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Geopolitics and the Quest for Dominance

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History and geography delineate the operation of power, not only its range but also the capacity to plan and the ability to implement. Approaching state strategy and policy from the spatial angle, Jeremy Black argues that just as the perception of power is central to issues of power, so place, and its constraints and relationships, is partly a matter of perception, not merely map coordinates. Geopolitics, he maintains, is as much about ideas and perception as it is about the actual spatial dimensions of power. Black’s study ranges widely, examining geography and the spatial nature of state power from the 15th century to the present day. He considers the rise of British power, geopolitics and the age of Imperialism, the Nazis and World War II, and the Cold War, and he looks at the key theorists of the latter 20th century, including Henry Kissinger, Francis Fukuyama and Samuel P. Huntington, Philip Bobbitt, Niall Ferguson, and others.

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11 Chapters

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1 Introduction

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EMPLOYED FROM 1899, GEOPOLITICS IS AN AMORPHOUS concept, both efficacious and misfiring, and a plastic or malleable (as well as controversial) term. Different working definitions have been advanced, and there is no universally accepted definition and, indeed, no agreed definition in English. All definitions of geopolitics focus on the relationship between politics and geographical factors, although that relationship has been very differently considered and presented. In this context, politics is approached principally in terms of the composition and use of power. The geographical factors that are treated vary, but space, location, distance, and resources are all important. Geopolitics is commonly understood as an alternative term for all or part of political geography2 and, more specifically, as the spatial dynamics of power. In practice, there is a persistent lack of clarity about whether geopolitics—however defined—and, more particularly these dynamics, should be understood in a descriptive or normative sense. Moreover, what in 2002 the American geopolitical commentator Harvey Sicherman termed “the facts of geopolitics—the resources and locations of various peoples and states”3—involves subjective as well as objective considerations, and the significance of the former is commonly downplayed. This is true across the varied dimensions of geopolitics.

 

2 Geopolitics Before the Term Spatiality and Frontiers

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ONE SET OF TRAMLINES IS THAT OF PAST UNDERSTANDINGS of the geographical context and spatial nature of power, while another is that of the application of modern understandings to the many past centuries under discussion. Although different, these approaches—historic and historical1—are not completely separate, because an aspect of the second rests on the ability to appreciate the cultural perceptions of the past. Indeed, there are profound differences between modern understandings of spatiality and past perceptions.

The most fundamental difference between past and present relates to the treatment of sacred space and the religious dimensions of power. The pertinence of this issue is enhanced by the degree to which, today, religious considerations cannot be accurately treated as an anachronistic legacy of past superstition dispersed in a Whiggish fashion by the rise of knowledge. That approach seriously underplays the continuing role of religious senses of space, and perceptions of religious space, in international and domestic politics.

 

3 Geopolitics Before the Term Maps

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IN THE INTERACTION BETWEEN GEOPOLITICS, WAR AND STATE formation in the early-modern period of the Western world, geographical information became increasingly prominent and was regarded as important by contemporaries. The development of maps and cartographic skill went hand in hand with notions of force projection and control capabilities. These notions interacted with technological change, particularly in warfare, and also with bureaucratization, leading to a strategic evolution that reconceptualized, on a global level, the relationship between physical geography and policy. This reconceptualization provided a new context for the more common assessment of the situation at more regional, and thus detailed, levels.

The role of information-gathering techniques in geopolitics was of particular significance. This role, both in collecting and in depicting spatial information, introduced a dynamic component in the understanding of geopolitics. Change occurred at a number of levels, but the use of maps was a common element. At the global level, reasonably accurate projections and representations of the entire world were an important development.

 

4 The Geopolitics of British Power 1500–1815: A Case Study

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In 1791, King George III was told by the French envoy that it was appropriate for the French revolutionary government, pursuing a new radical course, to abolish feudal rights in Alsace, as, “for the sake of public utility, governments should seek administrative uniformity.” This claim led George, who was both temperamentally and intellectually conservative, to reply: “that such uniformity could exist only in small states, and that in kingdoms as big as France any attempt to introduce it would create problems.”1 The exchange serves as a reminder that geopolitics, as a form of both analysis and policy, like strategy as an aspect of policy, has a strong domestic dimension as well as the more common international one. In the case of the French Revolution, which had broken out in 1789, the exchange also highlighted the risk of systematization. The abolition of these feudal rights was appropriate, indeed necessary, from the perspective of French revolutionaries, with their commitment to uniform modern systems and their opposition to feudalism.2 However, this step was to help alienate German support and to encourage a breakdown in relations with German princely rulers, contributing to the outbreak of a lengthy war the following year.

 

5 Geography and Imperialism The World in the Nineteenth Century

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AN IMPORTANT INSTANCE OF THE CONCEPTUAL AND methodological problems involved in geopolitics is provided by the treatment of geography as an adjunct, indeed enabler, of imperial power. This view was taken by some specialists in cartographic studies, notably Brian Harley,1 and has subsequently been adopted by certain writers on geopolitics. Thus, Gearóid Ó Tuathail began Critical Geopolitics, a major and influential work on the subject, which is subtitled, possibly more aptly than he intended, The Politics of Writing Global Space (1996), by stating: “Geography is about power. Although often assumed to be innocent, the geography of the world is not a product of nature but a product of histories of struggle between competing authorities over the power to organize, occupy, and administer space.” He subsequently added that geography was “an active writing of the earth by an expanding, centralizing imperial state.”2 Such an approach, however, underrated the complexity of the subject, denied the degree of autonomy enjoyed by geographers, at least in practice, and overrated the cohesion and sense of purpose of the state.

 

6 Geopolitics and the Age of Imperialism, 1890–1932

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Geopolitics as a self-conscious and distinct subject began at the close of the nineteenth century. It would be misleading to ascribe this development to one specific cause, but international competition was clearly the key element. Crucial forces during the latter decades of the century stimulated the construction of formalized geopolitics, which, in turn, would irretrievably alter the visualization, pace and conduct of international relations. These forces can be attributed to the distinctive, but also linked, drives of Western industrialism, growing nationalism, and overseas expansion (the New Imperialism), and to the mechanical, electrochemical, and military technological leapfrogging accompanying them. This more dynamic environment encouraged and appeared to make necessary the fruition of new ideas for conducting statecraft and international relations and, notably, a move from the somewhat static approach toward regulating European affairs seen from the Congress of Vienna in 1814–1815.1 Increased competition and anxiety led to a search for alliances. However, the creation of alliances, and then changes in alliance systems, brought in their wake new opportunities and, correspondingly, also a new awareness of strategic vulnerabilities. Moreover, academic and quasi-academic deterministic doctrines and polemics arising from new scientific and social science fields, most prominently social Darwinism, invigorated the push for a novel way of envisioning and using the international environment. Weaker states, such as the Netherlands, felt vulnerable in the new environment,2 and understandably so, while would-be states, such as Poland and Finland, sought to establish themselves.

 

7 Nazi Geopolitics and World War II, 1933–1945

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The contrast between German policy, and the presentation of policy, in the two world wars made the role of ideological suppositions in geopolitics (or to be modish in the construction of space), readily apparent—thus indicating the overriding significance of politics and public culture for the content and tone of geopolitics. There was, it is true, a German treatment of Eastern Europe in World War I as uncivilized.1 German successes, especially in 1915, led to the development of new categories when viewing Eastern Europe, and to the attempt to create a new-model society under military direction. Moreover, the German military administration in Eastern Europe became interested in 1917 in clearing away the local population and in bringing in soldier-farmers who would realize the agricultural potential of the land. However, although frequently harsh, this treatment lacked the genocidal character and objectives of German policy in World War II.2 Indeed, the Nazi propagation during that conflict of a racist geopolitics organized round the notion of racial purity was a highly distinctive form of geopolitics. It had later echoes, in “ethnic cleansing” in Eastern Europe, South Asia, and much of Africa after World War II but, until Rwanda in 1994, these episodes lacked the genocidal ambition and commitment of the Nazis. Moreover, this policy was scarcely extraneous to the geopolitics and strategy of Nazi international relations. Instead, there was an intensely racist inflection to the latter, one that led directly to the genocidal anti-Semitism that was central to German policy. Rather than seeing this situation as a marked contrast to Kjellén’s argument about the primacy of the state, the state was conceptualized by the Nazis as a necessarily racial space and purpose, with governance a matter of enforcing and extending this character internally and of extending it externally.

 

8 Geopolitics and the Cold War

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THE TOTAL VANQUISHING OF THE THIRD REICH AND IMPERIAL Japan set the stage for the next phase of geopolitical thought and discourse—this time to account for, and to game-plan, the new US role internationally. This phase was grafted onto the older challenge of the “heartland” power, in the shape of a Soviet Union of unprecedented power and geographical range, the situation predicted by Mackinder in 1943. There were also the practical and theoretical questions of how far newer technology, in the form of long-range bombers, missiles and nuclear weapons vitiated the older heartland and oceanic geopolitical theses. Indeed, during the Cold War, newer types of core-periphery geopolitical formulations surfaced in the form of containment, the “Domino Theory,” and multipolarity. George Kennan and Henry Kissinger were the most prominent examples of geopoliticians in action. However, aside from the significance of traditional mental maps, US geopolitical propositions were not left unchallenged, most conspicuously by Soviet commentators, and by Western radicals, such as the French thinker Yves Lacoste, who claimed that post-1945 geopolitical theory was in practice a justification for military aggression. A different challenge to geopolitical accounts came from the rise of environmentalism and an appreciation of the constraints that human interaction with the physical environment could place upon geopolitical theorizing and action. Less conspicuously, official and popular views within the West frequently did not match those of the United States.1

 

9 Geopolitics Since 1990

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THE END OF THE COLD WAR POSED BOTH MAJOR CONCEPTUAL issues focused on a total recasting of geopolitics and also the question as to whether the subject itself had outlived its usefulness and therefore deserved extinction or, rather, relegation to an outdated part of historical literature. In the event, reports of the death of geopolitics proved totally unfounded. Instead, the second surge of writing on geopolitics—that linked to the Cold War—has been followed, from 1990, with a third surge. Moreover, this surge has been of considerable scale. From 1990 until 2014, over four hundred academic books specifically devoted to geopolitical thought have appeared, a number that does not include more narrowly focused national studies. In addition, these books have appeared in a plethora of languages, including Arabic, Bulgarian, Chinese, Czech, English, Finnish, French, Greek, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, and Spanish. To write of a surge does not imply any necessary similarity in approach, content or tone, but does capture the extent to which geopolitical issues and language still play a major role. This can be amplified if attention is devoted to references in periodical and newspaper articles,1 and in popular fiction. For example, geopolitics is a term frequently used in James Ellroy’s 2014 novel Perfidia. Dudley Smith refers to “recent geopolitical events” in explaining why “Jimmy the Jap” would make an appropriate scapegoat.2

 

10 The Geopolitics of the Future

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Current debate over the character and value of geopolitics, including, indeed, criticism of its validity, can be seen as exemplifying what Harvey Sicherman, protégé and friend of Strausz-Hupé, termed in 2002 “the revival of geopolitics.”1 To a degree, this revival—frequently noted by commentators over the last decade and, even more, the last five years—reflected the need, after the Cold War, for a new or revived vocabulary of explanatory terms when dealing with new concerns. This revival was also linked to an awareness, especially once the “War on Terror” started, that geographical and cultural factors were indeed significant. The growth in Chinese power and ambition from the early 2000s, and concern about Chinese intentions, proved important to the revival, notably for US and Japanese commentators. So also did issues of prioritization in policy.

The ambiguities of the term geopolitics remain, however, while the issue of implementation and, more broadly, the move from theory to practice, continues to be significant. Furthermore, the impact of particular theories about geopolitics have left the subject, when conventionally understood, heavily historicized. Nevertheless, these theories are not crucial to the central question of the impact of geography on the political character, interests, and interaction of states.2 Here, the key issue is not Mackinder, Haushofer or Bush, nor the body of literature that self-consciously employs the language of geopolitics and/or the critique of critical geopolitics; but, rather, the relationship between environmental factors, and human action and intentions.3

 

11 Conclusions

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GEOPOLITICS HAS MANY BENEFITS AND OFFERS MANY insights. Like many other subjects, it is a means for argument as well as analysis, for polemic as well as policy, and these categories are not rigidly differentiated. Geopolitics focuses on human society, but also on the contexts within which, and through which, it operates. Geopolitics thus highlights the basic (but often silent) structure and infrastructure of human interaction, as well as the issues involved in formulating and implementing policy. This structure and infrastructure is both man-made (whether frontiers or transport systems) and natural (notably place, distance, terrain, climate, and resource availability), the two interacting and being linked in their influences. Many elements of geopolitics represent an interaction of structure and infrastructure: for example, coast-hinterland relations. This very range of the subject poses problems for any attempt to offer a precise and concise definition and typology.

 

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