Sören Scholvin is a research fellow at the Institute of Economic and Cultural Geography at the University of Hanover, Germany. He is also an associated researcher at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies.
His research is focussed on the geopolitics of emerging powers, and regional cooperation on energy and transport in Sub-Saharan Africa and South America.
In his new book “The Geopolitics of Regional Power Geography, Economics and Politics in Southern Africa” (published in Ashgate’s series on ‘The International Political Economy of New Regionalisms’) he advances Realist Geopolitics as a revitalised version the classical approaches coined by Halford Mackinder and Nicholas Spykman. In this interview, Dr Scholvin explains what his book contributes to the geopolitical debate.
The “My New Book” Blog seeks to provide a multidisciplinary angle on the countries and the world we live in. The interviews address the book’s key themes, questions and findings.
Moreover, the book is put in perspective by linking it to the author’s background and existing literature. Overall, the underlying question is: why should we consider reading this new book?
Below each interview, you find a form that enables you to ask the author more questions, or share your views on the topics that the book covers.
1. What are the main themes of the book?
In “The Geopolitics of Regional Power” I explain how geographical factors – that is, naturally given and man-made structures in geographical space – influence the economic and political relations in Southern Africa. I advance a realist perspective in Geopolitics and show, by applying Process Tracing and Qualitative Comparative Analysis as methodologies, that we can learn a lot about international relations by concentrating on their material context.
2. What are the central questions of the book?
The guiding question of my book is whether geographical factors matter in international relations and how so. The starting point of this research project was the mostly political scientific debate on regional powers such as Brazil, India and South Africa – states that are said to be hegemons on the regional level. Yet political scientists have never tried to delineate the regions or spheres of influence of these states, which is certainly due to the neglect of a geographical perspective in Political Science.
I hence ask what South Africa’s sphere of influence actually is. As a consequence I show how we can capture the interplay of geographical conditions and factors usually analysed by political scientists, for example foreign policy strategies. This way I also answer the question of how to revitalise Geopolitics without falling into the trap of geodeterminism.
3. How have you sought to answer these questions?
I refer to the works of Halford Mackinder, Nicholas Spykman and, to a lesser extent, James Fairgrieve, summarising the factors they focussed on in their research. Then I respond to the constructivist critique of Classical Geopolitics and provide an overview of contemporary research that one may call ‘physiocratic’ – Jared Diamond’s anthropological studies and the contributions on geography and economic development by Jeffrey Sachs and his colleagues, for instance.
This is how I revive a realist approach in Geopolitics. I call this approach ‘Realist Geopolitics’. Its main feature is that it recognises that geographical conditions rarely explain anything on their own. They almost always interact with social variables.
In addition to showing how geographical factors matter in international relations a key finding of “The Geopolitics of Regional Power” is that the regional level is highly relevant to South Africa.
Key economic needs such as the supply of urgently needed electricity can be met by regional cooperation. Security threats to South Africa first of all originate within the region – for example economic and political instability in neighbouring Zimbabwe.
In this regard Realist Geopolitics helps to explain why South Africa pursues a different approach to authoritarian rule in Zimbabwe than the West: whilst the latter can safely indulge in human rights rhetoric and harsh criticism of the Mugabe government, South Africa would suffer massively if it took such an approach.
5. What does the book contribute to existing literature in the field?
My book contributes to political scientific research on South Africa’s foreign policy as it explains South Africa’s regional relations from a viewpoint that has been neglected so far. It also advances research on regional powers. The analytical concept that I develop can – with certain modifications – be applied meaningfully to states such as Brazil and India.
What matters most to me however is that “The Geopolitics of Regional Power” shows that geographers and political scientists can gain a lot from a materialist perspective on international relations.
6. How does the book relate to your own (personal/professional) background?
I wrote the book whilst working at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies, an institute that has a particular strength in political scientific research on regional powers from the Global South. Being one of the few geographers at that institute, I wanted to introduce a new perspective on one of my colleagues’ main research topics.
My research for this book also benefitted from several close working relations with South African researchers, in particular from the South African Institute of International Affairs, the University of Johannesburg and the University of Stellenbosch.
No theory can explain everything. Realist Geopolitics only deals with a frame that geographical factors set for international relations. This frame indicates which strategies are feasible, in the sense that they can be carried out with a high probability of success ensuing.
It would be worthwhile to examine state-level decision-making processes so as to shed light on how decision makers reflect on geographical conditions and transform their understanding of geographical conditions into policies. For this purpose cognitive maps, based on expert interviews, could be introduced as a new methodology into Geopolitics.
To find out more about “The Geopolitics of Regional Power – Geography, Economics and Politics in Southern Africa”, please click here for publisher’s page of the book