Any hope that Donald Trump’s messy departure from the White House would at least restore a modicum of calm to the world must now be discounted. Already, there is a dangerous new international threat: the return of “geopolitics” in shaping international security.
Consider the events of the past six months. Within weeks of President Joe Biden’s inauguration, his secretary of state, Antony Blinken, got into an extraordinary spat with his Chinese counterpart at a bilateral meeting in Alaska. The United States has also tussled with the European Union over Nord Stream 2, a pipeline that will deliver Russian natural gas directly to Germany, bypassing (and thus weakening) Ukraine. And, for its part, the EU imposed tougher sanctions on China, citing its policies in Xinjiang, to which China responded with sanctions of its own.
Then, in June, a naval contretemps between Russia and Britain in the Black Sea evoked parallels to the 1850s Crimean War. And a meeting between Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin did little to reduce US-Russian tensions. When it comes, Biden’s first meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping is unlikely to be any warmer. The G7 is rebranding itself as a club of rich democracies that will set “basic rules of the road” for the rest of the world. Never mind that other powerful countries have no interest in rules set by someone else.
“Geopolitics” is the word most used to describe these developments, most of which are framed as new iterations of old issues. Russia, for example, is said to be continuing the Soviet tradition of using energy exports to induce dependency in others. Hence, Nord Stream 2 reprises President Ronald Reagan’s struggle over German participation in the construction of a Soviet pipeline four decades ago. Blinken calls it a “Russian geopolitical project to divide Europe.”
A classically ambiguous concept, geopolitics has both innocent and perilous uses. For some, it promotes a vague sense of geographical contingency. For others, however, it amounts to geographical determinism, implying an endless conflict in which space matters more than ideas, maps more than chaps. The term’s danger lies in its inherent nihilism: it leads us to assume that no one can be seriously interested in values, because there can be no universal good.
After World War I and the failure of a dangerously ambitious German vision of “world politics” (Weltpolitik) under Kaiser Wilhelm II, a new term was needed. It was supplied by Karl Haushofer, an officer and strategic theorist at the Munich Military Academy, who had been deeply influenced by a relatively brief spell as a military attaché in Tokyo. The word Geopolitik had been coined by a Swedish politician, Johan Rudolf Kjellén, in 1900, and Haushofer adopted it with relish.
It was Haushofer who first conflated geography with necessary conflict, making all international politics into a bitter but inevitable zero-sum struggle between haves and have-nots. He believed it was his mission to create a new political science – “the science of the political life form in a natural living space.” Geopolitics was the doctrine of the “earth-connectedness of political processes,” and must ultimately “become the conscience of the state.”
Starting in the 1920s, Haushofer rapidly acquired admirers from the marginalized elements of the international order. Adolf Hitler may well have been influenced by his thinking; he dictated Mein Kampf through the Haushofer disciple Rudolf Hess. Karl Radek, the secretary of the Comintern, was certainly impressed (there was even a Soviet journal of geopolitics). And geopolitical thinking has since returned with a vengeance to Russian politics, following the humiliating collapse of the Soviet Union. Haushofer has been enthusiastically embraced by Aleksandr Dugin, a quasi-fascist strategic analyst who is widely believed to have influenced Putin’s worldview.
There is a common pattern here: geopolitics tends to be the favored term for historical losers who want to give a cynical twist to their efforts to dismantle a victorious intellectual project.
This was not what European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen meant in 2019, when she declared that she would lead a “geopolitical Commission.” The point was to distinguish the new Commission from a “political” one that would interfere in EU member states’ internal affairs, and the term seemed to suggest that Europe would engage openly with others. In a globalized world, many Europeans thought that Europe writ large needed a voice, and they were sympathetic to the argument that even large member states like France, Germany, or Italy could not be influential on their own.
But under current circumstances, geopolitical posturing once again looks like compensation for impotence. The bad symptoms associated with the old geopolitics are reappearing and hampering solutions to global problems like the COVID-19 pandemic, which will not end until there is universal vaccination.
Using “geopolitics” promiscuously achieves nothing, because invoking the term is no substitute for substantive discussions and an airing of conflicting interpretations. Thinking in terms of great-power clashes, and sparring over who is the bigger hypocrite, will neither resolve international disagreements nor solve common problems. The only way to do that is to focus on what achieving common goals actually requires.
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