What is critical global geopolitics?
by Vladislav B Sotirovic on 14 May 2024 0 Comment

For overwhelming 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 statues /monuments devoted to the communist leaders and communist ideology. This geopolitical change called for a new world order in international relations and 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 international relations 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 international relations 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 international relations, 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 international relations 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 (“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. Such critical global geopolitics became incorporated into the imagined geography of G.W. Bush’s proclaimed 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, with no in-between space. From a wider perspective, the use of geographical imaginaries in forming global political models 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 role in international relations. The political reality of international relations has to consider certain laws of geography and politics; concerning geography: distance, proximity, and location, as they influence the development of political action (for instance, war). From the point of geopolitics, the impact of geography on politics is founded on geophysical reality, not on ideology. In historical practice, geographical science has predictable impacts on political action.


Such 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.


The term geopolitics was historically first used by the Swedish political scientist Rudolf Kjellen in 1899. The term was not much used before the early 20th century. 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 to influence international relations.


In essence, geopolitics as an academic research discipline deals with the question of which geographical factors can shape international relations. These include the continental space followed by the physical landscape and human resources. Some territories are predicted to be easier or harder to defend. Besides, the notion of distance affects politics and some topographical features can significantly participate in the security efforts of the state but may also lead to its security vulnerability.


The issue of security was and is fundamental to the study of geopolitics. It means the maintenance of the state in the face of threats, usually from external powers. Geopoliticians claim they can support the concept of national (state) security by explaining the effects of a country’s geography and that of potential conquerors, on future power-political relations. This means they 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. Geopoliticians argue that geography is the most important factor in international relations as it is the most permanent one. Thus, the study of geopolitics is considered to be of a very practical nature and the most objective one regarding international relations. From that point of view, it is quite separate from political theory.


Usually, geopoliticians present the world and international relations as a closed system founded on interdependent relations between political actors (independent states). Geopolitics as an academic discipline that can explain the world and the system of international relations happened at a time when the world was explored by Western imperialistic colonists. The world became available for territorial and economic expansion of nation-states.


Around 1900, the West European policy of colonialism reached its height. 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 a study that explains and even legitimates the policy of colonization and making overseas empires. Before 1945, geopolitics offered a way for nation-states to protect their territorial possessions before the process of de-colonization began, when “empty lands” (and “terra incognita”) were occupied by West European (and other) states and powers.


The best-known geopolitical thesis is Mackinder’s “Heartland Thesis” whereby the Asian “Heartland” is a pivotal area of global geopolitics. Who controls this area dominates world politics. This “Pivot Area” is surrounded by the “Outer Rim” divided into two territories: 1) “Inner or marginal crescent”; and 2) “Lands of outer or insular crescent”). According to Mackinder, from 1919, the precondition to command the “Heartland” is to rule East Europe. Whoever rules “Heartland” commands the World Island which is a precondition to rule over the World.


Mackinder’s geopolitical analysis of world politics had a practical goal – to assist British global imperialism. He suggested to British policymakers to be wary of powers occupying the “Heartland”, and to establish a “buffer zone” around the “Heartland” to prevent the accumulation of power that might challenge the hegemony of the British Empire within both “Inner” and “Outer Crescents”. Mackinder’s reasoning had an influence on British foreign policy and popular imagination.


However, not all geopoliticians agree with Mackinder’s conclusion that the location of global power is the land. US geopolitician, Mahan, promoted the concept of the power of the sea while later others promoted air power. 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 many associated it with Nazi policies of territorial occupation, expansionism, Lebensraum, colonization, holocaust, and war atrocities. During the Cold War 1.0, geopolitics, as expressed in pure spatial (geographical) models, became obsolete, at least in its original form. Nevertheless, the Western (American) theory of the Domino Effect (chain reaction of states falling to the Communism) was linked to territory (geography) as the spread of Communism /Socialism was seen not as a complex political process of adaptation and conflicts but primarily as a 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 (USA), and called for a proactive pre-emptive strike.  


After 1989, new approaches to geopolitics, called “critical geopolitics”, arose, based on the rejection of the objectivity and timelessness of the effect of geography on political processes and international relations. Traditional geopolitics was criticized because it considers 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 other actors and powers are involved both at sub-state level (ethnic, regional, or place-based groups), and at supra-state level (transnational corporations or international organizations like NATO, EU, UN, ASEAN, NAFTA, BRICS, OPEC, Arab Union, African Union, Council of Europe, etc.).


Critical geopoliticians question the language of geopolitics, the “geopolitical discourse” (the way of talking about, writing, or otherwise representing the world and its geographies). The discourse then shapes the reality of the world. Members of some organizations can be described as “terrorists” or “freedom fighters”. To properly understand the character and aims of their political activity depends on the linguistic description of them. Thus, there is a politics of language.


Critical geopolitics is founded on postmodern concerns with the politics of representation. For supporters of such an approach, political geography is not a collection of indisputable facts but is about power. Political geography is not an order or facts; instead, geopolitical orders are created by top individuals and major 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 through the eyes of geography. Hence, critical geopolitics seeks to uncover the politics involved in writing the geography of global space, or “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 much interested in classical geopolitical problems like the true effects of geography on international relations (whether land, sea, or air powers are the most influential). Critical geographers investigate whose models of international geography are used, and whose interests these models serve. For them, power depends on knowledge and, therefore, 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 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 to be engaged in geopolitics. Any geopolitical description can influence political perception. 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, serves to legitimate its own foreign policy and military actions.


Unlike conventional geopolitical, critical geopoliticians prefer to reduce the factor of space and place to concepts or ideologies. Ideology, from the perspective of critical geography, can be understood as a means to create or/and maintain relationships of domination and subordination, through symbolic forms. 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 international relations and global politics which offers another way to imagine alternative connections between different human groups in the world.                      

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