GEOPOLITICS – NEW USE OF AN OLD SCIENCE

 

Part I

 

Introduction

 Geopolitics has been on a renewed rise since the fall of the Soviet Union. In a recent high point in the beginning of 2009 Robert Kagan published in Foreign Affairs an article on the geopolitics of the Indian Ocean. It was accompanied by a reading list on geopolitics by a prominent geopolitician.

 

Geopolitics can be described as the study of the international scene from a spatial or geocentric viewpoint, the understanding of the whole being the ultimate object and justification. The national states of the world control a territory exercising power mainly within their geographic borders, and occasionally outside of them. The shape, location and the position of a country determines the influence in a particular setting. Domestic and foreign policy can be said to be inter-related. Classical geopolitics has been shaped by a number of theorists but the term (in Swedish geopolitik) was created by the Swedish geographer and political scientist Rudolf  Kjellén (1864 – 1922) (see his The State as a Life Form) . He was influenced by the organic theory of the state.

 

Friedrich Ratzel and the State As an Organism

 Friedrich Ratzel was a product of his age, German nineteenth century thinking on philosophy and natural sciences. Man had to adjust to his environment in the same way as flora and fauna. Ratzel attempted to describe and explain the creation and growth of states. The state was a form of biological organism in a real rather than a metaphorical sense and it behaved according to biological laws. Like a tree the state had “roots” in the land. It therefore developed in accordance with the nature of its territory, the location. Its success depended on how well it adapted to the environment. Expansion and political growth was healthy for a state because it added to its strength. A growing state would tend to absorb less successful ones. Every state needs to grow if it is to be a healthy one. The organic view contained the elements of growth, struggle, evolution and decay, the same elements that Oswald Spengler claimed was inherent in civilizations (what he called high cultures) in his comparative civilizational study The Decline of the West. Ratzel’s geopolitical theories were presented in his work Politische Geographie (1897).

 

Sir Halford Mackinder: Land vs. Sea

 Geopolitical science drifted away from the organic theory. The most influential geopolitician of the beginning of the twentieth century was Sir Halford Mackinder. He based his heartland theory on the presumption that world history is basically a recurring conflict between the lands-men and the sea-men. This British geographer (see The Geographical Pivot of History and The Round World and the Winning of the Peace and others) believed that the Eurasian landmass, dominated by Russia, which had replaced the Mongol empires. This had granted Russia an immensely strong position. Mackinder believed Great Britain’s position as a dominant power was waning in the first decade of the twentieth century. He was basically a land power theorist. Outside the heartland were two concentric crescents. The inner crescent, had nurtured some of the great civilizations of the world: Europe, the Middle East, India and China. The other crescent was made up of the Americas, sub-Saharan Africa and Australasia. The basic theory was changed by Mackinder several times. Mackinder warned of  Germany trying to control the heartland and later of the Soviet Union, that would attempt to control what was termed the World Island (Europe, Asia and Africa). We now know that the Soviets failed and that the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

 

American Geopolitics – Mahan, Spykman and Cohen

 In my opinion American geopolitics is most influential in the classical geopolitical science after the Second World War. Professor Nicholas Spykman (see The Geography of the Peace) in the 1940s described the succession of Great Britain, the dominant power. He saw three great centers of world power: the Atlantic coastal regions of North America, Europe and the Far-Eastern coastland of Eurasia. Of these centers Europe was of highest interest to the United States. To some extent George F. Kennan built his theories on Spykman. Kennan believed, as Spykman did, in the necessity of a tight containment of the Eurasian communist world. Much of United States policy since 1890 can be seen in the light of American geopolitics. The containment of former USSR was a way of controlling a land-power from becoming to influential and powerful.

 In many way American naval military strategist Alfred T. Mahan (The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1890) can be seen as a counterpart to Mackinder. Mahan believed in the importance of sea-power and concluded in his time that seas were controlled by the Anglo-American West. Great Britain was the only nation, in Mahan’s view, that could attain world supremacy. It was important that the United States developed her own maritime power. The ideas of Mahan have proven to be correct. The United States has followed Great Britain as the dominant world power.

 After the Second World War American professor of Geography, Saul B. Cohen, (see Geography and Politics In a Divided World) added new analysis to the geopolitics of the Cold War. Cohen thought of the world as a world of regions and defined two types of regions: geostrategic and geopolitical. In the former category there was the Trade-Dependent Maritime World and the Eurasian Continental World. The two large geostrategic regions in turn were made up of Anglo-America and the Caribbean, Maritime Europe and the Maghreb, South America, Africa south of the Sahara an Off-Shore Asia and Oceania. The ContinentalWorld consisted only of the heartland, together with Eastern Europe and East Asia. Cohen’s theory valid until the collapse of the Soviet Union.

To be followed by part II.

 

 

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