Alexander Murphy: Nationalism, sovereignty, social constructs, human rights

Interview by: Leonhardt van Efferink (February 2011) Tags: nationalism sovereignty social constructs human rights geopolitical concepts ideas imagination

picture Alexander Murphy

Alexander Murphy

Alexander Murphy is Professor of Geography and Rippey Chair in Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Oregon.

He obtained a BA in Archaeology at Yale University, a J.D. in Law at Columbia University and a PhD in Geography at the University of Chicago.

For more information, please have a look at his personal website:

University page of Alexander Murphy

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?

My relationship with geopolitics

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

I have been familiar with the term ever since I was a child, but my first formal introduction to the subject came in the context of a class in Political Geography that I took with Professor Norton Ginsburg at the University of Chicago in the mid-1980s.

I was drawn to geopolitics because, in my studies of political geography, I had become interested in the ways in which spatial-cum-territorial ideas reflected and influenced the political organization of space at the state and substate scales.

Geopolitics took this matter to another, larger, scale I became increasingly interested in the ways in which political actions and interactions in the international arena were rooted in geopolitical conceptions, and I became convinced that the study of international relations needed to encompass the analysis and assessment of those conceptions.

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

I am particularly interested in the ways in which the geopolitical imagination is shaped by nationalism and the nation-state ideal. Even in an era of deterritorialization in some arenas, the map of states remains the default geographical pattern onto which most geopolitical conceptions are grafted, and national interests often color the pursuit of geopolitical ends.

There are, of course, important extra-state and substate geopolitical actors, but they inevitably confront a world shaped by the territorial ideas and assumptions that developed in conjunction with the modern state system. I am fundamentally interested in understanding how those ideas and assumptions shape decisions and actions.

Inquiries along these lines help to explain, for example, how the events of 9/11 got turned into wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and how the ‘Islamic World’ came to be treated as a meaningful geopolitical construct.

What do you consider your most important contribution to geopolitics?

In academic circles, perhaps the chapter I wrote for “State Sovereignty as Social Construct” (edited by Thomas J. Biersteker and Cynthia Weber, Cambridge University Press, 1996).

I was asked to provide an overview of the way in which territory had been conceptualized as the modern state system came into being, and I used the opportunity both to encourage thinking about territory as a product of a particular set of historical circumstances and to develop ideas about the relationship between ideological, juridical and functional approaches to sovereignty.

Outside of academia, I wrote a series of opinion pieces (op eds) in newspapers over the past decade that, I hope, promoted thinking about the assumptions that undergirded the major ideological tropes that have guided U.S. foreign policy over the past couple of decades.

My geopolitical preferences

What is your favourite definition of geopolitics?

I find John Agnew’s (1998) definition to be quite useful: “The study of the impact of geographical distributions and divisions on the conduct of world politics. In its original usage it referred to the impact on inter-state relations of the spatial disposition of continents and oceans and the distribution of natural and human resources. Today, however, the term also covers examination of all the geographical assumptions, designations and understandings that enter into the making of world politics (as in critical geopolitics).”

I like this definition because (a) it is clear, (b) it recognizes both traditional and more contemporary approaches to the subject, and (c) it highlights the ideological dimension of geopolitics.

My one reservation relates to the fact that the first sentence ties geopolitics to ‘world politics.’ I think the term also encompasses regional, extrastate political ideas and practices. I would thus amend the first sentence to read: “The study of the impact of geographical distributions, divisions and conceptions on the conduct of politics above the scale of the state.”

Which geopolitical scientist do you admire the most?

It’s difficult to settle on any one individual, but over the past decade I have been particularly drawn to the geopolitical writings of John Agnew and Stuart Elden.

I find their work so interesting because they both are trying to understand how key geopolitical concepts come into being and how they shape ideas and practices. Even when I am not entirely in agreement with their formulations or points of emphasis, I find their work to be consistently thought provoking and insightful.

What is your favourite geopolitical book?

Again, it’s hard to pick one.

A few that come immediately to mind are Agnew and Corbridge’s book, “Mastering Space”; David Campbell’s “Writing Security”, and, though dated, Jean Gottman’s classic, “The Significance of Territory”.

I appreciate the effort made in all these books to historicize geopolitical constructs.

What is your favourite geopolitical website?

I regularly benefit from reading William Pfaff’s commentaries at:

William Pfaff’s website

Pfaff is a Paris-based journalist and author who writes about foreign policy and international relations in an unusually intelligent thought-provoking way. His new book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny”, is well worth a read.

The geopolitical future

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

It seems clear that the study of geopolitics will have to focus much more on questions of environmental change than it has in the past.

Among the other topics that are likely to loom large in the coming years are the impacts of new technologies on geopolitical ideas and actions, and the role of extra-state communities and institutions in the geopolitical arena.

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

Echoing my answer to the prior question, I would highlight the environmental change issue. The challenge, of course, is to address this issue without becoming crudely deterministic.

But coastline changes in the wake of sea level rise will challenge established maritime arrangements. Military attention is already shifting to the Arctic as possibilities for new shipping lanes and resource extraction enterprises emerge.

And some foreign policy makers are already basing future assessments on what climate models suggest about changing vulnerability patterns. Those concerned with geopolitical matters cannot afford to ignore such developments.

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

It’s difficult to project across more than a few years, but recent developments suggest the importance of at least three major challenges:

  • promoting stability in the face of widening gaps between rich and poor
  • confronting environmental change in collaborative rather than conflictual ways
  • harnessing new technologies in ways that promote openness, democratic participation, and the protection of human rights rather than ways that facilitate the control of peoples’ lives and the invasion of their privacy

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