Modern Diplomacy and Geopolitics
BSSB.BE Valdai Club
* Asle Toje, Research Director at the Norwegian Nobel Institute, talks with Valdai Club Reserach Director Fyodor Lukyanov about style in international politics and the differing appreciation of geopolitics among world powers.
Geopolitics, as a discursive practice, should be taken seriously. Unfortunately, sometimes we are so busy with our daily activities and work that we tend to ignore the fact that the media can, indeed, spatialize and geopoliticize a conflict by ‘labeling’ and ‘identifying’, thus creating a sense of ‘pertinence’ amongst us, the ‘audience’; in other words, creating a binary world between ‘us’ and ‘them, the ‘other.’
This said, in order to understand the power of words and images in geopolitics, we must look back and understand how geopolitical knowledge was originally produced and thought of.
Although at first glance, while difficult to prove, the true origin of geopolitical theory may revolve around Darwinism and the rules of nature—I will not delineate the rules of nature according to Darwin but rather I will keep my argument in line with that of geopolitics and discourse.
For instance, Friedrich Ratzel (a notable geographer, ethnographer and biologist), the creator of Lebensraum (the need of living space), theorized and compared the state to that of a living organism, in search of augmenting its space to support the carrying capacity of its species under its physical environment.
By the same token, Rudolf Kjellen—who was actually the first political scientist to coin the term ‘geopolitics’—viewed the state in a similar manner as Ratzel: as an organic living being, with its own limbs and personality, drawing his metaphors from poetry and prose.
Friedrich Ratzel (1844-1904) and Rudolf Kjellen (1864-1922), who were the creators of the German geopolitical school of thought, had something in common: they grew up between the transition of a pre-industrial society (1750-1850) and the beginning of a new industrial society in continental Europe. Eventually, the story is widely known: their theories, alongside Mackinder’s, influenced the aggressive expansionist policies of the Nazis, pushed by Major General. Karl Haushofer.
Likewise, another important player and influencer (Sir. Halford Mackinder) was born in the 19th century, and meanwhile in 1904 published the most famous geopolitical theory of all, The Geographical Pivot of History; a theory that was taken particularly serious by the Nazi political and military elite and diffused via Haushofer’s understanding of the world.
And a theory that, to this day, has been explained and argued in modern-day world affairs books, such as Robert D. Kaplan’s The Revenge of Geography and the likes. Without further expanding into academic theoretical grounds, we can conclude as so: Geopolitics had a common European heritage, pioneered by Mackinder, Ratzel and Kjellen, through their biological, geographical, and civilization interpretations of European power-relations of their time.
In that sense, how was geopolitical thought diffused and brought into the Western hemisphere, specifically into the United States, the world latest superpower?
- In 1890, Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, while stationed in Lima, Peru, published one of the most influential books in the American Naval military psyche: The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783. It advocated why it was imperative for the American navy to reach total hegemony and control over the seas and oceans of the world.
- Another important American geographer and advisor to Woodrow Wilson was Isaiah Bowman, whose push for free trade policies vis-a-vis the creation of international institutions, would also become influential in the American neoliberalism and exceptionalism ethos.
- Nevertheless, although Bowman and Rear Admiral Mahan were important figures in the American geopolitical mindset, if there was any truly prominent figure in the realm of American foreign policy, it would be Yale’s Nicholas J. Spykman. His influence in shaping the American foreign policy attitude continues to maintain a foothold in the political and military establishments to this day.
- Amongst many of Spykman’s arguments, he claimed that geography was a leading influencer in international politics—i.e. country size and region location, climate, topography, resources, population, frontiers, and so forth—and that the exertion of power should be the true goal of the American foreign policy apparatus, whose best example is his Rimland concept of the Eurasian landmass; and needless to add, George Kennan’s The Sources of Soviet Conduct and the impact it had on US containment policy.
But under which geographical and political parameters and assumptions did Spykman, Mahan, Bowman, and Kennan view geopolitics? The answer is simple: from a European perception and understanding.
- The publication is not an editorial. It reflects solely the point of view and argumentation of the author. The publication is presented in the presentation. Start in the previous issue. The original is available at: Valdai Club
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