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?

Keyword in Focus: Geopolitics & Afghanistan

Greater Persia and Afghanistan at the beginning of the original 'Great Game'
Greater Persia and Afghanistan at the beginning of the original ‘Great Game,’ in 1814 Image: Wikimedia Commons

With the death of Muammar Gaddafi last Thursday and President Barack Obama’s announcement the following day that all troops would be leaving Iraq by the end of the year, Americans might have been forgiven for waking up this week with withdrawal symptoms.  By the end of the year, America’s ‘three wars’ will be down to just one (unless you count Uganda).  According to the latest schedules, the last war standing — the ongoing conflict that began with the invasion of Afghanistan in October, 2001 — will not be over until 2014.

As Americans were told from the beginning, Afghanistan had long been an important battleground of great powers and civilizations.

A Note on the Border

Hadrian's Wall was one of the first territorial borders. Photo: LittleMissBigFeet/flickr
Hadrian's Wall: durable, but no longer a border. Photo: LittleMissBigFeet/flickr

Among the first durable political borders were the Roman limites – built of stone or marked by ditches, or fortifications – at the Empire’s frontiers in North Africa, Germany and Britain. But a border has always meant more than a wall,  fence or line; Derrida, for one, writes of the epistemological charm of borders, as expressions of our innate cravings for distinctions and certainty, for comfort and security.

For many in international affairs, borders are material facts, dividing the world into what John Ruggie calls “fixed, disjoint and mutually exclusive territorial formations.” On this view, borders may be “contentious and controversial in their location” (as John Williams argues in his 2006 book The Ethics of Territorial Borders) but not in the function they perform.

Towards a Marxist Geopolitics?

Mineral deposits
“The meek shall inherit the earth, but not its mineral rights” Photo: theKerb/flickr

If it is true that Marxists “are people whose insides are torn up day after day because they want to rule the world and no one will even publish their letter to the editor,” and also that “few modern ideologies are … as likely to start a third world war as the theory of ‘geopolitics,'” then we may one day look back on the February 2011 forum of the journal Geopolitics — “Towards a Marxist Geopolitics” — as the publisher of those dead letters that would ultimately set the world ablaze.

The ‘Wikipedia Dispute Index’: A Collaborative Seismometer?

Exploiting online networks in order to map and predict cross-linked social phenomena such as the commonality in consumption (Amazon), electoral behavior (Google), the spread of civil unrest (Twitter) or even the outbreak of diseases (Google and EMM) continues to be both an intricate and promising field of research.

Thus, it comes as little surprise that Gordana Apic, Matthew J. Betts and Robert B. Russell from the University of Heidelberg recently suggested an indicator for measuring geopolitical instability by applying the principle of association fallacy, primarily used in life sciences, to online encyclopedia Wikipedia’s entries whose impartiality is contested. In their brief research paper titled ‘Content Disputed in Wikipedia Reflect Geopolitical Instability‘, the authors accordingly argue that “quantifying the degree to which pages linked to a country are disputed by contributors” correlates with a country’s political stability. In other words: since instability is best represented by its underlying conflicts, the multitude and diversity of user-generated associations, namely: disputes, is believed to reveal some form of qualitative pattern that can be arranged as a stability ranking.