The New Geopolitics

By Klare, Michael | Monthly Review, July-August 2003 | Go to article overview

The New Geopolitics


Klare, Michael, Monthly Review


The war in Iraq has reconfigured the global geopolitical landscape in many ways, some of which may not be apparent for years or even decades to come. It has certainly altered the U.S. relationship with Europe and the Middle East. But its impact goes well beyond this. More than anything else, the war reveals that the new central pivot of world competition is the south-central area of Eurasia.

The term "geopolitics" seems at first to come from another era, from the late nineteenth century. By geopolitics or geopolitical competition, I mean the contention between great powers and aspiring great powers for control over territory, resources, and important geographical positions, such as ports and harbors, canals, river systems, oases, and other sources of wealth and influence. if you look back, you will find that this kind of contestation has been the driving force in world politics and especially world conflict in much of the past few centuries.

Geopolitics, as a mode of analysis, was very popular from the late nineteenth century into the early part of the twentieth century. if you studied then what academics now call international relations, you would have been studying geopolitics.

Geopolitics died out as a sell-conscious mode of analysis in the Cold War period, partly due to echoes of the universally abhorred Hitlerite ideology of lebensraum, but also because there were a lot of parallels between classical geopolitical thinking (which came out of a conservative wing of academia) and Marxist and Leninist thinking, which clashed with the ideological pretensions of Cold War scholars. So it is not a form of analysis that you see taught, for the most part, in U.S. universities today.

Geopolitics was also an ideology in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries-a self-conscious set of beliefs on which elites and leaders of the great powers acted. It was the thinking behind the imperialism of that period, the logic for the acquisition of colonies with specific geographical locations. The incidents leading up to the First World War came out of this mode of thinking, such as the 1898 Fashoda incident over the headwaters of the Nile River that gave rise to a near conflict between Third Republic France and late Victorian Britain.

In the case of the United States, it became the dominant mode of thinking at the time of Teddy Roosevelt and led very self-consciously to the decision by Roosevelt and his cabal of associates to turn the United States into an empire. This was a conscious project. It was not an accident. The Spanish-American War was an intentional device by which the United States acquired an empire. The Spanish-American War and the occupation of the Philippines were followed quickly by the seizure of Panama, openly justified by geopolitical ideology To see just how self-conscious this process was, I recommend Warren Zimmermann's First Great Triumph (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002). The parallels to the current moment are striking.

Geopolitical ideology was later appropriated by Hider and Mussolini and by the Japanese militarists to explain and to justify their expansionist behavior. And it was this expansionist behavior--which threatened the geopolitical interest of the opposing powers--that led to the Second World War, not the internal politics of Germany, Italy, or Japan.

This ideology disappeared to some degree during the Cold War in favor of a model of ideological competition. That is to say, geopolitical ideology appeared inconsistent with the high-minded justifications (in which "democracy" and "freedom" largely figured) given for interventions in the third world.

But really, if you study the history of the Cold War, the overt conflicts that took place were consciously framed by a geopolitical orientation from the American point of view. The United States had to control the Middle East and its oil. That was the basis of the Truman Doctrine and the Eisenhower Doctrine and the Carter Doctrine. …

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