The legacy of the discipline of geopolitics
The disciplines of geoeconomic and geopolitics are closely intertwined. The discipline of geopolitics has a burden full past and can only progress through self-critique: that is through criticism of the discipline itself. For instance, it must be made clear what in geopolitics is objective and what is normative. So far this criticism has come mostly from outside, from its opponents, whether they represent critical geopolitics, political geography, or mainstream political science.
The predictive power of the method, that of geography + history + power/interests + resources, is very great, probably as great as any imaginable for a methodology in the social science or the humanities. Unfortunately the "geo-" part, that is the maps, serve in much of the existing literature merely as a means of illustrating ideas, not of drawing conclusions.13How much history we decide to bring into the analysis, and what imperatives we infer from our conclusions, are always open questions. Then there is the whole issue of the history of the subject.
The term geopolitik was coined by the Swedish political scientist Rudolf Kjellen (1864-1922),14 who was much influenced by the German political geographer Friedrich Ratzel (1844-1904).15 Ratzel was appointed to the chair of geography at the University of Leipzig in 1886.16 As we would expect, his own ideas did not appear out of thin air either, but were influenced by others, such as the Prussian geographer Carl Ritter (1779-1859), Alexander von Humboldt (the founder of modern geography), and the German historian Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886), one of the founders of the objective study of history (Henning 1931: 2). The initial scope of geopolitics included issues about the size, position, borders, natural resources, infrastructure, business structure, and population of countries (Maull 1936: 33). This is still very much the methodological core of geopolitics and geoeconomics today.
Kjellen, who was a well-known political scientist, was also an evolutionist: which for him meant that he saw the State as a living organism. That means that he looked for a broader biological explanation when trying to understand human behaviour. More precisely, he would complain about the narrow perspective chosen for the study of political science, claiming that it was frequently overlooking economic elements and problems related e.g. to international law.17Unfortunately for his legacy, in Germany the Nazis took a particular interest in his ideas, especially the notion of Volk as a racial conception of the state. At the time, this was not an extreme idea among conservative thinkers in the Western world, including Britain and the USA. It was difficult, then, to foresee its consequences.
The biological track was developed further in the writings of Oswald Spengler (1880-1936), a man who was later seen as more a political philosopher than a historian. From a social scientist's perspective, the weakness in Spengler's work is his determinism, the assurance with which he promulgates future scenarios without maintaining a proper distance from the methodological problems that confront him. In other words he did not distinguish clearly enough between his method and his examples. If it was not for the fact that the Nazis banned him for his critique of their ideas of ethnic purity and the general vulgarity of their movement, he would have shared the fate of so many other German intellectuals who showed an interest in the evolutionary approach to human behaviour. He would probably have been demonized today, and would consequently be impossible to use as a reference. Another theorist who wrote extensively on political power, Carl Schmitt (1888-1985), was less fortunate. Because he took a stand with the Nazis and in favour of anti-Semitism, even his most excellent works, for instance Die Diktatur (1921) (on democracy versus dictatorship), or Nomos der Erde (1950) (where he lays out the relationship between territory and juridical legitimacy), have not been sufficient to resurrect his reputation as a worthwhile social theorist in the eyes of the academic establishment to this day. The American journal Telos has made valuable contributions towards his rehabilitation, and deserves credit accordingly.18 Telos Press has also translated and published some of Schmitt's leading works.
Although Kjellén is credited with coining the term geopolitik, it was Karl Haushofer (1869-1946) who developed the scientific method for the study of geopolitics into something that one could call a rigorous science. Coming from a Bavarian aristocratic and conservative background, he served as an officer and as a military attaché in Tokyo. Following the First World War and the Versailles Treaty, he retired from the armed forces and devoted his time to geopolitical writing. After the Second World War, geopolitics and geopoliticians took much of the blame for German atrocities, and the discipline was outlawed.
Since the Second World War, a new academic phenomenon has arisen: scholars have appeared whose entire careers are founded on criticism of the study of geopolitics. This criticism became a subject in its own right, called critical geopolitics, the sole purpose of which is to deconstruct. It started with men like Ô Thuathail (e.g. 1996). Yves Lacoste said that the primary use of geopolitics was to wage war.19When some geopoliticians objected to this critique, beginning in the 1990s as the world of politics came out of the refrigerator, and continuing e.g. with Kaplan's "revenge of geography" (Kaplan 2009), these reactions were quickly labeled neoclassical geopolitics by those who disagreed with them (e.g. Megoran 2010). However, time tends to correct whatever fails to establish its worth. Consequently, today it is the study of geopolitics rather than the "counter-disciplines" which is set to prosper, in the world of policy making and political action at least, even though the counter-disciplines retain a dominant position within academia, in the world of theory.
With the shift to geoeconomics the focus has turned away from military ideas towards economic phenomena. The purpose of the new study is to show how to gain and maintain a national competitive advantage by economic means. Warfare, after all, is no more than the ultimate means of achieving that same goal. If one chooses war, one had better be sure it will actually lead to an improved economic position. Military adventures, such as we have seen the US leading since the Second World
War, have profited only the armed forces and the arms industry. They have impoverished that nation and disillusioned its citizens. Those who lost their lives in the field have come mainly from the disadvantaged classes in society, not from the broad middle class. In retrospect it is easy to see how the US military were tempted to start borrowing money to pay for these adventures. It was the only alternative left. The military establishment and the arms industry in the USA have worked in symbiosis ever since, putting forward their own politicians, with no real concern for the future of that country. The same logic has been visible in other Western countries too, but in Latin America, Africa, and Asia it has been associated only with military dictatorships. It has been suggested that geoeconomics unlike geopolitics has a stronger focus on social development, as it is more related to economic growth and the phenomenon of globalization (see e.g. Cowen and Smith, 2009).
There are good reasons to question the critique of geopolitics. Houweling and Amineh (2003: 316) see "critical geopolitics" as a reaction to the "failing study of International Relations starting with the wrong predictions about the end of the Cold War". Others see critical geopolitics as a left-wing reaction to what is perceived as a conservative, right-wing body of research, or as part of the general "deconstructionist" project of post modernism. Inflammatory statements by outspoken champions of geopolitics, men such as Henry Kissinger (see Kissinger 1994), General Pinochet,21 Zbigniew Brzezinski (see Brzezinski 1997), Vladimir Zhirinovsky (1997), and Alexander Dugin have not raised the status of the subject within academia, indeed quite the reverse. The geopolitical form of discourse often provokes outright revolt. It fosters ideas based on self-interest; it says what it thinks; its substance takes no account of political correctness, which the literature on political science and international relations trains us to take for granted. Consequently this discourse offers the ivory tower of academe a range of easy targets.
Other critics of geopolitics, for instance R. Muir (1997), M. I. Glassner (1996), J. Painter (1995), J. R. Short (1993), and J. P. Taylor (1993), have tried to create a less normative form of the subject with more emphasis on geography, called political geography. However, neither critical geopolitics nor political geography has attracted much interest among practicing politicians and decision-makers, primarily because their ideas do not have sufficient significance for the world of policy-making. The discipline of geopolitics on the other hand continues to be appreciated by men of power, whether corporate or political leaders. In the end it is all about relevance. Top government decision-makers pay little attention to most reports they receive. From a glance at the summary they can often guess the rest. Much is common sense or well-worn rhetoric, better suited for explaining policies to the public than as a basis for making courageous decisions in the interests of the nation. What decision-makers really want is good syntheses and strategies. They seek a broader understanding of the situation they are in to serve as a general guide. They also need very specific reports, about the people they are meeting, their perceptions and expectations. These reports need to be "unvarnished responses" to specific questions, not highly-polished essays on general topics. (Cf. Blackwell et al. 2008: 156.)
Decision-makers, whether in the private or the public sector, commonly work with two types of document, serving two different purposes. On one hand they need to know what is really going on, what strategies are open to them. This is covered in the form of intelligence briefings and strategic summaries, for the most part kept out of sight of the public. On the other hand they need a story to tell the mass media, shareholders, or employees, which will make their decisions acceptable to the public. For each public appearance, for each major event covered by the mass media, there is a strategy, which is never mentioned and always denied. On the face of it this may seem to describe a paranoid society, but that is not necessarily fair. It could alternatively be argued that this very much how we function as humans in everyday life, even at home: thinking one thing, saying another, often with the interest of the greater good in mind. A good politician very much becomes a person who can persuade the public to believe that there is only one path to follow. Or you get puppet politicians, politicians whose ideas and actions are so tied to the interests of the economic elites that it does not matter what they think, they will simply do as they are advised. Reagan was such a president. Other politicians again see their decisions as necessary compromises. This has been the basis of Barack Obama's career. Obama is a pragmatist disguised as an idealist.
Mechanisms like these are not explained through the study of political geography, and consequently it does not help that that study is rigorously scientific. Most champions of political geography say that this subject, unlike geopolitics, is about facts - historical facts - and not about interpretations. For others, though, political geography is too narrowly focused on the geographical dimension to be of much value. It ignores the all-important power dimension, and never tackles the normative problem as an important aspect of the social sciences. Nor has it attempted to preserve any of the insights or the experience that have been accumulated in the study of geopolitics.
A major reason for the current revival of geopolitics has to do with the collapse of, or should we say at least frustration with, political ideologies, and the lack of progress made by the social sciences in general when it comes to understanding and describing aspects of power (Blackwell et al. 2008: 6). The survival or revival of academic geopolitics today is due to uninterrupted attention to the subject on the part of contemporary American realists and practicing politicians throughout the Cold War, by men like Stephen Walt, Christopher Layne (e.g. Layne 1993: 5-23), Zbigniew Brzezinski,23 and, before them, Henry Kissinger.24 Kissinger is probably the best-known geopolitician of the twentieth century, and the term "infamous" nowadays fits him as aptly as "famous". He is both a theoretician and a practical policy maker, and has been condemned as a leading architect of wars and coups d'etat in Vietnam and Cambodia, Chile, Central America, the Congo, and Angola. No other public official has initiated more covert operations since World War Two, and no adviser has lost more battles. In his defense one should bear in mind that he has been at the helm longer than any other decision-maker or adviser in modern American history, over a period when the USA was the world's undisputed superpower. Many mistakes were made, but there was also much to do. No other adviser is likely to gain the same degree of strategic influence in the near future.
If geopolitics is still overlooked as a subject at many universities today, that is not because of the ideas and actions of the Cold War strategists, but because of the associations and the memories we have of what geopolitical theories led to when adopted by the ideologists of Nazism, in Germany and elsewhere. We see geopolitics as partly responsible for the German attempt to acquire Lebensraum in the East, with all the human suffering that entailed.25 It is the same phenomenon that makes anything which the Nazis used, or even touched, taboo in our society today: everything from the music of Wagner, to the swastika, to Nordic mythology. The mere fact of an author being German and writing about the Second World War continues to raise suspicion and disapproval in certain academic circles, which to some extent explains the noticeable absence of German scholars from the social sciences, dominated as they are now by English-speaking authors. (Others would argue that it has been quite advantageous to avoid the social sciences since the Second World War. It has led countries like Germany, Japan, but also Russia and now China to focus on natural sciences and technical education.)
Postwar Germanophobia and anti-German sentiment has led to the loss of vital notions in the study of human behaviour. We have become so used to seeing German soldiers from the Second World War portrayed as bad guys that we hardly question the one-sidedness of this any more. If we produced a film where the roles were reversed, that would lead to immediate scandal.26 More serious is the suppression of vital notions in European intellectual life. For instance, the term Volksgeist, the idea that a people through their common values give rise as it were to a common soul, has been suppressed (Motturi 2007: 32).The origins of this term have nothing to do with Nazism. It was first introduced in the eighteenth century by Friedrich Carl von Savigny (1779-1861), and built on Montesquieu's and Voltaire's notion of esprit. If we remove the term from our vocabulary, we are reducing our ability to understand how it is that people belonging to different cultures think and act differently. It is the same logic that, a bit further down the line, leads many, especially on the left side of the political spectrum, to denounce all forms of nationalism, even the national flag, the national day, and any organization that preserves or honours them.27We have a problem if we can no longer have a rational discussion about any phenomena which happen to have caught the interest of someone in Adolf Hitler's Germany, and treat everything the Nazis used or were involved with as contaminated. The strategy of defining the opposition by associating it with an ultimate evil has been used as a rhetorical weapon by left-wing politicians and social democrats for more than two generations now. According to this logic, "If you think so-and-so, then you are a Nazi". The logic is irrational, but it still works and is hard to argue against. But this irrational pattern of behaviour has severely held back the study of Man and hence the development of the social sciences.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, geopolitics was heavily entangled with racist ideology and racist research.28But this was not a specially German phenomenon: it was a Western one. Race biology was as well developed in Sweden and Britain as it was in Germany. The Institute for Race Biology in Sweden was only wound up over the years 1956-8.29More precisely, it was never actually closed; rather, its name was changed in 1959 to the "Institute for Medical Genetics", and it was made a unit of the University of Uppsala, where it still operates but with a different research programme. Now, we have pushed everything to the opposite extreme. Politically-correct social scientists have convinced ethnic minorities, like the Sami (Lapp) people of northern Scandinavia, that it is degrading to be measured in any way, as if measurement in itself were an expression of inferiority. Thus measurement in the social sciences becomes a symbol of abuse. This again has hindered the progress of all kinds of research, notably in the field of ethnology. However, science always finds a way to move forward in response to our needs. Currently, DNA research is turning out to be a more efficient scientific approach to studying the same facts of ethnic diversity. Indeed many social sciences are becoming redundant, replaced by new developments within the natural sciences. Thus neurology is taking over large parts of the problem-domains studied in the past by disciplines such as psychology, marketing, and sociology. An advantage of this development is that it allows us to dispense with political ideologies.
What we must ask, in order to defend geoeconomics, is whether there are necessary links between Nazism, and the elements it borrowed in order to construct its ideology? The ideas of geopolitics, the music of Wagner and indeed Beethoven, the nudism movement (we remember the Nacktkultur of the interwar years), and the work of philosophers such as Nietzsche and Heidegger were all exploited by Nazi propaganda, but the content of these things is not Nazi or even Fascist. The Nazis had no monopoly on geopolitical thought. Mankind was devising geopolitical stratagems long before the Nazis came to power, indeed long before Germany existed as a State. Geopolitical thinking is found in Western civilization in the writings of Herodotus (484-24 BC), of Hippocrates of Kos (460-370 BC), and in Aristotle and Plato (Maull 1936: 1-12). In Asia its traces are even older. The discipline itself is not Fascist, only some of the ways it may be applied. We do not stop buying Volkswagen cars because the brand was promoted by Hitler. Hitler had not even been conceived when Wagner wrote his music, yet many people think that Wagner's music is Fascist. In the end all this is more to do with associations in our minds than with actual similarities. These ideas, even though understandable, are irrational. In the chapters that follow we shall look at a number of other irrational aspects of Western thought.