The Definition of Geopolitics – The Classical, French and Critical Traditions

Article by: Leonhardt van Efferink (January 2009) Tags: classical French Critical Geopolitics definitions traditions

Leonhardt van Efferink

Leonhardt van Efferink

Leonhardt van Efferink is Editor of ExploringGeopolitics, Founding Director of GeoMeans Analytical Skills Development and PhD student at Royal Holloway, University of London.

He holds Master’s degrees in Geopolitics, Territory and Security (King’s College London) and Financial Economics (Erasmus University Rotterdam).

In this article, I will briefly interpret ten definitions of geopolitics from respected sources, looking for similarities and differences between the discussed definitions. Those longing for “the only right definition” of geopolitics will be disappointed.

The deeper I get involved in Geopolitics, the harder I find it to give an appropriate definition. On the one hand, popular media love to use the word without defining it. A French geopolitical encyclopedia (Cordellier, 2005) observed that “La fréquence de [l’usage public du terme géopolitique] est souvent proportionelle à l’absence de précision de sa définition.” On the other hand, academic literature provides (too) many definitions of geopolitics, reflecting a broad and never ending intellectual debate.

To those looking for an academic publication about the many faces of geopolitics, I highly recommend “Geopolitics in the nineties: one flag, many meanings” by Virginie Mamadouh.

Rudolph Kjellen

Cohen (2003) notes that intellectuals such as Aristoteles, Montesquieu, Kant, Hegel and Humboldt already had an understanding of Geopolitics. Nonetheless, Geopolitics as a concept emerged much later (Dodds and Atkinson, 2000):

“Geopolitical thought emerged at the close of the nineteenth century as geographers and other thinkers sought to analyse, explain and understand the transformations and finite spaces of the fin de siècle world.”

Kjellen (Swedish citizen, 1864-1922) was the first who coined the concept of Geopolitics in 1899 (Cohen, 2003), defining it as:

“the theory of the state as a geographical organism or phenomenon in space”

This definition contains two elements that are crucial within the concept of geopolitics: power (influence, politics) and space (territory, soil). The central role for the state as only powerful entity is very typical for the definition of Kjellen.

Karl Haushofer

Haushofer (1869-1946), whose ideas inspired the Nazi-regime, added political processes to the definition of Geopolitics (Cohen, 2003):

“Geopolitics is the new national science of the state, … a doctrine on the spatial determinism of all political processes, based on the broad foundations of geography, especially of political geography.”

Haushofer considered Political Geography as an essential part of Geopolitics.

Peter Taylor

In 1993, Taylor wrote that the revival of Geopolitics had taken shape in three ways:

“…geopolitics has become a popular term for describing global rivalries in world politics.”
“…the second form…is an academic one, a new more critical geopolitics. Critical historiographical studies of past geopolitics have been a necessary component of this ‘geographer’s geopolitics’.”
“…the third form…is associated with the neo-conservative, pro-military lobby which have added geopolitical arguments to their ‘Cold War rhetoric’. Such studies talk of ‘geopolitical imperatives’ and treat geography as ‘the permanent factor’ that all strategic thinking must revolve around.”

Taylor further stated that geopolitical analyses always had a national bias: “In the case of geopolitics, it has always been very easy to identify the nationality of an author from the content of his or her writings.”. Taylor related Geopolitics to International Relations: “Geopolitics has generally been part of the realist tradition of International Relations.”

Aymeric Chauprade

Chauprade (1999) has developed a well-structured geopolitical methodology. He defined geopolitics as:

La science géopolitique est la recherche de la compréhension des réalités géopolitiques et de leur devenir, à travers l’étude des profiles, figures et dispositifs géopolitiques”

This definition left open what Chauprade meant by Geopolitics, but subsequently he clarified his position:

“La géopolitique n’est pas seulement une science de la réalité identitaire, elle est aussi une science marquée par la continuité du temps:
il y a d’une part, dans l’histoire des sociétés humaines, une permances de la recherche de l’États, comme un atteste, en plein contexte de mondialisation, le phenomène de prolifération des États.
il y a d’autre part, pour nombre d’États constitués et historiquement anciens, une continuité, une permanence de la politique étrangère et du comportement étatique sur la scène internationale.”

Although Chauprade appreciated the role of the state, he deviated from the definition of the classical geopoliticians:

“…dire que ces États sont les centres et les enjeux des ambitions géopolitiques, ne signifie pas que les États sont les seuls acteurs mondiaux; à la différence des relations internationales, (…) la science géopolitique admet d’autres acteurs et d’autres réalités géopolitiques.”

Chauprade distinguished sharply between Geopolitics and International Relations.

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Saul Bernard Cohen

Cohen used this definition in his 2003 book:

“Geopolitics is the analysis of the interaction between, on the one hand, geographical settings and perspectives and, on the other hand, political processes. (…) Both geographical settings and political processes are dynamic, and each influences and is influenced by the other. Geopolitics addresses the consequences of this interaction.”

The definition focuses on the dynamic interaction between power and space.

Le dictionnaire historique et géopolitique du 20e siècle

This encyclopedia (Cordellier, 2005) also focuses on power (politics) and space:

“La démarche géopolitique vise essentiellement à élucider les interactions entre les configurations spatiales et ce qui relève du politique.”

It stressed that a geopolitical analysis should be an objective reflection of the world:

“C’est pourtant dans l’explication de la complexité, de la diversité du monde réel que la démarche d’analyse géopolitique trouve sa raison d’être. (…) [L’analyse géopolitique] doit être de présenter les élements objectifs du débat démocratique sur les grands enjeux planétaires qui ont des impacts sur les sociétés nationales et les modes de gestion de leurs territoires.”

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Yves Lacoste

Yves Lacoste has contributed substantially to the revival of Geopolitics in France since the 1970s. In a recent book (2006), he stated that:

“Le terme de géopolitique, dont on fait de nos jours de multiples usages, désigne en fait tout ce qui concerne les rivalités de pouvoirs ou d’influence sur des territoires et les populations qui y vivent: rivalités entre des pouvoirs politiques de toutes sortes – et pas seulement entre des États, mais aussi entre des mouvements politiques ou des groupes armés plus ou moins clandestins – rivalités pour le contrôle ou la domination de territoires de grande ou petite taille.”

This definition stresses the importance of the scale of both power (states versus organisations) and space (large versus small territories).

Colin Flint

Flint (2006) extensively discussed the historical development of the concept of Geopolitics. He noted that power has always had a central role in the definition, although its meaning has been subject to several changes:

“Geopolitics, the struggle over the control of spaces and places, focuses upon power. (…) In nineteenth and early twentieth century geopolitical practises, power was seen simply as the relative power of countries in foreign affairs. In the late twentieth century, (…) [d]efinitions of power were dominated by a focus on a country’s ability to wage war with other countries. However, recent discussions of power have become more sophisticated.”

Flint further stressed the need to define Geopolitics in various ways::

“So how should we define geopolitics, in the contemporary world and with the intent of offering a critical analysis? Our goals of understanding, analyzing, and being able to critique world politics require us to work with more than one definition.”

He notes that “…geopolitics is a way of ‘seeing’ the world” and disagrees with those geopolitical analysts that pretend that one individual can fully understand the world. He further remarked that feminists disapproved the partial, coloured world views of male, white and rich theorists.

Finally, Flint mentioned a relatively new school within Geopolitics: “Critical Geopolitics”. This school focuses on the underlying assumptions of geopolitical analyses: “…the practise of identifying the power relationships within geopolitical statements…”

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Gerard Toal (Gearóid Ó Tuathail)

Toal, a key figure of the school of “Critical Geopolitics”, stated in a reader (Ó Tuathail, Dalby and Routledge, 2006) that:

“…geopolitics is discourse about world politics, with a particular emphasis on state competition and the geographical dimensions of power.”

Toal stressed the importance of the concept of discourse:

“…to study geopolitics we must study discourse, which can be defined as the representational practises by which cultures creatively constitute meaningful worlds. (…) Most cultures do this by means of stories (narratives) and images. (…) Since geopolitics is a discourse with distinctive ‘world’ constitutive ambitions (…) we must be attentive to the ways in which global space is labelled, metaphors are deployed, and visual images are used in this process of making stories and constructing images of world politics.”

Toal further notes that some journalists, politicians and strategic advisors have various reasons to highly appreciate the geopolitical discourse:

“First, geopolitical discourse deals with compelling questions of power and danger in world affairs. (…) The critical point to grasp at the outset is that geopolitics is already involved in world politics; it is not separate neutral commentary on it.”
“Second, geopolitics is attractive because it purports to explain a great deal in simple terms. (…) It provides a framework within which local events in one place can be related to a larger global picture. (…) Many geopolitical narratives are enframed by essentialized oppositions between ‘us’ and ‘them’. (…) Whole regions of the world are divided into oppositional zones, a frameworking we can call ‘earth labelling’.”
“Finally, geopolitics is popular because it promises insight into the future direction of world affairs. (…) Geopolitics has a certain magical appeal because it aspires to be prophetic discourse. (…) Because those most interested in international affairs live in a globalizing world characterized by information saturation, the desire for simplified nostrums packaged as ‘strategic insight’ is strong.”

The views of “Critical Geopolitics” are a challenging and fascinating contribution to the geopolitical debate. This school states that a neutral, objective geopolitical analysis is very hard to materialise as every individual is part of a certain geopolitical “truth”. The main focus of Critical Geopolitics is the artificiality of constructed spaces.

David Criekemans

Criekemans published the first Dutch book on Geopolitics since the Second World War in 2007. Based on a “critical genealogical study”, Criekemans defined Geopolitics as:

“[Geopolitiek is] het wetenschappelijk studieveld behorende tot zowel de Politieke Geografie als de Internationale Betrekkingen, die de wisselwerking wil onderzoeken tussen de politiek handelende mens en zijn omgevende territorialiteit (…). Voor wat betreft de studie van de ‘praktische geopolitiek’ betreft (…), betekent dit dat men aandacht heeft voor de vraag in welke mate de eerder genoemde wisselwerking een invloed genereert op het (buitenlandse) beleid of op de relevante ‘machtspositie’ van de politieke entiteit welke mens wenst te analyseren.”

This definition states that Geopolitics is part of both Political Geography and International Relations. Interestingly, Haushofer’s definition focused on the former and Taylor’s on the latter. Like Cohen, Criekemans focuses on the interaction (dynamics) between politics and territory.

For those still looking for more: the book of Criekemans offers dozens of other definitions, including hard-to-find ones!

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Conclusions

Our brief view at the geopolitical literature yielded some interesting results:

  • Since the coining of the concept of geopolitics by the end of the nineteenth century, power (influence, politics) and space (territory, soil) have played a crucial role in the definitions of geopolitics.
  • Initially, the definitions of geopolitics included only the state as powerful entity. Current definitions also appreciate the power of other entities (Flint: “geopolitical agents”).
  • While some geopolitical theorists desire or pretend to be capable of analytical objectivity, one school (Critical Geopolitics) considers this as virtually impossible.
  • Whether Geopolitics is part of International Relations is subject to discussion.
  • The definition of geopolitics depends on time and location. Moreau Defarges (2005) said this in a beautiful way:
“À chaque époque, à chaque civilisation, sa géographie, sa vision et sa représentation de l’espace”

Literature

  • Chauprade, Aymeric, “Introduction à l’analyse géopolitique”, Ellipses, 1999.
  • Cohen, Saul Bernard, “Geopolitics of the World System”, Rowman and Littlefield, 2003.
  • Cordellier, Serge (direction), “Le dictionnaire historique et géopolitique du 20e siècle”, La Découverte, 2005.
  • Criekemans, David, “Geopolitiek – ‘Geografisch geweten van de buitenlandse politiek?”, Garant, 2007.
  • Dodds, Klaus en David Atkinson, “Geopolitical Traditions”, Routledge, 2000.
  • Flint, Colin, “Introduction to Geopolitics”, Routledge, 2006.
  • Lacoste, Yves, “Géopolitique: la longue histoire d’aujourd’hui”, Larousse, 2006.
  • Mamadouh, Virginie, “Geopolitics in the nineties: one flag, many meanings”, GeoJournal 46, 1998, 237-253
  • Moreau Defarges, Philippe , “Introduction à la Géopolitique”, Seuil, 2005.
  • Ó Tuathail, Gearóid, Simon Dalby and Paul Routledge (editors), “The Geopolitics Reader”, Routledge, 2006.
  • Taylor, Peter J., “Political Geography”, Longman, Third Edition, 1993.