The Panorama of Geopolitics

This article is based on the lecture by historian Milorad Vukasinovic presented at KCNS, Serbia.

The topic of this article is the panorama of geopolitics which has long been proscribed from the public gaze and ignored. This lecture will have two main parts: from the second part of the 19th century until the 1960s and the second part the fundamental change in the geopolitics paradigm caused by globalisation, which is a process that changed the relations between the spatial and the geopolitical to a great extent.

Geopolitics is a relatively young scientific discipline which was established in the second half of the 19th century under the influence of many societal and historical processes characteristic of that period in world history. It was conditioned by the interaction of three factors as follows:

  • the first element: the expansion of capitalism as a way of societal provision and ‘managing’ the economy, which required new forms of transport, traffic, communication of people and trade.
  • the second element: the change in spiritual-religious paradigm in which the element of spatiality as a key element of geopolitics is not viewed in its metahistorical and metaphysical meaning any more as a sacred or sacral reality and more and more as a physical geographical given and as a resource potential about which the great powers of the time/age contemplate.
  • the third element: strictly political relations around the process of the unification of Germany in 1871. That event most profoundly changed the course of the European and the world politics because from 1871 to the beginning of the First World War came the period which the scientific historiography marks as the era of Imperialism; when the great world powers of that time were striving to articulate their own imperial goals theoretically through geopolitics as a new scientific discipline. The process of the unification of Germany opened up a serious geopolitical issue, which left its indelible mark on the whole 20th century and particularly its first half. That issue was the challenges of the centrality of Germany. Therefore, in the same way as the obsessive topic of German geopolitics was to articulate the German sphere of interest and then in the same way as it was the obsessive issue among competitive powers to limit and restrain this German influence and to respond in such a way that that German challenge caused a colossal protest in the social conscience of the societal and geopolitical elites of Europe at the time.

German geopolitics was markedly the most developed and the most significant one. It somehow started the process of geopolitical theories which was in effect a response to the process of unification of Germany. That is why it was not a coincidence that about the geopolitical panorama we can start at the beginning of this talk by paraphrasing the most significant German authors of that time. Those were above all Friedrich Ratzel and his follower who was not German by nationality but Swedish yet he was a pro-German inclined political scientist Rudolf Kjellén. He enjoyed utmost respect and trust by the German political elites at the time.

What was the fundamental intellectual heritage by Friedrich Ratzel?

He was an anthropo-geographer by profession. He wrote a book in 1889 by the title Political geography with the note that he thought that political geography is a scientific subdiscipline of anthropogeography. He designed a few fundamental approaches about Germany as a country and its sphere of interests predominantly. His basic approach was of a biologistic character in that a country/a state is an organism which the same as any living organism is born, grows, develops and eventually dies. One can see an obvious impact of Darwinist theory which gained popularity at the time among German scientists including the social scientists.

He was important also for having designed a theory which he will depict as the theory of ‘German living space’ i.e. Lebensraum by which he tried to articulate the limits of the German sphere of interest and influence in Europe. One should add that at the time of his scholarly and political activities by the end of the 19th century, race and racist theories and tendency were popular and rampant but Ratzel in his public appearances and written works avoided an extremely radical racist theory, whereas one cannot say that he did not ‘flirt’ with these rather popular notions at the time. He approved of a concept of European colonialism of non-European spaces and territories. In one of his works he also wrote that the experiences of the colonisation of America and Brazil have shown that it is the most efficient form of colonization of certain territories in such a way that the territory should be taken away from the domicile population. The colonizer takes the land away and starts using it for some purpose such as for farming and agriculture. But he did avoid something which was very popular at the time in Germany: anthropological explanation of the phenomenon of race. He was much closer to a cultural civilizational understanding of race. He believed that European nations/peoples were dominant in that respect, Germans included. Thus, he would find therein the source of legitimacy of German imperial pursuits and conquests.

That culture-civilization criterion would become typical of the way of thinking of Western elites in general of that period. Whenever I mention this criterion, I recall one famous British historian, Robert Seton-Watson who contemplated the Balkans in the similar way. In 1911, on the eve of the Balkan wars, he wrote a famous book on the South-Slavic issue and Austro-Hungarian monarchy in which among other things he stated that the triumph of the Serbs on the Balkans would represent (let me quote) ‘the greatest misfortune for the European culture and civilization’. Although he was a British Calvinist, he thought that Austro-Hungarian Empire in the Balkans had its source of legitimacy in intrinsic, cultural civilization mission with the recognizable paradigm and the mindset of Western dominance as opposed to the Eastern Orthodox Church civilization which is viewed as something different, something (let me quote) less valuable.

Ratzel’s research at the beginning of the 20th century was considerably improved and given a ‘new lease of life’ by the famous Swedish political scientist Rudolf Kjellén, who interestingly, was the first in public discourse to use the term geopolitics. Unlike Ratzel, who believed that political geography is a discipline within anthropogeography, Kjellén postulated that geopolitics was a new science about the state/ country. He thought that together with political, sociological, juristic(legal) theory of a state, an element of geography should be added to these theories and the geographic predisposition of a particular space/territory and that geopolitics is a new discipline which differs from its predecessor in that geographical element.

Kjellén is important for his obsession with the challenges of German centrality. He further refined Ratzel’s theory of Lebensraum but he tried to articulate that idea within a broader strategic concept which was to become famous in geopolitics as ‘the strategy of the diagonal’: the idea of spatial connecting of the North Western of the European continent with the southeast of Eurasia: the diagonal line from Iceland to Indonesia which encompasses a huge Eurasian land massif in which the German idea of ‘Drang nach Osten‘ fits perfectly well and which perhaps in a singular way was the reason for both world wars. Kjellén is a significant scholar and author due to his perceptive analyses of the relations between the great European powers from 1903 until 1922 when he died. He noted that on the eve of the Great War three most crucial issues of European politics were German-French relations and the Balkans as the point of disagreement between the Austro-Hungary and Germany on one hand and Russia on the other. He put forth his findings in a very perceiving manner that the challenge of German centrality and its geographic predisposition, which places it in a position of a permanent rival of a dominant thalassocratic power (which was England from that period and later the USA). In principle, he maintained that Germany is geographically predetermined to protect the interests of Europe even when the peripheral countries and nations do not accept that overwhelming concept of German dominance. After the experiences from the First World War which require a particular emphasis, he particularly analysed the issue of ‘the activation of world (geo) politics’.

He sought to explain what the cause of the First World War was and possible cause(s) of potential future conflicts, which have later proven as particularly true. He was of the belief that three elements in three crucial ways geographically predetermine the position of one country.

1st – the element of a possible expansion of a country’s territory

2nd – the element of freedom of movement (which presupposes the freedom of trading)

3rd – the element of territorial or ethnic monolithity

Interestingly, all the later geopolitical theories if analysed from Kjellén’s perspective, in effect have originated from these three elements inasmuch as German rivals i.e. the opponents of German state tried to emphasise their own chief advantages and in some form of theoretical and practical articulation to avoid talking about the disadvantages of their own geographic position. Remarkably, the English have never never (!) used the term ‘geopolitics’ in their geopolitical argot, whereas they talk about their strategic and vitally important interests because for the English, geopolitics is a metaphor of terrestrial or land centralization (allow me to quote), say, one of the serious flaws in the English geographic position was the lack of territorial and ethnic monolithity. So as the leading power of seafaring civilization they have always had a possibility of territorial – maritime expansion. It is worth noting that the well-known Commonwealth did not manage to compensate for it, as one form of economic and political community, which was established under the patronage of the English crown.

It is also interesting that the USA, which at the beginning of the 20th century and particularly after the First World War became the leader of the new Atlanticism fulfilled all said criteria but it is not a sheer coincidence that the USA was the leader of the Atlanticism and their powers in the 20th century given that they had fulfilled the criterion of a territorial monolithity. Their most famous geopolitical author, Alfred Thayer Mahan at the end of the 19th century wrote about the issue. Admiral Mahan in a very perceptive manner foresaw the leading role of the USA in the 20th century particularly bearing in mind the criteria Rudolf Kjellén wrote about. Kjellén of course most keenly analysed the positions of other countries as well.

For instance, according to him, insufficient territorial space was Japan’s greatest flaw and geopolitical disadvantage. Thus one should interpret the Russian-Japanese war at the beginning of the 20th century in that context. Whereas the serious issue of the Russian foreign policy and generally of Russian geopolitics was the lack of warm sea route, about which the the reputable Nikolay Danilevsky later wrote in 1869 and in 1871 in his celebrated monograph ‘Russia and Europe: A Look at the Cultural and Political Relations of the Slavic World to the Romano-German World’, in which as highly important geopolitician, even though he is not using this term, he dedicated one complete chapter to the topic of the centrality of Constantinople, the future second Slavic capital and the dominance over it as the future guarantee of complete Russian territorial security and strategic rounded completion of the Russian historical ethnicity in its entirety normally referred to as the Russian world. That is how we slowly but securely came to the most important geopolitical thesis which marked the whole 20th century: renowned Halford John Mackinder In 1904, Mackinder gave a paper on “The Geographical Pivot of History” at the Royal Geographical Society, in which he formulated the Heartland Theory

Mackinder has been much talked about in the recent theory of geopolitics but we keep getting back to him because it is about the scenario of the world history of the 20th century, which Mackinder may have described unaware in his ‘pivot of history’. Of course, all the traditional geopolitical theories and particularly the one by Mackinder are oft subject to new interpretations given that geopolitics is a dynamic scientific discipline regardless of its element of spatiality which tends to be unchangeable and static though its key component, there is no doubt we have witnessed since the 1960s up to now of the reinterpretation of classical geopolitical theories, and of Mackinder’s as well.

What was Mackinder’s key statement ? He was analysing world history from a strictly geographical point of view that is to do with incessant, dialectical conflict between the two fundamental geographical principles which have with the passage of time evolved into two philosophical principles: 1. the principle of land and 2. the principle of the sea. And when in 1904 he elaborated on his approach to world history he posited the theory of the Heartland, that pivot, which the world history turns around. That is the heart of the Eurasian continent, which then coincided with the Russian territory.

to be continued

By Tatiana Obrenovic Via