The noun geopolitics and the adjective geopolitical are increasingly present in media discourse on world affairs. In principle, this is a good thing. Relating political power to the immutable imperatives of space and resources is essential to an analysis of world affairs that is free from the ideological baggage of American exceptionalism, whether Wilsonian or neoconservative. The trouble is that most media commentators use geopolitics as a substitute for “power politics.” Five recent examples illustrate the problem.
“The most important geopolitical shift of 2014 . . . will be the easing of hostility between the United States and Iran,” former New York Times foreign correspondent Stephen Kinzer opined in an editorial on January 6. The gulf states are “late to the geopolitical party,” warned a Financial Times book reviewer on January 12. The South Stream pipeline “will add a layer of diversity to a regional natural gas market vulnerable to geopolitical disputes between Russia and Ukraine,” UPI reported from Moscow on January 21. “Restoring Soviet era economic and geopolitical clout in the Middle East is an overarching goal for Russia,” an Al Jazeera commentator wrote on January 23. To some extent, argued a German Marshall Fund of the United States analyst on the same day, the responsibility for the failure of the European Union to spread its influence in the East “lies with the member states who have found it difficult to stick together and provide Brussels with the necessary tools to act like a serious geopolitical actor.”
The “geopolitical shift” would apply in the first example if the “easing of hostility” were to lead to America’s acceptance of Iran’s legitimacy as a major regional power (the right to pursue a nuclear program included), and Iran’s rejection of the Shi’ite millenarian Weltanschauung, which entails the view of the United States as “the great Satan”—neither of which is likely. A détente between Washington and Tehran, based on common interests—such as checking Al Qaeda’s resurgence—would change the regional political and military landscape to a considerable extent. The United States would nevertheless continue to look upon the Middle East as a key area in the three pivotal points surrounding the Eurasian heartland—Western Europe and the Far East being the other two—which makes America’s continued political and military engagement necessary. Iran would still seek to project influence in the “Shi’ite Crescent,” extending across majority-Shia Iraq and Alawite-controlled parts of Syria to the Hezbollah strongholds in northeastern and southern Lebanon. The easing of U.S.-Iranian hostility would have major implications for all sorts of power relationships, but in itself it would not change the geopolitical equation.
The “geopolitical party” in the second example is an open-ended event, and nobody who attends is ever “late” or “early.” The constant geopolitical factor par excellence in the gulf is its abundance of oil and gas reserves. It is therefore inevitably an object of great power rivalry, irrespective of the nature of local regimes, their stated foreign-policy preferences, or their human-rights records. Countries of the region will continue to adjust their policies in order to maximize the security and wealth of their ruling elites, and the United States will continue to seek influence that translates into unhindered access to energy resources essential to the functioning of the global economy. This will not change if Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates experience a “Gulf Spring,” or if the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia becomes an Islamic republic.
The “geopolitical disputes between Russia and Ukraine” in the third example were real, but only between January 2005 and February 2010. During that period the “Orange” regime headed by former President Viktor Yushchenko wanted to define the Ukrainian identity, and to articulate the country’s grand strategy, in terms antagonistic to Russia, as manifested by Ukraine’s stated intention to join NATO. Current President Viktor Yanukovich has had disputes with Russia over gas prices and pipeline royalties, but they were primarily financial. It is at least arguable that the support of the United States and some E.U. countries for antigovernment protesters in the winter of 2013-14 has had geopolitics as its primary motive, and the reasons are clear. The second-largest country in Europe, with just under 50 million people, is the geographic link and a key energy corridor between Russia and the Old Continent’s heartland west of the Carpathian Mountains. It has a rich agricultural base and a long Black Sea shoreline, which includes the all-important Russian naval bases in the Crimea. Its geopolitical significance cannot be overstated, but Yanukovich’s decision not to sign the association agreement with the European Union indicates that no “geopolitical disputes between Russia and Ukraine” exist in any meaningful sense. In the end the Ukrainian president did not sign the E.U. agreement, not because he is a tool of the Kremlin, but because Russia offered a better deal. It is power politics as usual: The European Union wanted to get Ukraine on the cheap and failed in the endeavor.
The Soviet Union never had any “geopolitical clout in the Middle East,” despite the claim in the fourth example. It had a lot of influence in the region, but that influence collapsed after Egypt’s late President Anwar al-Sadat broke with Moscow following the Yom Kippur War. For the remaining 17 years of its existence the Soviet Union was effectively marginalized, with Syria under Bashar al-Assad’s father Hafez its only regional ally. Thereafter, the possession of “geopolitical clout” increasingly eluded the Soviets everywhere—even in their Eastern European zone of nominal control—with the debacle in Afghanistan helping to seal its fate.
The claim that the failure of the European Union to prevail in Ukraine lies with the member-states that have failed to “provide Brussels with the necessary tools to act like a serious geopolitical actor” exemplifies a misunderstanding of the concept. A “geopolitical actor” will necessarily seek to protect and promote its interests, and to achieve its goals vis-à-vis other players in the international system. The reactions of different E.U. countries to the turmoil in Ukraine show why Brussels is not and cannot be such an actor. Poland was the most vocal advocate of violent regime change in Kiev—some of her leading politicians went to the Maidan Square to harangue the crowd—which is entirely understandable on geopolitical, historic, and cultural grounds. Germany, Sweden, and the Baltic republics were also heavily engaged (for the same reason), with Great Britain, France, and the Benelux countries taking a somewhat less exposed position.
On the other hand, Italy, Greece, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, and Bulgaria—while signing on to meaningless E.U. declarations condemning violence and calling for dialogue—loudly refrained from taking sides. It is no coincidence that all of them are either partners in, or beneficiaries of, the South Stream pipeline project, which will bring Russian gas to Europe across the Black Sea and the Balkans, thus diversifying energy-supply routes and making another crisis over Ukrainian transit fees unlikely. Their attitude was also determined by geopolitical interests, but those interests were vastly different from those of their fellow E.U. members who rooted for an Orange regime redux.
The unelected Eurocrats in Brussels, who have successfully imposed a numbing uniformity of social, economic, cultural, educational, environmental, and other rules on the 28 member countries, would dearly love to have the power to control those countries’ foreign and energy policies, too—the European Commission has done its utmost to torpedo the South Stream project—but their sense of national interest, geopolitically determined, remains (for now) the last bastion of sovereign statehood. Short of creating a superstate whose foreign policy would be dictated by a hegemonic power—obviously Germany—the European Union cannot and will not acquire “the necessary tools to act like a serious geopolitical actor.” Even if such hegemony were to be established, the resulting edifice would be weakened by the divergent geopolitical interests of its minor players. The war effort of the Third Reich was undermined by the chronic enmity between its satellites Hungary and Rumania; its ally Bulgaria never broke off diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union; and pesky little Finland staunchly refused to advance on the Leningrad Front beyond her pre-1939 frontier. If Adolf Hitler could not impose the unity of geopolitical purpose within his “Fortress Europe,” Frau Merkel and her successors are far less likely to manage the feat.
The main culprit responsible for the semantic confusion surrounding geopolitics is Henry Kissinger. He has routinely used the word to designate “power politics,” and his uneducated readers who write today’s op-eds and think-tank position papers are unacquainted with the magisterial works of the geopolitical masters (Kjellen, Mahan, Haushofer, Spykman). As the late Adam Watson noted in his review of Kissinger’s Diplomacy two decades ago, for Kissinger geopolitics is simply a euphemism for power relationships, and his use of the word is reminiscent of the term behavioral sciences, which was coined in the 1960’s to describe what had hitherto been known as the social sciences, but sounded to suspicious congressmen too much like “socialism” to qualify for governmental support:
In the same way, power politics is a concept (though not a practice) so blatantly un-American that no foundation is likely to underwrite its study. “Geopolitics,” on the other hand, sounds conveniently value-free, though the implementation of some of its theories by German and Japanese statesmen during the first half of this century proves that it is not necessarily anything of the kind. Kissinger would have done better to have come clean and admitted that his subject was neither diplomacy nor geopolitics, as those terms are generally understood, but the subject that he has spent his life studying and much of it practicing: the politics of power.
This is a pity. Geopolitics provides a theoretical model that takes Kissinger’s reality of power politics for granted, but it proceeds to explain why and how those power relationships develop. Geopolitics, and its subsidiary discipline of geostrategy, provide us with the essential analytical tools for making sense of the Hobbesian world we live in.