Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Problematic Nature of Geopolitics - Part III

Government can never be fully representative, even in an ideal democracy. Yet, though no government can possibly represent all interests of all people, in a democracy the government's interests are the people's interests (or at least of the majority that elected it). One of the reasons modern nations should not be called “democratic” is that their governments have many interests which are not the interests of the people.[1] Geopolitical interests are a good example of such government interests that are not shared by the people.

There is an obvious reason for this misalignment of geopolitical interests between the State and the people. Nations, as opposed to individuals, are defined by territorial boundaries and geographic characteristics, which the governments of these nations use to project power internationally. Since this is not the case for individuals, the people cannot possibly have “geopolitical” interests. By definition, therefore, geopolitical interests and the intricate question of their realisation are of concern to the State, not to the people. Thus, geopolitics is, by its very nature, a fundamentally undemocratic activity, conducted specifically by the State, in contradiction with the principles of representative government.[2]

There is, however, one exception to this rule: geopolitical interests of the lowest order, i.e. those related to the defence of the nation, are shared by the people. The people has the same interest as their government in realising such primary geopolitical interests; they seek security and protection, which, not coincidentally, was the original and only function of the early State. The monopoly of physical force is arguably the only monopoly that cannot be avoided in society; therefore, the provision of security and protection of the people is the only legitimate function of the State.[3] Other geopolitical interests, i.e. those of a higher order, are not shared by the people; their realisation by the State cannot therefore be legitimate.[4] This reasoning is in line with the principles of the Charter of United Nations, which States that military force can only be used by a nation in order to exercise the right of defending itself against foreign aggression.[5] 

Many modern nations only realise primary geopolitical interests, though not because they are committed to conducting an ethical foreign policy, but because they are unable to realise interests of a higher order. In theory of course, the divergence of interests between the State and the people then still exists, but it is not apparent in practice. Therefore, such nations have foreign policies that generally represent well the public interest in this regard. Because they are more constrained, the smaller and less powerful nations of the world, such as Austria, Sweden or Switzerland, are in this regard more democratic than the bigger and more powerful nations. The latter nations, such as the US, the UK or France, who often realise (or attempt to realise) interests of a higher order, therefore lead a foreign policy that is in conflict with the public interest. As Brzezinski put it, “democracy is inimical to imperial mobilization”.[6] 

The example of the US may briefly illustrate this point. The United States has set up a huge military-industrial complex and hundreds of military bases around the world in order to realise its highest geopolitical interests of global control. It is doubtful, to say the least, whether these efforts of the US government are at all beneficial to the US people. Any benefit to the US people of this enormous military and surveillance bureaucracy is marginal and indirect at best.[7] On the contrary, there are many ways in which the foreign policy conducted by the US government is antagonistic to the interest of the US people.[8] As mentioned above, the same reasoning is valid for other nations, albeit in more subtle forms since they are geopolitically more constrained. 

Despite this bleak reality, and though the public often shows a certain healthy distrust of government, there is still an implicit assumption that the people shares the State's geopolitical interests. As was seen above, this is not the case, and even the language of geopolitics confirms this. Indeed, semantically, there is no question that geopolitics belongs to the realm of the State alone. For example, terms also used in this essay, such asnation,” “Europe,” and “Russia,” refer in geopolitics to the governing body of the particular society. Thus, by “the nation” is generally implied the State” or “the government;” but certainly not “the people.” By the words “Russia” and “Europe” is usually meant, respectively, “the Russian government” and “the European Commission and the national governments in Berlin, London and Paris.” In a geopolitical context, these terms certainly do not mean the “Russian people” and “the peoples of Europe.” This is also clear from the fact that in foreign policy the names of the capitals, e.g. “Washington” and “Moscow”, can be used interchangeably with the names of the nations, United States” and “Russia,” to mean the governments of these countries. To take another example, the national interestdoes not mean the “public interest”; it is largely used as a euphemism for “the interest of the State (specifically the three branches of government and certain parts of the State bureaucracy) and the interest of the leaders and largest shareholders of the country's most powerful corporations.” The same is valid with many other terms that are commonly used in geopolitical discourse.

Since the public also uses these words with the meanings presented above, it implicitly and often unwittingly accepts that they have no say in the foreign policy of their governments because they do not share the geopolitical interests of the State. However, the ruling parts of society are undoubtedly aware that their geopolitical interests are not shared by the people. Those who serve the State at the highest levels rely on a number of methods in order to maintain this inherently undemocratic status quo. The best way is simply to make use of the weaknesses of human nature. A general inclination for conservatism and tradition can be relied upon for the public's support of the established political system, simply because it is the existing system; the one with which the people is familiar.

Additionally, a quite natural sense of patriotism is also very useful in order to align the interests of the people with the interests of the State. Patriotism is often encouraged by the government and the military in order to gain the support of the people for the realisation of the “nation's geopolitical interests (e.g. what is called in the US torally 'round the flag”). It is no coincidence that patriotic feeling is so strong in the United States, the country whose State has gone farthest in the realisation of its geopolitical interests. Indeed, in the US patriotic fervour is often whipped up when needed. Patriotism can then take extreme proportions: not displaying the correct patriotic feelings (e.g. “Support our troops!”) and the correct patriotic attire (e.g. the flag on the lapel or on the porch), can at times have social consequences, such as being frozen out of the community, being passed over for promotion, etc.[10] 

There is, therefore, usually little need for the government to communicate and explain much to the public about its foreign policy plans.[11] Indeed, geopolitical discussions are almost always held by politicians and high officials behind closed doors, keeping the involvement and consent of the people to a minimum. (For instance, this is the case with the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations.[12]) When it is impossible to be completely silent about the realisation of geopolitical interests, the docile mainstream media can be relied up to manage the information flow in the interest of the State. Indeed, it is generally difficult to find any serious and objective geopolitical analyses in the mainstream media.[13] The role of the mainstream media is also important in making sure the “right” geopolitical semantics is maintained. Geopolitical terms must continuously imply that the State is alone responsible for geopolitics, and that the people should not get involved because they do not understand it. Of course, the emergence of the Internet has weakened a little the effect of this kind of media control of the public. This is the reason the internet is perceived by the political and military establishment as a threat, and why many attempts to monitor and control it, technically and legally, are being undertaken by governments in a number of countries, as recent disclosures have shown.[14] Before the existence of the Internet, the only way for the layman to learn about the geopolitical interests of hisnation” and get a glimpse of what his government was doing to realise them, was to read specialised foreign policy magazines that most people hardly knew existed (and if they did, they did not have easy access to them).

To the annoyance of the State, sometimes none of the above methods work as hoped. Sometimes the people anyway opposes the realisation by the State of certain geopolitical interests, both military and commercial.[15] The State then usually tries to realise them anyway, by simply ignoring public opinion and relying on clever communication.[16] This has often worked reasonably well, not least since public opposition usually is only temporary; in the long term, it is often possible for the government to count on a high level of indifference among the people towards question of geopolitics and foreign policy. Again, this public indifference is not particularly surprising, since geopolitical interests are not shared by the people.


[1] There are other reasons for not called modern nations “democratic”, but they are not connected with geopolitics and can therefore not be brought up here. 

[2] Geopolitical interests are of course not the only interests that drive a nation's policy. Its geopolitical interests are an important subset of many national interests upon which the policies of its government are based. 

[3] This is the concept of the State as “Night-watchman”. See for instance the thoughts of Frédéric Bastiat (e.g. “Avis à la jeunesse”, 1830), and for a more recent thinker, Robert Nozick (in “Anarchy, State and Utopia”, from 1974). 

[4] This can also be seen in the often cited argument for US foreign interventions: what is invoked is the “threat to national security”. This is an implicit admission that this is precisely what the people are really and only concerned about. 

[5] See (See article 51). If this is too strict for any State to actually follow, at least then the less strict “doctrine” from the US, called the “Powell Doctrine”, also demands, in its first statement, that foreign aggression be linked with a risk to national security. It is from 1990, and named after Colin Powell. 

[6] The full quote goes as follows: “Never before has a populist democracy attained international supremacy. But the pursuit of power is not a goal that commands popular passion, except in conditions of a sudden threat or challenge to the public’s sense of domestic well-being. The economic self-denial (that is, defense spending) and the human sacrifice (casualties, even among professional soldiers) required in the effort are uncongenial to democratic instincts. Democracy is inimical to imperial mobilization.” Z. Brzezinski, The Grand Chessboard (Basic Books), p.35. 

[7] Though it is true that US military installations around the United States, and private contractors and weapons manufacturers create jobs for the US people, this employment factor has been shown to be inefficient and limited. For instance, according to Robert Pollin, Professor of Economics at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, public expenditure in education creates two and a half times as many jobs as the same expenditure in the military. See following interview on The Real News Network, June 9, 2013: 

[8] The pursuit of these interests is very attractive to the civilian and military leaders of the military-industrial complex, as well as for the big egos of politicians and civil servants in Washington. But for most of the US population there is not much, if any, benefit. On the contrary, not only is the US population being spied upon by the NSA, not only are US soldiers being killed and wounded in faraway lands for geopolitical purposes, but the huge financial resources which could go to support urgent domestic needs are diverted away from those to which it really belongs: the US people. Further, the image of the US abroad is now so bad because of its foreign policy, that regular average US citizens suffer from this when they travel abroad. 

[9] This has been done on a number of occasions, starting with US public opinion in WWI. See Edward Bernays' candid exposition: “Propaganda”. 

[10] The treatment of US people of Muslim/Arab descent after 9/11, or of Japanese descent during WWII, are other examples of extreme proportion of patriotism. 

[11] For example, the latest military conflicts initiated by the West generated very little debate or disclosure from the governments involved. Information often came after the act, which seemed acceptable to the people. Examples are NATO's attack on Libya, France's attack on Mali and Central African Republic. 

[12] The TTIP, Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, is a so-called “free trade agreement” being negotiated at top level between the US, Canada and the EU, with a minimum amount of exposure to or debate with the public (see article in below from Le Monde Diplomatique). The TPP, Trans-Pacific Partnership, is a ”a secret trade negotiation that has included over 600 official corporate "trade advisors" while hiding the text from Members of Congress, governors, state legislators, the press, civil society, and the public.” Sources: 

[13] See instance, the following excellent analysis: Controlling the Lens: The Media War Being Fought Over Ukraine Between the Western Bloc and Russia, by Mahdi Darius Nazemroaya, March 14th 2014. Source: 

[14] This is the case in most countries, also in the West, such as the UK, US, France, etc. For attempts to monitor Internet communication, see recent revelations by Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald and the Guardian newspaper. Further, a rare admission by a senior official about the threat of the Internet to the powers that be: when the current Secretary of State John Kerry said that "this little thing called the Internet ... makes it much harder to govern.". See article from Aug 13, 2013: 

[15] For instance, during the Vietnam war or before the Iraq War in 2003, as well as more (sometimes more localised) opposition to the realisation by the state of geopolitical interests of a commercial nature, such as trade agreements, etc. The EU treaties were sometimes rejected by voters, but this did not prevent the treaties to be signed anyway (for instance after another referendum was held). This was the case with Ireland for the treaty of Lisbon for instance (voted against in 2008, and then voted for in 2009). 

[16] There are highly visible recent examples, the US war on Iraq in 2003, the NATO war on Libya in 2011, the French intervention in Mali and Central African Republic in 2012/2013, and many other less visible cases.

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.