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IR - One Definition A Day: Geopolitics


One Definition a Day: Geopolitics

"Geopolitics is a method of foreign policy analysis which seeks to understand, explain and predict international political behaviour primarily in terms of geographical variables, such as location, size, climate, topography, demography, natural resources and technological development and potential. Political identity and action is thus seen to be (more or less) determined by geography.

According to Harold Sprout in a seminal article (1963) the word 'geopolitics' is a loose translation of the German word 'Geopolitik' which meant the expoitation of knowledge to serve the purposes of a national regime. In other words, German geopolicy was an overt and subjective policy science designed to further the nationalistic interests of the state. 

In this way, it came to be associated with justifying the aggressive posture of the Third Reich. This identification has had an unfortunate effect on the study of geopolitics, particularly in the English-speaking world, where the concept of 'Lebensraum' came to be seen as having a malign and sinister effect on German policy. 

Many concluded that the study of geography in conjunction with politics meant an obsession with strategy, which in turn meant a predilection for war and conquest. 
The German study of geopolitics as a pseudo-science is associated with the work of R.J. Kjellen, Friedrich Ratzel and more especially with the founding in 1924 of the Institute of Geopolitics in Munich under Karl Hausfofer. 

Haushofer had strong links with the Nazi party and after Hitler's rise to power in 1933, he became an influential academic policy adviser. Because Haushofer and the Munich Institute were regarded as exploiting geographical concepts for specific power-politicial purposes, the whole enterprise was frowned upon in UK and US academic circles, where the term 'political geography' was preferred to the more value-laden 'geopolitics'. [..]

Geopolitical hypotheses connecting climate (i.e. recurring patterns of weather) to political behaviour have a long history stretching back at least to the ancient Greeks. It is known, for example, that both Hippocrates (400 BC) and Aristotle (300 BC) made correlations between climate and human behaviour. It is a commonplace assumption (though no more than that) that the Mediterranean and milder North temperate climates are more conclusive to the development of civilisation and rapid technological growth than the more equatorial or Artic conditions that prevail elsewhere. Therefore, cyclical fluctuations in climate are important (though not fully understood) variables in predicting political behaviour. 

This, of course, is why all states are concerned about the scientific possibility of effecting weather-controlling schemes; the geopolitical consequences are potentially enormous. 
Other hypotheses commonly advanced concern the distribution of natural resources and population distribution. 

Again neither are conclusive although it is assumed as a rule of thumb that the state power is directly related to the ability to convert raw material into military instruments of statecraft, and also that sheer manpower can be decisive. ('God is on the side of the big battalions'). 
However technological expertise and knowledge can and do whittle away at these premises.

The term geopolitics has now acquired some academic respectability although the subject is still not central to mainline international politics courses. In the US especially, it has had a number of outstanding practitioners, including H. & Ms. Sprout, J. Hertz and N. J. Spykman. It is still a somewhat neglected field but it has seen something of a revival in the area of military/defense analysis. 

One of the major pitfalls associated with the approach has been its avowedly determinist character, although its more sophisticated adherents now stress that their hypotheses are 'possibilistic' rather than 'probabilistic'.

In contemporary foreign policy analysis, the realist preoccupation with the military/territorial dynamic of world politics has largely given way to the neoliberal emphasis on interdependence and an ordering of world politics based primarily on economic considerations rather than strategic ones. Thus,'geoeconomics' (or even 'geoinformation') is said to have replaced geopolitics as the guiding motive in foreign policy formulation and conduct. 

Nevertheless, the retention of the prefix 'geo' continues to highlight the importance of geographical location in international relations."

(Source : Dictionary of International Relations, Penguin (1998) by Authors Graham Evans and Jeffrey Newnham, p. 197-198)

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