war previously discussed in this series had now actually come to define organized violence.  They were no longer “peripheral”, they were central.  War, that’s capital W war, was different now.  The not-so-stealthy changes that had been knocking on the door for 50 years were now in the house; in fact, they owned the house.  We were now, to use Rupert Smith’s term (see his The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World), flailing about in “wars amongst the people.”

But what, in practical terms, does this mean?  Well, it means the blurring of what had once been a clear foreign-domestic divide.  It means the blurring of what had been a relatively clear combatant-non-combatant divide.  It means the blurring of what had been war and what had been peace.  (Peace, after all, isn’t necessarily the violated starting point of a conflict.)  It means that organized violence has become privatized and that unregulated “shadow warriors” are now capable of mass effects violence, as only states were once able to do.  And perhaps most importantly, war amongst the people means that J.F.C. Fuller was right.  Total Napoleonic-Industrial Warfare, regardless of all the “bells and whistles” Military Transformation has tried to add on over the last 20-30 years, no longer exists.  There will no longer be “big fights” between multiple nations and their armies à la World War II, or so Smith and his supporters claim.  There will no longer be “massive deciding events” used to resolve international disputes.  Warfare is now “360 degrees”, irregular, asymmetrical, post-heroic, “liquid”, etc.  It focuses on intangibles and not necessarily territory.  It is designed to promote the perceived legitimacy of one collective narrative or storyline at the expense of another.   It stages salutary spectacles to impact the psychology of whole populations.  (The word “stages” is appropriate here since today’s warfare is decidedly theatrical.  It is an updated and more complex version of Prince Kropotkin’s “propaganda by deed.”)

The Great Paradigm Shift: Denial and then Acceptance I (Part 6/8)

Photo: UK Ministry of Defence/flickr

When confronted with the post-1945 diversification of hard power described in Friday’s blog, how did the national security establishments of the Euro-Atlantic zone react?  Well, you could say the response was problematic.  There is a reason that mischievous wags claim military intelligence is an oxymoron or that armies are synonymous with “tradition unhampered by progress.”  Change in security establishments can indeed be slow because experimenting with human lives is never an attractive idea, particularly if an official letter to about-to-be devastated loved ones is the end result.  For this reason and grubbier, less salutary ones, as the 20th century progressed and the fissures described Friday only grew, the most basic reaction of the greatest military power in the world and that of its most trusted allies was denial.  Yes, denial.  The United States refused to accept that limited wars by limited means for limited ends, nuclear warfare, insurgency-prone irregular warfare, and transnational terrorism represented “real” war.  They were dismissed as anomalies.  They were dismissed as abnormal.  They did not reflect what security elites had come to define as “genuine” state-directed violence.  These departures, taken as a whole, were given only limited conceptual space in a mental world still dominated by Jominian Napoleonic-Industrial Warfare.