Geopolitics is the applied study of the relationships of geographical space to politics. Geopolitics, therefore, concerned with the reciprocal impact of spatial patterns, features, and structures and political ideas, institutions, and transactions. The term ‘Geopolitics’ has originally invented, in 1899, by a Swedish political scientist, Rudolf Kjellen and its original meaning is to signify a general concern with geography and politics. However, defining the concept of ‘geopolitics’ itself is a considerably difficult task because definition of geopolitics tends to changes as historical periods of time and structures of world order change.
Therefore, there have been numerous ways of interpreting the term and arguments on them all through the history. In this essay, I intend to examine how geopolitics has influenced on international relations and how it has evolved using well-known geopoliticians’ theories in a chronological order: Imperialist, Cold War, and New World Order.
In early 20th century, geopolitics was a form of power or knowledge concerned with promoting states expansionism and securing empires.
It was a time characterized by colonial expansionism abroad and industrial modernization at home. This is also the time when natural supremacy of a certain race or the state has considerably prevailed. The most historically and geographically fated imperialist rivalry of the period was that of between British Empire and the rising imperial aspirations of the German state in Europe. In order to investigate the geopolitical tension between them, the geopolitical writings of the British geographer Halford Mackinder and of the German geopolitician Karl Haushofer have to be thoroughly examined. In addition, it is also needed to examine the view of the far side across the Atlantic, the United States that emerged as a significant player on world’s stage later on.
First of all, the starting point for almost all discussions of geopolitics is Sir Halford Mackinder, a member of the British Parliament who wrote “The Geographic Pivot of History” in 1904. He addressed the importance in the history of geopolitics for three reasons in his work; for its god’s eye global view; for its division of the globe into vast swaths of history, and for its sweeping story of geography’s conditioning influence on the course of history and politics.
First, he argues that “Geopolitics is a new way of seeing international politics as a unified worldwide scene” and adopts a god’s eye global view which looks down on what he calls “the stage of the whole world”:
For the first time we can perceive something of the real proportion of features and events on the stage of the whole world and may seek a formula which shall express certain aspects, at any rate, of geographical causation in history.
In this sentence, ‘we’ implies the geopolitical experts, educated and privileged white men who can perceive the real political features. This sentence shows all the basic elements of imperialist geopolitics, such as the divine eye gaze on the world, only experts can perceive the real and the desire to reveal laws to explain all of history. However, this view has been criticized for the reason that imperialists only see within the structures of meaning provided by their socialization into certain backgrounds, intellectual contexts and political culture and beliefs.
Second, he suggests the map of “The Natural Seats of Power”. To illustrate his thesis geographically, Mackinder labels enormous tracts of territory with simple identities like “pivot area.” He eliminates the tremendous geographical diversity and specificity of places on earth. Difference becomes sameness. Geographical heterogeneity becomes geopolitical homogeneity.
Third, he argues “the geographical causation of history” in the application of the sweeping theory. At the centre of this theory shows the relationship between physical geography and transportation technology. Until the end of nineteenth century, sea power was the supreme, but by then, railroads were making it possible to move large armies quickly over vast land areas. Mackinder wanted his government, which had achieved glory as a sea power, to be prepared for the rise of a land power, obviously Germany at that time. In his famous “heartland theory”, he renamed Euro-Asia, “the world island” and the “pivot area”, “the heartland”.
Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; Who rules the Heartland commands the world island; Who rules the world island commands the world.
According to his simple strategic argument, what must be prevented is German expansionism in Eastern Europe and a German alliance with the Soviet Union for the time. In spite of his effort, his idea had a little impact on British foreign policy. The reason is said that his way of interpreting human history is too simplistic and far geographically deterministic, and he failed to aware of the emergence of revolutionary air power in 20th century led by mostly the United States. He underestimated the power of the United States while he overestimated the vast spaces of Russian “heart land.”
By 1904, the United States had emerged as a significant player in international relations. They started expanding their territories with strategic naval forces. Admiral Alfred Mahan who announced sea power doctrine, which stressed the significance of overseas naval bases. He argued in an institutionally self-serving way that the path to national greatness lay in commercial and naval expansionism. All truly great powers were naval powers. It is not necessary to acquire all territories and formally occupy them; what the Unite States needed was an informal empire based on “open door” trade and a string of overseas naval bases that would give its navy the ability to protect power in a troublesome region whenever it needed to do so.
To back up this view in a concrete sense, Theodore Roosevelt applied social Darwinian ideology. He emphasized that all the races are in a struggle for survival and only the fittest and the strongest can survive. He wrote ” there is no place in the world for nations who have become enervated by soft and easy life, or who have lost their fibre of vigorous hardiness and manliness.” Along with his view, the most civilized and superior state in the world, the United States had a right to exercise an international power in the region to keep troublesome and, namely, uncivilized states.
In Germany, a former military officer Karl von Haushofer, who was anxious to avenge Germany’s post-World War I humiliations and rebuild the German empire, advocated a strong nationalistic imperialist geopolitics. Like many of veterans of World War II, he had a deep hatred of the peace treaty, the Treaty of Versailles, which took away Germany’s colonies and part of its national territories after the war. After the Treaty, he believed that Germany’s need for Lebensraum (living space) was greater than ever.
Haushofer’s crusade to overthrow the Treaty of Versailles led him to found the journal Zeitschrift fur Geopolitik in 1924. This journal helped Haushofer create a new school of geography. Mixing the social Darwinist ideas and the ideas of Mackinder, he attempted to reduce the complexity of International relations. In order to survive, according to Haushofer, the German state must achieve Lebensraum. The best way of achieving is for Germany to develop alliance with the heartland power, the Soviet Union. Furthermore, he argued that Germany should align with Japan and create “maritime-continental” block, stretching from Germany throughout Russia to Japan.
In “why geopolitik”, he claims that the reason Germany lost World War I was because its leader did not study geopolitics. He said that geopolitics is the study of the “earth-boundedness” of political processes and institutions. Like Mackinder, he attributes special power to the god-like geopolitician, treating geopolitics as a faith that offers divine revelations. His persistent emphasis on the need for geopolitical education is nothing more than a legitimation for the right-wing militarist foreign policy.
Haushofer’s acknowledgement led to a militarist and nationalistic version of Nazi regime that produced a murderous and brutal war in the 20th century. Furthermore, his ideas justified the practice of many chauvinist, racist, imperialist ideologies. However, geopolitics did not disappear after World War II and the fall of Nazi Germany. All these views of imperialist geopolitics gave way to a newly emergent Cold War geopolitics.
Questions of geography were always deeply indicated in the Cold War that developed between the United States and the Soviet Union after World War II. After the war, bipolar system has been clearly formed. The Cold War is a political structure based upon two contrary relations between the superpowers-opposition and dependence. Theories of opposition are concerned the Cold War as either the result of the Soviet threat or an outcome of US imperialism. In either case, the conflict implies the one between communism and capitalism. The Cold War created the term ‘Third World’ and the division of space into a First World of capitalist states, a Second World of communist states, and a Third World of developing states. This also reflects the North-South issues of massive global material inequality.
The Truman Doctrine is the first significant statement of American Cold War geopolitics. Like the imperialists geopoliticians, Truman adopts a god’s eye globe view and uses simple and abstract categories of “the free world” and “the enslaved world”, which is black and white reasoning. This geographical map became the geographical monochrome of good vs. evil, capitalism vs. communism, the West vs. the East, and the US vs. the Soviet Union. These simplistic reasoning has drawn the domino theory. Truman’s Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, explained before Congress that like:
Apples in a barrel infected by one rotten one, the corruption of Greece would infect Iran and all to the east. It would also carry infection to Africa through Asia Minor and Egypt, and to Europe through Italy, France, already threatened by the strongest domestic Communist parties in Western Europe (Acheson, 1969).
Presenting “apples in a barrel” is a mark of excessive pride in the American intellectuals of statecraft with the Truman administration. Thus when Truman declares in his speech that it is “necessary only to glance at a map,” the map he has in his mind is one where states are equivalent to dominoes about to fall. Only physical proximity is seen as geography and nothing else.
The geopolitical order made by the American after World War II was geographically more extensive than the Soviet order. Domestic politics with the US was characterized by containment militarism, which was set by exaggerated view of the Soviet threat. This mainly facilitated the creation and expansion of a national security state and a confinement of US political culture. Through exaggeration of the Soviet threat, American intellectuals of statecraft attempted to transform the US stance from a reluctant isolationist power to a crusading interventionist power, which promoted an open world economy and safeguarding the free enterprise system.
In addition, the US ought to establish for itself the freedom, in the space called the “Third World” to intervene and attack peoples and states that have been considered a threat to a view of American values and economic interests. After World War II, this tendency led the US security state to intervene in the domestic politics of many states, for example, Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1956 and Chile in 1973. The US also got massively involved militarily in a number of regions and fought bloody wars in Korea and Vietnam among other places against what it perceived as a threat of worldwide communist.
The geopolitical order established by the Soviet Union in the wake of World War II was largely confined to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Just like the US built a huge military complex to support its national security, so did the Soviet Union that its state structure became even more militarised than that of the US. The Soviet geopolitical order was set by the maintenance of a system extended deterrence in Eastern Europe by ruling communist elites and military structure of the Warsaw Pact organization. Because it did not have the resources and wealth of the capitalist West, the Soviet Union intervened erratically in the Third world such as a few radical states like North Korea, Vietnam and Cuba, to compete its counterpart, the capitalist West.
Europe was the principal place where both contending geopolitical orders confronted each other and the site of its greatest militarization. However, ironically both superpowers came to share a mutual interest in the Cold War as a system because they convinced their mutual positions on the European continent. COX (1990) notes:
The Cold War served the interests of both the USSR and the US. For this reason neither sought to alter the nature of the relationship once it had been established. Their goal, therefore, was not so much victory over the other as the maintenance of balance. In this sense, the Cold War was more of a carefully controlled game with commonly agreed rules than a contest where there could be clear winners and losers.
The new breed of communist politician who came to power was Mikhail Gorbachev. He launched a policy of glasnost (openness) in Soviet society in 1986 and envisioned perestroika (restructuring and renewal) of the USSR based on modernized and humane communist principles. His new political thinking helped bring about the end of the Cold War. Gorbachev’s policy for arms reductions and his refusal to intervene to save communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe resulted in the fall of Berlin Wall and the beginning of the end of the Cold War in Europe at last. Furthermore, the geographical consequence of his new policies provoked a counter-reaction by hard-liners within the Soviet military-industrial complex in 1991, an attempted coup whose failure spiralled into the consequent dissolution of the USSR and the fitful emergence of the “new world order” of the 1990s.
The end of the Cold War allowed the emergence of a new geopolitical order dominated by geo-economic questions and issues, a world where the globalization of economic activity and global flows of trade, investment and images are re-making states, sovereignty and the geographical structure of the world. The existence of one of the superpowers, the Soviet Union completely disappeared from the world scene. The end of Cold War effectively left the US as the sole remaining superpower. President George Bush declared a ‘new world order’ during the Gulf War and it was a way of achieving the national exceptionism of the US. He believed that American’s interests were universal interests for everyone.
In practical term, the new world order for Bush was a world where the United States, in alliance with those who were willing to follow, did not ordering. Any change in the status quo geopolitical order unfavourable to the US and the interests of “the West”, such as Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, was considered unlawful aggression that “would not stand.” On the contrary, any change in geopolitics initiated by the US, for example, the US invasion of Panama was acceptable and can be justified.
Many of geopoliticians argue that geopolitic in the post Cold War era can be explained as geo-economics. Focusing greatly on the economic ability of the state, Japan has emerged as most likely hegemonic contender at the time. What makes Japan look so good as successor in this sort of environments is that its economic prowess is not prevented by any military commitments. However, it is possible to interpret Japan as the antithesis of the USSR, another mammoth mismatch between economic and political power but the other way around. Although by no means likely to suffer the same fate as the Soviet Union, Japan’s weaknesses have been exposed by the post-cold war situation as for instance their failure to contribute physically to the Gulf War in 1991. There is much less talk now of Japan as a future world leader.
For some of the environmentally minded intellectual and policy maker, the new geopolitics is not geo-economics but ecological politics or ‘ecopolitics.’ Because the relationship of politics to the earth became more important than ever as state and people struggle to deal with environmental degradation, resource depletion, transnational pollution and global warming. In many cases, the owners of the land are not the same people as those who traditionally used it before development and imposed a very different understanding of the environment and the appropriate ways of using it. It also tends to be occupied by the state with power for their interests.
Like this, the variable and processes in geopolitics differ from international environments and times they get involved. Besides, not only economic and environmental issues, but also the perspectives of race, culture and ethno-minorities came up with a considerable attention in geopolitics. Therefore, as the power of the world and the interests of them changes, new roles and new actors in international context emerge incessantly.
The early geopoliticians had emphasis on the sheer friction of distance and the buffering function of space, the value of which were evaluated in terms of military technology at that time. However, the technological revolutions over the period of time have produced the variables and tools of power. For example, economic and environmental variables and technological developments have already started altering the ways of assessing distance, space, influence and power.
However, it is important to note how dependent on historical context the evolution and application of the modern geopolitical assumption have been. Whatever the outcome of the period, the awareness of historical dependence remains strong. That is why the question of the current geopolitical understandings for the future has to be solved with examining the geopolitics of the past.
It also seems certain that there are perceptible differences to interpret the concept of ‘Geopolitics’ in historical and contemporary perspectives because it has been changing along with changing historical conditions. However, it is also possible to find some common denominators of geopolitical assumption of geopolitics, such as universality of national interests, the centralization of the state like Mackinder’s “pivot theory”, the reasoning of intervention and so on, all through the history. The ways to achieve tend to vary in accordance with prevailing issues and the interests of the power state at the time.
To conclude, it can be said that the main purpose of each state’s geopolitics has been achieving power and maintaining the stance with power in international context. Although the history produced many contending perspectives on geopolitics that seemed to be merely an adaptation to newly emerged issues to keep pace with a rapid radical change. Thus it seems hazardous to assess ‘Geopolitics’ in a facing contemporary context without considering how it has been evolved. Geopolitics is not only a way of interpreting current geopolitical realities but also an evolutionary process, which constantly reflects the whole picture in a wider historical context.
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