Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Problematic Nature of Geopolitics – Part II

Since a nation has both a geographic and a political dimension, it has “geopolitical” interests. These geopolitical interests are the interests that a nation has in maintaining or acquiring positions that would, caeteris paribus, increase its power relative to other nations. These interests are defined and limited by the physical and human geography of the nation, and are therefore mostly static. When they change, they change only very slowly, when certain geographic conditions vary (e.g. climatic, demographic or economic changes). Each nation, therefore, has its own specific and unique geopolitical interests, which can be determined independently from other considerations. 

Geopolitical interests are such a fundamental part of a nation's political culture that they are often instinctively taken for granted, even by civilian and military leaders.[1] Even the language of geopolitics becomes biased as a result; certain words receive their meanings according to which nationals use them. Words that have such varying geopolitical meanings are: “nation”, “security”, “defence”, “international community”, etc. Part of the mistrust and misunderstanding that currently exist between nations is probably due to the common assumption that such political terms are neutral when in reality they are subjective. This is yet another obstacle that prevents nations from realising their geopolitical interests in a consensual way.

This question of the realisation of geopolitical interests requires a different approach compared to the analysis of geopolitical interests as such. Whatever geopolitical interests a nation has, whether or not these geopolitical interests can or will be realised is an entirely different matter, which depends on the political, economic and administrative situation of the nation in question, with all the day-to-day uncertainties that this implies.[2] It is also important to remember that geopolitical interests are only one of many aspects that drive a nation's foreign policy. Other aspects include, for instance, ideology, purely economic interests, domestic politics, and even sometimes the influence of erroneous estimations and the sway of emotions. Geopolitical interests are generally a substantial and underlying part of nation's foreign policy – indeed, they inform it. But they can sometimes be overshadowed by more short-term and pressing interests that take over foreign policy, temporarily at least. 

Another reason for the necessary distinction between geopolitical interests and their realisation is that there is a natural order of priority to the realisation of geopolitical interests; like a Maslow's hierarchy of human needs but for nations.[3] A nation's most fundamental geopolitical interests are those of a lower order; they are the most basic interests related to the integrity of its territory, the protection of its people, and the defence of borders. These interests must be fulfilled before the realisation of interests of a higher order can be contemplated.[4] There cannot be sufficient political attention or resources available for the realisation of more advanced geopolitical interests, if primary ones have not first been addressed. The Roman Empire did not set out to conquer the Mediterranean before the Republic controlled the Italian peninsula. Great Britain did not manage to control the world's sea lanes before it had secured the waters near its coast. Sweden did not succeed in dominating, briefly, the Baltic sea before the yoke of the Danish crown had been cast off. The realisation of geopolitical interests is a long process for a nation, involving gains and setbacks. Nations can spend centuries painstakingly trying to fulfil their geopolitical dreams, though few ever realise them all. 

Indeed, there are often barriers to realising geopolitical interests. Nations eventually become constrained by resource limitations that come from military or economic over-expansion, if they have not been stopped by others nations.[5] The United States is quite exceptional in this sense, since it is one of only a handful of nations in History that has come close to realising the majority of its geopolitical interests for a short period of time.[6] It was certainly helpful that the early US leaders gradually took control of a land with a very favourable geography, whose political borders now largely correspond to natural borders. Yet, even the most powerful nations can generally not realise all their geopolitical interests, at least not indefinitely, as is evident from some recent US setbacks.[7] It is unlikely that the United States will be able to realise its highest geopolitical interest of global hegemony, as US power in the world has arguably been in slow decline in the last decades.

Geopolitics is, therefore, not primarily the study of geopolitical interests, but the study of their realisation. Geopolitics is mainly about tactics, not as much about strategy. Nations are usually well aware of their geopolitical interests, but generally not so certain how (to try) to realise them, since there are myriad ways to do so, and many uncertainties in doing so, in a constantly shifting political landscape. To solve such problems is the main goal of geopolitics. It is the study of the obstacles to realising geopolitical interests, and in assessing how these obstacles could be overcome, using the means at disposal. 

All nations' geopolitical interests cannot be realised simultaneously; therefore, some of them will be realised at the expense of others. Geopolitics is thus based on the premise that nations are engaged in a subtle, or sometimes not so subtle, competition with each other, at many different levels: diplomatically, economically, militarily and even culturally. The history of modern nations is largely a history of never-ending conflicts of interests. As a nation succeeds in realising geopolitical interests of an ever-higher order, further and further away from its primary, lower-order interests, at some point there will be a clash with the interests of other nations. A nation's expansion of what it calls its “defence perimeter” is often perceived by another nation as the adoption of a “threatening” or “aggressive position.”[8] Again, it is a question of semantics and of geopolitical world-view. 

When two nations' geopolitical interests conflict, the stronger nation can realise its interests by persuading or forcing the weaker nation to yield. This can be done in a number of different ways; by promising economic advantages, by economic pressure such as the threat or actual use of sanctions, by acts of subversion, by threat of force, and ultimately by military force. It is of course tempting for the most powerful nations of the world to use such methods; indeed, they often do so. For instance, most of US foreign policy is based on such tactics. The coercive realisation of geopolitical interests is, still today, the standard way in which the international system works. 

It is possible, however, for geopolitical interests to be realised without the use of such coercive means. Nations can realise geopolitical interests consensually, to the satisfaction of all involved parties, if the following two conditions are fulfilled. First, the geopolitical interests of all parties should generally complement each other. Of course, some negotiations concerning details would still take place, but between equal parties. Second, no third party should prevent the realisation of the interests in question. Most likely, such external involvement can come from another nation or from an international organisation. Though these two conditions seem reasonable enough, in reality, they are not so often fulfilled. 

A final point can be mentioned with regard to the realisation of geopolitical interests. In the last decades, geopolitics has become somewhat less important, because nations have seen their power and sovereignty slowly erode, as globalist, internationalist developments have taken place. Globalisation has made the role that national governments play in international business far less important than it was.[9] Thanks to IT technology and cheap transport, even small and medium sized companies – usually the backbone of healthy economies – have become far less dependent on domestic markets and on the political and material support from their government when investing and selling abroad. Further, the emergence of international organisations with supranational jurisdiction (e.g. UN, Bank of International Settlements, EU, IMF, World Bank, WTO, etc.)[10], and their increasing influence over the affairs of the world, has also drained sovereignty from national governments.[11]

The result of this evolution in global politics is that geopolitical interests are becoming more difficult, but also less important, for nations to realise.[12] Economic and political interests are becoming less tied to geography than before, because they are less tied to nations.[13] The realisation of geopolitical interests give nations less rewards than in the past; they will thus dedicate less resources towards efforts to realise them. However, the underlying reason why geopolitical interests are becoming less important in this new international context is because geopolitics is based on an incorrect assumption; namely, that the interests of the government and the interests of the people are the same. The next part, therefore, looks at the distinction between State and people, which must be taken into account in order for geopolitical analysis to be complete.


[1] For instance, George Friedman wrote, correctly, that: “A country’s grand strategy is so deeply embedded in that nation’s DNA, and appears so natural and obvious, that politicians and generals are not always aware of it. Their logic is so constrained by it that it is an almost un­conscious reality. But from a geopolitical perspective, both the grand strategy of a country and the logic driving a country’s leaders become obvious.” George Friedman, in his book “The Next 100 Years”, from p39 (Doubleday). Source: 

[2] There may be many reasons why the government and bureaucracy may not be able, at a given moment, to adequately pursue the realisation of a nation's geopolitical interests. Certain people or organisations may for instance not be competent enough, or may have serious distractions (e.g. bad economic figures, upcoming re-elections, etc.), or not enough resources, experience or guidelines.

[3] See for instance, 

[4] See for instance, the description of the five major geostrategic goals of the United States, by George Friedman, in his book “The Next 100 Years”, Doubleday. From p58. Source: 

[5] For instance, George Friedman wrote: “All nations have grand strategies, though this does not mean all nations can achieve their strategic goals. Lithuania’s goal is to be free of foreign occupation. But its economy, demography, and geography make it unlikely that Lithuania will ever achieve its goal more than occasionally and temporarily. The United States, unlike most other countries in the world, has achieved most of its strategic goals, which I will outline in a moment. Its economy and society are both geared toward this effort.” George Friedman, in his book “The Next 100 Years”, from p39 (Doubleday). Source: 

[6] Generally it never lasts more than a couple of centuries at most: It is possible to mention the Persian empire and the Roman Empire for little more than a century, China during the 15th and 16th centuries, Britain during most of the 19th century, and the USA from 1945.

[7] For instance, the continuous rise of China, and the political and commercial gains of China in Africa. The progressive shift in the power balance with China due to the huge US current account deficit with China and China's substantial ownership of US Treasury bonds. Also can be mentioned the relative failure in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and on-going hesitations of the US concerning Syria. The inability of the US to bring Russia to heel. Etc, etc. 

[8] There are countless examples of this, from the US/Japan conflict of the 30s and 40s, to the current clash between China and Japan over a group of islands, as China is slowly expanding its naval presence. 

[9] Their control of capital has decreased, and tariffs and subsidies have been reduced in many parts of the world (these confer power to those who apply them – the national governments). Further, embassies and chambers of commerce do not have the same importance as before. Despite the constant attempts by national governments to limit, tax, or at least monitor, the movement of people, goods and capital, they are undoubtedly being undermined by such developments. 
Though there has been a resurgence of national authority after the 2007-2009 financial crisis, (completely unwarranted, of course, since national governments were largely responsible for the crisis in the first place), this is likely only temporary.

[10] See, for instance, 

[11] Regarding international organisations, it is true that most of them are financed by the most powerful nations of the world, in order to help them realise their geopolitical interests under a veil of legitimacy. Yet, at the same time, the power of these organisations, not so much militarily but economically and legally, has grown over time, at the expense of these nations. This factor also contributes to the decline in the importance of geopolitics.

[12] This development could initially benefit mostly the smaller and the weaker nations of the world; those nations whose many interests have never been realised because of the existence of a handful overbearing powers. The most powerful nations are naturally most impacted by these globalist changes (since their range of interests is wider and more global). The US's interests in the Middle East and Asia, and France's interests in Africa come to mind.

[13] Natural comparative advantages between nations matter far less than they did in the 19th century. See for instance, “Global Trade and Conflicting National Interests”, by Professors R. E. Gomory and W. J. Baumol. MIT Press, 2000.

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