Essays & Reviews

Christopher Fettweis’ Critique of Classical Geopolitics

In a previous issue of the journal Orbis, Christopher Fettweis of Tulane University offers a frontal assault on the utility of classical notions of geopolitics, such as those advocated by Mahan, Mackinder and Spykman (and on those who employ those notions today, including Robert Kaplan and Colin Gray). He argues that geopolitics fails, often spectacularly, along three key dimensions of theory: description (explaining the way in which the world works); prediction (extending this explanation into the future); and prescription (providing policymakers with advice regarding how to proceed).  We would note that Fettweis’ article contains, in passing, an excellent bibliography of past and present works on geopolitics and its critics.

According to Fettweis, geopolitical writing generally does not employ the scientific method, nor typically express its arguments in a manner appropriate for coherent testing. Its theories are inherently unfalsifiable, unscientific and, therefore, were probably destined to become marginalized as the field evolved in an increasingly positivist direction. As a result, geopolitics as a descriptive research program did not survive the behavioral revolution in political science. The field has hardly omitted geography from its models; but scholars rarely mention insights from Mackinder, Mahan or Spykman, except in passing critique. Once political scientists began to take the latter part of their title seriously, they left classical geopolitics behind.

Fettweis observes that nearly all geopolitical analysis is founded in the tradition of classical realism and shares some of the basic assumptions of that school of thought, including that of an unchanging, conflictual international system.  But most international relations professionals are aware that the incidence and magnitude of warfare has been on the wane for decades.  Not only does international stability contradict geopolitics’ most basic assumptions, but it threatens to render the tradition obsolete. If it is true that major war and perhaps even war itself are dying phenomena, then geopolitics has nothing to contribute to international relations. Today, other things being equal, no state seeks to conquer the globe, and geopolitics cannot describe much about how they behave.

Unfortunately, in Fettweis’ view, geopolitical analysis has from the beginning tended to encourage belligerent behavior. There appears to be something about maps that encourages the emergence of competitive, even belligerent, strategies. Staring at maps seems to promote the idea that the geopolitical system is a zero-sum game, where the object is not to coexist but to dominate, to defeat rather than cooperate. Mackinder and Spykman, in particular, discussed balance, but only for other countries; the only structure they were interested for their homelands was one of positive imbalance. Balance is always threatened by growth in the other side, which threatens our dominance. Such calculations re-emerge whenever geopolitics is reborn, as it is every decade or so. To the extent that geopolitics acts as an aid to statecraft, it counsels bad choices and unnecessarily belligerent strategy. To the extent that leaders adopt a geopolitical mindset, the encouraging trends in international relations would soon be reversed.

As to predictive element of geopolitics, Fettweis argues that the major geopoliticians – most especially Mackinder – got it wrong.  Mackinder’s heartland offered no advantage to any power that would dominate it.  The most oft-quoted passage from Mackinder is, of course:

Who rules East Europe rules the Heartland;
Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island;
Who rules the World-Island commands the World.

In fact, never did a power who ruled Eastern Europe come to dominate the heartland, never has a heartland power ruled the “world island,” and never has a united world island come close to ruling the world. If anything, at the end of the twentieth century the opposite had become true, since the world island often seems to be more influenced by the Western Hemisphere than the reverse. The real Heartland, if there is one, is the United States.

Fettweis contends that perhaps the most fundamental failure of geostrategy has been its inability to recognize the extent to which technology has allowed humanity to overcome the constraints applied by the earth. With each advance in transportation, for instance, geopolitics loses more of its ability to explain international behavior. Today planes can transport passengers across the Atlantic in less time than it took Mackinder to steam across the English Channel; missiles can be launched in the Urals and hit targets in the Amazon with pinpoint precision in less than an hour; jets can take off in Missouri, deliver a bomb load in Kosovo, and land back home. Technology has not rendered geography relevant for how wars are fought, but it has affected the decisions about why. In other words, as a general rule, the importance of geography to strategy is inversely related to the level of analysis: the lower the level, the more self-evidently useful geography can be. For the makers of grand strategy, however, geographical constraints are not nearly as important to decision making.

Fettweis acknowledges that geopolitics keeps returning, perhaps reflecting the natural human tendency to seek solace from the eternal and the immutable in a world of constant, accelerating change. Perhaps in some ways the belief in the importance of geography is an understandable reaction to the intellectual and social upheaval caused by rapid globalization and technological evolution. Geopolitics, which has at its foundation constants like the mountains and seas, can provide the strategist a measure of comfort amid rapid societal change. Overall, however, the interaction between geography and state behavior has produced a surprisingly barren intellectual landscape.

In his Editor’s Corner essay, Orbis’ Mackubin T. Owens challenges Fettweis’ challenge of classical geopolitics. (For more on Owens’ views, see our Essays and Reviews Section.)

Owens argues that all theories in the various social sciences, including international relations, are and will remain—despite the aspirations and best efforts of Fettweis and others in the field—in a pre-Newtonian, pre-scientific, and non-formal stage. Fettweis stipulates as much when he writes that “one of the oft-articulated weaknesses of international relations is its inability to settle questions, or to advance research questions to anyone’s satisfaction. Despite multiple productive research lines and fruitful decades of debate, rarely are minds changed or knowledge advanced.”

But in Fettweis’ telling, according to Owens, geopolitics is unique in its failure “either to articulate a coherent agenda, to provide empirical support for its ideas, to advance our understanding of international politics, or to generate sagacious policy recommendations…” The trouble lies not so much with geopolitics itself as with Fettweis’ predisposition to conflate geopolitics and geographic determinism and to treat geopolitical thought as static, as if it never takes into account changes in technology and the global distribution of capital.

Owens contends that much of the problem with Fettweis’s essay is attributable to the methodology of international relations itself. The study of international relations, like most of the other social sciences, is dominated by positivism, which by emphasizing quantification and measurement, tends toward a reductivism that ignores if it does not exclude much of value. After all, to paraphrase an adage attributed to Einstein, not everything that is important can be quantified, and not everything that can be quantified is important. Many of the misunderstandings associated with “geopolitics” arise from the fact that the term itself is heterogeneous: it has been used to mean everything from geographic determinism, to the spatial dimension of political inquiry, to merely an analytical way of thinking. Properly understood, however, it means a normative-strategic doctrine: geopolitics is descriptive in that it helps us understand the world as a whole, and prescriptive in that it suggests strategic courses of action.

Owens agrees with Fettweis’ assertion that geopolitics is very much a part of the Realist tradition. Indeed, it can be understood as the description of the spatial aspects of power politics, as modified by technology and economics, and their strategic implications—realpolitik manifest in geographic space. Geopolitics does indeed make certain claims: there is an international pecking order, determined by who has power and who does not; power is rooted in the physical nature of the world itself; the power of the modern state has some relation to the territory that it occupies, controls, or influences; resources and strategic potential, the sources of state power, are unequally distributed worldwide; and power is ephemeral—possession is no guarantee of its permanent retention, and therefore states must take steps to ensure its retention.

Contrary to Fettweis’s views, technology and economics are not extraneous to geopolitical analysis. Indeed, they are integral to geopolitics, according to Owens. The shift in ship propulsion from sail to coal to oil to nuclear power significantly changed the geopolitical landscape, as did the railroad and the development of air power. Some analysts suggested that nuclear weapons spelled the end of geopolitics; some make that claim now on behalf of information technology and cyberspace. However, while technological advances can alter the importance of the geographic determinants of policy and strategy, they do not negate it. The same is true of economic development; the infusion of capital may modify but not negate the importance of a particular geographic space.

Napoleon defined strategy as the art of using time and space. His focus was the operational level of war, but his definition applies as well to the level of grand strategy. Geopolitics provides the link between geography and strategy. Geopolitics is based on the undeniable fact that all international politics, running the gamut from peace to war, takes place in time and space, in particular geographical settings and environments. It then seeks to establish the links and causal relationships between geographical space and international political power, for the purpose of devising specific strategic prescriptions.

Owens denies that geopolitics reflects geographic determinism; but it is based on the assumption that geography defines limits and opportunities in international politics. States can realize their geopolitical opportunities or become the victims of their geopolitical situation. One purpose of grand strategy is to exploit one’s own geographical attributes and an adversary’s geographical vulnerabilities. Geopolitics is dynamic, not static. It reflects international realities and the global constellation of power arising from the interaction of geography on the one hand and technology and economic development on the other. Technology and the infusion of capital can modify, though not negate, the strategic importance of a particular geographic space.

Finally, Owens concludes, geopolitics clarifies the range of strategic choices, providing a guide for achieving strategic efficiency. While it places particular stress on geographic space as a critically important strategic factor and source of power, it recognizes that geography is only a part of the totality of global phenomena.