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Geo-politics in the modern world: Dimtry Shlapentoph discusses two recent books that present opposing views on explanatory value of geo-political models.


Editors: Nick Megoran and Sevara Sharapova

Published by. Columbia University Press, New York, 2013, 356pp, US$72.


Author: Christoph Bluth

Published by: I.B. Tauris, London/New York, 2014, 288pp, 59.50 [pounds sterling].

Geo-politics is essentially politicised geography. In this context, geographical location implies either advantages or clear disadvantages for particular states in their struggle to find their niche in the concert of the powers. Another interpretation holds that geographical location defines the nature of the social, economic and political systems and ultimately the notion of foe and friend. While emerging in the late 19th/early 20th century, at the beginning of the conflict among Western powers for supremacy, the concept was developed in the aftermath of the First World War, during the Second World War and in the early stages of the Cold War. It received a new boost more recently when the early prophecy about the end of history', the harmonious networks of democratic nations led by the benign hegemony of the United States, proved to be false. Still, geo-politics is not a globally accepted explanatory model. While popular in Russia, it is less acceptable in the West, where the geo-political framework is just a way of explaining events in a different context. Two recent books highlight the two diverse views.

One of these volumes is a collection of articles dealing with Halford Mackinder, the British geo-politician of the first half of the 20th century, and his influence in Central Asia and its applicability to the geo-politics of Central Asia today. The contributors to this volume come from a variety of backgrounds, some quite exotic, such as Levent Hekimoglu, for example. After spending some time in academia in Canada, he dropped out of academia and, now, if one can trust the biographical blurb, resides in the Arabian Desert.

The articles are divided into several clear groups. The first deals with Mackinder as the first political geographer, who, with scores of other similar thinkers, was the founder of geopolitics, the science that implies that a state's political culture, foreign policy and pecking order in the world order depend on geography. The interest in Mackinder is directly related to his notion that the country that controls the Eurasian heartland is a global leader.

The second segment--and, from this reviewer's perspective, the most interesting--deals with the history of the influence of Mackinder's ideas on Russia and Central Asia. Sevara Sharapova's chapter, 'The Intellectual Life of the Heartland: How Mackinder Travelled to Uzbekistan', shows how geo-politics and, therefore, Mackinder, were expunged from Soviet intellectual discourse by the late 1920s, at the end of the new economic policy (NEP) period. Geo-politics did not re-emerge in the Soviet Union until the time of Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms in the 1980s and almost immediately afterwards became quite popular in Russia. From here the concept transmuted to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, where geo-politics has been incorporated into the broad intellectual context. Kirill Nourzhanov's chapter 'Mackinder on the Roof of the World: Geopolitical Discourse in Tadjikistan' deals with the intellectual history of post-Soviet Tadjikistan in a broad Central Asian context, which is pretty much unknown in the West and, as one might assume, in Russia as well.

Awesome power

The West, especially the United States, which academia regards as the global cultural intellectual leader, had been quite interested in Soviet cultural and intellectual development in the past, despite the rather grayish uniformity of the Soviet intellectual space. Still, the awesome power of the Soviet Union made anything related to that state of interest, including its cultural and intellectual aspects. The demise of the Soviet Union had the most devastating implications for the field, and the study of Russian intellectual discourse was marginalised. The few exceptions are related to American prevailing stereotypes. First, some studies deal with such talented and erudite mavericks as Alexander Dugin, who is presented not just as an interesting post-Soviet intellectual but also as the guiding light for Vladimir Putin, the dangerous autocrat who wishes to restore the Soviet empire. The fact that Dugin has had rather limited influence on the Kremlin through most of Putins tenure and has often played the role of the intellectual and more sophisticated variation of the flamboyant Vladimir Zhirinovsky, enfant terrible of Russian politics, is ignored. Also overlooked is Dugin's loss of his job at Moscow State University, a clear indication of the Kremlins displeasure with him.

The other individuals who are mentioned are usually those who were affiliated with Western think tanks like the Carnegie Center and Western universities. Central Asia is even less appealing as a place of new ideas. One might add that Russian observers have the same condescending views of Central Asians as Westerners have of Russians. There is no work, at least to my knowledge, which deals with the intellectual history of Central Asia in both late Soviet and post-Soviet periods. For this very reason, the quoted chapter will be quite interesting not just for Western but even Russian readers. It shows how geo-political ideas have been integrated into the broad intellectual discourse, forging Tadjikistan's national identity both in the context of Tadjikistan's relationship with the great powers and the Turkic republics of Central Asia.

The last segment of Central Asia in International Relations deals with the applicability of Mackinder's theory for contemporary Central Asia. Some contributors to this segment believe that Mackinder's theory is an essential paradigm for understanding Central Asia and its relationship with the rest of the world, and it was overlooking Mackinder that led to America's problems in its relationships with the peoples in the area. For others, however, Mackinder's theory is practically irrelevant. The truth is most likely somewhere in between. Geography, including the geography of Central Asia, indeed matters. Central Asia's proximity to China makes this region an important source of gas and oil for Beijing, regardless of the fact that some other areas of the world have much more of these commodities.

General interest

Still, interest in Mackinder's geo-politics in general, in the post-Soviet time, cannot be explained simply by the removal of Soviet censorship and an appreciation of the role of geography in global arrangements. The interest in geo-politics actually stems from a different reason. In the past, the conflict between the Soviet Union and the West was explained as a struggle between two political/social and ideological systems. The conflict, however, did not disappear with the end of the Soviet Union. Moreover, the tension has reached almost Cold War levels during the current Ukrainian crisis. And here geo-politics has emerged as a useful explanatory model, albeit among many other models of course.

In the context of modified geo-political construction, the conflict between Russia and the West is due to the clash between continental and maritime civilisations, which cannot live in peace. But there is another reason: the region of the former Soviet Union has suffered economic and military decline in comparison to the situation that existed in the time of the Soviet Union. And here geo-politics provides the great consolation: it implies that these countries, by their location in certain regions, are important. While most authors featured in Central Asia in International Relations look at geo-politics as a way of explaining the role of post-Soviet states in dealing with the broader world, including the United States, others consider the concept a rather dubious tool. For them, the conflict between Russia and the United States, and their competition over Central Asia and the Caucasus, cannot be explained by geo-politics, but rather is caused by a clash of values. In this context, the United States would have no problem with Russia if it were following democratic principles. This is the case, for example, with Christoph Bluth's monograph US Foreign Policy and the Caucasus and Central Asia, which in a way provides a good summary of the public views of Western officials. One, of course, should remember that public views or justifications of the Western, especially American, elite often have the same meaning as the famous American smiles and handshakes--just covering up for indifference and hostility.

The book deals with the United States' approach to the former Soviet Union, mostly with the Caspian regions and related areas --Central Asia and the Caucasus. This narrative is placed in the context of a general explanatory model showing how foreign policy is shaped from an ideological and structural/formal point of view. The first part of the book is quite informative and provides the theoretical framework. According to Bluth, the explanatory models are as follows. First is the assumption that the United States' foreign policy follows raison d'etat--geo-political pragmatism. This explanatory model itself can be roughly divided into several modifications. One posits that power is sought for its sake alone. Proponents of this approach, such as, for example, John Mearsheimer, hold that this is the natural drive of any state and no moral judgment should be made in regard to particular actions. In a way, foreign policy can be seen in a sort of Social Darwinian fashion. Indeed, condemnation here is as meaningless as condemning a predator for attacking its prey. The second variation of geo-political pragmatism implies that imperial aggrandisement, so to speak, is related not just to the drive for power for the sake of power and related military and strategic benefits but also to economic benefits. The second model implies, according to Bluth, that foreign policy is shaped by a variety of values idiosyncratic to a particular state. Here the state, following abstract ideological postulates, could ignore realpolitik if it contradicts that abstract set of values.

Several models

Bluth's introduction also discusses how decisions are made. Here again, according to the author, several models exist. The first implies that government officials at the top make all decisions; the second that various bureaucratic bodies mostly make decisions; the third that the business community makes the decisions, in short, that governments just follow the bidding of big business. This theory is almost identical to the Marxist explanation that the state is just a servant of the ruling class.

Elaborating on all of these theories, Bluth notes that in the United States top government officials make the final decisions. In fact, the state resists the desire of business to make decisions that would suit its interests. Bluth also discards the notion that Washington's decisions could be reduced just to pragmatic geopolitical interests as the American elite visualises them. In his view, the United States often acts according to abstract values. At least their role should not be discounted. It would be over-simplistic to regard the US elite as cynics for whom moral reasoning was just the cover up for pragmatic considerations and who just follow the iron clad laws of geo-politics.

Moving from these general premises, Bluth provides an explanation of American policy in dealing with the former Soviet Union from approximately the beginning of the Clinton administration to the end of Bushs tenure. In his view, Clinton believed that the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union was indeed rooted in ideological and political differences. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the perception that the regime in Moscow had become similar to those of the West, the US-Russian relationship could be in a way similar to the United States' relationship with West Europe. In this interpretation, Europe and the United States are bound together because they share values and have similar political institutions. Since Russia had become a benign democratic power, all problems and shortcomings notwithstanding, Moscow's domination of the post-Soviet states could be accepted.

Changed view

Washington's view of Moscow and its policy in the former Soviet Union, including Central Asia and the Caucasus, had changed by the late Yeltsin era. In Bluth's view, the change mostly stemmed from disappointment with developments inside Russia. The regime in Moscow, in Washington's view, had betrayed their early expectations and exhibited authoritarianism tinged with traditional imperialism. This perception pushed Washington to begin seeking to limit Russian influence and consequently to weaken Russia economically and geo-politically. Washington's desire to limit Russia's ability to transfer oil and gas to European markets led it to promote the creation of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan gas line. In fact, the business community was advocating an absolutely different and potentially more profitable project; the Baku--Tbilisi-Ceyhan line was purely a geo-political project aimed at preventing Russia and Iran from benefiting from their resources.

At the beginning of his presidency Clinton, under the illusion that Russia could be truly democratic, accepted that it should be allowed to engage in benign policing of the former Soviet Union. His approach changed only when Russia failed to live up to these expectations. The new Bush administration at first had no interest in foreign policy, but 9/11 made Washington's global engagement imperative. Once again, Washington stretched out a hand to Moscow. It was ready to forget all previous problems with Moscow and to see it as an honest partner. Still, as Bluth implies, Moscow once again behaved in a neo-imperial fashion and plainly did not follow America's lead. The new tension resulted.

US Foreign Policy and the Caucasus and Central Asia, like many other books, can be assessed from different perspectives and has several good points. To start with, the introduction, with its stress on various theories explaining decision-making, is quite helpful, especially for those who are not well versed in the subject. The other good point is Bluth's discussion of the decision-making process in Washington. He rightfully notes, implicitly criticising vulgar Marxism, that the view of those who see the state as just the agent of the economic elite, following faithfully all the wishes of either Wall Street or big oil companies, is rather simplistic. He maintains that the state has a degree of independence from the ruling elite and follows its own notions of foreign policy rationale not always directly connected with the will of the economic elite and, even more so, the electorate. In his view, that pragmatic geopolitics, such as, for example, the quest for spheres of influence, cannot explain the complexity of global arrangements and the major powers' postures entirely.

Important assumption

One should, therefore, take into account the role of values--for example, the United States' belief in the importance of the spread of democracy--in the shaping of US policy. The assumption here that the United States' promotion of democracy as a goal in itself, and not just as an instrument of geo-politics, is prompted by the belief that democratic countries will be more pre-disposed to the United States than non-democratic ones. Still, the role of these matters in American leaders' decisions should not be over-estimated. Pursuing moral ends, even deeply internalised on the personal level, is, in most cases, the sublimation of a geo-political rationale actually free from unrelated sentiments, for example, whether or not this or that country follows 'human rights', or has either decided to accept democracy or reject it.

The most serious problem is Bluth's attempt to personalise US foreign policy and to deal with the US approach to particular countries outside of the big picture--the general outlines of American policy in the first twenty years of the post-Cold War era. Indeed, it was the time when, taking advantage of the vacuum created after the end of the Soviet Union, the United States asserted its global predominance. Its relationship with Russia and the increasing cooling of the Russo-American relationship led, especially after the Ukrainian crisis began, to the increasing competition of the United States, Russia and, of course, other players for influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus.

And here, it might be stated, geo-political strength might indeed re-emerge as the major geo-political model, at least as an explanation of US foreign policy. However, the dictums of the doctrine should be reconsidered. Geo-politics might be wrong in one way: geography is not destiny. Still geo-politics might be right in another way. The policy of Western powers is driven not by the wills of particular leaders but by objective and, in a way, impersonal factors. It has much deeper foundations and this premise is indeed applicable to US foreign policy.

Dr Dmitry V. Shlapentokh is an associate professor of history at Indiana University, South Bend, Indiana. E-mail:
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Author:Shlapentokh, Dimitry V.
Publication:New Zealand International Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Nov 1, 2014
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