Sergei Karaganov, Doctor of History, is Dean of the School of World Economics and International Relations at the National Research University–Higher School of Economics. He is also Honorary Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy.
Resume: The growing outright rivalry between the United States and China gives Russia more foreign policy weight, enabling it to assume the role of a balancer.
Geopolitics as a theory has been almost an outcast for nearly half a century. In Soviet Union it was blacklisted as bourgeois, while in the West it was dismissed as politically incorrect and remained a hobby of provincial university professors, who had no chances of entering the official establishment. In new Russia, the liberal group of political scientists preferred to follow in the footsteps of Western political correctness, while the anti-liberal part – the Eurasians – discovered special pleasure in reciting go outdated geopolitical postulates of a hundred years ago, that they delayed this science’s return to intellectual circulation for many years.
I have always felt sorry for that theory. Firstly, because it has been right all along. Secondly, because of its romantic veil. It was reminiscent of the heroic accomplishments of Semyon Dezhnev and other Russian seafarers in the Arctic and the conquest of Siberia by the Yermak-led gang of Cossacks during the rule of Ivan the Terrible. Also, it brought to mind the names of Lawrence of Arabia and Sir Cecil Rhodes. It was literally brimming with wonderful quotations such as “The one who is controlling the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb (the gateway to the Red Sea) is in command of the world.” I particularly liked the 15th-century proverb about my favorite Venice: “Whoever is the Lord of Malacca (the strait between Malaysia and Singapore and the island of Sumatra), has his hand on the throat of Venice” (up until the 16th century it had been the main hub for delivering oriental spices to Europe). I also felt sorry for the previous generations of scholars and street corner political gossipers – since the days of Plato and Aristotle – whose favorite pastime was to indulge in endless debates over world affairs.
There still is no commonly accepted definition of geopolitics. In the most general sense it is a field of science that examines the relationship among the foreign policies of states, international relations and the geographic, natural environment.
Geopolitics owed its low popularity in the second half of the 20th century to several factors.
To begin with, it was seen as a Nazi theory. The founders of its German school, above all Karl Haushofer, were considered as the founding fathers of the foreign policy ideology of Hitlerism, with its “living space” ideas.
The school of thought based on the balance-of-power theory (pretty close to geopolitics) postulating all should counterbalance all brought about really monstrous results in Europe. Such as hundreds of wars. And in the 20th century there were two world wars, which exterminated generations.
Nuclear arms contributed to the criticism of geopolitics, too. They are largely responsible for the demise of its military-political offspring – geostrategy, which made war a far less handy and certainly a less morally acceptable instrument of geopolitics.
The revolution in science and engineering and the green and digital revolutions that followed slashed travel time, boosted food production and reduced the relative consumption of raw materials and energy for the production of the GDP unit. The human beings in the rich world developed the delusion of their eventual triumph over Mother Nature and space. Territories began to be considered as an asset tending towards zero, and control of them, senseless. The empires’ decay into oblivion after their failure to retain the grip on the colonies seemed to be pointing in the same direction.
From the 1970s to the 1990s the world was under the spell of another theory that left no room for geopolitics – the expectation of the forthcoming death of the state as an institution, doomed to be washed away by the economic globalization tsunami.
New Legitimacy of Geopolitics
The situation began to change at the end of the 20 th century. These days geopolitics is a catchword on everybody’s tongue again, and it is quickly regaining both political correctness and legitimacy.
Nobody any longer argues it is an exaggeration to say the future of humanity depends on the state of affairs in the Strait of Hormuz (the exit from the Persian Gulf), which lets out 40 percent of crude oil sold on the world market, or the very same Malacca Strait, a shortcut route for 40 percent of world trade. Should they suddenly be blocked, countries and continents will plunge into turmoil one by one.
The comeback of the very term ‘geopolitics’ and of the scientific discipline behind it is of great interest not for academic reasons alone, of course. Its renaissance is about to bring about new realities.
Asia’s explosive growth has pushed up the demand for raw materials, energy and food, and particularly water and water-intensive products. The political and economic value of territories where these can be produced has grown immeasurably. China’s peripheral islands, with their natural resources, and Africa, which everybody seemed to have forgotten about for decades, have begun to be contested for again. First, China rediscovered Africa for the production of food and raw materials. Then a new round of competition for it began to unfold. It is a major factor that explains why so much attention is riveted to the local crises, which nobody cared about just recently.
Climate change is another driving force that pushes geopolitics to the forefront. At a certain point the most advanced part of humanity seemed to have nearly forgotten about Mother Nature, to have enclaved itself in urban comfort and abundance. But the environment does not forgive such neglect. Frequent weather fluctuations, floods and droughts trigger social turmoil in vast regions now and then to serve as a fresh reminder the people are still dependent on nature and geography. Environmental pollution and its consequences force humanity to get back to grassroots.
The comeback of geopolitics is also the result of the just-started re-nationalization of world politics. Reactionary dreams – including my favorite ones about a concert of great powers, and the liberals’ hopes for a global government that would run the world on the basis of a democratic mandate – have failed to come true. The fears of looming omnipotence of international corporations have proved utterly out-of-place, as well. They are still influential, those corporations and the related quarters, but they have to cede center stage to the nation states and nationally-oriented politicians.
The rise of Asia is a rise of nation states with reliance on sovereignty and traditional foreign policy values.
Lastly, the return of geopolitics entails a drift away from the bipolar hegemony of the Cold War era and from the unipolar model of the 1990s. This type of relations has always been unfair. But it dictated a certain external code of behavior, it kept conflicts, including territorial ones, in the frozen state. Now, that the hegemony is gone, these conflicts have begun to thaw and rise to the surface.
Lastly, geopolitics stages a comeback due to the economic globalization. Soaring international trade and inter-dependence of states makes them dependent on geography and safety of transportation routes. The world politics is increasingly pegged not to caravan routes, contrary to what one saw a thousand years ago, or to the railways, in contrast to what was observed in the 19th and 20th centuries, but to shipping links – both current and hypothetical. Growing cargo traffic by air adjusts this trend somewhat, of course, but it surely cannot cancel it altogether. Iran would probably have long been attacked but for its ability to plug the Strait of Hormuz. The United States is so keen to end its reliance on Middle Eastern crude oil because it wishes to shrug off dependence on Iran and its likes first and foremost.
To conclude this brief survey, a few words about what implications the return of geopolitics might have for Russia. Moscow has been very skillful in pursuing a tough foreign policy stemming from the traditions of Realpolitik and geopolitics at the same time. That foreign policy line adds a great deal to the international weight of a country whose economic assets are not very big and whose intellectual and self-identification crisis leaves no chances of using even the cultural heritage, its ‘soft power.’
This relative success stems from geopolitical factors to a no small extent. Russia’s territory, with its raw materials, ability to produce so much needed water-intensive goods and foods in ever greater amounts is becoming a major asset again, although only a potential one at this point.
Energy resources and the ability – by virtue of geographic factors – to influence the Middle East, resource-rich but falling apart from Pakistan to the Maghreb – is an asset, too.
Russia as a Counter-Balance
The growing outright rivalry between the United States and China gives Russia more foreign policy weight, enabling it to assume the role of a balancer. So far it has been doing so rather skillfully. Today it may participate in a joint naval exercise with China that Beijing positions as outwardly anti-American. But tomorrow it can team up with the naval forces of the Old World and its allies for same sort of exercize in the Pacific. As for the multi-lateral political battle for islands among China, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines and the United States, Moscow prefers to stay aloof. But, I suspect, some of its diplomats must be grinning with pleasure.
The Pacific will be the center of world politics and geopolitical rivalry for ten years to come. Possibly, towards the end of the decade India’s growth and a series of wars in the Middle East may cause this center to drift towards the Indian Ocean. And in 10-15 years from now all this rivalry, overpressures on traffic arteries and expanding demand for raw materials will inflate the geopolitical importance of the Arctic, its Russian sector in particular. Some sort of virtual shadow competition for the region is already underway. Russia is in the lead, for it was the first to have laid claim to yet-to-be-discovered hydrocarbon deposits in the region. The main argument is purely geographic. Along Russia’s Arctic coast there runs a potential supply route that may offer competition to those crossing the Indian and Pacific oceans – the Northern Sea Route. At this point it is navigable only as far as Norilsk. Time is ripe for activating its Eastern section.
And, of course, Russia may derive mammoth benefits from the economic boom in the Asia-Pacific region. But one has to acknowledge in sad amazement it is still unable to tap this resource, which offers tremendous development opportunities for the Trans-Baikal region and the whole of the country. The laying of new gas pipelines towards the Pacific Ocean is possibly the sole exception.
Russia has held the APEC summit, improved infrastructures in Vladivostok. Fine. But what’s next? A comprehensive regional development strategy is still nowhere in sight. As for the proposals that have been made, they look so much like the daydreams of the late Soviet era that make me only cry out of self-pity.
Clearly, geopolitics and the new world economy require a marked growth of attention to Russia’s East. But this policy should to be based not on geopolitical calculations alone, however important these may look. It would be stupid to succumb to frustration at the moralizing of the Europeans and petty intrigues by the Brussels bureaucracy to turn our backs on Europe. First, such a move would spell neglect of all the very best and advanced that we still have. For many centuries – from the time of Byzantium and, in particular, over the past 300 years – the economic, social and cultural modernization came from Europe. Abandoning this asset would be tantamount to abandoning ourselves. Secondly, Europe, at least a smaller part of it, may rally around Germany to gain a second wind. The way Europe and its Nordic allies ruined Cyprus to teach all southerners a good lesson makes one hopeful.
Finally, the comeback of geopolitics does not cancel the future. A future where the country’s political weight and its ability to influence the outside world to its own benefit will be determined by the quality of human capital, the level of education, healthcare and, lastly, the patriotism of the elites and the population. One may be making huge investments in transport infrastructures (something we have not been doing yet), or in military hardware (on which we spend a lot), but in the new world, markedly more complex and dynamic than ever before, these investments will be senseless without a new type of educated and dynamic individuals. Some may debate their heads off about what is better for development – authoritarianism or democracy, but one thing will remain obvious: not a single breakthrough in development, particularly so, over the past decades, was successful without outpacing investment in education and in rearing the younger generation.
This rule worked well in the days of old geopolitics, too. German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck surely had a point when he said his country owed its military victories to the Prussian teacher.