The Splendours and Miseries of Geopolitics

16 january 2015

Andrey Kortunov is Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, President of the New Eurasia Foundation in Moscow. He is also the president of the Information Scholarship Education Center (ISE) and a member of the Educational Board of the Open Society Institute.

Resume: It is likely that, when describing the development of international relations in the second decade of the 21st century, future historians will refer to a kind of renaissance of geopolitics.

It is likely that, when describing the development of international relations in the second decade of the 21st century, future historians will refer to a kind of renaissance of geopolitics. While it may not be entirely accurate to suggest that we are currently witnessing the second coming of geopolitics, we can certainly see a revirescence of sorts. International relations scholars are once again referencing the works of Friedrich Ratzel, Halford Mackinder and Alfred Mahan; the Heartland and Rimland theories are all the rage once more; and we are bombarded with politically loaded geographical images, such as the “Eurasian World Island”, the “Greater Middle East” and the “Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor” with ever increasing frequency.

It stands to reason that the popularity of geopolitics reflects – within its own system of coordinates, of course – the real processes of modern life. In terms of their logic, these modified geopolitical concepts offer simple explanations for the sharp deterioration of relations between Russia and the United States, the territorial disputes in East Asia, the stepping up of the arms race, the fragmentation of the global economy and a host of other trends that have appeared in recent times. The geopolitical paradigm, which treats the world as a stage for the inevitable confrontation between a number of “great areas” or global regions, quite easily justifies the desirability, or even necessity, of the hegemony of a “central” or “axial” power in each region. What is more, it justifies the inalienable right of these powers to an exclusive sphere of influence. Finally, the geographical determinism of geopolitics (“geography is destiny”) is a basis for the notion that states, nations and politicians follow some kind of unalterable, linear and preordained historical mission – a mission that cannot be chosen, but that has to be recognized, accepted and carried out, no matter the cost or what might get in the way.

Geopolitics has experienced periods of popularity before, particularly during times when great powers had fallings out. The classics of geopolitics are populated by a great number of brilliant minds of the 20th century, people whose work influenced generations of international relations scholars and politicians, from Karl Haushofer in Germany to Zbigniew Brzezinski in the United States. The field, however, never succeeded in becoming a fully fledged academic discipline. It would seem that the weakness of its empirical base and the shakiness of its methodological foundations prevented it from doing so (geopolitics is often seen as belonging more to the realm of “historical fantasy” than to serious scholarly work.

Geopolitics and Ideology

A great many volumes have been devoted to critiquing geopolitical concepts, both in Russia and abroad. The theoretical disputes embedded therein would most likely be of little interest to anyone who is not an expert in the field of international relations theory – if, of course, their concepts and postulates did not enter the political rhetoric and become the foundation of common public sentiment and sustained political self-identification.

It is precisely this trend that we are witnessing right now. But it is not even classic geopolitics from the early 19th century that is infiltrating political rhetoric, but rather, if you allow the expression, “Geopolitics for Dummies” – the ultimate dumbing down and caricaturing of the geopolitical paradigm. Our TV screens and newspapers are awash with “geopolitical” formulas, slogans and magic spells with ambiguous meaning, clearly appealing to the emotions of the audience, rather than to logic: “Ukraine has become a geopolitical battleground pitting Russia against the West”. “A geopolitical confrontation between Moscow and Washington is inevitable”. “The Atlantic and Eurasian civilizations are geopolitically incompatible”. “Geopolitics is replacing geo-economics”. “BRICS is the geopolitical union of the future”…

In fairness, it should be noted that these “geopolitical” mantras are most often heard coming out of Washington and a number of European capitals, infecting both irresponsible journalists and young researchers, as well as seasoned politicians and leading analysts. It turns out that the “geopolitical virus” is highly contagious, and we haven’t even started looking for a cure.

One gets the impression that the geopolitical tenets of the mid-2010s have become a convenient substitute for the ideological postulates of the middle of the 20th century, a new theology and a new dogma for the strategy of international confrontation. To be sure, this particular theory is advocated by some of the more radical commenters on the geopolitical paradigm (Alexander Dugin, for example), who place geopolitics alongside Marxism and Liberalism as universal ideologies of the past.

The ideological struggle between Marxism and Liberalism, however, was conducted around a set of concrete, rationally described and historically changing, albeit fundamental, concepts – free market versus planned economy, political pluralism versus “socialist democracy”. The “geopolitical standoff” operates on notions which, while they can be described, can never be changed in any way (geography, climate, landscape, etc.). Thus, if the ideological struggle, with its inherent antagonistic nature, nevertheless created opportunities for reconciliation in the future, the geopolitical confrontation leaves no room for such a possibility – that is, for as long as the continental plates remain where they are, or until a new ice age sets in (or global warming gets into full swing).

“The West has never, and will never, accept Russia as a partner and ally, because we are Russian”, argue contemporary Russian adherents of geopolitics. According to them, territory, climate and landscape determine the way of life of a people. And the way of life forms a value system. This is why Russian and Western values are incompatible. For example, Russia as a nation supports traditional family values, a notion that is dying out in the West, dissolving in an atomized society. To begin with, however, I don’t quite understand how the Russian climate differs from, say, the climate in Scotland or why the Russian landscape apparently looks nothing like that in Finland. And Canada is comparable in size to Russia. Secondly, it is difficult to take all these claims about values seriously when they are not backed up by specific studies that use the tools of sociology, social psychology and cultural anthropology. To find out where traditional family values are more important, all you have to do is compare statistics on the number of abortions, divorces and abandoned children per capita in Russia and the West.

It would be wrong, of course, to accuse all adherents of geopolitics of charlatanism or professional incompetence Among them we can find extremely bright intellectuals who think outside the box - people who are able to identify before anyone else the new rhythms and melodies within the apparent cacophony of global politics. One simply has to look at the enthralling works of the late Vadim Tsymbursky on the “Great Limitrophe” and “The Island of Russia”, which were ahead of their times in many ways.

Russian geopolitical analysts were among the first to predict the inevitable demise of the “unipolar world”, foreseeing – albeit in their specific geopolitical logic – the formation of a polycentric system of international relations. Geopolitists have brought a healthy dose of scepticism to the starry-eyed arguments of liberals that globalization is the “final solution” to all international problems. In general, the science of international relations should be grateful to geopolitical theorists for challenging the celebrated post-Cold War economic determinism with their own geographic determinism.

Geopolitics and the Problems of the 21st Century

And yet… the majority of contemporary geopolitical constructs (both in Russia and around the world) have at least two features that make them extremely vulnerable to criticism and unsuitable for practical use.

To begin with, geopolitics of the 21st century proceeds from cyclicality, and sometimes from a static history. Therefore, they tend to see the main challenges of the future when it would be more appropriate to talk about the residual problems of the past. The fact of the matter is that the crisis in Ukraine, the events in the South Caucasus in the summer of 2008 and the smouldering conflicts in different corners of the former Soviet Union are ultimately all consequences of the unfinished process of the disintegration of the USSR, the final act of an historical drama that began way back in 1991. The origins of problems such as “divided nations” in East Asia, territorial disputes, mutual distrust and xenophobia in the region should be traced back to the Cold War, which never really ended here. Even the devastating surge of energy that was the Arab Spring was the result of an artificial socio-political “freezing” of the Middle Eastern states for several decades last century.

This does not mean that all these problems do not matter and we do not need to deal with them. On the contrary, the difficulty that we are all currently experiencing in world politics is precisely due to the fact that politicians have ignored these residual problems over the past few decades; they have “swept the garbage of the Cold War under the carpet”, unwilling to spend time, effort and political capital on the clean-up. It was believed that the onward march of history would take care of the rudiments of the past. It hasn’t and the work still needs to be done, but not at the expense of the emerging agenda for the new century.

Geopolitical theorists, however, are having serious difficulties with this new agenda. It is difficult to squeeze items such as global migration, climate change, bringing non-government actors into global politics, international drug trafficking, cyber security, nuclear and “regular” terrorism and others into the agenda. There is every reason to believe that over time the significance of the old, vestigial agenda of global politics will decrease, while that of the new one that is still in the process of developing will grow.

The difficulties of geopolitics in the analysis of a new global agenda are not restricted to the fact that most of its adherents look at the world in abstract, “timeless” and metaphysical terms. The new agenda requires very specific expertise. There is a deeper methodological limitation, which can be regarded as the second fundamental weakness of practically every geopolitical construct. Geopolitics traditionally deals with “rivalry/competition” (Mackinder) or “domination/subordination” (Haushofer). A new agenda of global politics places an emphasis of cooperation between “responsible actors”.

The question of just who these “responsible actors” should be remains open. But the ability of the international community to cope with a new agenda depends directly on the degree of mutual interest among these actors in working together to prevent world politics from descending into something unmanageable, instable and chaotic. Of course, rivalry (competition) between the “responsible actors” will continue for the foreseeable future, but it is the level and quality of international cooperation that will determine the stability of the future world order.

It should be noted that, within the modern geopolitical paradigm, questions of international cooperation have been very poorly developed – cooperation between the “great areas” is more often than not considered a way of limiting competition, or is ignored altogether. Although “classical geopolitics” of the late 19th–early 20th centuries did try to tackle issues related to the positive interaction of “great areas”, at least the French School (Paul Vidal de la Blache) and the Russian Eurasianists (Pyotr Savitsky, Nikita Trubestskoy, etc.). Unfortunately, this area of geopolitics was not developed in any serious way in Europe or the United States following World War II.

Herein, we believe, lies the main difficulty of trying to transform geopolitical concepts into practical foreign policy recommendations. Modern geopolitics often takes the form of tendentious political publicist journalism: in Russia, its adherents are busy exposing the never-ending machinations of the West; in the West, geopolitical thinkers are zealously demonizing Russia, China or the Islamic world. If they happen to make recommendations to politicians, they are usually reduced to calls to be tougher, more decisive and more consistent in the country’s stance against its age-old geopolitical rivals, because that is the only way. It is doubtful that such advice could be of any real use in the search for solutions to real problems of international security.

As we all know, the history of the natural sciences has shown us that the distinction between science and pseudoscience is extremely thin. For example, alchemy is considered a pseudoscience, but the contribution that alchemists made to the experimental basis of modern science (not just chemistry) is undeniable. Modern astronomy probably would not exist if it were not for astrology, another pseudoscience. Similarly, geopolitics has had a stimulating effect of the development of the social sciences as one of the first attempts at interdisciplinary synthesis (geography, history, economics and international relations theory). We have the geopolitical theorists to thank for drawing attention to the “great area” (Grossraum) as an object worthy study alongside states and intrastate regions. It would be a shame if the intellectual potential of geopolitics was reduced irretrievably in the 21st century to the level of a banal propaganda instrument designed to give “theoretical justification” and sanctification to the slightest fluctuation in foreign policy of the great powers.

Geopolitics and Global Studies

It would seem that the most promising aspects of modern geopolitics can be explored in conjunction with global studies, another paradigm for studying international relations that is also going through hard times. Global studies can be defined as a scientific discipline that addresses the causes, content and consequences of the processes of globalization, as well as other global processes and problems (economic, social, political, environmental, cultural, etc.). If geopolitics deals with “great areas”, then global studies focuses on the world as a single system.

Global studies is generally considered to have its origins in the works of Vladimir Vernadsky on the concept of the noosphere in the 1930s or the earlier works of European historians and philosophers. As an independent area of research in own right, however, global studies appeared later that geopolitics. Its “official” genesis is usually associated with the creation of the Club of Rome by Aurelio Peccei and Alexander King in 1968 and the publication of its first report “The Limits to Growth” (1972) prepared by Dennis Meadows. This “manifesto of globalism” was followed by attempts to concretize the idea in the reports “Mankind at the Turning Point” (1974), “Reshaping the International Order” (1976), “Beyond the Age of Waste” (1979) and others.

In contrast to their geopolitical theorist counterparts, global studies scholars placed an emphasis on the mathematic modelling of global processes from the outset; the first ever computer models of global development were put forward by a proponent of global studies (Jay Forrester). Global studies developed the concept of “organic growth”, which goes against the tenets of geopolitics and which likens each “super region” to a cell in a universal organism, with each cell being assigned its own special role that is vital for the organism as a whole.

Global studies reached its peak at the turn of the century, riding the wave of practically universal enthusiasm about the acceleration of globalization processes and hopes that these processes will inevitably lead to solutions to pressing issues for humankind as a whole, and for individual countries and regions in particular.

Global studies became a widely studied discipline in Russia at the time, becoming part of the liberal paradigm that was popular at the time.

But this peak did not last very long. Over time, globalization showed both its positive aspects, as well as its numerous side effects: increasing global inequality, growing instability in a number of fields and the destruction of the traditional ways of life, all of which provoked a powerful wave of anti-globalist movements. The political contradictions of the leading powers started to hinder the development of economic interdependence. Moreover, the development of interdependence paradoxically led to a reduction, rather than an increase, in the general level of manageability of the global system, having brought about volatility and unpredictability to global political and economic processes. The result was not only a crisis of globalization as such, but also of global studies as the science of globalization.

Modern global studies scholars are open to the same criticisms as their geopolitics counterparts: they have a one-sided and tendentious view of global processes and a tendency to be abstract and dogmatic, they are ideologically biased, cannot stand criticism, are methodologically sloppy and isolated from political practice. Just like the adherents of geopolitics, globalists can be accused of constructing yet another utopia (myth) that has practically nothing in common with the actual processes of global development.

I do not believe it would be an exaggeration to suggest that geopolitics and global studies offer two internally consistent, but ultimately one-sided and, therefore, flawed views of global development in the 21st century. They are a kind of “yin and yang” of contemporary global discourse on the prospects of forming a new world order. If globalists, attempting to analyse the world as a single system, downplay the significance or even ignore the presence of the extremely diverse territorial blocs that make up our world, then geopolitical researchers practically deny the existence of the world as a unified system with system-wide “extra-geographic” laws of development.

The proponents of geopolitics and global studies have yet to sit down and open up a serious dialogue on the subject. What we have instead is two monologues taking place in parallel in different languages coupled with accusations of abstract scholasticism, inexcusable reductionism and even charlatanism. At the same time, in order to kick-start such a dialogue, it is sufficient to have “gentleness and courtesy and noble urbanity” – qualities that Hegel valued so greatly in the Greek philosophers, particularly Plato – the willingness to respect any kind of thought that is not one’s own. If a real dialogue between the adherents of geopolitics and global studies is to take place, then unexpected and productive intellectual breakthroughs can be expected the junction of these two opposing paradigms.

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