Colin Flint: Unjust wars, nation-states, atlases, nuclear weapons proliferation

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Interview by: Leonhardt van Efferink (May 2010) Tags: Unjust wars nation-states atlases nuclear weapons proliferation Immanuel Wallerstein

Colin Flint

Colin Flint

Colin Flint

Colin Flint (Epsom, Surrey, 1965) obtained his PhD at the University of Colorado-Boulder in 1995. He is currently Associate Professor of Geography and Director of the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament, and International Security (ACDIS) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC).

Dr. Flint is a political geographer with research interests in war, militarization, and just war theory. He currently leads the ConflictSpace project at UIUC that aims to understand the diffusion of war through the integration of social network analysis and spatial analysis.

He is also pursuing research on just war theory and the geopolitics of the Korean peninsula. He is the author of “Introduction to Geopolitics”, “Political Geography: World-Economy, Nation-State, and Locality” (with Peter J. Taylor), and editor of “The Geography of War and Peace”.

Personal page of Colin Flint

The ‘Geopolitical Passport’ series offers visitors to ExploringGeopolitics a unique opportunity to find out more about the enormous variety of views within the geopolitical traditions. The floor has been given to scholars from several countries and various disciplines. The questions address issues all people with an interest in geopolitics grapple with. How should we define it? What are the most fascinating geopolitical ideas? And how will the geopolitical future look like?

Your relationship with geopolitics

At what age did you discover geopolitics and what attracted you to it?

Maybe age 10. That was when I was spending a lot of idle time flicking through atlases and also becoming aware of James Bond movies. Those things plus a boyhood interest in the Royal navy made me think of the world and international politics.

But it was only after taking Peter Taylor’s political geography class as an undergraduate in the late 1980’s that I became aware of formal geopolitics. Though my boyhood training had exposed me to both geopolitics as practice and representation.

Which geopolitical topics have your focus and why did you choose especially these?

I am interested in war or large-scale violence, but from a theoretical perspective that is interested in seeing how geopolitical agents operate within broader (and ultimately global) structures. Geopolitics is about connections across space and time, hence the way that war behavior creates structures that act as legacies forming future war behavior, but not necessarily in the same place, is a motivating question for my current research.

What do you consider your most important contribution to geopolitics?

Well my earlier work tried to provide a theoretical model for electoral geography; the idea was to see elections as just a form of wider politics that was to be situated within national and global structures.

I am excited about my current work on the diffusion of war that seeks to combine social network analysis and spatial analysis in the ConflictSpace project. This work tries to make a methodological contribution, it helps political geography interact with political science, but also explores questions of war, structure, and agency.

I also think the work on just war theory, and especially the spatiality of representations made by leaders evoking just war to gain support for acts of war, opens up avenues for inter-disciplinary conversations.

My geopolitical preferences

What is your favourite definition of geopolitics?

I am not sure of I have one really. I think the important things to emphasize are the interaction between practice and representation, the role of multiple spatialities (territory, networks, scale), and the need to place geopolitical events in a broader context.

Which geopolitical scientist do you admire the most?

This is a tough question as the word “admire” can be distracting. Karl Haushofer is admirable and detestable. His prescient view of Japan was a big step for a European scholar at the time, and his desire for geographic education is akin to many contemporary projects. Yet his decision to ride the Nazi’s coattails was, at best, a short-sighted calculation that compromised his reputation. The moral of the story is that we should pursue geographic knowledge but outside a national and, particularly, ideological agenda.

What is your favourite geopolitical book?

It is hard to pick one, or even a few. The work of Immanuel Wallerstein has been very influential for me; especially his early works such as “The Capitalist World-Economy” and “The Politics of the World-Economy”. These works introduced me to theory and helped define my own research agenda and career. I admired Wallerstein’s boldness and the grand nature of his schema. Though, of course, as I became a researcher myself the limitations oh his world-systems perspective became clear.

Michael Walzer’s “Just and Unjust Wars” has also been an important influence. It is the basis for my work on just war theory, but it also acts as a guide to how academics can apply reason and a rigorous academic framework to pressing real world issues while also being impassioned by an issue.

What is your favourite geopolitical website?

Clearly you have uncovered a Luddite, I don’t have one.

The geopolitical future

In what direction(s) will geopolitical science be heading the coming decades?

As with the discipline of geography as a whole, many people are “discovering” and using geopolitics. So it will become more pervasive at the same time that it is bastardized. The way current academic geography is ignored by popular scholars such as Thomas Friedman and Robert Kaplan is depressing and appalling. At the same time many academic disciplines (sociology, literature, political science, etc.) have discovered space and geography.

So, our challenge is to assert some of the lessons we have learned over the past 100 years or so, maintain a claim to being the core of geopolitical science, while being open to the much broader (and largely fertile) usage and discussion of geopolitics.

In other words, geopolitical science will become more diverse academically – I just hope it retains a contemporary academic understanding of geography.

Also, in the field of practical geopolitics, the usage of geopolitics will become increasingly nationalized. Hence, there is a responsibility and imperative for geopolitical science to become increasingly internationalized/global.

Which geopolitical subject has been too little in the spotlight and needs further research?

How do we think about the global structure of international politics, and the practice of geopolitical actors? The role of critical geopolitics in exposing the fallacy of the God’s eye view of classical geopolitics, the weakness of structural Marxist frameworks, and the rise of post-structural thought have combined to put emphasis upon the contingent, the everyday, and the role of representations.

These are all important and valuable contributions, but we have lost the ability to think globally. The valiant efforts of Saul Cohen are a notable exception. It is time, therefore, for an empirical turn, that examines the agency of geopolitical actors (actual events rather than the unpacking of the representations of such events) that help us uncover how geopolitical structures are created and how they change.

What will be the largest geopolitical challenge for the world in the 21st century?

Well obviously it is hard to pick one. Let me nudge into the spotlight a topic that gets surprisingly little attention in geopolitical science; nuclear weapons proliferation. Many nuclear experts thing the dam has been broken (through the actions of North Korea and Iran, and earlier Israel, India, and Pakistan). What sort of world is it with, say, 20 state with nuclear weapons?

In focusing upon global climate change let’s not forget the possibility and impact of a nuclear winter! But even at a small scale there is an increasing risk of tactical nuclear weapons becoming an accepted part of arsenals across the world.

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