For more information about the "Exploring Geopolitics, Geoeconomics and Geostrategy" Summer School, please click here
Dr Virginie Mamadouh is Associate Professor in Political and Cultural Geography at the University of Amsterdam. Ms Mamadouh is further involved with a number of journals such as Geopolitics and Political Geography.
Her research interests include geopolitics and globalisation; transnationalism and ‘new media’; (transnational) migration and territorial identities; electoral geography and urban social movements.
Dr Mamadouh co-edited “Politics – Critical Essays in Human Geography” with John Agnew, published in 2008.
For further information about Ms Mamadouh, please have a look at:
Author about the article
About ten years ago I got fascinated by the growing amount and diversity of the literature on geopolitics. I started browsing and reading through an exponentially growing subfield of geography (and IR scholarship). In a review article published in 1998 in GeoJournal under the title Geopolitics in the nineties: one flag, many meanings I offered a typology of geopolitical “schools”. The typology has proven to be a useful device for many students, so I have gathered many reactions over the years.
This article is a shortened and slightly amended version of Geopolitics in the 1990s. Is the typology still useful in the 2000s? Have new schools emerged?
The article includes (slightly edited) excerpts from an earlier article of mine, “Geopolitics in the nineties: one flag, many meanings” [GeoJournal 46(4): 237-253, 1998]. For details and references, you can buy the full text at:
Revisiting “Geopolitics in the 1990s”
An overview of the contemporary literature on geopolitics can not avoid some problems of definition. This compulsory exercise, the definition of a key concept, is in this case extremely laborious. The concept is not only contaminated by the historical legacy of the (mis)use of the ideas of the German school of Geopolitik by the Nazi regime.
It also suffers from profound confusion. There are plenty of meanings and connotations in the contemporary uses of the word ‘geopolitics’ which remain often implicit and are often contradictory. In most cases – but not always – it is about states, relations between them and their geographical context.
This article is an attempt to present recent publications by classifying them into four ‘approaches’. The names and the delimitation of these ‘geopolitical schools’ are somewhat arbitrary but they effectively reduce the great diversity encountered in the publications related to geopolitics.
These four schools are distinguished on two dimensions. The first is the distance to the object under study: on the one hand schools that recommend practical pieces of advice to political actors, on the other hand academic reflections that refrain from ties with geopolitical policies. The second refers to the position towards the state system: on the one hand states are conceived as the principal geopolitical actors, on the other hand attention is paid to other political actors and to the internal diversity and the conflict of interests inside the states. The four approaches are indicated in Table 1.
Table 1: Four geopolitical approaches (Mamadouh 1998)
neo-classical geopolitics geopolitics, géostratégie, geoeconomics
non-geopolitics political geography
Other political actors
Other subversive geopolitics géopolitique interne et externe
post-structuralistic geopolitics critical geopolitics
Neo-classical geopolitics: geopolitics en geostrategy
[During the Cold War] the revival of geopolitics [among military and strategic circles] is connected to the decolonization of Asia and Africa, where many states declare themselves non-aligned to one of the two blocs. The revival is also related to the emergence of conflicts between states belonging to the same bloc, such as the estrangement between Chine and the Soviet Union and later on the territorial disputes between China and Vietnam, Vietnam and Cambodia, Iran and Iraq.
The term ‘geopolitics’ itself has been popularised by the American diplomat Henry Kissinger in the 1970s. In neoclassical geopolitics, the strategic value of specific attributes of territories plays the leading role. Next to ‘geopolitics’, the core concept is ‘geostrategy’.
Neoclassical geopolitics correspond to what the general public expects geopolitics to be: it is about the effects of geographical position and other geographical features on the foreign policy of a state and its relations with other states. It is concerned with the strategic value of geographical factors (resources, access to the sea, etc.).
This also corresponds to the definitions provided in general dictionaries. In this context, Napoléon Bonaparte is often quoted: ‘La politique d’un état est dans sa géographie’.
Subversive geopolitics: everything is geopolitical!
At the end of the 1970s, the term ‘geopolitics’ acquires a subversive meaning in France with the help of Maoist geographers. Geographical knowledge is important for those waging war, hence the observation of the French geographer Yves Lacoste who entitles his radical analysis about geography “La géographie ça sert d’abord à faire la guerre (1976).” (…)
He pleads for an active (political) geography, as opposed to applied geography, and seeks to connect to the work of the nineteenth century anarchist and geographer Elysée Reclus. From 1976 on, Lacoste and his associates publish their own journal: Hérodote. As from number 27 in 1982, the subtitle changed into Revue de géographie et de géopolitique (…)
In the course of time, a specific school matures, a geographical analysis of situations in which different groups put contradictory claims on a particular territory (…)
The analyses focus naturally on the nature of the claims of the political actors in a particular area. Lacoste speaks of ‘représentations géopolitiques’, a reference to theatre and tragedy. Maps play a special role in the development and the diffusion of such representations. Finally, the territorial conflict (rather than the state or the state system) is the unit of analysis.
Non-geopolitics: the political geography of international relations
Outside France, geographers rediscovered geopolitics too. I have called this school non-geopolitics because it is about the ‘neutralisation’ of geopolitics. These geographers oppose the abuse of geographical knowledge and plead for a scientific, neutral, geography of international relations. This school originates in the revival of political geography at the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s. (…)
In this perspective, geopolitics and political geography are almost synonymous, but the second term has scientific connotations, while the first has political connotations. For Anglo-Saxon political-geographers such as Peter J. Taylor and John O’Loughlin, geopolitics points at two types of ‘theories’. They distinguish between the ‘practical geopolitics’ of those who conduct the foreign policy of states and the ‘formal geopolitics’ of academics and other observers who reflect upon international relations. (…)
Formal geopolitics’ mission is to analyse practical geopolitics critically but also to provide new insights for a ‘more humane’ geopolitics. The reclamation of the term ‘geopolitics’ is an attempt by (political) geographers to denounce the use of geographical knowledge by the state and especially by its military machine. (…)
Non-geopolitics is the study of the spatial distribution of power between states, especially between the major powers and supranational actors such as such as the United Nations and the NATO. This school comprises, besides political geographers, the political scientists involved in the so called ‘peace studies’ (as opposed to strategic studies). For that reason, this approach could also be called peace-geopolitics.
Post-structuralistic geopolitics: critical geopolitics
Critical geopolitics is a new and self-designated label, in contrast with the other ‘labels’ presented here. The term was introduced in the United States during the 1980s: it points originally to studies of foreign policies by means of discourse analysis.
This approach is embedded in the post-structuralism of French philosophers such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault in which discourses are deconstructed. Geopolitical perceptions are problematised, while knowledge and discourses about the geographical features of international relations are the very research object.
This approach belongs to a broad school of post-modern social sciences involved in discourse analysis. Gearóid Ó Tuathail, one of the authoritative authors in this subfield, distinguishes three dimensions to critical geopolitics: the deconstruction of geopolitical traditions, the deconstruction of contemporary discourses and the exploration of the meaning of spatial concept such as ‘place’ and ‘politics’.
Gearóid Ó Tuathail and Simon Dalby identify three kinds of geopolitics: popular geopolitics (in mass media, cinema, novels or cartoons), practical geopolitics (foreign policy, bureaucracy, political institutions) and formal geopolitics (strategic institutes, think tanks, academia), all three contributing to the spatialising of boundaries and dangers (the geopolitical map of the world) and the geopolitical representations of self and other (the geopolitical imagination).
My conclusions in 1998
In the different approaches, all core elements of classical geopolitics are knocked into pieces. Even the very existence of the state as a territorial construct is challenged: some authors think that state borders do not amount to anything much in the global economy, or that states are undermined by the rise of supranational and subnational authorities, whereas others consider that the feature of the state as identity construct is much more important than its territorial component.
And the views regarding the actual geopolitical (dis)order diverge too, although there is a common and growing attention for the economic competition between states. Correspondingly geoeconomics supersedes more and more often geostrategy as the twin sister of geopolitics.
Ten years on
Ten years later, it is striking that economic issues are not that predominant as expected. Oil, water and other resources, trade, financial and development issues are key, but identity conflicts seem to predominate global politics, both on a local regional and global scale. National identity, religion, civilization, democracy were alleged to be the drivers of main conflicts, especially in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the United States. In addition, environmental issues (with their economic ramifications) are high on the agenda of world politics.
Despite, or rather thanks to, its diversity, geopolitics has remained a powerful tool to study territorial conflicts and other spatial politics, more in particular international relations and global governance. Since 1998, more textbooks have been published, among them the introductory texts by John Agnew (1998, 2003), Klaus Dodds (2000, 2005, 2007), and Colin Flint (2006), and key readers were updated (Ó Tuathail et al 2006).
The core journal Political Geography continued to publish widely on geopolitics. In addition, the academic journal Geopolitics, (between 1996 and 1998 published as Geopolitics and International Boundaries) became an important outlet for both political geographers and IR scholars. In both cases, they include articles from the different quadrants of the typology.
This is not true of the French school that has become more isolated than before, both in terms of language and in terms of academic institutions. A new generation of French political geographers has gained visibility with a new journal L’espace politique. In the Anglo-American arena, subversive geopolitics was represented by more activist geographers.
Even more importantly, feminist geopolitics emerged since the mid-1990s as a new approach and established itself among other subfields of feminist political geography (Staeheli et al 2004). In the typology, feminist geopolitics would fit in the lower left quadrant of subversive geopolitics as it firmly opts for multiscalar perspectives. However, feminist geopolitics takes a more active stance than critical geopolitics, aiming at changing the world and promoting the emancipation of weaker social groups.
In addition, new agendas for critical geopolitics are discussed in a forthcoming special issue of GeoJournal guest edited by Laura Jones and Daniel Sage, under the title “New directions in critical geopolitics: an introduction”.
Research directions identified by the contributors (Gearóid Ó Thuatail, Jennifer Hyndman, Fraser MacDonald, Emily Gilbert, Virginie Mamadouh) were:
- engaging with pressing impasses and dilemmas or our time (in other words producing policy relevant analyses)
- engaging with feminist geopolitics
- engaging with the critique of neoclassical geopolitics in the public debate
- tackling issues pertaining to race, money and risk
- engaging with radical geographies (feminist geographies and Marxist and neo-Marxist geographies), providing alternative representations, avoiding US centrism
In other words: moving towards the left column of Table 1 (i.e. more policy oriented)!
- Agnew, J. A. 1998. Geopolitics: re-visioning world politics. London/New York: Routledge.
- Agnew, J. 2003. Geopolitics: re-visioning world politics, Second edition. London/New York: Routledge.
- Flint, C. 2006. Introduction to geopolitics. London: Routledge.
- Dodds, K. 2000. Geopolitics in a Changing World. Harlow: Prentice Hall (Pearson Education).
- Dodds, K. 2005. Global geopolitics, A critical introduction. Harlow: Pearson Education.
- Dodds, K. 2007. Geopolitics: A very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Jones, L., and D. Sage 2009. New directions in critical geopolitics: an introduction Geojournal.
- Ó Tuathail, G., S. Dalby, and P. Routledge, eds. 2006. The Geopolitics Reader. London: Routledge.
- Staeheli, L. A., E. Kofman, and L. J. Peake, eds. 2004. Mapping women, making politics; Feminist perspectives on political geography. New York: Routledge.