The rise of traditional geopolitical thinking in today’s world

By THO Contributor, Tarik Oguzlu

Geopolitics tries to examine the relationship between geography and politics and ascertains the impact of geographical location and characteristics of states on the interplay of international political competition among them. Throughout history there have occurred different understandings of geopolitics and it not easy to agree on a common definition of geopolitical thought in the literature. Geopolitics as a unique academic discipline has also close links to International Relations, Security Studies and Strategic Studies. All these academic disciplines share the view that international politics is first and foremost a struggle for power among sovereign nation states. 

Another close relationship exists between geopolitics and geo-economics. Differentiating between the use of geography for political goals and economic goals is not an easy exercise to do because political and economic motivations of states are very much intermingled with each other. The best example to offer in this regard is China’s One-Road-One-Belt Initiative. The goals of power and wealth maximizations closely relate to each other and most of the time the road to further political power goes through economic power. 

What lies at the roots of geopolitical thinking is the never-ending process of attributing an overarching meaning to physical geography. The way how psychical geography is defined requires at the outset a discursive effort. The impact of geography on politics cannot be solely studied in a positivist fashion because statesmen and people who are interested in geopolitics tend to interpret the impact of psychical characteristics of geography on politics through their subjective understandings. The meaning of geopolitics at times when geographical location and physical terrain were too important in the quest of states to maximize their political and economic power was quite different than the meaning of geopolitics at times when technological developments in the realms of military industry, communication, transportation and information have gradually rendered the mere psychical location meaningless in international politics. Since the second half of the nineteenth century till now the meaning of geopolitics, particularly in regards to what kind of a relationship exists between geography and politics, has varied tremendously.

Traditional geopolitics is mainly understood as an objective scientific exercise whose primary reason is to offer ironclad statements on the impact of geographical location and physical terrain on the ability of states to maximize their power in international politics. Geopolitical thinkers were conceived of offering birds’ eye explanations and advice on how states might potentially become more powerful than others and lay claim to regional and global hegemony by utilizing geographical factors. Stated somewhat differently mastering the universe was considered to be paving the way for regional and global primacy. 

Since the second half of the nineteenth century till the onset of the Cold War era, geopolitics was mainly an imperial exercise undertaken by great powers. Mackinder, a geographer in the United Kingdom, is considered to be the first important geopolitical thinker. His heartland theory assumes that the particular power that controls the Eurasian landmass would eventually control the global politics and master the universe. In his characterization, land powers are more likely to lay claim to regional and global hegemony than maritime powers. From this perspective all great powers of the time were in a geopolitical competition to ensure that their rivals do not possess full control of the Eurasian landmass. His thoughts seem to have had great impact on Anglo-Saxon geopolitical tradition in that both the British empire during the age of pax-Britanica and the United States during the age of pax-Americana spent a good deal of effort to prevent any particular European or Asian country from dominating the Eurasian heartland.

Unlike Mackinder, Alfred Mahan, a military historian in the United States, argued that the road to global primacy in international politics would go through mastering oceans and other see lanes. He recommended that the leaders of the United States follow in the footsteps of the British Empire to build up a massive naval force if they want to become the most powerful country on earth. Controlling international trade routes at sea would require huge investments in blue-water navy as well as the United States establishing military bases in vital choke points. In Mahan’s thinking controlling sea traffic through a powerful navy would absolve the United States of taking direct control of other countries. To him, the United States should avoid transforming other nations in the image of American values and stay away from nation-building exercises in far distant places. The United States is already safe because of its territorial location. The two oceans to its east and west and two weak neighbors to its north and south provide Americans with a high degree of security compared to the nationals of many other countries. Therefore, the American decision makers would do well to invest in navy rather than army. Mahan was of the view that Hamiltonianism would serve American global interests better than other strategies. The best the US should do was to become a role model for others and engage in international trade. If push comes to shove the powerful American navy would protect the American populace and American trade interests across the globe.  

Geopolitics in its early stages was closely associated with Germany’s foreign policy practices, a latecomer in the struggle for building colonial empires across the globe. Friedrich Ratzel and Karl Haushofer are the most notable German geopolitical thinkers and their thoughts on geopolitics profoundly shaped foreign policies of Nazi Germany during the interwar years and Second World War. The impact of their thought on Nazi Germany’s policies was so decisive and pernicious that geopolitics had been for a long time associated with Hitler’s Germany and considered to be an intellectual exercise serving Hitler’s goals to institute German hegemony across the globe. Rather than geopolitics being recognized a respectable field of academic study, even the word of geopolitics was avoided in writings on international relations. Hitler’s policies gave a bad reputation to geopolitics. It took some time to recognize geopolitics as a distinct academic discipline. 

To Ratzel and Houshofer, states are like living organisms that require lebensraum, viz. living spaces, to survive in the anarchical international environment. Just as individuals require a healthy body and mental condition, states are also in need of fertile and defensible psychical terrain as well as robust and uncontaminated people to survive in international politics. Darwin’s survival of the fittest characterization of interpersonal relations would apply to interstate relations quite well. Hitler carried such thoughts one step further in arguing that the German/Arian race is superior to all other races and its purity needs to be ensured through the elimination of Jews, transsexuals and gypsies from the German nation. 

Hitler’s geopolitical thinking was also informed by the idea that all ethnic Germans should be brought together under the rule of German state. Such thinking on the part of Hitler’s Nazi government pushed Germany to invade neighboring countries one by one and then organize a massive attack against the Soviet Union during the Second World War. The concentration camps constructed by Nazi Germany across Europe were used to undertake a massive genocide against Jews.

The idea that countries’ geographical location is their destiny is very much informed by such imperial/first-age geopolitical thinking. Geography serves either as a power multiplier or constraint on maneuvering capability. First generation geopolitical thinkers were quiet influential in the dissemination of the idea that geography is destiny. 

Traces of such thinking are quite visible in foreign and security policy practices of many countries across the globe. To give an example, Russian elites and people alike tend to believe that Russia should never let hostile countries take control of territories to Russia’s west and south mainly because Russia is highly indefensible from these directions. The reason why Russian leadership, particularly the current Russian President Putin, is very much against the idea of NATO’s enlargement towards post-communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe as well as the Caucasus is that Russians believe their country would be surrounded by hostile nations and this would be a direct assault on Russian geopolitical interests in the post-Soviet area. From the Russian perspective, Russia is a great power and its geopolitical primacy in the post-Soviet area should be recognized by other great powers. 

Russia is also quite adept in using its geographical location and rich natural resources in its relations with neighboring countries. Being the main gas and oil provider to many countries in Europe, Russia believes that this provides itself with a huge leverage in its interactions with the countries that import such resources. By periodically increasing the price of oil and gas and by pushing further for the construction of alternative pipelines tying Russia to individual European countries, such as the Nord Stream II pipeline, Russia has been forcing the countries lying in its neighborhood to toe its line in foreign policy. Russian geopolitical tradition is also immersed in the ideas that Russia is entitled to its sphere of influence and Russia is an imperial nation that would do well to enlarge its sphere of influence if she wanted to achieve its territorial integrity and preserve its sovereign democracy.    

Similar to Russia, China also adopts a very lucid geopolitical approach in its foreign policy. While investing in area-denial and anti-access military capabilities aims at curtailing the access of the United States to the East China and South China Seas on the one hand, the construction of massive infrastructure projects in the larger Eurasian region and across the globe targets connecting many states to China. Using China’s geographical location and immense economic power Chinese leadership has been trying to increase China’s power capacity in the emerging great power competition all over the world. Surrounded by more than a dozen countries, Chinese leadership tends to believe that China’s territorial security would best be ensured if all these countries were connected to China through diverse economic relationships and multiple infrastructural projects. The idea that China is the Middle Kingdom and sits at the center of regional politics in Asia is quite geopolitical. 

Another manifestation of the first-generation geopolitical thinking can be observed in the context of Turkish foreign policy practices dating back to the early years of the Republic in the 1920s. It has already been a part of Turkish security culture that Turkey is the inheritor of the Ottoman Empire and all other countries that lie in Turkey’s vicinity gained their independence through the wars waged against Turks. Such thinking seems to have led the majority of Turkish people to internalize the ideas that Turkey is surrounded by enemies to all directions and Turkey’s territorial integrity and national security would be ensured if Turkey had a powerful military and pursued a prudent and vigilant foreign policy approach.    

Lying at the intersection of three different continents and possessing vital see passages like the Dardanelles and Bosporus Straits, Turkey is simultaneously both secure and insecure. Its geographical location and the physical characteristics of its terrain can be seen both as assets and liabilities in Turkey’s dealing with other countries. For example, while Turkey had to join the western camp in the early years of the Cold War era with a view to resisting the territorial claims of the Soviet Union, it had to organize a military incursion into Cyprus in the summer of 1974 with a view to making sure that the island did not come under Greek Cypriot rule, which would have otherwise curtailed Turkey’s maneuvering capability in the Eastern Mediterranean region. 

Similarly Turkey feels itself exposed to myriad security challenges emanating from the wider Middle East due to its proximity to the region. Turkey also tries to leverage its transit country role in its relations with the European Union. One of the core arguments of those who think the European Union would do well to admit Turkey to membership is that Turkey would help lessen EU’s excessive reliance on Russian gas and oil resources. Turkey would simply connect the energy thirsty European Union members to energy abundant countries in the Caucasus, Central Asia and Middle East.   

The idea that geography is destiny manifests itself in security culture and practices of other countries as well. For example while the United States is mainly a sea power trying to project power across the world through its blue water navy and marine forces, Russia, China and Germany are textbook examples of land powers. Land powers tend to invest a lot in their armies and defensive military capabilities mainly because they feel themselves surrounded by numerous neighboring countries. On the other hand, sea powers do not have too many borders with other countries and get benefit from their island status. The United States is surrounded by two vast oceans to the west and east and it has relatively two weak neighbors to the north and south. It is not located in close proximity to many conflict-riven places in the world and developments in far distant places tend to have minor impact on core American security and economic interests. 

A similar situation can be observed in the context of the United Kingdom, which is an island country and has long benefited from its splendid isolation. Rather than taking an active role in great power competition among land powers of the Eurasian region, both the United Kingdom during the nineteenth century and the United States during much of the twentieth century played offshore-balancer role. Whenever the prospects of a Eurasian land power laying claim to regional hegemony increased they worked for the formation of counter hegemonic alliances and at times sent troops abroad to help defeat potential regional hegemons. The United Kingdom played such a role during the Napoleonic wars in the early years of the nineteenth century. The entry of the United States to the First and Second World Wars evinces a similar logic on the part of American statesmen. 

The same logic is now quite evident in the growing efforts of the United States to help contain the rise of China in East Asia. Leaving behind the decades-old engagement policy of the previous administrations, President Trump has defined the rise of China as the number one geopolitical challenge levelled against American primacy in global politics. To make sure that the United States maintains its hegemonic role in global politics and China does not ascend to regional hegemony status in Asia, Trump administration is now pursuing a containment policy. Not only the scope of American military deployment to the region widened but also the United States is now doing its best to ensure an anti-Chinese block emerges. Both the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Initiative and the so-called Quad Initiative aim at bringing into existence a counter-Chinese power block by pushing traditional American allies in the region to gear up their military expenditures and improve security cooperation among them. Quad members are the United States, Japan, India and Australia. The United States strongly disputes China’s sovereignty claims in the East and South China Seas and it has noticeably increased the frequency of its naval operations there. The years ahead will likely witness such traditional geopolitical thinking more.