Geopolitics is the struggle over hegemony in places and spaces. As a theoretical concept, located between geography and political sciences, it is contested because of its connections to colonial and imperial thinking and particularly due to its use in Nazi Germany. What is generally referred to as “classical” Geopolitics deals with the role of geography in international political relations and mostly focuses on strategic aims of states. This is also the way in which the term is generally used in mass media discourses as well as in strategy and policy papers. Today, scholars, often linked to the academic field of Critical Geopolitics, also include political and cultural production as well as the perception of geographical assumptions in their studies and take a wider range of actors outside the inner circle of political elites into consideration.
History of the term
The term geopolitics was first used by the Swedish political scientist Rudolf Kjellén (1864-1922), a student of the German geographer Friedrich Ratzel (1844-1904). His ideas formed what is known today as the perspective of “classical” Geopolitics. In addition to the former authors, this line of thought was predominantly coined by Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840-1917), Halford Mackinder (1861-1947) and Karl Haushofer (1869-1946), and evolved in the 19th and 20th centuries in Europe and the United States. According to “classical” Geopolitics, the power of a state relates to its geographic location and control over territory. The world regions are therefore classified according to their geostrategic importance. In Mackinder´s famous Heartland Theory (“The Geographical Pivot of History”) for example, Eastern Europe is regarded as a “Pivot Area”, which, if controlled by a political entity, would facilitate the domination of other world areas. Adolf Hitler used the ideas of Kjellén and Haushofer as a justification for the aggressive German expansionism, arguing that it was the need of the Aryan race to persecute peoples of inferior races in order to gain and defend their “Lebensraum”. As a consequence, after WWII the term “geopolitics” was regarded as a Nazi-expression and disappeared from political and media discourse “although the ideas were still reflected in the thinking of the time” (Dodds 2013: 4). In his function as U.S. Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger (1923-) repopularized the term in political debates in the 1970s, which was later also adopted by the U.S. policy advisors Zbigniew Brzezinski (1928-) and Samuel P. Huntington (1927-2008). Particularly, Huntington´s controversial theory “Clash of Civilizations” (1996) encouraged debate on 21st century geopolitics.
In reaction to the political application of the term, in the early 1980s, a new critical academic debate on global strategy and geopolitical practices evolved and led to the formation of Critical Geopolitics. This school of thought emerged in the United States, Great Britain and France and became a domain of research in the disciplines of Political Geography and International Relations. In accordance with the Linguistic, Spatial and Postcolonial Turn, Critical Geopolitics understands geography not as naturally given but as a concept of order that is based on political logics of territorial representation (Reuber et al. 2012: 8 and 164). Predominantly coined by Gearóid Ó Tuathail (1962-), Simon Dalby (1958-) and John Agnew (1949-), Critical Geopolitics scrutinizes “geographical representations and practices” (Dalby & Ó Tuathail 1998: 2) and sheds light on the development and relations between geopolitical lines of argumentation and worldviews (Albert et al. 2003: 537) with the intention of contributing to a better understanding of how political power over territory is constructed, also in terms of language. The aim is to comprehend how particular understandings of place are constructed by political actors (practical geopolitics), strategic institutions (formal geopolitics) and mass media (popular geopolitics) to become manifest in specific perceptions of world order (Dodds 2014: 42; Ó Tuathail 2006: 8). Critical Geopolitics for example critically reflects the binary scheme of “Us” vs. “Them” (the representation of “self” and “other”) as well as geopolitical images such as “East”, “West” and “Third World”, which are perceived as instruments to construct a “simple model of the world, which can then be used to advise and inform foreign and security policy making” (Dodds 2014: 5).
In epistemological terms the concept of Critical Geopolitics has however also provoked criticism that relates mostly to the incompatibility of action-theoretical considerations and poststructuralist concepts of actors: It is argued that deconstructions of geopolitical interpretations lead to re-constructions, to new geopolitical narratives, which must be reflected and disclosed as such (cf. Albert et al. 2003: 546-547, Dodds 2005: 3). Critical thinkers therefore need to acknowledge that they are never detached observers, that is to say they can “know the world only through the conceptual schemas provided by our culture and languages” (Ó Tuathail 2006: 6).
Geopolitics in the Americas
Walter Mignolo points out that “[b]efore 1492, the Americas were not on anybody’s map. […] ‘America’ […] was an invention forged in the process of European colonial history and the consolidation and expansion of Western world views and institutions” (Mignolo 2005: 2). Ever since the invasion and invention of what came to be known as America (or América), the definition of geopolitical entities in this part of the world was caught in a dialectics of outside interference and phases of internal integration and fragmentation. In the 18th and 19th century, North American settlers were able to form and expand the United States of America while the scattered independence movements of the continent’s southern part did not lead to the formation of a larger political power block. The formal independence from European colonizers and the foundation of nation-states took place under the control of white settlers who wanted to prevent indigenous and black participation in “their” new political entities (Quijano & Wallerstein 1992: 551).
In historical perspective, particularly the U.S. has been related to geopolitical actions, which were used to obtain and later maintain its leadership in global affairs. In the 19th and 20th centuries, U.S. foreign policy was marked by the so-called Monroe Doctrine from 1823, according to which the U.S. regarded any interference in the Americas by European nations as acts of aggression that would affect the entire sphere of the Americas and therefore require U.S. actions. Later the 1904-Roosevelt-Corollary added to the aforementioned justification of U.S. interventionism in Latin America. The related territorial expansion of the U.S. as well as various (military) interventions in Central and South America had also followed geo-strategic motives, such as obtaining economic benefits arising from agricultural resources in the so-called Central-American “Banana Republics”. The same can be said about the formation of partnerships with Latin American political leaders in order to establish an alliance against alleged communist influence in the Americas during the Cold War. Also referred to in the popular ideas summarized as Manifest Destiny in the 19th century, a defining characteristic of the U.S. geopolitical culture still is “the idea that the United States values are universal ones, that America is an exceptional country because it is the “homeland of freedom”” (Ó Tuathail 2006: 27). In the recent past, especially the “War on Terror” on the global scene as well as the negotiation of several trade agreements in the Americas (e.g. NAFTA, DR-CAFTA, the attempt of Free Trade Zone for the Americas (FTAA) and bilateral agreements with Chile, Peru, Panama and Columbia) created the image of the U.S. as a geopolitical agent driven by economic interests. Since 1989 also Canada has pursued an increased interest in establishing trade agreements with Central and South American countries, which is often related to the extensive mining activities carried out by Canadian enterprises most intensely in Mexico, Honduras and Chile (Daudelin 2003; Natural Resources Canada 2009) and proves that geopolitics is not only shaped by states but often heavily influenced by non-state actors.
Geopolitics in Latin America were and still are often interrelated with U.S. politics. The very name “Latin America” was established in the middle of the 19th century by political elites to form a loose bond of states against the expansionism of the United States towards the South. These elites tried to define Latin America as white, anti-imperial and democratic (Gobat 2013). While the understanding of what Latin America might be, and which countries and peoples should be part of it, has changed over time, it was especially the anti-imperial – or in more general terms anti-interventionist – tone that became a lasting element in the intents of defining Latin America, for example, in the context of the Cuban Revolution of 1959, the construction of the Bolivarian Republic by Hugo Chávez’s government in Venezuela since 1998 and in many of the different projects of regional integration (MERCOSUR, UNASUR, ALBA, CELAC) since the 1990s. The relations to other important states on the global scene of the 21st century, like China and Russia, and the reevaluation of ties to the USA and Europe raised new questions about external dependencies and Latin America’s role in the world. Varying concepts of Latin America show, as Michel Gobat (2013: 1375) points out, “that geopolitical entities […] are historical constructs forged in the crucible of political struggle” and that these “entities are anything but static”.
Similar to the European and U.S.-American plans to dominate Latin America, the categories of “classical” Geopolitics can also be observed in the thinking of Latin American political leaders (Ostos Cecina 2011). Sometimes the concepts of Ratzel and Haushofer were directly adopted, for example by Argentine militaries in the 1930s and 1940s (Child 1979: 95), as well as by Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet who was attracted to the idea of an “organic state” (Mamadouh et al 2013: 170f.). Despite the impact of this strategic thinking, the struggles over Latin American places and spaces are not limited to the plans and clashes of these state actors but also imply the involvement of broader parts of society for which life and well-being are at stake in geopolitical issues. The confrontations are not necessarily between different states; often they are rather about the way certain spaces are put to use. For Latin America, this is especially important because of its vast reserves of oil, gas, water, important minerals and precious metals. The exploitation of these resources raises crucial societal questions related to territorial control, profits, development models, environmental harms and effects on local populations.
Alternative uses of space can contradict the modern geopolitical imagination which is closely tied to the nation-state and its administrative, political and economic categories (Preciado Coronado & Uc 2010: 85). In Latin America, new forms of resistance as well as indigenous concepts of self-determination and autonomy started to question the standard understandings of space. In addition, especially since the popularization of the indigenous concept of buen vivir (‘good living’) in the early 21st century, classical notions of development (from the political right to the left) which often went hand in hand with the exploitation of nature, have been criticized increasingly, most intensely in Bolivia and Ecuador (Borón 2013: 133-160). So far, these debates have not led to many concrete changes in national political strategies and therefore conflicts about these issues remain an integral part of Latin American geopolitics.
Critical acclaim and conclusion
As outlined earlier, geopolitics is not exclusively shaped and produced by states. The global financial crises of 2007-08 as well as recent cyberspace attacks (e.g. affecting sensitive infrastructure management programs, or spying) are good examples to show that geopolitics is increasingly codetermined by non-state actors and also with “virtual” places and spaces. On a global level, multiple places and spaces are influenced by geopolitics simultaneously, which also corresponds to the observable change of power distribution in the international system (e.g. the changing world order: from a U.S. dominated unipolar to a multipolar and perhaps future non-polar international order, Haass 2008). In accordance, analyses have to be broadened and have to take international and intergovernmental organizations such as the United Nations and non-state actors such as multinational companies into consideration, whether they are non-place or placed-based actors. Furthermore, as exemplified by new forms of intra- and interstate warfare and by actions of paramilitaries, it is particularly noticeable how non-state security actors have turned into informal actors that influence geo-strategic relations in the Americas.
Gerard Ó Tuathail (2006: 9) stresses that "conventional conceptions of geopolitics are characterized by an interesting paradox: on the one hand, they address power struggles between states very explicitly yet, on the other hand, they usually contain little reflection on the social structures of power within states, how these shape geopolitical discourse itself”. It is therefore misleading to look at states as monolithic blocks in geopolitical analysis. Instead, the combination of formal, practical and popular geopolitics should be seen as an important factor in the strategic positioning of states. Conceptualizing geopolitics – and the imaginaries of world order attached to it – as permanently renewed and contested social constructions is an important precondition for a critical use of this difficult term and concept in academia.
Mirko Petersen and Dorothea Wehrmann
Please cite as:
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