Ian Klinke is a PhD candidate at University College London. His research at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies investigates the spatiotemporal narratives that structure the relationship between the European Union and its East. Key research areas include International Relations theory, German energy security and the geopolitics of Belarus.
Geopolitics: critical vs. classical
Although not exactly hip and trendy, geopolitics is very much on the agenda these days. Often sloppily defined, geopolitics tends to be employed as a tag that lends authority to politicians, journalists and academics. It is in geopolitics that these enlightened geopoliticians claim to have found a sober and apolitical view that allows them to perceive a deeper layer of reality – to see the world as it really is. Global politics as the eternal power struggles of states under the influence of geography. ‘Dangerous nonsense!’ a critical geopolitical perspective will respond. But what exactly are the contours of such a critical perspective, where does it come from, what does it want and what does it have to add?
A conceptual matrix
“Classical geopolitics, closely related to the tradition of political realism in International Relations, is seen by critical geopolitics as an ideology (or ‘discourse’ to speak the lingo) that has legitimised some of the bloodiest military campaigns of the 20th and early 21st century.”
Critical geopolitics is a loose platform that emerged in the 1990s at the interface between Political Geography and International Relations. Despite the wide array of conflicting ‘postmodernisms’ that underlie its perspective, critical geopolitics is also unified – by its rejection of classical geopolitical reasoning. Classical geopolitics, closely related to the tradition of political realism in International Relations, is seen by critical geopolitics as an ideology (or ‘discourse’ to speak the lingo) that has legitimised some of the bloodiest military campaigns of the 20th and early 21st century. Critical geopolitics’ aim is to disenchant classical geopolitics by denaturalising it. Therefore, instead of arguing from a fixed normative position (universal liberalism or utopian socialism), it tries to de-legitimise geopolitics by placing it in its historical context and highlighting the contradictions already at work in geopolitics.
It is difficult to sketch critical geopolitics without delving into the wider philosophical debates that underpin its approach. It is however possible to approach critical geopolitics via its relationship with classical geopolitics. Hereby we could claim that critical geopolitics centres around four key issues (space, identity, vision and statecraft), which it identifies at the core of (classical) geopolitics itself. Crucially, these concepts reveal what the sweet venom of geopolitics is and does as well as the critical distance at which critical geopolitics operates when dealing with it. Let us briefly discuss these in turn.
“[Critical geopolitics] investigates the social construction of space – the way in which space is made meaningful by a wide array of geopolitical actors and their ideas. “
Space is essential to critical geopolitics. However, unlike classical geopolitics and its often implicit materialism, it questions any simple causal relationship between geographical space and global politics. Instead, it investigates the social construction of space – the way in which space is made meaningful by a wide array of geopolitical actors and their ideas. In other words, it is not so relevant to our understanding of post-World War II British geopolitics that Great Britain is an island, but that it thinks of itself as one. Similarly, it is not primarily the material features (geographical position, military infrastructure) that construct the Republic of Belarus as a Russian buffer zone, but the ideological framework of geopolitics itself (power struggle between Russia and NATO etc.). Therefore, instead of understanding humans and states as victims of geography and geopolitics, they are its source. The supposed laws classical geopolitics claims to have unearthed (Land vs. Sea Power, eternal power struggles) are part of both this active writing of geographical space and the violence that is inflicted in the name of spatial categories (East/West, Middle East, Lebensraum etc.).
“Again, just like space, identity is not seen as being pre-given (something that states already ‘have’) but as constantly (re-)negotiated.”
Closely related to this conception of space (not as a causal factor but as something that is constructed through geopolitics) is critical geopolitics’ understanding of identity. Again, just like space, identity is not seen as being pre-given (something that states already ‘have’) but as constantly (re-)negotiated. What critical geopolitics adds to the existing literature on identity in International Relations is its focus on this spatial construction of social identity. What matters here is the ways in which spatial communities such as nations, ethnic groups or other forms of spatial organisation (the European Union) construct group identity via references to a spatial ‘We’ (the ‘West’, Europe) and an often threatening and aggressive ‘Them’, located in a fundamentally different territory (the Soviet Union, ‘the Islamic world’ etc.).
Having established that geopolitics functions to shape spatial identity by distinguishing an (unfamiliar) Other from a (familiar) Self, we can now understand the second way in which (classical) geopolitics charms us: as a detached and simplifying vision. It is this geopolitical gaze that puts the geopolitician in a God-like position above the geopolitical map, faking both objectivity and apolitical neutrality. Hereby geopolitics disguises the fact that it is shot through with positivist, nationalist and colonialist ideology. The geopolitical map (both cartographic and mental) also enables viewers to perceive the world as a structured whole. It lures us into its simplicity by carving up the globe into more or less homogenous spaces (spheres of influence, heartland/rimland etc.), a practice that evades the complexities of the actual places it is meant to discuss.
Critical geopolitics also points out that geopolitics has historically served as a tool of statecraft, as a form of knowledge that is bound up with the emergence of the modern state. Geopolitical thought has served as a guide to statesmanship and therefore as legitimisation for exclusivist foreign policy agendas and invasions throughout the world. It is through geopolitical institutes (think tanks, universities and government bodies) that the state has produced knowledge of (distant) Others. In order to understand this creation of geopolitical knowledge and legitimacy for the state, critical geopolitics has diverted our attention from classical geopolitical themes to the role of so-called ‘intellectuals of statecraft’, which, embedded in the wider structures of the modern state, continue to write the scripts of global politics (the Cold War, the War on Terror etc.).
The claimant has the last word
“Although the opposition between critical and classical is perhaps a provocative overstatement (after all, the dimensions of space, identity and statecraft are not absent from critical geopolitics), it should be remembered that the former does offer a number of significant departures from the latter”
To summarise, critical geopolitics is not an add-on to classical geopolitics (although it certainly is a much needed addition to the debate on geopolitical thought) but an alternative to it. Although the opposition between critical and classical is perhaps a provocative overstatement (after all, the dimensions of space, identity and statecraft are not absent from critical geopolitics), it should be remembered that the former does offer a number of significant departures from the latter:
- it rejects the causal relationship classical geopolitics detects between geographic space and global politics,
- it questions the rigid boundaries the latter draws between essentialised territorial identities,
- it problematises the supposedly objective yet thoroughly political perspective classical geopolitics offers and
- exhibits the connections between geopolitical thought, the structures of the modern state and the waging of war.
Finally, we may add, critical geopolitics is not so much a perspective on global politics (although it can legitimately be used as such) as on classical geopolitics itself. It talks back.
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