Geopolitics, Geography and Strategy
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Geopolitics, Geography and Strategy

Colin S. Gray, Geoffrey Sloan, Colin S. Gray, Geoffrey Sloan

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Geopolitics, Geography and Strategy

Colin S. Gray, Geoffrey Sloan, Colin S. Gray, Geoffrey Sloan

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Geopolitical conditions influence all strategic behaviour - even when cooperation among different kinds of military power is expected as the norm, action has to be planned and executed in specific physical environments. The geographical world cannot be avoided, and it happens to be 'organized' into land, sea, air and space - and possibly the electromagnetic spectrum including 'cyberspace'. Although the meaning of geography for strategy is a perpetual historical theme, explicit theory on the subject is only one hundred years old. Ideas about the implication of geographical, especially spatial, relationships for political power - which is to say 'geopolitics'- flourished early in the twentieth century.
Divided into theory and practice sections, this volume covers the big names such as Mackinder, Mahan and Haushofer, as well as looking back at the vital influence of weather and geography on naval power in the long age of sail (sixteenth to nineteenth centuries). It also looks forward to the consequences of the revival of geopolitics in post-Soviet Russia and the new space-based field of "astropolitics".

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Why Geopolitics?

The popularity of geopolitical theory from 1945 to the present has been rather like the length of hemline on a woman's skirt; it has fallen and risen with the vagaries of fashion. The current vogue can be traced to 1979 when Henry Kissinger published the first volume of his memoirs titled The White House Years. It was significant that this book made continual use of the term 'geopolitics'. This was important for two reasons: first, Kissinger used it as a method of analysis to combat the American liberal policies of idealism; second, it was utilised as a means of presenting an alternative to the conservative policies of an ideological anti-Communism. Kissinger claimed for geopolitics a synonymity with global equilibrium and permanent national interests in the world balance of power. He defined geopolitics as follows: 'by geopolitical I mean an approach that pays attention to the requirements of equilibrium'.1 The revival of the word 'geopolitics' by Kissinger resulted in two discernible paths of development. 'It led, by example and reaction, to further reflection on global strategy in the geopolitical tradition. Secondly, and perhaps in the end more significantly, it popularized the word geopolitics, which entered the language in a way which it never had before, though at the substantial price of ambiguity and confusion of meanings,'2
This special issue of the Journal of Strategic Studies has two related aims. First to make a contribution to dispelling the ambiguity and confusion that still surrounds the term geopolitics. Second, to illuminate the relationships between geopolitics, geography and strategy, and to show how the practice and study of strategy requires a continuing exchange between history and theory. In essence, geopolitics is an attempt to draw attention to the importance of certain geographical patterns in political history. It is a theory of spatial relationships and historical causation. From it explanations have been deduced which suggest the contemporary and future political relevance of various geographical concepts. Furthermore, it can be argued that geopolitics combines historical knowledge with a sophisticated capacity for theorising. The result has been a powerful analytical framework.
One of the aims of geopolitics is to emphasise that political predominance is a question not just of having power in the sense of human or material resources, but also of the geographical context within which that power is exercised: 'in nearly all international transactions involving some element of opposition, resistance, struggle or conflict, the factors of location, space and distance between the interacting parties have been significant variables. This significance is embodied in the maxim, "power is local". This is to say, political demands are projected through space from one location to another upon the earth's surface.'3
This is not to say that the geographical environment determines the objectives or strategies of the foreign or internal policies of a particular state. States do not find themselves in a geographical strait-jacket; instead, geography or geographical configurations present opportunities for policymakers and politicians. This was recognised by one of the founders of modern geopolitical theory, Sir Halford Mackinder (1861-1947). Writing in 1890 he claimed that:
the course of politics is the product of two sets of forces, impelling and guiding. The impetus is from the past, in the history embedded in a people's character and tradition. The present guides the movement by economic wants and geographical opportunities. Statesmen and diplomatists succeed and fail pretty much as they recognise the irresistible power of these forces.4
The extent to which geographical opportunities will be exploited depends on strategy. That is a concern with the deployment and use of armed forces to attain particular political objectives.
Political objectives are a consequence of choices made by policymakers. It is from these choices that political and strategic importance is attached to geographical configurations and locations. It also reflects the nature of politics as a decision-making process. In this process the geographical factors which influence politics are a product of policy-makers selecting particular objectives and attempting to realise them by the conscious formulation of strategies. This relationship between the geographical environment and the decision-making process is a dynamic one; it is dependent upon changing levels of transport and weapons technology. This dynamic aspect is one of the most important links between geopolitical theory, geography and strategy. It illustrates the pivotal nature of the continuing exchange between theory and history.
Furthermore, geography can be described as the mother of strategy, in that the geographical configuration of land and sea, with respect to a state's strategic policy, or an alliance between states, can exercise a twofold strategic conditioning influence: on locations important for defence, and on the routes and geographical configurations which favour an attacking force, be it on land or sea. Geography, it is worth adding, is pertinent at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of conflict, although its use or misuse by commanders at different levels can have very different consequences.
This special issue is divided into two parts. The first, comprising seven essays is designed to illustrate the way that geopolitical theory derives from interpretation of geographical configuration and historical experience. These studies address questions of methodology and approach: what reasonably might we expect geopolitical theory to achieve for illumination of the relationship between geography and strategy? The second part consists of a further five essays which offer a new focus on the relationship between geography and strategy, a relationship often ignored in the past.
Geoffrey Sloan explains the 1904, 1919, and 1943 versions of Mackinder's heartland theory in the context of the unique historical periods of their formulation. He then looks at the propositions which can be deduced to suggest future relevance for the heartland theory. Mackinder's view of geography is interpreted as a combination of a geographical longue durée and a theatre of military action. A good geopolitical analysis, Sloan suggests, must present a picture of the constellation of forces which exist at a particular time and within a particular geographical frame of reference. This approach makes Mackinder's geopolitical theories prominent among the most important of the twentieth century.
Jon Sumida breaks new ground with respect to the geopolitical theories of Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840-1914). Mahan's work in the past has been judged negatively to have been cast unduly in a deterministic mould. Achievement of naval supremacy appeared directly linked to several immutable geographical conditions. Sumida explains why Mahan came to be associated with an absolutist approach to history. This was because of a set of physical and human geographical propositions whose use in connection with the explanation of major international political outcomes made it easy for many people to believe that Mahan argued that geography determined the course of history. Sumida's careful consideration of Mahan's work reveals that such a characterisation is faulty and seriously misleading. What emerges is a view of Mahan that has not been seen before. It is one where human affairs are complicated and outcomes dependent upon complex interactions and contingent forces. Mahan's view of the utility of history illuminating geography and strategy considers a range of possibilities, including contradictory or even mutually exclusive ones.
Ben Lambeth considers air power from two innovative perspectives. The first is what air power has become, particularly in the context and wake of Operation 'Desert Storm' in 1991. The thesis is that it has now become transformative in its effects and can produce strategic results in joint warfare; space surveillance and communications are a large part of what has given airpower the value-added clout it offers to joint force commanders today. The second perspective is in many ways the antithesis of the first. As early as 1919 Mackinder claimed that air power had an advantage over land mobility, but it had a boomerang nature since it proceeds from and to a land base after flight, and those land bases can be captured by land power. Lambeth also maintains that carrier-borne aircraft cannot conduct a sustained an air campaign. Therefore the great challenge for the future will be whether countries such as the United States can build partnerships and otherwise plan ahead for access in many parts of the world. This, Lambeth argues, will be critical if air power is to meet its promise in future conflicts.
Everett Dollman's is perhaps the most ambitious of the essays on geopolitical theory. For the first time an attempt has been made to discern the geopolitical dimensions of space. This has led to the coining of the adjective 'astropoliticai'. Dollman uses Mackinder's heartland theory as his geopolitical template. He argues that the vast resources of solar space represent the heartland of the astropoliticai model. Earth space, like Eastern Europe in Mackinder's design, is the most critical arena for astropolitics. Control of earth space not only guarantees long-term control of the outer reaches of space, it provides a near-term advantage on the terrestrial battlefield. From early warning and detection of missile and force movements, to target planning and battle damage assessment, space-based intelligence gathering assets, Dollman argues, already have proved themselves as legitimate force multipliers.
There is also a pertinent Mahanian geopolitical analogy. Mahan argued that control of certain bodies of water were particularly important for economic and military reasons. Space, Dollman argues, like the sea, can be traversed potentially in any direction, but because of gravity wells and the forbidding cost of lifting weight into orbit, over time space-faring nations will develop specific pathways for the heaviest traffic. Indeed, space highways and 'chokepoints' are clearly discernible already.
For much of the post-1945 period geopolitics has been something of an intellectual pariah. It is worth noting that between the 1940s and the publication of Colin Gray's The Geopolitics of the Nuclear Era in 1977 (with the exception of Sen's Basic Principles of Geopolitics and History, published in India in 1975) no book title in English used the term geopolitics. The effect of this condition of neglect was compounded by the advent of critical theory and postmodernism which emerged in International Relations in the 1980s.
The emergence of these approaches was a reaction to two things: first to the perceived dominance of neorealist and neoliberal perspectives; second to the disintegration of the Marxist 'dependency' critique of orthodox thinking on the subject. This approach has generated different 'critical studies' that have been applied to subject areas in International Relations. Geopolitics has not been excepted from this trend. However, it is important to understand just what this approach is attempting: 'what justified the label "critical", is a concern with human emancipation - the goal in each case is to re-orient their sub-discipline towards this goal, and to refuse to accept accounts of the subject area that do not privilege emancipation'.5
Gearóid Ó Tuathail, on critical geopolitics, argues that geopolitics has a self image as an instrumental form of knowledge and rationality. It takes the existing power structure for granted and works within it to provide advice to foreign policy makers. Ó Tuathail claims that its dominant modes of narration are declarative (this is how the world is) and imperative (this is what we must do). Critical geopolitics, it can be argued, is different in two important respects: first it is a problematising theoretical project that places the existing structure of power and knowledge in question; second it critiques the superficial and self-interested ways in which orthodox geopolitics reads the world political map by projecting its own cultural and political assumptions upon it while concealing these same assumptions.
In addition to these two perspectives Ó Tuathaii suggests that geopolitics is mythic because it promises uncanny clarity and insight in a complex world. This claim of clarity is sustained by the use of such binaries from the geopolitical tradition as heartland/rimland, land power/sea power, and East/West. In short, critical geopolitics aims to persuade strategic thinkers to acknowledge the power of ethnocentric cultural constraints in their perception of places and the dramas occurring within them.
The last look at geopolitical theory is also an attempt to break new ground. David Lonsdale assesses the implications of information technology. Specifically, he argues that the defining characteristic which identifies the 'infosphere' as a dimension of strategy is the manner in which strategic power can be projected through and within this unique environment. He draws an important analogy with both sea power and air power. In both these environments the dominant operational concept is to gain command of a particular geographical dimension of strategy. Yet Lonsdale argues persuasively that use of the infosphere has its own challenges. The key being to ensure your own use, yet deny your adversary the same facility. He reminds us of the requirement for some functioning enemy information infrastructure if deception operations are to be effected. The primary characteristics of information power are flexibility and accessibility.
What has this to do with geopolitics? Lonsdale argues convincingly that information power is unlikely to become transformative in its effects and produce strategic results independently. Instead it will develop its own geopolitical logic and will supplement and enable success in the other existing environments of strategy. In short, in its own unique way it will become territorialised.
The aim of the second part of this Special Issue is to explore the relationship between geography and strategy and to draw geopolitical conclusions from it. Colin Gray sets out in a comprehensive manner the relationship between geography and strategy. He argues that geography cannot be an optional extra for consideration by the strategic theorist or planner, because it drives the character and potential contemporary reach of tactical, hence operational, prowess.
What is innovative about Gray's approach is that he first fixes the nature of strategy as the dialogue between policy and military power. He argues that in reconciling political objectives with military ones, the strategist must deal with a realm of great complexity and uncertainty. Policy, in a sense, must be more important than strategy, just as strategy must be superior to operations and tactics. Strategy would be literally senseless in the absence of policy. Having located strategy in the hierarchy between policy and military power, the geographical dimension of strategy is then elucidated. He argues that strategy is inherently geographical and that even when other dimensions are examined they are each subject to the influence of what can be termed fairly as geographical influence. In no sense is this a claim for geography as the 'master dimension' of strategy. Gray's argument simply is that geography always matters for strategic experience, and on occasion it will matter hugely.
Perhaps the most innovative aspect of this approach is the way in which geography and strategy are related to geopolitical theory. Gray argues that the principal glory of the 'grand narrative' of geopolitical theory is the ability to tie apparently disparate phenomena together in meaningful ways. He suggests that it is exactly the meaningful character of geopolitical theories that renders them so controversial.
Another important focus is what Clausewitz called the relationship between a logic of policy and a grammar of war. Gray underlines the point that the grammar of strategy literally and inalienably is dictated by the distinctive requirements of physical geography. Furthermore, he argues that to plan and act globally, rather than regionally or locally, is not to transcend geography, let alone geopolitics, in fact quite the reverse. A global perspective is simply to plan and behave for a more extensive domain. Strategy and politics must be 'done' within geography. Gray's thesis is that geography is inescapable.
Nicholas Rodger sheds new light on the subtle relationship between geography and strategic policy, a combination of conditioning influence and the changing meaning of geographical conditions. What he illustrates in an engaging manner is the profound influence that geographical configuration and weather had on naval operations prior to the advent of steam propulsion. Just moving your naval force from its base to where you wished it to fight was an exercise often fraught with danger. There were few safe landfalls and prevailing winds often prevented a naval commander from taking what appeared to be the most direct route. For example, in the eighteenth century the quickest passage normally available from Jamaica to Barbados (a distance of just over 1,000 miles by steamer) was via London or New York! Changes in transport and weapon technology were to have a profound impact on the relationship between geography and naval power. Technology was, and remains, a key dynamic factor in the relationship between the geographical environment and the decision-making process.
This point is also well exploited by Ewan Anderson on boun...

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