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What Is The Constructivist Approach To Geopolitics History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

Geopolitics emerged as a recognizable discipline at the end of the 19th century to address the influence of geography in contemporary politics. With its focus on geography (territorially bounded countries and resources), geopolitics is predicated on a particularly materialistic and objective focus. However, upon critical examination of the theory, it becomes apparent that the geopolitical framework is dependent on social constructions – which stands contrary to the stated objective and materialistic focus of geopolitics. My goal in this paper is to examine the role of constructivism in the evolution of geopolitical theory. I will attempt to define first constructivism and the meaning of geopolitics, and then demonstrate that contrary to initial perceptions, the geopolitical discourse has been dependent on social constructions from its conceptual beginning through its accepted modern representation. Finally, it will be demonstrated how the constructivist approach to geopolitics is explicitly recognized within the contemporary ideas of critical geopolitics.

Constructivism is an approach which examines the material and social context and environment in which an actor resides and attempts to understand how this context influences the understanding of the interests of the actors in question. [1] As such, under the theory of constructivism the conception of a norm is a “collective understanding that make[s] behavioural claims on actors”, constituting both actor identities and interests. [2] Hopf argues that the constructivist view of meaningful behaviour is only possible within an intersubjective social context in which actors develop relations and understandings of others through these norms. [3] For the purposes of this paper, this definition of constructivism will be used in relation to geopolitics; that is, I aim to demonstrate that geopolitical thinkers, in attempting an objective study of geography and politics, were nonetheless influenced by the context in which they lived and wrote.

In its most simplistic definition, geopolitics is concerned with the political aspect of geographical conceptions such as the territorial bounds of states and resources. In fact, the term itself semantically expresses the particular relationship between the terrestrial environment and the political activity which takes place within that environment. [4] As a result, geopolitics provides a particular way of understanding the world by explaining how territorial location and its natural resources affect the shaping of national and international politics. [5] However, the geopolitical discourse consists of more than just the impact of geography on how the relations between states developed. In fact, the precise meaning of geopolitics and its relevance to particular situations can at times be less than clear, as the term is used in a variety of contexts. Interestingly, it has been argued by Geoffrey Parker that this lack of precision can be one of geopolitics particular attractions. [6] Additionally, Parker argues that during the 20th century, geopolitics was understood as consisting of the mobilization of geographical knowledge for the purposes of the state, which subjected the discourse of geopolitics to manipulation by states in order to justify their pursuit of particular policies. [7] 

In this process of mobilizing geographical knowledge, ideas about populations and places become mobilized in the construction of “geopolitical visions” of varying sophistication. [8] Klauss Dodds argues that these visions or labels have implications for both representations of national identities and international relations, and that many geopolitical writers have thus been preoccupied with providing insights for their own national governments. [9] Besides this desire to offer policy advice, Dodds also recognizes three other features typical of the traditional geopolitical approach: (1) An objective or neutral attempt at seeing the world, (2) a propensity to divide the world into discrete, hierarchical spaces, and (3) display of national partisanship. [10] In addition, while geopolitical tradition entails a varied and complicated set of experiences which are negotiated and filtered through many different contexts, certain common themes persist: the connections between geography, the state, and the military, and the significance of geographical knowledge towards the execution of state power. [11] 

The origins of geopolitics can be traced to the Swedish political geographer Rudolph Kjellen and the German natural scientist and geographer Friedrich Ratzel at the end of the 19th century. [12] The invention of this term coincided with the modernist belief that the European observer possessed the required intellectual and conceptual framework for viewing the world as an independent ‘object’, and that it was possible to view the world as this ‘object’ in its totality. [13] This view coincided with the view of the world as having been completely discovered, in an age of scientific inquiry. As such, geopolitics emerged to analyze, explain, and understand the transformation and finite spaces of the ‘fin-de-siecle’ world. [14] Early geopolitical thought was primarily concerned with the interactions between states and had a common approach through political realism, which resulted in its preoccupation with giving policy advice to national governments through geographical problem solving. [15] 

Kjellen, who was writing at a time when a sense of foreboding pervaded much of Europe, believed that the state was the fundamental unit of territorial organization and was the only real source of order and protection, and as such of the highest importance. [16] Parker suggests that Kjellen’s adoption of the spatial dimension was derived from his belief in the inadequacy of conventional political science to address the true nature of the contemporary political world and the associated menace which appeared looming in the horizon. [17] In this way, Kjellen’s thinking was very much a product of the times at the turn of the century, as has been suggested by Ruth Kjellen-Bjorkquist in her biography of Kjellen written in 1970. [18] 

Ratzel, meanwhile, posited a “biogeographical” thesis in which the state was best understood as a type of organism which not only existed in geographical space, but was a part of it. [19] He believed that territory and the location this territory inhabited were the most important characteristics of this organism, and that the political success of the state depended on the interaction between these two characteristics. [20] This view of the state appears to be an attempt to apply the theory of evolution to the concept of the state, which must have been a compelling idea for Ratzel, considering the context of the academic world at that time. In particular, Darwin’s concept of natural selection with respect to the evolution of animal species was becoming rapidly adapted within social sciences, morphing into what would become known as social Darwinism. [21] Another social influence on Ratzel was the German nationalism which was pervasive at the time and informed his geopolitical notions of a living space for Germans, which opened up Ratzel to criticism from Camille Vallaux (a French geographer), who believed that this nationalism detracted from the objectivity necessary within the geopolitical field. [22] 

Following its birth, the geopolitical discourse spread beyond Sweden and Germany, and opened itself up to new interpretations from different contexts. Going beyond Kjellen and Ratzel, the English geographer and influential geopolitical thinker Halford Mackinder proposed a geopolitical scenario on a world scale with the presentation of his paper The Geographical Pivot of History presented to the Royal Geographical Society. [23] His proposition was that world history could be explained geopolitically through the confrontation of land power and sea power. When applied to the 20th century, this view identified the two principal players in the global system as being the British and Russian Empires. Mackinder’s thesis suggested that the period of dominance for Britain, the maritime power, was coming to an end while Russia, who represented the land power, was on the rise. [24] In this vein, Mackinder viewed geopolitics as a kind of geographical reasoning which accounted for the changing capacities of states in a dynamic world environment. [25] When examining the ideas Mackinder presented, it is also important to recognize the social influences which would have influenced his ideas. As both a British Member of Parliament and a diplomat, Mackinder had a primary concern with the security of the British Empire, and this identity surely had an effect on his thinking and analysis of geopolitics. [26] Parker argues that the history of geopolitics is full of similar examples of such obstacles preventing geopolitical thinkers from viewing events objectively. [27] 

As the geopolitical discourse evolved, it began to be used as a rationale for an expansionist, imperialistic agenda. [28] Germany was particularly receptive to the new geopolitical discourse as the implications of Ratzel’s ideas were soon realized, and Germany’s location within the heart of Europe proved to be of particular geopolitical consequence. [29] A specific interest was the idea of the necessity of having large territorial boundaries (including overseas territorial acquisitions), which was in general harmony with the pervading mood of German empire-building. [30] These ideas were developed in Karl Haushofer’s book Geopolitik: The Theory of the State as a Living Being. The ideas of Geopolitik were incorporated by the Nazi regime in Germany, although these principles were not necessarily compatible with the racist aspects of the Nazi ideology. [31] However, the view of Geopolitik and its effect on the German political discourse is an obvious example of how the context within which geopolitical thinkers worked affected their understanding of the subject and the implications they drew from the geopolitical framework.

Following the Second World War, geopolitics was ostracized within the Anglo-school of International Relations. This reaction can be traced back as a reaction to Haushofer’s work and its link to Hitler’s use of geopolitics as an ideology. [32] Nevertheless, outside of the English world, geopolitical thinking continued to thrive, particularly within Latin American regimes where geopolitics became linked to the violent, militaristic, and expansionist regimes of Brazil, Argentina, and Chile. [33] However geopolitics did not remain strictly Latin American for long, and the geopolitical discourse demonstrated itself to be resilient when Henry Kissinger (who himself would have been influenced by previous German geopolitical ideas as a German and student of politics) reintroduced the framework without its negative Nazi-connotations to Americans during the Cold War.

The reintroduction of geopolitical discourse during the competition between the United States and Soviet Union during the Cold War, now disconnected from the ideas of social Darwinism, again affected how the framework was interpreted. [34] Dodd argues that it is important to recognize the context in which Kissinger revived the geopolitical framework in the United States: as an attempt to come to grips with a new strategic landscape in which the importance of a global equilibrium and national interests took place within a world characterized by a new balance of power. [35] When the world was seen geopolitically, there were certain parts of the world the United States needed to control and have access to in order to combat the Soviet Union; through this geopolitical prism the Cold War conflict became naturalized. [36] An interesting parallel to this view is how previously, the European nation-states maintained a geopolitical consciousness of the enemies surrounding them both in the First and Second World Wars (when maps alleging Germany’s encirclement constituted common propaganda displays). [37] While Kissinger’s usage of the term geopolitics was vague, this vagueness has been characteristic of the thinkers within the geopolitical discourse in general. [38] The unsatisfactory nature of this vagueness has been addressed in the development of critical geopolitics, which explicitly incorporates the social understandings of actors within the discourse.

The starting point for critical geopolitics is that conventional geopolitics ignores the assumptions which underpin the positions of the geopolitical thinkers themselves. In order to correct this gap, critical geopolitics argues that since a detached and objective viewpoint is impossible, it should be explicitly recognized that geopolitical thinkers themselves are situated within conceptual and methodological assumptions of the world. [39] As such, critical geopolitics posits that geopolitics can no longer simply be the study of statecraft and the management of international affairs, but instead must be a discourse concerned with the relationship between power-knowledge and social and political relationships within the interaction of geography, knowledge, power, and political and social institutions. [40] O Tuathail argues that the foundational premise of critical geopolitics is that “…the contention that geography is a social and historical discourse which is always intimately bound up with questions of politics and ideology… geography is a form of power-knowledge itself.” [41] 

This idea can be seen as recognition that geopolitical thinking cannot be divorced from power-knowledge relations, which as a consequence necessitates that there cannot be a neutral or value-free way of viewing the world (contrary to the intention of objectivity in traditional geography). [42] The study of geopolitics, while presumably a study of an objective reality, is itself a human creation. [43] Geopolitics as a discourse is therefore recognized to be shaped by the interplay of the real world and various fields of knowledge, and that our understanding of the political world depends on which definitions we use to understand that world. [44] As O Tuathail recognizes, the “…meaning of concepts like geopolitics tends to change as historical periods and structures of world order change. Geopolitics is best understood in its historical and discursive context of use.” [45] Parker agrees with this assessment, arguing that the place and time (the context) in which the observation takes place are “…a major factor in the conclusions reached and the interpretations of reality which have been put upon them”, and as such the assumptions of major world views “… are clearly truths which… are more apparent at certain times than others”. [46] 

The geopolitical discourse from its inception attempted to be an objective framework through which it would be possible to accurately interpret politics through geographical conceptions. However, as the discourse evolved many different authors in the field interpreted the ‘objective’ world in very different ways, drawing different conclusions, and being influenced through different norms pervading at the time. Geopolitical conclusions were therefore often influenced by the dominating contemporary frameworks, and as such geopolitical thinkers were often able to use the geopolitical discourse for national policy formulation. It is therefore useful to study traditional geopolitics through a constructivist lens, as it offers greater interpretative value by recognizing the social constructions which influenced the discourse during the period. Critical geopolitics offers this same benefit to the contemporary study of geopolitics, by explicitly incorporating constructivist ideas. Perhaps these conclusions would result in the original geopolitical thinkers finding it remarkable how deeply an ‘objective’ study of geopolitics was in fact from the very beginning influenced by social norms and constructions.


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