The ‘reopening’ of the Stilwell Road, as it were, has come to occupy news space with renewed vigour in the past few of years. The road finds its inception at Ledo Road in Assam, through Nampong and Pangsau Pass in Arunachal Pradesh (the latter is the international border point) through Bhamo and Myitkina in Kachin State of Myanmar, to Kunming in China’s Yunnan Province. The largest section of this currently dysfunctional route lies in Myanmar (1,033 km), a 61 km stretch traverses India and the remaining 632 km passes through China. It must be noted that this road was operational only during the period of World War II, during which time it was used as a military supply line. It lay redundant after this, as it does to this day.
Michael Wesley comes with a thought–provoking idea: bipolarity is back, but it is not between old or new major powers or alliances, but rather between two communities of states – the Atlantic one which includes the Americas, Europe and Africa on the one hand, and Asia on the other. While the idea doesn’t convince me, it is certainly worth debating. Let me put a few question marks to it.
I guess what Michael really describes is not a ‘polarity’ of any sort (there are no poles in his picture), but rather a division between (or simply the coexistence of) different political-strategic cultures. And here, regardless of the details, he has a point.
Different ‘conceptions of how the world works’ are prevalent in different parts of the world, and they are indeed too relevant to ignore, both analytically and in practical terms. Political and strategic cultures impact on the way states deal with disputes, with issues of war and peace, and on how they cooperate or don’t cooperate with others. There are certainly important differences here between, say, the US and Japan.
Earlier this week, the ISN looked at the ‘Arab Spring’ from a geopolitical perspective – or more precisely, at how regional powers benefited from the recent political changes to further their own influence in the Middle East. Let’s now take a closer look at Turkey to see how the recent events impact upon Ankara’s geopolitical ambitions.
Unlike most advanced economies, Turkey survived the global financial crisis relatively unscathed. Indeed, Turkey’s steady economic growth partially explains why the country is of renewed importance to the West’s foreign policy agenda. Its close proximity to the Balkans, the Middle East, Central Asia and Russia means that it is critical to US, European and NATO policy objectives. Turkey has the second biggest army in NATO and is home to a US air-force base at Incirlik. Add to that a relatively moderate, secular democracy with a Muslim population of more than 75 million, and it becomes clear why Western powers simply cannot afford to ignore the geopolitical importance of Turkey.
Yet for Turkey, the balance between an east- and westward orientation in its foreign policy is a delicate one. Internally, there is a deep split within Turkish society between the mainly secular, Europe-oriented faction of the Sea of Marmara region and the religious faction of Anatolia. When Prime Minister Erdogan came to power in 2002, he seemed to restate the country’s long-standing allegiance to the West by making Turkey’s eventual accession to the EU a top priority. Yet accession talks have long stalled. This is mainly the EU’s decision, but Turkey’s desire to be a more integral part of Europe seems to be fading too.
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.
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.