Society, Space and Power. Challenges, deficits and news regarding critical geopolitics (Part 1)


Heinz Nissel

(translated by Christopher Schönberger/Austrian Armed Forces Language Institute)


This article is to be understood as a follow-up to my introductory essay in the Austrian Military Journal 1/2010.[1]

Is it sensible and necessary to re-engage with this topic after four years? Yes, for several reasons.[2] On the one hand, classic and deterministic geopolitics is not dead, but celebrates something of a Renaissance amongst a number of European think tanks, as recently criticized by the philosopher of history, Hauke Ritz (2013).[3] However, he throws out the baby with the bathwater when he declares that “Geopolitics is a discipline that has always been practiced by the military and thus represents an art of war.”[4] This can, at best, be accepted in times and areas where the military practices and controls political power. In democracies, the primacy of politics prevails and the military is bound by instructions. Statecraft comes before the art of war. One thing, however, unites the semantics of this obscure circle of political fantasists as well as its critics – they are mired in obsolete mindsets. They completely ignore the existence of critical geopolitics and its investigative function. The author considers the Austrian Military Journal to be the right place to extend this approach to political geography beyond a narrow, specialist interpretation and to encourage discussion.

This article again wants to counteract the modish, shallow use of the term geopolitics/geopolitical[5] and will therefore identify the efforts, but also the weaknesses, of critical geopolitics that challenges it. Moreover, much has occurred in German political geography in the last four years. The most recent developments will therefore be outlined. Likewise, this article will explain the concerns and methods of critical geopolitics, one of its key research areas. Its goals and methods of operation are assigned various geopolitical concepts, new and old. As postmodern political geography has committed itself to the constructivist perspective, the focus has been put on deconstructing geopolitical concepts. This is followed by an analysis of recent developments and publications in critical geopolitics in the German as well as the predominant Anglo-American research environment. This article concludes with critical references to the theoretical weak points of this approach and possible future developments.

German political geography: the current situation

May you live in interesting times.” This old Chinese curse befalls us a thousand times today – we really live in interesting times and this is an incentive and obligation for research in and study of political geography. For decades, political geography remained ostracized within and forgotten outside of geography, much like its ugly sibling (classic geopolitics), due to its unfortunate association with the bellicose rhetoric of colonialism and nationalism. This state of prolonged paralysis is illustrated by the fact that Prescott’s introduction to the subject was first published in a German translation in 1975[6] - up until then there had been no comparable textbook. Two paperbacks by Ulrich Ante (1981) and Klaus-Achim Boesler (1983) followed - also stuck in tradition[7]. In the second half of the 1990s Klaus Kost[8] could still speak of a “pathetic existence" and Jürgen Oßenbrügge[9] of a “sub-discipline that has become insignificant”. In the Anglo-American mindset, however, there is an uninterrupted tradition of politico-geographic and geopolitical concerns and questions. This is why political geography is not only a key pillar of human geography, but has, for decades, also been at the forefront of research, attracting a significant number of outstanding minds from the field.

The reception in Europe’s German-speaking area has only fitfully improved. Oßenbrügge’s transfer of Anglo-American approaches (“Political geography as spatial conflict research”) in 1983 remained the sole exception for a long time. In my opinion, the term political geography is already an unfortunate terminological choice. This term implies a type of geography that is inherently political, whereas it is clearly meant to indicate a (possible) interplay of politics and geography. Unfortunately, this term has become standard over the past decades and, given its usage in conferences and publications, cannot be reversed. Regarding geopolitics, any scientific merit was flat-out rejected by German political geography from 1945 up to approximately 2000[10], not least as a means of political whitewashing in the post-war era. It was supposed to make people forget that hundreds of former Third Reich-geographers suddenly and opportunistically proclaimed themselves geopolitical experts whose contributions dominated Haushofer’s Zeitschrift für Geopolitik.

Not until the turn of the millennium were important approaches (radical geography, activity-centred analyses, critical geopolitics, critical geography, discourse analysis) sporadically taken up and subsequently adopted by the younger generation in a relatively brief period of time. Paul Reuber and Günter Wolkersdorfer (Heidelberg, later Münster) carried out pioneering work. The creation of the Arbeitskreis Politische Geographie, which organises conferences and workshops in German-speaking universities, followed in 2000.

The sub-discipline of political geography has positioned itself well in German and international geographic conferences. It is represented today in a number of institutes of geography in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, is anchored in curricula and highly regarded in research. Apart from its contributions to renowned specialist journals of geography, as well as in a number of publications by institutes, political geography has also developed its own publications - Forum Politische Geographie and Raumproduktion, which offer advanced theoretical discussions and empirical reports. These few remarks should make one thing clear – political geography is back and has developed into a leading branch of human geography. Political geography’s research and results in the discursive triangle that is society-space-power also supply neighbouring disciplines with food for thought (sociology, space research, international politics, etc.). Moreover, it has re-connected with international (albeit U.S.-dominated) standards.

Nevertheless, it took nearly 30 years (!) following Ante and Boesler for a new German textbook to be published: Paul Reuber’s Politische Geographie[11](2012). It is now possible to arrange and analyse the previously scattered fragments of theory and experience. Moreover, it is an important incentive for the author to attempt a follow-up to the article in the Austrian Military Journal 1/2010. This also applies to two game-changing congresses in August 2012[12], which will also be mentioned (further below). The object analysed by political geography, its theory and methods, have changed fundamentally. The ‘realistic’ understanding of politics and space has become obsolete. There has been a line of development from realism to constructivism.

Four politico-geographic research perspectives have developed in Germany and internationally (see further below). There has been no linear development between classic, modern and post-modern political geography, but rather an evolution marked by breaks and discontinuities. The old or antiquated paradigms have not fully disappeared, and often reappear in modernised and camouflaged forms (in political consulting, in the obliviousness to space shown by students of international politics, in a form of sociology which defines space as a container in which social relations are formed, etc.). Moreover, there are specific regional developments, such as the framing of French or Indian geopolitics, not mentioned in this article. Today, constructivist approaches form the mainstream of all these variants. The dominant question is the analysis of society’s powerful role, its construction and production of space on all levels, from local to global systems.

Critical geopolitics – a first introduction

What is to be understood by critical geopolitics? An attempt at an explanation makes going further afield inevitable. It is clearly about a critique of, as well as carried out from within geopolitics. The name correlates with the English Pendant Critical Geopolitics, which was also used in German until the end of 2000 in order to avoid any association with old-style deterministic geopolitics. Whilst in the post-World War II era German political geography avoided ‘unscientific geopolitics’ in order to oust the shadows of National Socialism, the states victorious in WWII (especially the U.S.) had no fear of the subject matter. Around the turn of the millennium the realisation set in that this way political geography was denying itself essential research areas, as it is a case of looking at both sides of the same coin.[13] In contemporary understanding, critical geopolitics constitutes, along with action theory-based geographic conflict research, one of the two main strands of postmodern political geography and is considered the sub-discipline leading the research in many questions. This is connected to fundamental changes in social and epistemological conditions: increased global and local impacts at the expense of nation states (which formed the core elements of the old geo-deterministic political geography), the ‘debunking’ of traditional values as big meta-narratives[14], the pluralisation of social structures in the sense of Bourdieu’s La Distinction, etc.

Postmodern political geography aligned itself with these fundamental changes and developed four research perspectives: firstly, radical geography, which remained ideologically committed to interpreting the structures of global systems, followed by action-oriented geographic conflict research, which is applied to the smallest units of political action - the actors who then facilitate new interpretations of space and behaviour in a multi-level analysis (from local to global). The subsequent third perspective’s key impulse stems from linguistics, which draws on the constructive character of truth and reality. Language, its patterns, as well as the Power of Discourses (Foucault)[15] derived from them, serve to uncover values, norms and behavioural patterns previously considered sacrosanct. The result was the development of the postmodern-constructivist school of critical geopolitics. The latest additions are the post-structural approaches that develop concepts based on discourse and governmentality theory. These approaches were conceived within critical geopolitics, but have grown far beyond this field, as they draw on all levels, from local to global. Analysing these concepts, however, would go beyond the scope of this article. However, these four main strands depict only analytical foci, they are theoretically and empirically connectable with one another. Their methods differ, their objective, however, remains the same - the interpretation of the discursive triangle society-space-power.[16] The author believes that this also is, or has to be, the core of postmodern geopolitics, insofar as it adopts and internalises the theoretical and methodological developments of political geography (…’two sides of the same coin’).

Critical geopolitics does not consider itself as being per se critical of society, but sees itself as an alternative concept of thinking that debunks assumed certainties. Critical geopolitics also developed in resistance to the new geopolitics in the USA of the 1980’s. Whilst Reagan-era new geopolitics sought to legitimise the USA’s global demands, the inner-geographical debates led to the paradigmatic shift towards constructivism.

Once again Foucault: the great tales in the wake of the Enlightenment never depicted the truth, but only the privileged discourses of specific, socially and historically situated groups.[17] Hence, the question for reality itself is wrong; it is much more a question of how meaning or truth is created. The philosophy of modernity defined truth as objective, ahistorical, trans-cultural and rational. Postmodern philosophy discards all these categories and replaces the concept of truth with the concept of discourse. This means de facto that truth, history, etc. no longer form the basis of the Enlightenment’s power of interpretation, but are variables that need to be explained.

It is language that conveys and legitimises social power relationships. Language becomes the expression of power. It is not truth that creates language but, on the contrary, it is language, as a discursive formation, which creates our (respective) truth or, rather, our perception of it. Public discourse guides the rules of our thinking, speaking and acting. Not one, but a multitude of discourses (qualified by history as well as politics) determine knowledge and power, as well as the links between them. Outside of discourses there is nothing – e.g. no value freedom as found in sociological positivism. There is no meta-theory whose discourse is closer to reality than any other discourse. In conclusion: every form of knowledge is socially constructed and subjective in relation to the cultural, historical and social environment of the self-aware subject. Discourse is thereby the social practice of communication, with discourse-analysis exhibiting a heterogeneous variety of methods (discussed at length in Glasze and Matissek, 2009).[18]

Goals and Methods

Against this philosophical background critical geopolitics perceives its approach to research as a constructivist turning point, as in other social sciences, cultural studies and humanities. In politics, units of space are not based on ‘natural’ factors such as physical-geographical divisions or ‘quasi-natural’ units (e.g. historical demarcations which have remained unaltered for a longer period of time), but on social discourses and negotiation processes. It is now their job to find out how geopolitical ideas, found in sciences, politics, the media and, finally, the minds, are ‘created’ by means of language, maps, images and films. In all disputes, conflicts and wars these ideas influence the actions and decisions of stakeholders, as well as their assessment by the public. In 1994 Derek Gregory coined the term geographical imaginations[19]; in critical geopolitics the term geopolitical concepts has become commonly accepted. Geopolitics, thus, is to be understood as a discursive practice, which produces or – better – constructs the spatial patterns of politics. Us and Them are constructed by means of space-related discourses in geopolitical concepts. Competing (geo)political concepts of different political actors thus clash, which can either lead to a reconciliation of interests through negotiations - or to reinforced images of the enemy as a bogeyman.

Within the scientific discourse of the social sciences, space was for a long time merely seen as a residual category of human behaviour and action, as a container, a distance matrix, a cost factor, etc. However, space is far more than that. In Reuber’s exact words:[20] “It (space) represents the symbolism of power, an invisible topography of socio-political relevances, which massively influences the shape and course of conflicts and, from the viewpoint of politico-geographical analysis, constitutes a significant key to understanding disputes. From this perspective, geopolitics is the construction of geopolitical concepts, i.e. the linguistic, cartographic and visual staging of space-related opposites of the self and the other on a global scale.”

The approach of critical geopolitics can, in a concentrated manner, be summed up as follows (Reuber 2002)[21]:

The research object is the deconstruction of geopolitical discourses and concepts, as well as of their visual representations.

The research methods are language-analytical processes, especially discourse analysis and hermeneutic processes of text analysis (qualitative content analysis, biographical method, etc.), as well as semiotic processes of interpreting images, photos and maps.

The research goals are the deconstruction of existing constructs by revealing their reasoning, and the exposure of their latent function as instruments of power politics in the geopolitical conflicts of the past, present and future.

In classical geopolitics, geo-strategy served the implementation of power politics into practice. It wanted knowledge optimisation through spatially-related facts so as to serve the particular intentions (e.g. the logic of inevitable conquest and securing of colonies). The following applied to the emerging national states of the 19th century: no state sovereignty and no claim to rule without delimited territory. In hindsight we can say that the most important instrument of classical geopolitics and geo-strategy was always the construction of territories and borders and, thus, the partition of space into one’s own and foreign, a friend-enemy pattern. This is a recurring theme in geopolitical discourse, from Mackinder’s contrast between land and sea-powers, up to Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations or Barnett’s regionalisation of the world into core and gap.

Exposing geopolitical constructs is generally accepted to be critical geopolitics’ most important concern. An almost equally important topic is the search for the producers of geopolitical concepts, who decide on war and peace. It concerns a group of opinion shapers and power brokers, such as intellectuals of statecraft, spin doctors, think thanks, etc., whose expertise massively influences politicians of all persuasions. The media also plays a significant role in the dissemination and elaboration of geopolitical concepts among the public at large. An example would be the effect of daily CNN reports during the first Gulf War in 1991, where quasi-realities, which only bore partial resemblance to real events, were staged daily on U.S. TV screens. The media’s reduction of war horrors to something akin to Star Wars has since been referred to as the CNN effect. Although the war’s real space has not disappeared, it has been transformed into an abstract and one-sided version of reality. To what extent Facebook or Twitter (can) design new gegenwelten is subject of strong intellectual controversy. The recent massive global discontent that has flared up due to surveillance programmes and data mining has led to a debate on how much (individual) liberty is possible and how much (collective) security is necessary for the individual, society and the state.

The media’s impact can be subsumed under the heading popular geopolitics. Editorials in important newspapers or journals, commentaries in political pages, debates on TV, as well as (at a lower level) sensationalist announcements pertaining to (local and global) conflicts made in mass-circulation tabloids all serve to consolidate geopolitical concepts. Seldom, however, is the self called into question; it is easier to reinforce one’s own judgements and biases. War and disaster movies using scenarios set in crisis areas also increase the general public’s common perceptions and fears. However, other disciplines also criticise the media; critical geopolitics can only play a supporting role in this.

On the power of geopolitical concepts

From daily politics to long-term political-military strategies, geopolitical concepts are powerfully eloquent and visual constructions, which greatly influence the imagination and actions of decision-makers, as well as their subsequent reception by the silent majority. They are deeply entrenched in the collective consciousness of nations, peoples or communities; their influence, conscious or unconscious, can span generations – e.g. in historical myths and tales, individual interpretations of history, self-portrayal in textbooks, etc. The world is divided into self/other, good/evil, us/them. In ancient Greek city states, a distinction was made between the citizens and the barbarians outside, and in China, the Middle Kingdom was regarded as synonymous with culture and civilisation whilst the rest of the world was (if perceived at all) ranked second-class. All cultures distinguish between the centre and the periphery, frequently also equated with security/threat (in crisis regions). Such concepts and their associated discourses - if reproduced long enough (often for centuries) and handed down to the next generations - eventually turn into quasi-natural facts. At some point people forget that it was originally a bogeyman, and believe the (wrong) image to be reality or truth, much like self-fulfilling prophecies. Frequently repeating a construct will eventually solidify it into real power-relations, i.e. it becomes relevant in daily routines and actions. The result is geopolitics as a discursive practice, which produces and reproduces a seemingly natural spatial order of international politics.

How are these concepts created and how do they function in practice? Dalby[22] points out that the most important and recurring leitmotif is the construction of territories and borders. They enable spatial segregation between the self and the other. Territorial identity leads to a simplified image of a world that is otherwise far too complex. Spatial containment and boundaries also reduce social diversity. The distinction between our space, our territory and their space is consistently made by the classic authors of geopolitics, Ratzel, Mackinder, Mahan, e.g. in the discussion of land powers/sea powers. These concepts were fully exploited in the friend/foe rhetoric of the two World Wars, as well as during the Cold War (West/East, the two superpowers, etc.). Even today, new concepts appear (e.g. rogue state doctrine, the Axis of Evil), promoted by academics such as Huntington (Clash of Civilisations, 1993) or Barnett (The Pentagon’s New Map, 2003). The geopolitical constructions of these leading thinkers and those of the neoconservative political consulting agencies are proof enough to justify the necessity of critical geopolitics. Nevertheless, we should bear in mind that geopolitical concepts merely create geopolitical relations. The simplification of the world by means of faulty concepts reaches into all spheres of human civilisation; (day-to-day) opinions as well as prejudices are based on inductive patterns of thought, and becoming aware of these (through deconstruction) will not change anything.

Let us content ourselves with geopolitical concepts. How can researchers deal with them?[23] Which paths are to be found in the discursive debate, or more forcefully put, in the power struggle of scientific world views?

(a)   The first option would be to adopt the concept unequivocally, i.e. supporting the theses and scientific analyses associated with it (example: there is no longer just a western modernisation, but also an Islamic, Asian one etc.)

(b)   Altering the concept (e.g. the number of Huntington’s cultural zones is wrong, there are 5 or 16, etc.). Although this form of ‘modern’ criticism detects mistakes or serves as a template for alternative drafts, it does not question the theses in principle and leads to a reification of the concept.

(c)   Only postmodern criticism leads to a deconstruction of the constructed concept (as an instrument of the geopolitical exercise of power), a disclosure of the conditions behind its creation (biography of researchers and their institutions) as well as the users’ intentions (e.g. uncovering Huntington’s simplistic culture/space determinism which is antithetical to the complex conflict structures).

Concepts of geopolitics centred on the west

The discursive triangle’s interrelations between society, space and power, as well as their geopolitical manifestations are subject to constant changes. Nevertheless, particularly powerful geopolitical concepts or ones that are in tune with a particular social context in a particular epoch succeed in letting a prevalent pattern of order appear quasi-stable. The language of these concepts can, for decades, appear to be so effective that they come to represent realpolitik order and their constructs appear to be the ‘truth’, from which consequent crises, conflicts and, ultimately, wars result. Such concepts deeply affect people’s everyday realities, even their emotions and fears, which are passed on to the following generations. In recent years, representatives of critical geopolitics have begun systematising these concepts and carving out the respective time periods of dominant discourses.

In this context Reuber talks of a genealogical and archaeological perspective.[24] The genealogical perspective examines the creation, development and retreat of various discourses and concepts in their historical sequence. Thus, classical geopolitics can present us with phases of National Socialism, imperialism and colonialism, with geopoliticians as propagandists helping to shape these concepts and thereby sharing the responsibility for them. After the Second World War came the dominant Cold War concept, which, in turn, was replaced by a string of competing concepts in the late 1980s (in the post-Cold War era), of which none succeeded in becoming the determining factor in global politics. All phases, bar the youngest one, were linked to a western frame of order, which was forced onto the rest of the world; first by European colonial powers and later by the USA’s hegemonic dominance in the chorus of the powerful. Only with the rise of competing powers (China, India, Brazil) did this one-sided dominance break down and local or region-specific discourses about conflicts develop. This sequence does not mean that wrong concepts are replaced by ones that are more right, but simply that they are replaced by different ones.

The archaeological perspective, oriented along the lines of Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge, is somewhat different. This perspective is constructed more synchronously and deals with historical moments which unsettle a discursive order or even force a discursive rupture and a change of perspective. The most famous rupture of this kind was doubtlessly 9/11 and its consequences.

In my 2010 article, I used Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations and discourses on the 2008 Georgian conflict as being representative of the work of deconstruction employed by critical geopolitics. This is why two other concepts will serve here to interpret content as well as to aid methodological understanding. Firstly, the Cold War concept as an example of a universalistic, hegemonic world order, followed by a forceful construct from the post-Cold War phase which cunningly exploits a fragmented and conflict-oriented world’s fears and metaphors of division - Barnett’s Core and Gap thesis (2003).

The Cold War’s concept of a universalistic world order

For a long time the Cold War phase was regarded as the irresistible development of a particular historical constellation, a struggle for domination between the two victorious powers, the USA and the USSR. From the point of view of critical geopolitics, however, this development was not certain, but created (better: constructed) by the two camps’ existing discourses of ideological enmity. Churchill’s adaptation of the First World War’s term Iron Curtain was especially descriptive and influential (1946). When the influential commentator Walter Lippmann introduced the term “Cold War” in 1947, the USA’s foreign policy towards its former ally and now enemy Stalin was given framing. The Cold War’s storyline retraced the geostrategic pattern of Mahan, Mackinder and Spykman in only a slightly modified form. The motive behind the Marshall Plan was to obstruct Soviet land power from potentially becoming a U.S. rival on sea by bolstering the states of Western and Central Europe. The Truman Doctrine simply replaced the rivalry between Russia (land power) and Great Britain (sea power) with the dual friend/foe correlation Soviet Union/USA. Ó Tuathail[25] put it in a nutshell: “Through the use of earth of earth-labelling categories like ‘the free world’ and the ‘enslaved world’, the geographical kaleidoscope of the map becomes the geopolitical monochrome of good versus evil, capitalism versus communism, the West versus the East, America versus the Soviet Union. All places and conflicts were interpreted within the binary terms of this Manichean map.” The West (in its self-definition) stands for positive values: democracy, (personal) liberty, market economy versus the totalitarianism and planned economies of the others. In the East, the Party sees itself as the pioneer of a communist-style democracy that fights against capitalism and for an ultimately classless society. The creation of these blocks led to countless trouble spots, conflicts and proxy wars, as well as to two dominant Western construction principles, domino theory and containment policy. The spatialisation of ideological disputes played a key role in both constructs. The domino theory (Eisenhower Doctrine 1954) argued that every state is at risk of becoming communist if communism had already spread to a neighbouring country. Be it Greece, Southeast Asia or the larger part of Africa fighting to liberate itself from colonial powers – it provides legitimacy for an intervention by Globocop, from which the second doctrine ‘logically’ follows: a global containment policy, actively intervening in the “misconduct” of political regimes. The Soviet Union, in turn, saw itself as the pioneer in the global struggle for liberation from the imperialist yoke. It could be said cynically that both sides were able to make good use of this instability for their activities on the international political stage.

The Cold War concept led to a reorientation of both American foreign and domestic policy. The previous pillar of American foreign policy, geopolitical isolationism, was now replaced by the grand design (Roosevelt from 1941 onwards), by Atlanticism and, soon thereafter, geopolitical internationalism.[26] This led to a series of drastic changes. In domestic policy, this meant the development of internal security (monitoring authorities, McCarthy-era); in foreign policy, this called for huge arms build-up, a nuclear deterrent and the configuration of the comprehensive architecture of alliances (NATO, SEATO). Despite some hiccoughs (beginning with the Vietnam War), the simple and simplistic friend-foe worldview served as a paradigm guiding policy through the constructs of American Realpolitik, Brezhnev’s “trust-building measures” or Gorbachev’s “Glasnost and Perestroika”, until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989.

New concepts following the Cold War

With the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, not only did the Soviet empire and its vassals collapse, but also the long-fostered geopolitical order patterns of the east-west conflict had passed their sell-by date. A new fragmented world came into being, which was faced with new competing powers, globalisation, and actors that were not per se political (e.g. transnational companies), and thus new conflicting geopolitical concepts had to be created. However, the tried and tested discursive constructs (e.g. first world/third world) crept into the new interpretive patterns (north-south conflict, cultural realm theses, the dissolution of spaces of places by means of spaces of flows in network-societies [Manuel Castells]). It was also novel to question the hegemonic demands of geopolitical concepts. Two movements, in particular, were widely discussed, namely geo-economic and geo-ecological concepts.

In the early 1990s, it finally seemed as if the old geopolitical field, marked by inter-state relations of power and exchange, had become barren. In 1990, Edward N. Luttwak shaped the term “geo-economics”[27]: in an age of globalisation, political conflicts are primarily of an economic nature and thus (also) need to be tackled with economic means. Nearly all political conflicts contain an economic dimension; this approach, however, postulates that a solution to economic conflicts virtually automatically leads to the political differences being solved. The global financial and economic crisis since 2008 fits well into this battle between a global economy and state interventions (attempts to exercise influence on cash flows). In contrast, Manuel Castells’ network society increasingly replaces territorially formed nation-states with a “new social morphology of networks” (Castells)[28], which are open systems that “can expand endlessly”, whereby inter-state conflict scenarios become virtually obsolete.

A further dimension is covered by the geo-ecological concepts which are self-explanatory. Well-known examples are Limits to Growth (Club of Rome 1971), which dealt with the limited availability of natural resources, their exploitation, climate change, etc. or the Global 2000 report. They represent apocalyptic illusions (or delusions), however, have not (yet) been proven statistically and, ultimately, generate deterministic assumptions and inferences. Similar to the Cold War trailblazers, the advocates of this movement can - as political advisors - charge the political negotiation processes with constructs of climate wars, floods of refugees, and genocides. However, no-one can predict the adaptability and innovative power of humanity until 2050. Due to the attacks of 9/11 the attractiveness of geo-economic and geo-political concepts will fade for a long time. Let us return to the new geopolitical concepts.

Two main developments can be made out:

(a) Concepts dealing with a hegemonic and universalistic order and its spatial make-up, and (b) concepts dealing with a conflict-ridden and split (fragmented) world.

The best-known work dealing with (a) is Francis Fukuyama’s End of History[29], which at first (just like Huntington’s work) was provided with a question mark – at the end of the Soviet Union, the USA’s concept of civilisation was regarded as having triumphed and Pax Americana could henceforth improve the world unopposed. The collapse of Yugoslavia and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, however, quickly proved otherwise. The concept, however, still has adherents, e.g. the important advisor to several presidents, the éminence grise of American geo-strategy beside Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski.[30] The USA is the world’s only superpower…America’s global domination is, in its size and nature, unique. Following the old geopolitical school of thought, Brzezinski argues that the interests of the USA need to be urgently secured in Eurasia. Here we may ask, what came first: the chicken or the egg?

Do geo-strategies employing the concept of unilateralism which are brought into politics by intellectuals of statecraft ultimately develop in order to legitimise or encourage military operations, or do our own political-military successes/the weakness of our enemies contribute to the creation of such a concept in our heads? Either way, American patriotism has filled the public’s everyday life with an abundance of symbols, practices and images, as well as a never-ending stream of praise for our nation, our troops.

(b) Interpreting the world as fragmented and conflict rather than consensus-oriented, in turn produces a different geopolitical concept. Huntington set the benchmark: The Clash of Civilizations (1993) (see my review, 2010). Huntington’s central thesis rests on the assumption that neither universal values nor political actions shape the world, but rather different cultures with their counter-concepts based on ethnicity or religion, whose (territorial) fault lines clash, which inevitably leads to a clash of civilisations. The big enemies of the Western canon of values are primarily Islam and – present, but less noticeable – Confucianism. This resulted in the fitting slogan The West against the Rest. Although Huntington’s theses have been frequently picked to pieces, they still have a striking effect on the public, especially after they were ‘verified’ by 9/11. Reuber describes this as powerful interpretative blueprints – and we add -, whose validity is interpreted in many different ways by critics of ideology. Much relies on Huntington’s work, e.g. Michael Klare’s rogue state doctrine, which was an interpretative blueprint for George W. Bush’s Axis of Evil.[31] A particularly powerful version of a geopolitical concept that is based upon a fragmented world order comes from Thomas Barnett; a version, which is subsequently highlighted.

Thomas Barnett’s geopolitical Core-Gap Thesis (2003)

Thomas P.M. Barnett[32] is a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, an elite military university. He is considered one of the Pentagon’s most influential geopolitical experts. Already in 2001, Barnett was a trusted advisor of the then-Secretary of Defence Rumsfeld and, in this phase, drafted The Pentagon’s New Map, whose martial rhetoric created a stir among experts and the public alike. Enough time has passed for this concept to be presented sine ira et studio. It is concerned – again – with a form of strategic regionalisation from an American perspective. This concept builds on existing geopolitical patterns of explanation, is, however, even more pointed. The reasoning deals with America’s role in the age of globalisation, yet differently than in Brzezinski’s work. In Barnett’s diction, America is the guardian of the world’s strategic security. The (first) war against Iraq marked a turning point, where the USA turned its imaginary hegemonic role into politico-military reality. In hindsight, we can see that such reasoning legitimised American interventionist policy. A map of globalisation shows us, on the one hand, regions thick with network connectivity (e.g. financial transactions), which exhibit stable regimes, high living standards, liberal media and domestic, general security. Barnett calls these zones the Functioning Core. On the other hand, the rest of the world is largely disconnected from globalisation, marked by poverty, illness and repressive regimes. These are the zones of chronic conflicts, which incubate the next generation of global terrorists.[33] Barnett calls this counter world the Non-Integrated Gap. This is the Core-Gap Thesis, in which the Pentagon’s world map draws an Arc of Instability that stretches from Latin America over nearly all of Africa, the Indian Ocean, South-East Europe, Central Asia, and up to the Pacific region between China and Australia (see illustration 1). Why China, India and South Africa are not part of this category remains a mystery. The evil phrase concerning the fight against Islam from Marrakech to Bangladesh (unknown author) is spatially and culturally more restrictive.

Which method does Barnett apply in order to demarcate? The method is surprisingly simple: areas where American troops operated between 1950 and 1999 were cartographically fixed, and these were concentrated in crisis-regions; if one connects these foci with a line, the non-integrated gap is thus defined. The resultant geopolitical logic: the weaker a region’s link with globalisation, the greater the likelihood of US troops being deployed there. Again in plain English (also 2003, 558): “Until we begin the systematic, long-term export of security to the Gap, it will increasingly export its pain to the Core in the form of terrorism and other instabilities.” In 2002, the magazine Esquire voted Barnett ‘Strategist of the Year’ and he remains influential to this day. In order for Barnett not to be singled out as a solitaire of geo-strategy, Barry Rubin’s rogue state doctrine is added, which underpinned the Axis of Evil (1999) and matched the Zeitgeist:[34] (34) “A rogue state is one that puts a high priority on subverting other states and sponsoring non-conventional types of violence against them. It does not react predictably to deterrence or other tools of diplomacy and statecraft. In short, such a state requires special treatment and high levels of international pressure in order to prevent it from wrecking public order, setting off wars, and subverting whole areas of the world”. The former German Defence Minister Peter Struck’s 2009 statement – “The security of Europe (or Germany) is being defended at the Hindukush” – caused a similar stir and seems to have been based on a similar geopolitical concept. After more than a decade of a futile war, will the disaster in Afghanistan throw such geopolitical concepts and discourses on the slag heap of history? Of course, such sabre-rattling under the disguise of ‘scientific’ analysis has generated fierce criticism. One need only mention contributions by Noam Chomsky, Emmanuel Todd, J.C. Brisard und G. Dasquie as well as others. (To be continued)



[1] Heinz Nissel: ‚Kritische Geopolitik. Zur Neukonzeption der Politischen Geographie in der Postmoderne.’, in: ÖMZ 1/2010, p.11-21.

[2] The author would like to thank the peer reviewers for their valuable criticism and suggestions.

[3] Hauke Ritz has dealt with the topic a number of times. Lately: ‚Die Rückkehr der Geopolitik. Eine Ideologie und ihre fatalen Folgen’, in: Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik 3/2013, p.71-80. Ritz lists a number of such think tanks: the Egmont Institute, the European Council on Foreign Relations, the Centre for European Reform, the European Union Institute for Security Studies, the Centre for European Policy Studies, as well as the Bertelsmann Stiftung.

[4] 3/2013, p.72. Especially ambitious is a group which was founded in 2011 in order to combine these efforts, the Group on Grand Strategy (GoGS) and their publication European Geostrategy.

[5] Proof that a different approach is possible: Colin Flint, Introduction to Geopolitics, second edition, Routledge, New York, 2012.

[6] John Prescott, Political Geography, London, 1972.

[7] Ulrich Ante, Politische Geographie. Das geographische Seminar, Braunschweig, 1981. And: Klaus-Achim Boesler, Politische Geographie, Stuttgart, 1983.

[8] Klaus Kost, ‚Geopolitik und kein Ende. Thesen zur Gegenwart der Politischen Geographie in Deutschland’, in: Rainer Graafen and Wolf Tietze (eds.), Raumwirksame Staatstätigkeit. Festschrift für K.-A. Boesler zum 65. Geburtstag. Colloquium Geographicum 23, Bonn, 1997, p.133

[9] Jürgen Oßenbrügge, ‚Die Renaissance der Politischen Geographie. Aufgaben und Probleme’, in: HGG Journal (Journal der Heidelberger Geographischen Gesellschaft) 11, 1997, p.1-18, here p.14.

[10] cf: Klaus Kost, Die Einflüsse der Geopolitik auf Forschung und Theorie der Politischen Geographie von ihren Anfängen bis 1945, Bonn, 1988. And: Andrea K. Riemer, Heinz Nissel and Friedrich W. Korkisch, Geopolitik. Zwischen Wissenschaft und Kunstlehre, Schriftenreihe der Landesverteidigungsakademie 3/2005, especially pp.243-259.

[11] Paul Reuber, Politische Geographie. Schöningh UTB, Paderborn, 2012.

[12] Heinz Nissel and Christine Embleton-Hamann, ‘Down to Earth - IGC Cologne 2012. 32. Weltkongress der Geographie in Köln’, August 2012, in: Mitteilungen der Österreichischen Geographischen Gesellschaft (MÖGG), Vienna, 2012, p 341-346. And: Heinz Nissel, ‘Spatialising the (Geo)Political. Political Geography and Critical Geopolitics’, Preconference 2012, 24/25 August 2012, Frankfurt am Main, in: MÖGG, Vienna, 2012, p.347-349.

[13] Günter Wolkersdorfer, Politische Geographie und Geopolitik zwischen Moderne und Postmoderne. Heidelberger Geographische Arbeiten 111, Heidelberg, 2001. And: Günter Wolkersdorfer, ‚Politische Geographie und Geopolitik: zwei Seiten derselben Medaille?’, in: Paul Reuber and Günter Wolkersdorfer (eds.), Politische Geographie. Handlungsorientierte Ansätze und Critical Geopolitics. Heidelberger Geographische Arbeiten 112, Heidelberg, 2001, p.33-56.

[14] Jean-Francois Lyotard, La condition postmoderne, 1975.

[15] „Every society has its order of truths, its ‚general policies’ of truth, it accepts certain discourses.” In: Michel Foucault, Die Ordnung des Diskurses, Frankfurt am Main, 1991, p.74.

[16] Paul Reuber, 2012, chapters 2 and 3.

[17] Michel Foucault, Die Ordnung des Diskurses, Frankfurt am Main, 1991.

[18] Georg Glasze and Annika Mattisek, Handbuch Diskurs und Raum. Theorien und Methoden für die Humangeographie sowie die sozial- und kulturwissenschaftliche Raumforschung, Bielefeld, 2009.

[19] Derek Gregory, Geographical imaginations, Cambridge, 1994.

[20] Paul Reuber, 2012, p.164.

[21] Paul Reuber, Die Politische Geographie nach dem Ende des Kalten Krieges. Neue Ansätze und Forschungsfelder’, in: Geographische Rundschau 54, 7/8 2002, pp.4-9, illustration. 3. Also in: Nissel, 2010, p.13-14.

[22] Simon Dalby, ‘Calling 911 - geopolitics, security and America’s new war.’, in: Geopolitics 8(13), 2003, pp.61-68. Simon Dalby, ‘Geopolitics, the Bush doctrine, and war on Iraq’, in: The Arab World Geographer 6(1), 2003, pp.7-18.

[23] First systematisation by Wolkersdorfer, 2001. Also in Reuber, 2012, pp.167-169.

[24] Paul Reuber, 2012, p.172.

[25] Geraoid Ó Tuathail,  Simon Dalby and Paul Routledge (eds.), The geopolitics reader, 2nd ed., London, 2006 (first edition 1998) p.60.

[26] An excellent abstract of the various phases of American geopolitics was given by Friedrich W. Korkisch in: , Andrea K. Riemer, Heinz Nissel and Friedrich W. Korkisch, Geopolitik - Zwischen Wissenschaft und Kunstlehre. Schriftenreihe der Landesverteidigungsakademie Wien, 3/2005. p.127ff.

[27] Edward N. Luttwak, ‘From Geopolitics to Geo-Economics: Logic of Conflict, Grammar of Commerce.’ In: National Interest 1990. Also in: Tuathail, Dalby, Routledge, The geopolitics reader 1998, p.125-130.

[28] Manuel Castells, Der Aufstieg der Netzwerkgesellschaften, Opladen, 2001, p.527.

[29] Francis Fukuyama, ‘The End of History?’, in: The National Interest, 16, 1989, p.3-18.

[30] Zbigniew Brzezinski, The Grand Chessboard, 1997.

[31] In my seminars on political geography my students enjoyed analysing the changing in and exclusions of rogue states in the doctrine.

[32] Thomas Barnett, ‚Die neue Weltkarte des Pentagon’, in: Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik 5, 2003, p.554-564. Interpreted by Paul Reuber and Günter Wolkersdorfer, ‚Auf der Suche nach der Weltordnung? Geopolitische Leitbilder und ihre Rolle in den Krisen und Konflikten des neuen Jahrtausends’, in: Petermanns Geographische Mitteilungen 148, 2004 (2), pp.12-19. Map on p.18.

[33] Barnett, 2003, p.558.

[34] Barry Rubin, „Schurkenstaaten“. Amerikas Selbstverständnis und seine Beziehungen zur Welt’, in: Zeitschrift für Internationale Politik, 1999, pp.5-14.