What Is Critical Global Geopolitics?

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Yves here. This post covers how the focus of geopolitics as a discipline has changed over time, and in particular, that the postmodern version, “critical global geopolitics” seriously discounts the “geo” as in geography, bit.

I infer, and readers are invited to correct me if warranted, that more than in many disciplines in social science, there’s a strong element of reflexivity in geopolitics, that beliefs and sentiment, which often translates into ideology (here among the professionals, as in pundits, academics, pertinent officials), influence practice.

By Dr. Vladislav B. Sotirovic, Ex-University Professor, Research Fellow at Centre for Geostrategic Studies, Belgrade, Serbia

For the overwhelming majority Western political analysts, journalists, scientists, etc., the disappearance of the USSR in 1990/91 was symbolized overdramatically by the physical destruction of the Berlin Wall followed by the removal/destruction of status/monuments devoted to the communist leaders and communist ideology. This geopolitical change called for a new world order in international relations (IR) and, in fact, heralded global peace, international democracy, and worldwide security and stability in foreign affairs after the Cold War 1.0 (1949−1989). The period of the Cold War was a historic period lasting from the time of the establishment of the NATO pact in 1949 to the destruction of the Berlin Wall in 1989. During that time, global politics was structured around a binary political geography that opposed US-led global capitalism to Soviet-type communism. Nevertheless, although the world did not face during that time a direct military confrontation (like in 1962 during the Cuban Crisis) between East and West, the period of the Cold War 1.0 witnessed serious economic, financial, military, political, and primarily ideological rivalries between at that time two (nuclear) superpowers (USA and USSR) and their allies (NATO and Warsaw Pact).

According to the well-known concept of “the end of history” which reflects the end of Cold War 1.0, the global battle of the previous forty years – in the Western propaganda eyes, the final battle between (Western) liberties and (Eastern) “Evil Empire” – was over (at least for some time). The world seemed unified under the New World Order (directed by Washington). Immediately after 1989, any combination of multipolarity of the post-Cold War 1.0 order in IR was understood as a real danger to global security.

However, from the point of critical geopolitics, it was suggested that the world would soon miss stability in IR which existed during the Cold War 1.0 due to the military, political, and ideological opposition by two superpowers and their allies. In other words, according to those critics, the New World Order after 1989 will lose the clarity and stability that the Cold War 1.0 era had. Therefore, the post-1989 world concerning the IR, according to, for example, S. P. Huntington, was going to be a more jungle-like world of foreign affairs and of multiple dangers for global security with hidden traps, unpleasant surprises, and moral ambiguities. A new mantra in IR started after 11/9 (2001) when US President George W. Bush put clear lines of good and evil on the global political map.

During the Cold War 1.0, the “free” capitalistic world was fighting against the “non-free” communist world (particularly if someone lived in the “promised land” of the USA). The “promised” West demonstrated the inevitability of countries falling under “devil” communism like dominos (a “domino effect”) unless the USSR was contained behind the Iron Curtain. Nevertheless, after 1989, some political theorists offered new visions of global politics based on chaos and fragmentation claiming the threats and dangers from many corners around. Such critical global geopolitics became incorporated into the imagined geography of G. W. Bush’s proclaimed the War on Terror after 11/9 when the US administration sharply divided the world into two halves meaning that each state was either for the USA or for the terrorists. It was, in fact, no in-between space. From a wider perspective, the use of geographical imaginaries in forming global political models (like those two during and post-Cold War 1.0) is usually understood as geopolitics.

From the point of human geography as an academic discipline, it understands geopolitics as an element of the practice and analysis of statecraft that considers geography and spatial relations both of which play a crucial impact in the process of making IR. The political reality concerning IR has to take seriously into consideration certain frameworks of laws of both geography and politics: concerning geography, distance, proximity, and location as they are understood to influence the development of political action (for instance, war). From the very points of geopolitical arguments, the impact of geography on politics is founded on the geophysical reality but not on ideology. It seems in historical practice that geographical science is going to have predictable impacts on political action.

Such above-presented arguments are challenged by those who claim that geographical relationships and entities are specific to historical and cultural environments. That means the nature of the influence of geography on political events can change.

We have to keep in mind that the term geopolitics was historically first used by the Swedish political scientist Rudolf Kjellen in 1899. Nevertheless, the term was not very much used before the early 20th century. However, the British geographer and political strategist Halford Mackinder’s promotion of the study of geography as an academic discipline to assist statecraft stimulated the view that geopolitics can influence geographers to offer a way in which they could influence the IR. In essence, geopolitics as an academic research discipline is dealing with the question of which geographical factors can shape IR. Basically, these geographical factors include the continental space followed by the distribution of physical landscape and human resources. Concerning geographical research, some territories are predicted to be easier or harder to defend. In addition, the notion of distance affects politics and some topographical features can significantly participate in the security efforts of the state but as well as may also lead to its security vulnerability.

It can not be ever forgotten that the issue of security was all the time and is going to be in the future fundamental to the study of geopolitics. It, basically, means the maintenance of the state in the face of threats, usually from external powers (aggression from outside). The crucial point is that geopoliticians claim that they can support the concept of national (state) security by explaining the effects of a country’s (and around) geography and that of potential conquerors, on future power-political relations. In other words, the experts in geopolitics have to be able to predict which areas could make a state stronger, helping it to rise to prominence, and which might leave it vulnerable. The geopoliticians argue that geography is the most important factor in IR for the very reason it is the most permanent one. Subsequently, the study of geopolitics is considered to be of a very practical nature and the most objective one regarding IR. From that point of view, it is quite separate from political theory.

Usually, geopoliticians present the world and IR as one closed system founded on interdependent relations between political actors, basically independent states. Accidentally or not, the interest in geopolitics as an academic discipline that can explain the world and the system of IR happened at a time when the entire world was explored by Western imperialistic colonists. Therefore, now the world has become available for the territorial and economic expansion of the nation-states. Soon, around 1900, the West European policy of colonialism reached its height. In principle, colonialism is understood as the rule of a nation-state (or other political power) over another, occupied and subordinated territory and its people. Originally, geopolitics was understood as the study that explains and even legitimates the policy of colonization and making overseas empires. Practically, before 1945 geopolitics in many cases was offering a way for nation-states to protect their territorial possessions at the time (before the process of de-colonization) when the “empty lands” (and “terra incognita”) became ultimately occupied by the West European (and other) states and powers.

From the very pan-global perspective, the best-known geopolitical thesis is of the British Mackinder – “Heartland Thesis”. According to the thesis, the Asian “Heartland” is a pivotal area of global geopolitics. Who controls this area provides a chief position in world politics and, therefore, global domination. This “Pivot Area” is surrounded by the “Outer Rim” of the lands divided into two territories: 1) “Inner or marginal crescent”; and 2) “Lands of outer or insular crescent”). If not resistance from the area of the “Outer Rim”, which is proximate to the “Heartland”, some occupying power could quite easily come to control first Europe and then the world. According to Mackinder’s thesis from 1919, the precondition to command “Heartland” is to rule East Europe. However, whoever rules “Heartland” commands the World Island which is a precondition to rule over the World.

Mackinder’s geopolitical analysis of world politics, nevertheless, had a very practical task – to assist British global colonial imperialism. In other words, he suggested to the British policymakers to be wary of powers that are occupying the “Heartland”, and should establish a “buffer zone” around the territory of “Heartland” in order to prevent the accumulation of power in the future that might challenge the hegemony of the British Empire within both “Inner” and “Outer Crescents”. Mackinder’s geopolitical reasoning had a certain influence on both British foreign policy and popular imagination. Nevertheless, not all geopoliticians agree with Mackinder’s conclusion that the location of global power is the land as, for instance, the US geopoliticians Mahan, instead of the power of the land, promoted the concept of the power of the sea while later others promoted the significance of air power. Nonetheless, each of these three groups came up with different core areas from which political, military, and economic dominance can be imposed.

The notion of geopolitics after WWII was quite negative as in many eyes it was associated with Nazi Geopolitikpolicies of territorial occupation, expansionism, Lebensraum, colonization, holocaust, and war atrocities. Practically, during the Cold War 1.0, geopolitics, as expressed in pure spatial (geographical) models, became obsolete and out of use at least in its original form. Nevertheless, the Western (American) theory of the Domino Effect (chain reaction of states falling to the communists, like a row of falling dominoes) was in essence connected with the factor of territory (geography) as the spread of communism/socialism was seen not as a complex political process of adaptation and conflicts but primarily as a direct result of proximity to a territory ruled by the USSR. The process of chain reaction would not stop, according to this theory, until it reached the last standing domino (the USA), and made future political action appear inevitable unless proactive action like a pre-emptive strike is done.

However, after 1989 appeared new approaches to geopolitics usually called “critical geopolitics”. For all of them, the common issue is the refusal of the objectivity and timelessness of the effect of geography on certain political processes including IR. Differently from traditional geopoliticians, supporters of critical geopolitics are taking into consideration a wide spectrum of factors that influence political action and IR. Additionally, traditional geopolitics is criticized for the reason that it takes into consideration only the state or primarily the state as chief or even only player in international politics especially at the time of “Turbo Globalization” after 1989/1990 when, clearly, other actors and powers are involved both at the sub-state level (like ethnic, regional, or place-based groups), and at the supra-state level (such as transnational corporations or international organizations like NATO, EU, UN, ASEAN, NAFTA, BRICS, OPEC, Arab Union, African Union, Council of Europe, etc.).

It has to be stressed that critical geopoliticians are particularly interested in questioning the language of geopolitics, or in other words, the so-called “geopolitical discourse”. For geopoliticians, discourse is a way of talking about, writing, or otherwise representing the world and its geographies. The discourse is simply seen as a way of representing the world – the way that is, in fact, shaping the reality of the world, rather than just being a way of presenting a reality that exists outside of language. Linguistic expression can be a problematic issue as language is metaphorical and, therefore, firstly understood differently by the listeners/readers and secondly directing the opinion of others. All the time exists a choice of words, expressions, and metaphors and the type of terms used affects the meaning of what is being described. For instance, the members of some organizations can be described as “terrorists” or “freedom fighters”. To properly understand the character and aims of their political activity, therefore, very much depends on the used linguistic description of them. As a consequence, there is a politics of language.

Critical geopolitics is founded on postmodern concerns with the politics of representation. For the supporters of such an approach, political geography is not a collection of indisputable facts but, instead, is about power. It means that political geography is not an order or facts but, instead, geopolitical orders are created by top individuals and chief institutions and then imposed worldwide. Political geography is the product of cultural context followed by political motivation. One of the focal points of critical geography today is that it examines the question of why international politics are usually understood from the point of space or simply through the eyes of geography. Consequently, critical geopolitics seeks to uncover the politics involved in writing the geography of global space. This process is called “geo-graphing” (writing about earth/land) to use the process of geographical reasoning in the practical service of political and other powers.

Critical geopolitics is not so much interested in classical geopolitical problems like the true effects of geography on international relations (like whether land, sea, or air powers are the most influential). Rather, critical geographers investigate whose models of international geography are used, and above all, whose interests these models serve. For them, power essentially depends on knowledge and, therefore, the knowledge has a crucial impact on political action. Examples of how science (knowledge) can be used in politics are the cases of Mackinder who wanted to help maintain British overseas imperial colonies and, therefore, its hegemony over world affairs, and Mahan, a naval historian, who was interested in building up the US Navy to assist the creation of the US Empire.

Supporters of critical geopolitics tend to analyze the impact of geography in any description of the world or its parts from a political viewpoint – for instance to describe or predict a foreign policy of some nation-state is, in fact, to be engaged in geopolitics. Any geopolitical description can influence political perception. For instance, knowledge of other regions and the character of their inhabitants described in a particular political-ideological way can be significant for political action – using constantly the terms “Evil Empire” or “Devil Axis” to describe some country and its political leadership, serve to legitimate its own foreign policy and military actions.

The focal claim by the supporters of critical geopolitics is that conventional, or traditional geopolitical arguments are too much of a pro-geographical nature. Contrary to the traditional geopoliticians, their colleagues in critical geopolitics prefer to reduce the factor of space and place (that means not being crucially concerned with understanding and analyzing geographical processes) to concepts or ideologies. Ideology, from the very perspective of critical geography, can be understood as a meaning that serves to create or/and maintain relationships of domination and subordination, through symbolic forms. Regarding international politics, critical geopolitics argues that geopolitics is not simply linked to the function of describing or predicting the shape of IR. However, geopolitics has to be focal to how identity is formed and supported in contemporary (multi- and hybrid) societies.

In conclusion, we can say that geopolitics continues to be a powerful form of geographical reasoning, but used in support of powerful political interests. Geopolitics can create “moral” maps of the world, and locate enemies to the nation-state. However, critical geopolitics is a significant challenge to the traditional geopolitical imagination of IR and global politics which offers another way to imagine alternative connections between different human groups in the world.

                                                                                                                                                                                               © Vladislav B. Sotirovic 2024

Personal disclaimer: The author writes for this publication in a private capacity which is unrepresentative of anyone or any organization except for his own personal views. Nothing written by the author should ever be conflated with the editorial views or official positions of any other media outlet or institution.

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  1. Patrick Donnelly

    Geography determines strategy.

    India is an interesting example of internal revolution. Using State controls and bribery, the part Empire is trying to unify under a mythological banner with religion at its centre.

    Bangladesh and Pakistan are very concerned. Hindustan has claims on both and on Afghanistan. USA and chabad agents are acting to increase cohesion. To what end?

  2. Patrick Donnelly

    Geography determines strategy.

    Russia is part of Asia and part of Europe. It adjoins China and their interests align well.

    USA may need to redouble efforts in S and C America. The Monroe Doctrine was simple enough.

    The fictional reserve banking scam is now in withdrawal, after massive exuberance for 60 years. We have yet to identify those eminences behind this distortion of the debt cycle, causing misery and death for millions.

  3. John

    Geography, and especially that pesky North European Plain, looms large in the security concerns of Russia. The West encroached upon the buffer zone. Russia reacted. The five day Georgia war of 2008 was a Russian reaction. In 2014 the West aimed at Sevastopol. Russia reacted. You would think the message was clear by now.

  4. KD

    This sounds like the “social constructivist” school of academic “naval gazing” (geopolitically), you have an archeology starting with Plato and objective forms, then you get to Kant who subjectives the forms, and then you get to the po-mos who then relativize the subjective forms. Yes, Spengler probably said all the same things before, and with greater knowledge and clarity, but we can perhaps ignore that. Its just another species of philosophical idealism and accompanying voluntarist. will-to-power “explanations” of all phenomenon.

    In contrast to the metaphysics of existence as some kind of giant series of funhouse mirrors, we have historical materialism. That there is a finite world which displays orderly scientific laws, and that historical processes, including ideologies, are driven by material conditions. Rather than the Will of the Great Leader creating the conditions of victory, it is industrial production, force structure, logistics, combat strength which win the wars, all of which are dependent on geography, proximity, locations of strategic resources, trade flows, etc. This second path contains much greater explanatory power for understanding the status quo, historical change, and future directions than chalking everything up to colonizing ideology. Frankly, if its all ideology, how can one ideology triumph over another ideology? The Will of God? Perhaps, but does that answer explain anything, it is generally intended to legitimate an outcome, rather than explain an outcome. I have to ask when has a useful explanation of anything ever come out of post-modernism, its more like avant-garde performance art than a coherent philosophical position.

    1. KD

      On further reflection, modern Western states have two pillars of moral legitimation:

      1.) Zionism, specifically the historically unique evil of the Holocaust and America’s involvement in the Second World War to defeat Nazi Germany and establish the State of Israel so that the Holocaust is never repeated, thereby making America and its allies the “good guys” on the historical stage.

      2.) Affirmative Action, despite the immiseration of the masses, the fact that efforts are made to shore up the demographics at the top morally legitimates neoliberal capitalism.

      Post-modernism is essential to the ideological legitimation of affirmative action by attacking the possibility of standards, and indirectly buttresses the Zionist narrative in that it legitimates claims for racial uniqueness which distinguishes the Holocaust from other historical genocides, and therefore legitimates political claims based on the uniqueness of the Holocaust. (You can view Candace Owens’ last interview before she was fired with the Rabbi if you want to witness it in action.) Thus, post-modernism is ideologically useful to modern Western states, but as a tool of legitimacy, not as a tool for explanation or prediction. Its weakness specifically is that historical processes determine what groups are regarded as protected or sacred victims, and post-modernism is there to legitimate the status quo.

      This is intended as a purely descriptive comment and also intended to illustrate the sources of the moral panic right now over college students protesting Israel’s Gaza campaign. America uses its support for Israel in large part to morally justify its foreign interventions, and the protests create a serious threat to the legitimacy of US foreign policy.

  5. eg

    There are limits to any analytical framework where human group activity is concerned. The brute facts of geography (location, distance, resources) will not yield entirely to whatever any group of humans may wish to think about them. We are stuck living between material and mental limits whether anyone likes it or not.

    Much of it amounts to fleas arguing over who controls the dog, but nature bats last …

  6. Rob Urie

    This reads as a debate over the proper method of academic production. That is quite different from robust inquiry into how nations relate to one another.

    The rise of post-modernism was roughly coincident with the rise of neoliberalism. I make the argument in Zen Economics that the capitalist renewal in the West beginning in the 1970s provided the material basis for the ascendance of post-modernism.

    Further, technology has led to the creation virtual communities unbounded by physical proximity.

    Taken together, post-modernism has just as much of a materialist explanation as geography does. It just relies on a Marxist conception of materialism versus the liberal explanation relied on by the author.

  7. Alex Cox

    The author uses the contraction IR but does’t define it. Presumably he means international relations. However IR is more generally used to mean infra-red.

    1. doug

      Perhaps the second sentence needs another glance?

      This geopolitical change called for a new world order in international relations (IR) and, in fact, heralded global peace, international democracy, and worldwide security and stability in foreign affairs after the Cold War 1.0 (1949−1989).

  8. Aurelien

    One of my longer-term projects is to found a new field of study: Critical Critical Theory, which would look at the use of Critical Theory as a tool for repression and domination. I can imagine critical feminist studies, critical anti-racist studies and various others, perhaps under the general rubric of Critical Grievance Studies. That would be fun, but it’s never likely to attract any funding.

    More generally, geography is what it is, and it’s a bitch. I never had a great deal of time for geopolitics anyway, which is often just an excuse for holding forth on subjects you don’t understand with lots of long words, but critical geography? I’ve heard it all now.

    1. cousinAdam

      Thank you Aurelien. A fitting conclusion to this post and discussion which, to everyone’s credit, lived up to our humble hostess’ request for thoughtful critique. I came to this blog (way back when) just looking to “follow the money” – getting caught up in “IR” and “critical geopolitical thinking” at the end of the day only seems to distract and obfuscate from the basic fact that it’s “all about the Benjamins, baby!”

    2. Mr Timothy Putnam

      Not necessary to have a degree in deconstruction to see that geopolitical outpourings are political projections on the world, whatever use they may make of geographical premises. So analysis of the discourse is a necessary point of departure.
      Geographical figures and elements of knowledge figure from time to time, how and why must be a matter of interest.

      With the Prussians from 1870 to the Americans in WWII, invading armies need geographical information for strategic as well as tactical purposes and economic geography as well as topography counts.
      Whether states try to take account of such considerations well in advance depends on the scale of their ambitions and apprehensions, so the extraction of ‘geopolitical’ import, from Haushofer to Spykmann, is served up to politicians imbued with notions of national imperative masquerading as natural necessity. The inevitability of contention for domination, for example. That’s not geographical armature, whatever bits of geography may be attached to it. So no geopolitics without critical geopolitics, please.


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