A British historian, Jeremy Black, was invited to a recent seminar, “The Return of Geopolitics” arranged by the Swedish Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation,in June 2016 at Avesta Manor, Sweden. Professor Black has in 2016 published Geopolitics and the Quest for Dominance, Indiana University Press.
Black is not a geopolitician but as historian he is arguing that history and geography delineate the operation of power. Geopolitics is not only a matter of spatial dimensions but also about ideas and perception. It should be remembered, however, that the term geopolitics was used first in 1899 by Swedish Professor Rudolf Kjellén. Black goes all the way back to the 15th century considering the geopolitical aspects of for example the British seaborne empire.
In Blacks view Henry Kissinger, Francis Fukuyama, Samuel P. Huntington, Philip Bobbitt, Niall Ferguson and others could be regarded as geopolitical thinkers, which is of course not the case. The late professor Huntington is rather a civilizationist in the vein of Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee. Huntington deals mainly with competing civilizations and not the heartland and continents, sea power and land power and not geopolitics.
In the twentyfirst century many international politicians seem to argue that our world is all about technology, globalization and the spread of liberal democracy. In reality it is the seas, the continents, rivers and other geographical features that determine world power and order.
Another aspect not treated by Black in his book is how realism has affected development back 2,400 years to Thucydides. This ancient Greek realist believed that human nature is motivated by fear, self-interest and honor. Hans J. Morgenthau in his 1948 pathbreaking book Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace argued that one must work with the inherent forces of human nature to improve the world. Realism appeals to historical precedent rather than some abstract principles. It is more likely that future history will consist of incessant conflict than a universalist peace in the spirit of Kant.
Black in his 2016 book argues that with geographical aspects cultural factors should be taken into account when considering for instance Islamist terrorism and China’s policy in the East and South China Seas. Other aspects to be taken into account are population growth, resources, climate change and pandemics when viewing geopolitical trends. Of main importance is however the state, which is still and will be a dominant actor.
The book holds forth Sir Halford Mackinder’s geopolitical analysis from the beginning of the twentieth century as relevant to contemporary and future geopolitical analysis. It should however be pointed out that Dutch-American geopolitician Nicholas Spykman has and will be a more important guide in the future. The United States could still be regarded as a large island protected by two oceans. The grand strategy of the West should be to prevent that any one state or coalition of states dominates the Eurasian landmass. This can best be achieved by controlling the rimland of Eurasia from Europe in the west to the coast of northern East Asia. Here the Middle East is playing an important role and eight years of the Obama administration has left that part of the rimland in a dangerous chaos.
A positive aspect of Blacks book on geopolitics is that he regards “critical geopolitics” as a feminist, Marxist, and postcolonial worldview that seeks to promote fraudulent and deceptive answers to present international problems to unwitting readers.