Making the Strange Familiar: Geographical Analogy in Global Geopolitics

By Agnew, John | The Geographical Review, July 2009 | Go to article overview

Making the Strange Familiar: Geographical Analogy in Global Geopolitics


Agnew, John, The Geographical Review


Early in his academic career, Donald Meinig published an article and several book reviews about global geopolitics (1953, 1956, 1957). Although I would not contend that these have a great deal to do directly with much of what he wrote later on the historical geography of North America, they do have some relevance to recent writing on global geopolitics; specifically, that which advertises itself as "critical," They also speak more generally to Meinig's critical intellect as a scholar whose early writing on geopolitics has never received the attention it deserves. From this viewpoint, Meinig's writing on geopolitics from the mid-1950s offers an interesting starting point both for reevaluating that time as a uniformly "barren" period in the history of geopolitical thinking and for responding to contemporary anxieties about how global geopolitics is best construed (Agnew 2002, 85-135). In this article I am primarily concerned with the latter.

In the publications in question, Meinig displayed two characteristics that are fundamental to today's "critical geopolitics" but that were entirely lacking in most conceptions of geopolitics during the period in which he was writing: exposing the fallacy of a timeless physical geography that directs world politics and arguing that the geographical labels often innocently introduced into geopolitical analysis have demonstrable political consequences. After picking out these attributes from Meinig's writing, I spend most of the article developing my own argument based on these premises. My main focus is on how political leaders, scholars, and the media recycle geographical terms or names in order to familiarize unfamiliar situations in vocabulary drawn from some seemingly salient prior geopolitical experience. This can be called "the discursive process of domesticating the exotic."

Given the relatively important roles of the European countries and the United States in recent world politics, it is no coincidence that many of the most popular geographical analogies in current circulation derive from the edges of Europe. This is the near-abroad where the Western powers focused much of their foreign policymaking during most of the twentieth century. As a result, terms such as "Finlandization" (neutralization in the face of a hostile and more powerful neighboring state), "beyond the pale" (referring initially to the area inhabited by the native Irish beyond a fenced district conquered by the English around Dublin--the Pale of Dublin--and later to the area within the Russian Empire to which most Jews were confined), "Dutch disease" (the macroeconomic consequences of a sudden resource bonanza), "the Switzerland of [this or that world region]" (a country whose once-severe internal ethnic conflicts have been resolved institutionally), "Macedonian syndrome" (the prospect of irredentism and subsequent unstable borders leading to intractable ethnic conflict), and "balkanization" (the fission of a multiethnic empire in southeastern Europe into successor national states) have come into a certain linguistic currency among politicians and scholars alike to refer to and putatively explain situations well beyond the original context of use. Their loaded meanings expose the specificity of their origins as political terms based on geopolitical stereotypes. To complicate matters, some of these--"beyond the pale," for example--are also used more abstractly or as turns of phrase to refer to mental states, modes of thought, or intellectual divisions of one sort or another.

In this article I focus on the latter two--the Macedonian syndrome and balkanization--as not only drawing from the same well of analogies but also profoundly illustrative of the process of geographical naming and political blaming. When they "travel" or are applied around the world, they conjure up a particular vision of conflict as akin to that associated with the region from which they are taken: atavistic and intractable ethnic conflict. …

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