A Little Geopolitics is a Dangerous Thing by Harold James


The term geopolitics became fashionable after Germany’s defeat in World War I and has since been used to justify zero-sum conflicts. But insofar as it represents a false notion of geographic determinism, it is totally inappropriate for a globalized world.

PRINCETON – Any hope that Donald Trump’s disorderly departure from the White House would restore at least a minimum of calm to the world must now be ruled out. Already, there is a dangerous new international threat: the return of “geopolitics” in the shaping of international security.

Consider the events of the past six months. Weeks after President Joe Biden’s inauguration, his Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, had an extraordinary argument with his Chinese counterpart during a bilateral meeting in Alaska. The United States has also argued with the European Union over Nord Stream 2, a pipeline that will deliver Russian natural gas directly to Germany, bypassing (and thereby weakening) Ukraine. And, for its part, the EU has imposed tougher sanctions on China, citing its policy in Xinjiang, to which China has responded with its own sanctions.

Then, in June, a naval setback between Russia and Britain in the Black Sea evoked parallels with the Crimean War of the 1850s. And a meeting between Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin did not do much. thing to reduce US-Russian tensions. When it comes to it, Biden’s first meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping is unlikely to be any warmer. The G7 is rebranding itself as a club of wealthy democracies that will set “ground rules of the road” for the rest of the world. It doesn’t matter that other powerful countries don’t care about the rules that someone else sets.

“Geopolitics” is the word most used to describe these developments, most of which are presented as new iterations of old problems. Russia, for example, would carry on the Soviet tradition of using energy exports to induce dependence in others. Therefore, Nord Stream 2 picks up on President Ronald Reagan’s struggle over German participation in the construction of a Soviet pipeline four decades ago. Blinken calls this a “Russian geopolitical project to divide Europe”.

A classically ambiguous concept, geopolitics has uses that are both innocent and perilous. For some, this fosters a vague sense of geographic contingency. For others, however, it is geographic determinism, involving endless conflict in which space matters more than ideas, maps more than objects. The danger of the term lies in its inherent nihilism: it leads us to suppose that no one can take a serious interest in values, for there can be no universal good.

After World War I and the failure of a dangerously ambitious German vision of “world politics” (Weltpolitik) under Kaiser Wilhelm II, a new term was needed. It was provided by Karl Haushofer, an officer and strategic theorist at the Munich Military Academy, who had been deeply influenced by a relatively brief stay as a military attaché in Tokyo. Word Geopolitics was invented by a Swedish politician, Johan Rudolf Kjellén, in 1900, and Haushofer adopted it with relish.

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It was Haushofer who first confused geography with necessary conflict, making international politics a bitter but inevitable zero-sum struggle between the haves and have-nots. He believed it was his mission to create a new political science – “the science of the form of political life in a natural living space”. Geopolitics was the doctrine of the “relation to the land of political processes” and must ultimately “become the consciousness of the state”.

From the 1920s, Haushofer quickly gained admirers among the marginalized elements of the international order. Adolf Hitler may have been influenced by his thinking; he dictated Mein Kampf by disciple Haushofer Rudolf Hess. Karl Radek, the secretary of the Comintern, was certainly impressed (there was even a Soviet geopolitical journal). And geopolitical thinking has since returned in force in Russian politics, following the humiliating collapse of the Soviet Union. Haushofer was greeted with enthusiasm by Aleksandr Dugin, a quasi-fascist strategic analyst who is generally believed to have influenced Putin’s worldview.

There is a common pattern here: geopolitics tends to be the go-to term for historical losers who want to put a cynical twist on their efforts to dismantle a victorious intellectual project.

This was not what European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen meant in 2019, when she said she would head a “Geopolitical Commission”. This was to distinguish the new Commission from a “political” Commission which would interfere in the internal affairs of EU member states, and the term seemed to suggest that Europe would openly engage with others. In a globalized world, many Europeans believed that Europe as a whole needed a voice, and they favored the argument that even large member states like France, Germany or Italy do not could not have influence on their own.

But under the current circumstances, the geopolitical posture once again looks like compensating for helplessness. The bad symptoms associated with old geopolitics are reappearing and hampering solutions to global problems like the COVID-19 pandemic, which will not stop until there is universal vaccination.

The use of “geopolitics” in promiscuity does nothing, because the invocation of the term does not replace substantive discussions and the dissemination of contradictory interpretations. Thinking in terms of clashes between great powers and fighting over who is the biggest hypocrite will not solve international disagreements or common problems. The only way to do this is to focus on what it really takes to achieve common goals.

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