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Critical geopolitics

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Geopolitics addresses the impact that spatial features have on politics. Critical geopolitics is a more recent discipline from the 1970s and 1980s that will study how spatial patterns will mobilize politics. We will focus on critical geopolitics. Political geography and geopolitics are different. At the very beginning of the discipline, the two terms were considered equivalent. Instead of just looking at what is geopolitical today, we will address the critical approach that has developed over the last twenty years as a result of the confusion of the two terms.

It is striking how journalists use the term geopolitics as if everything international would be geopolitics. On the one hand, we will look at the influence of space on politics with the idea that it is spatial configurations that determine political practices. On the other hand, we will see the evolution of the state, but we will approach it in the context of globalization. Finally, we will return to the observation that political geography can be considered as a discourse. Critical geopolitics must be seen in its historical context. Today, most publications on political geography are Anglo-Saxon.

Training and the evolution of States[edit | edit source]

The establishment of states is a complex social process because there is no theory of the state, there are several theories from different disciplines focusing for the most part on the processes of formation and transformation. The social contract serves as a tool to deliver sovereignty from its religious tradition. The geographical dimension of the formation of States is reflected in the precise delimitation of borders, the exclusivity of territories, the location of the State apparatus and the development of population monitoring tools. These are characteristics that have already been identified by people like Ratzel.

The welfare state appeared in Europe after 1890 and in the United States after the Great Depression. It aims at the provision of services in education, health, housing, etc. with a universalist geographical perspective. The welfare state began to suffer in the 1970s following upheavals in the world economy that led to a loss of sovereignty from above, from below and from the sidelines, revealing internal contradictions, as its activities threatened contributions that were essential for its survival, or administrative processes became too complex.

Rediscovering geopolitics[edit | edit source]

At the end of the 1970s, there was a series of major upheavals in the United States, but also in Europe and other continents in the context of decolonization and integration into a global economy. Among these upheavals, we can note the loss of national consensus on foreign policy, particularly in the context of the Vietnam War and the Cold War, making the public much more critical. Much of what is described as context is specific to the United States. This does not mean that there was no context in which there was no loss of national consensus around foreign policy in Europe, but it was often oriented towards the United States. The civil rights movement highlights that there are many sectors of society that do not have the same rights leading to a democratic crisis. The oil crisis will lead to a questioning of the capitalist Bretton Woods system. It also produced an Intellectual Revolution with a shift towards postmodernism and a re-emergence of Marxist perspectives including among geographers like David Harvey.

It is in this national and international political context, dominated by the Cold War and witnessing a crisis of the national state, that discourses emerge that use the term "geopolitics". This can be seen above all in the speeches of politicians, but in some ways it serves to legitimize power practices such as the justifications seen in the Reformation era when intellectuals provided arguments for the consolidation of the state or the first political geographers of the 20th century who justified arguments for imperial colonial enterprises.

What people like Kissinger and Brezinski do when they use the term "geopolitics" is to naturalize and objectify politics in a way that makes people think that because geography is behind it, it is more scientific and natural.

Kissinger is known for the policy of détente and was the architect of American foreign policy in the late 1960s and 1970s. He is interested in all forms of power, notably through his approach to balancing power between the United States, USSR, China and India. Brezinski was Johnson's adviser and also national security adviser to Jimmy Carter, he was also one of Obama's leading foreign policy advisers. There were strategic imperatives focusing on geostrategic hubs such as Turkey, Central Asia, Iran and South Korea. It will focus mainly on the Eurasian continent. We see a mixture of arguments provided by Ratzel, Mackinder, but also Kjellén.

From geopolitics to critical geopolitics[edit | edit source]

What is now considered critical geopolitics is defined by Agnew in Why criticizing grand regional narratives matters published in 2013 as "the critical sense that world politics is based on countless assumptions and patterns about how the world's geographical divisions, strategic plans, global images and the disposition of continents and seas enter into the production of foreign policy and its popular legitimization [.these assumptions and patterns are considered social constructions for social and political purposes that are not of a natural geopolitical order.

The ideas and that it is a critical view on the discourses conducted in geopolitics. The classical geopolitics of the early 20th century is only one specific example of a geographical mask that hides imperialism or hegemony behind a "naturalized" causality. Agnew analyzes for the most part the emergence of critical political geography in the United States, but it is not the only one where the term "geopolitics" is reintroduced and used.

Critical geopolitics: French and Anglo-Saxon versions[edit | edit source]

Geopolitics in France[edit | edit source]

Yves Lacoste identifies exactly when and in what context the term "geopolitics" appeared in 1979 in the "fratricidal war" between Vietnam and Cambodia. Le Monde argues that this conflict "is geopolitics".

Yves Lacoste became one of France's most radical geographers. He refers to Reclus's radical criticism of the geography of academics: geography has always been the basis of true geopolitical reasoning. University geographers refuse to address political issues "while geography is regarded as political knowledge by men of action and power". In 1976, he published La géographie, ça sert, d'abord, à faire la guerre. For him, geography in France has totally evacuated the political aspect in the teaching of geography making geographers have always been in the service of war since it is always geographical knowledge at the end that serves to make war.

According to Lacoste, geopolitics is the "relationship between precisely localized political forces, whether official or clandestine". This definition does not go as far as the one proposed by Agnew. Lacoste launched Herodotus magazine in 1976. What is also interesting to note is that in general, the intellectual upheaval in the American context which posed a strong interest in postmodernist theories is not very visible in critical geopolitics in France.

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Lacoste took the example of the dike case in Vietnam in 1972. There is a rumour of American bombardment of the dikes of the Red River. Lacoste reacts to rumour following an article in Le Monde. He is sent to Hanoi to analyze these rumors and then will demonstrate that the Americans were bombing the dikes to flood the delta. His report will back down in the United States.

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In his perspective, he mobilizes geographic knowledge to dismantle political ends. It is a critical geopolitics of the early hours, but at the same time one can wonder if this is really critical when analyzing the discourse of the Americans.

Political geography is a discourse that takes place in a historical context. Lacoste positions itself in an academic environment in which politics has been completely evacuated from geography. The task is to reintroduce politics into geography. Many writers now identify with critical geopolitics.

Anglo-Saxon geopolitics[edit | edit source]

The context of the 1970s in the Anglo-Saxon world is marked by the Cold War, Vietnam which is a context similar to that of France, but also has its own specificities, notably with the Watergate scandal which is a symbolic event that reinforces the feeling among intellectuals and the general public that there is a political crisis of states.

Given that politicians will start using the term "geopolitics", the question arises whether there is something outside geography that should be considered. Although the Cold War was characterized by competition between two economic systems, the question arose as to whether there was anything space-related in the Cold War, could the fact that geopolitics had a bad reputation serve to analyse the Cold War from a critical perspective.

In this context, postmodernist theories have become popular with Anglo-Saxon scientists. Wallerstein was to develop the system-world theory, Peter Taylor being known as the founder of Political Geography which was the most important journal in political geography.

Critical geopolitics are found today in environmental geography. Gearóid Ó Tuathail analyzes the civil war in El Salvador between 1980 and 1992 and more precisely the open American support to the opposition of the socialist revolutionaries by analyzing the speeches of the United States which allows them to justify their support. The American discourse is based on the domino theory, which is the idea that you can't let a single state down in the Cold War, otherwise there would be a decrease in its hegemony. Another justification was to defend the interests of American companies. What Ó Tuathail brings to his analysis through the analysis of discourses is what was the basis of the discourses of the United States, namely a conceptualization in their sphere of influence. The idea is that we find the beginnings in the Monroe doctrine and that more fundamentally, the practices and interventions of the United States in El Salvador and other Latin American countries and in Africa would be a cultural imperative which is to impose the "American way of life". This is an imperative that is still highly visible today.

Simon Dalby is one of the first to take an interest in the environmental aspect of critical geopolitics. In 1998, Dalby and Ó Tuathail published Rethinking Geopolitics. For Dalby, geopolitics deals with the ideological process of constructing spatial, political and cultural boundaries in order to separate the domestic space from an Other Threatening.

The geopolitics of resources[edit | edit source]

The 1960s and 1970s were not only economic and political upheavals in the state crisis, but also the beginning of the environmental movement. Environmental issues are resurfacing and are being translated into environmental safety issues. The ways in which government issues surface are found in the chemical pollution of animals and in the accumulation of toxic substances in the body. Environmental safety is first to be found in health safety, which will later become more structural.

There is a trend in physical geography towards modelling that is beginning to focus on the global functioning of the environment around the ozone layer and climate change. We realize that this is a relationship between human beings and the earth, which means that there are variables from the social sciences that must be integrated using interdisciplinarity and a rapprochement between physical geography and social geography. For Cox, in A perspective on globalization published in 1997, geographers can fuel interdisciplinarity through their expertise in the interdependence between knowledge, power and scale. Cox is a critical geographer who tells physical geographers that his discipline can contribute. emerges an appreciation of the ecological limits of the world, a whole series of international conferences and publications that will put in visibility.

Kattalin Gabriel-Oyhamburu notes in the article Le retour d'une géopolitique des ressources? published in 2010 that the third globalization comes at the same time as the crisis of the state translated by deregulation, decompartmentalization and disintermediation. There is a whole series of transformations in the financial world that go hand in hand with globalisation. The third globalization is also characterized by a whole series of spatial effects such as coastalization, maritimeization, metropolization, polarization of territories and the emergence of places in the world. The first two spatial effects that revolve around the positioning of powers and populations in coastal areas are directly linked to the arguments of Thucydides and the ancient Greeks who analysed competition between territorial and maritime powers. Later, the American hyperpower gave itself the mission of expanding "American Way of Life" requiring the opulence of mining, energy and agricultural resources. It is a whole series of transformations that characterize the first phase of the third globalization, focusing its argument on the geopolitics of resources.

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For Gabriel-Oyhamburu, zonal geopolitics emphasizes the territory being the founding idea of Ratzel and Mackinder's arguments with the idea that whoever controls the heartland will control the world. An object geopolitics is the geopolitics of resources, that is, the usefulness of a territory is no longer a matter of the territory as a whole, but of the fact that it is a place of resources.

Gabriel-Oyhamburu argues that explanations based on zonal geopolitics are no longer sufficient, because the geopolitical theories that remained on zonal logics had not taken into account the emerging powers and the rise in power of emerging countries like China, which are experiencing a development "not totally foreseen by Brezinski and the American neo-realists".

In Le retour d'une géopolitique des ressources?, Gabriel-Oyhamburu is obsessed with energy, agri-food and water resources. For her, the third globalization "did not upset the thought patterns of the founders of geopolitics. For Gabriel-Oyhamburu, the geopolitics of a territory pass through three perspectives: a vision of the world that is geohistory and territorial representations, a vision of the world such as an expansionist power and a degree of integration into the world system through economic growth or its political legitimacy. It is a zonal geopolitics with a return to an objectal geopolitics around the control of power vector resources.

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Gabriel-Oyhamburu advances the idea of geostrategic nodes that are not pivots as in Mackinder's argument, but they are resource-rich places with strong political instability: "To control the world, you have to control the objects of the world, the means of survival of the world, and therefore the resources to survive. This is where geostrategic objectives in terms of resources are concentrated.

A critical geopolitics of climate change[edit | edit source]

On the question of "who wins, who loses" in the Arctic, this is interesting because polar melt should provide access to new natural resources and new shipping routes, making it an "Arctic Rush". Canada, Greenland, Norway, Russia and the United States are in competition, particularly on issues related to sovereignty, which allows the granting of exclusive economic zones.

Climate change, which brings about changes such as the melting of polar ice, also brings new political trends and developments. These trends are linked to security issues, namely energy security issues in the Arctic. Dalby speaks of securing the environment by taking a biopolitical stance that serves to control populations.

Summary[edit | edit source]

Critical geopolitics places extreme emphasis on the discursive character of political geography by analyzing discourses that use spatial arguments to divide the world by identifying a threatening Other. Its emergence comes in parallel with the rediscovery of the word "geopolitics" by politicians and the media.

It is possible to ask whether environmental geopolitics is moving towards "neodeterminism". Securing the environment opens the door to disciplines and touches on issues that directly concern us.

Annexes[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]