The Misunderstanding of Geopolitics

“Geopolitics traditionally indicates the links and causal relationships between political power and geographic space; in concrete terms it is often seen as a body of thought assaying specific strategic prescriptions based on the relative importance of land power and sea power in world history…”[1]
Geopolitics is often misunderstood and perceived as a monolithic methodological tool for international relations analysis that suggests an unchanged geographical structure within the international system. There was a time when this kind of thinking was very prominent and defined states’ understanding of the world as well as playing a crucial role in forming national strategy and foreign policy. With its roots in the 19th century, geopolitics or, more specifically, political geography, was based on very narrow ideas regarding how human behaviour was affected from its relation with space, geomorphology in particular, and climate.
Later, in the early 20th century, international politics analysts used geopolitics as a tool to find patterns and laws that could holistically explain the nature of the international system and thus help their governments form strategies based on their “geopolitical findings”. Such geo-politicians, to mention only a few, were Alfred Mahan, Halford Mackinder and Karl Haushofer. It is worth noting that many of those analysts were employed by their governments to find ways of explaining world politics and geopolitical realities. Therefore, many of their ideas aimed at the construction of certain perceptions of the global system in order to justify national policies towards specific regions of the world. In the case of the United Kingdom or the USA this worked fairly well but not so much in Nazi Germany, for example.
Specifically it has been argued that the ideas of the, previously mentioned, German geo-politician Karl Haushofer, and other Germans of the same mind, defined Nazi Germany’s strategy. But this has little truth in it. After all, the most important factor that affected Germany’s international policy was “race” and not geopolitical realities.[2] Later, after the end of WWII, traditional geopolitical theory was referred to as very vague and shallow[3] while many geopolitics theorists were proved wrong. Consequently, traditional geopolitical analysis has become largely outdated. In this light, one could argue that such approaches are actually international relations analyses from the perspective of Realist theory – which of course takes into account geopolitical realities – given that Realism became prominent after the end of WWII and during the Cold War. From that perspective Realism explains state behaviour better than simple geographically-based understandings of policy-making. That is because Realism is based on the very plausible notion that states act within an anarchic international system and that their ultimate goal is the increase of their power – or, according to Neo-Realism, to improve their security through the power increase. This is a more valid approach than a traditional geopolitical explanation which suggests that state policy is based on the perceptions of certain unchangeable geopolitical axes or geographical space. It is true that states follow geopolitical – either hard or soft power – strategies but they do not do so by following certain diachronic geopolitical axes; instead, they adapt their policies to the constant geopolitical developments in their regions and all over the world. Geopolitical axes do shift.
Contemporary Geopolitics:“Critical geopolitics is no more than a general gathering place for various critiques of the multiple geopolitical discourses and practices that characterizes modernity… It is merely a starting point for a different form of geopolitics, one hopefully burdened less by nationalism and chauvinistic universals and more committed to cosmopolitan justice and self-critical analysis”.[4]
Geopolitics has come a long way since the end of WWII and includes much more than just a structural understanding of the world.[5] Furthermore, we should see geopolitics for what it is and not as an opportunity to make generalisations. Even as a Weberian “ideal type” the term in question cannot only include simplified analyses. “Geopolitics” is a meta-language term which cannot be defined by geography alone. The only aspects of geography that remain relatively unchanged are geomorphology and geology. Political geography and human geography are constantly changing. Think, for example of the former Yugoslavia, Soviet Union, Iraq and now Libya. The geopolitical borders have been – or are being – re-formed and the regional balances of power have changed. That is why geopolitics is never stable; they are not defined by the geo but rather by the politics taking place in a certain geographical context.
The new energy developments in the Eastern Mediterranean and Caucasus are revealing new oil resources while the melting of the Arctic ice and other extreme weather conditions constitute geographical and therefore geopolitical changes. As a result countries that were, until now, off the global politics chessboard might become more important due to their geographical proximity to these developments. Also, domestic and international political and diplomatic relations as well as the various intra- or inter-state wars often result in the creation of new states thus altering the regional and consequently the global balances of power. This means that geographical changes along with geopolitical changes create an unstable and fluid international system which cannot be locked within the normative framework of traditional and outdated geopolitical explanations like Makinder’s “global island” or Haushofer’s “pan-regions”. However, for the sake of objectivity and to conclude, it has to be acknowledged that in certain contexts and historical periods, such explanations may provide helpful insights.

[1] Osterud O., “The Uses and Abuses of Geopolitics”, Journal of Peace Research, Volume 25, No.2, 1988.
[2] See, Chouliaras A., Geographical Myths of International Politics, Roes, Athens, 2004, p.21.
[3] Clover C., “Dreams of the Eurasian Heartland, Foreign Affairs, Volume 78, No.2, March-April, pp.9.
[4] O’Tuathail Gearoid in Laura Jones and Daniel Sage, “New Directions in Critical Geopolitics: an Introduction”, GeoJournal, Volume 75, No. 4, 2010, pp. 316.
[5] For an introduction to the wide scope of geopolitics see, Klaus Dodds, Geopolitics: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2007.
By Zenonas Tziarras
Published on Global Politics, on July 16, 2011 –

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