UNDERSTANDING CLASSICAL GEOPOLITICS: GEOGRAPHY; HISTORY AND STRATEGY

Professor Geoffrey Sloan of the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Reading, UK, is a leading British geopolitical theorist. In 1988 he published one of the best books available on United States strategic policy: “Geopolitics in United States Strategic Policy 1890-1987”.

Using the theories of Alfred Thayer Mahan and the less known American General Homer Lea Sloan in this path-breaking book offered important insights into US strategic policy since 1890. Mahan had examined the relation between the action of a navy concerning political control of the sea and the effect a powerful navy had on foreign policy. From this he predicted the role that a powerful navy could have on the foreign policy of the United States. Homer Lea formulated laws from which political aims and objectives to a certain degree could be deduced.

In the first law Lea maintained that the security of an insular power was not measured in number of warships. Instead it was the ability to control the coasts around which it is situated. Preventing the superiority of any state on the external shores of the sea in which it is located was an important part of the second law. That a continental state with access to the sea would eventually become a more powerful maritime power than the insular sea-power was the third law. Importantly Lea drew attention to the problems American policymakers would face if attempting political expansion in the Pacific Ocean.

30 years later Professor Sloan is now back with an excellent new book which will likely remain central to all future analysis of classical geopolitics, “Geopolitics, Geography and Strategic History” (Routledge, 2017). It is published in the Geopolitical Theory Series which revisits the classical geopolitical theories of the twentieth century. In the most important section of the book the author presents a Trinitarian perspective on geopolitics. It is a science that draws from three different academic disciplines: geography, strategic studies and history.

Most important of these, as seen by this reviewer, is geography. Other modern geopolitical theorists have claimed that geography has shaped the world of today. It will in the future continue to shape the world in the midst of enormous changes. To illustrate the importance of geography and maps Sloan quotes John Hillen, former US assistant Secretary of State (2005-2007), who offers a corrective to the existing cacophony of sentiments, assumptions and utopian fixes of all worldviews in present strategic commentary:

“The answer should be the map – literally, the physical map, and more broadly, geopolitics classically defined, which of course has political geography at its root…Of course, the map doesn’t spit out easy answers…but geopolitical realities – can point one in a very sound direction.”

Sloan describes strategic studies as an examination of interaction between or among adversaries, engaging in conflict, potential or realized. It very often is focusing on stratagems for attaining victory. Sun Tzu’s book “The Art of War” (around 400 BC) is mentioned and it is noted that surprise, deception and propaganda are most essential processes.

On history Sloan is less clear when it comes to the relation to geopolitics. He believes history could be a guide enabling an observer to describe and analyse conflicts in the past or break out in the present. It could also possibly predict future conflicts and how to find resolutions to end them. Unfortunately he is not delving in detail on the use of history in geopolitics. It had been interesting to learn more about his views on macro-history and its leading scholars such as Arnold Toynbee and Oswald Spengler.

Robert D. Kaplan in one of his latest books on geopolitics claims that he is on “dangerous ground in raising geography on a pedestal”. He quotes Isaiah Berlin’s admonition in “Historical Inevitability” (1953) who condemned it as “immoral and cowardly” to claim that vast impersonal forces like geography determined the direction of world politics. Kaplan, however, goes on to present Herodotus as a geopolitician before classical geopolitics of the twentieth century.

Sloan’s new book continues with an excellent presentation of the classical geopolitical theories of Halford Mackinder and Nicholas Spykman and concludes that their message is vital to strategic policy. Political predominance is not only about having power in a material sense but also how the geographical structure is exercised within that power.

Adding to the weight of the book are five highly interesting case studies in geopolitics of which four are historical and one contemporary. Rightly Sloan in his review of geopolitics in the United States during the Second World War points to the fact that geopolitics, geography and geostrategy permeated wartime United States in a remarkable way. Contributing to this was the republication of Mackinder’s book “Democratic Ideals and Reality” in 1942. In 1944 Penguin books published a paperback edition of the same book. Mackinder now also published a new book, “The Round World and the Winning of the Peace”. Here the British geopolitical theorist concluded that the Soviet Union was emerging from the Second World War to become a conqueror of Germany. As a result she would have to be ranked as the greatest land power on the globe. The Heartland is the greatest natural fortress on earth, so Mackinder. For the first time in history it is manned by a garrison sufficient both in number and quality. In this way Mackinder imagined the geopolitical structure of NATO.

Just three weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor Spykman at a joint session of the Association of American geographers and the American Political Science Association called for a complete change of policy. After the end of the war the rimland powers of Germany and Japan would have to become allies of the United States to counter Russian expansionism. Spykman’s wartime contribution was the book “America’s Strategy in World Politics”. In this work he drew attention to the impact of the Eurasian power balance on American security.

In the American military it was deemed necessary to educate soldiers in geography, geopolitics, world trade and the enemy’s social and political philosophy. General Ben Lear commanding the US 2nd Army was in the forefront organizing lectures and courses. There was a similar upsurge at American universities. In 1942 around 1,500 courses were given at the academic level. The concentration of geographers in Washington DC during the Second World War was unprecedented especially in the Office of Strategic Services, the War Department, the Foreign Economic Administration and the Department of State to mention a few.

Sloan’s case study of the geopolitics of China at the end of this new book is of great value. Too little has been written about China changing the geopolitical reality. Sloan mentions Andrew Small’s “The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics” of 2015 and Robert Kaplan’s “Monsoon” of 2010 as exceptions.

The Asian superpower has been busy settling border disputes with northern neighbours signing agreements with Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. It can now concentrate on the south and the east.

China is presently according to Sloan presenting a new geopolitical reality of the Eurasian continent as it is in the process of becoming “a continental oceanic country” It is in Mackinder’s words fusing “oceanic frontage to the resources of the great continent”. He also argued that China could build a new civilization that would be neither Eastern nor Western.

China is in the process of making the twenty-first century very different from the previous one. This view of China is of great geopolitical significance but there are other possible scenarios concerning this superpower. Internal pressures and inequalities can cause it to fragment and the central government losing much power. A process of fragmentation may cause the central government to choose an aggressive policy of expansion. A result of fragmentation could also be that China splits into regional states thereby losing geopolitical influence.

Sloan’s book is a major contribution to geopolitical literature in this century and should be in all major academic and public libraries.

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