International Relations

Competing Visions of Geopolitics? Follow the Metaphors!

The World islands in Dubai. Photo: Matt Hamm/flickr

Last week, ISN staff writers analyzed three competing visions of modern geopolitics – classical, critical and world-system. These visions were presented as co-equal rivals; as level-eyed competitors jostling each other for the affections of the geopolitically minded. Question – Is this an accurate characterization of modern geopolitics? In other words, are these visions largely static – are they equally prominent and do they each possess explanatory powers that are equally compelling and true? One can argue that such is not the case. Rather than being defined by horizontal competition, modern geopolitics is actually vertical – e.g., its internal logic has actually evolved and become more subtle over time, and the best way to illustrate that is to look at the metaphors its practitioners have used and now use.

Much like other social science languages, the language of geopolitics is weed-patched with metaphors. Now, we could narrowly define geopolitical metaphors as just a type of political rhetoric, but that would not capture their true essence. What these particular tropes actually signify is something more complicated. Yes, they may indeed convey tangible “facts on the ground,” as adherents of the classical school of geopolitics would have us believe, but they are also social constructs. In fact, they are constantly evolving and shifting social constructs. Wittingly or not, geopolitical metaphors are code-laden distillations of the meta-geographies that lie behind seemingly ‘real’ geographies. They embody and reflect, in other words, the actual hyper-reality of geopolitics. They are ideologically tainted, vaguely analogous, and merely approximate, or so adherents of critical geopolitics are eager to remind us.

Fair enough, metaphors have been and continue to be dangerous things. They are, however, also signposts of progress, particularly in the case of geopolitics. In fact, if you look at how metaphors have been used in the discipline, you can see a three-step historical process at work – a process that suggests that the schools of thought discussed last week represent an intellectual progression rather than an equally attractive smorgasbord of options. The three-step process arguably evolved as follows.

Step 1: When we look at Halford MacKinder and his ‘World Island,’ or even up through the early phase of the Cold War, with its East-West confrontations, we see the use of assorted tropes in a classically geopolitical way. In other words, there existed, in the words of Alberto Vanolo, “. . . a relevant correlation between the role of a territory in the global scenario, the level of wealth or poverty of the inhabitants, the technology implemented in the industrial structure, and the degree of specialization in the industrial sector: in this sense, the ‘region’ intended as a meeting place between the fields of economy, culture and politics worked fine.” (See Vanolo’s “The Border between Core and Periphery: Geographical Representations of The World System.”) Basically, Vanolo rightfully points out that the geopolitical language of the time matched ‘reality,’ as it was then understood. Society and its modes of production were clearly tied to a geospatial place and vice versa.

Step 2: As the Cold War deepened, however, the metaphors started to proliferate. They seemingly arose to compensate for a geopolitical language that had allegedly become too narrow, too geographically determined, in the hands of the classical school. The language, in other words, had allegedly stopped being reality-inclusive enough. As a response, we see the appearance of the ‘First, Second and Third Worlds’, the ‘North-South’ divide, and the pitting of ‘undeveloped’ versus ‘developed’ nations. On the surface, these terms provided us, innocently enough, with a more comprehensive picture of what had become a more complex global environment. Practitioners of critical geopolitics, however, soon pegged these highly encoded tropes for what they were. Notice that they were binary and oppositional, critics observed. On the one hand, you have modernization, science/progress, industrialization, surplus and development, as represented by a linear, upward-tilting progression through history. On the other hand, you have the abode of The Other, as symbolized by the pre-modern, superstition/stasis, non-industrialization, scarcity and lack of development. Hmm, it appears that figures of speech that were supposedly designed to convey more complex, less geographically determined geopolitical realities actually ended up dumbing things down. An actually heterogeneous world became an oversimplified one. Actual interpenetration became isolated rivalry. You defined things now by what they weren’t rather than what they could be. In short, this newly minted geopolitical world wasn’t just geographically different, as it might have been characterized during the classical era of geopolitics. It now featured alien rivals (The Other) with their own separate historical trajectories and their own retrograde relationships to time (e.g., progress and development).

Critical geopolitics, it would seem, had its true heyday during the Step 2 period. It showed how seeming metaphorical progress was anything but that, and in doing so it highlighted the ideologically-driven hyper-reality of “geopolitical speak.”

Step 3: Since critical geopolitics is more often than not an effective critique of the discipline rather than a forward looking program in its own right, it’s not wrong to argue that its greatest utility was in the latter part of Step 2 and that it helped clear the way for new metaphors that are most compatible with a world system-based geopolitics of the future. The new metaphors center themselves, as we know, on networks, flatness, fluidity and possible triads. In doing so, they reject the spatial (and oppositional) characterizations of dependency, domination and marginality we sketched out in Step 2. Instead, they suggest and embrace a cluster of associations – multiple power centers, blurred boundaries, heterogeneousness and unpredictability, interaction and connectivity, democracy/participation rather than exclusivity, and commonality of purpose and understanding, if not outright co-evolution – that are in keeping with world system-based emphases on justice, resource redistribution, etc.

Well, so much for today’s argument. The evolution of and competition between various geopolitical metaphors might be read as a dialectic between different ways of determining borders. When seen in this light, the metaphorical treatment of geopolitical borders in well-defined (e.g. classical) ways, required a critical correction during and after the Cold War, and ultimately permitted a more blurred, and therefore inclusive, form of geopolitical bordering to now occur. That this evolution appears to coincide with the three approaches to geopolitics discussed last week seems to suggest that the approaches may best be seen as evolutionary ones rather than as contemporary alternatives. The evolution finally raises a question for our topics this week, which will look at the geopolitical Great Games currently unfolding in four parts of the world. Given what we have just discussed, are we metaphorically right to call them Great Games or not?

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