Why the ‘Geo’ in Geopolitics Still Matters
January 19, 2015
Geopolitics is one of the most difficult sciences to have a single—and precise—definition, as it can have a wide array of interpretations. A political analyst could perceive geopolitics as the exercise and distribution of power within the legislative branch of a government, analyzing the power dynamics—within a congress—of who and which party will support a new foreign policy towards another country (e.g. United States and Cuba); an ambassador may interpret geopolitics as the status of his native country’s relations with his assigned country, the conflicts that may unfold and what interests to uphold; and a hedge fund manager may perceive geopolitics in terms of what events could impact international commodity markets, therefore affecting international investments and his clients’ portfolios. In general the concept is often contextualized, reported, and thought of in terms of international conflicts, risks, and vulnerabilities between one country and another, or multiple parties fighting for influence in a specific part of a territory—i.e. ISIS/ISIL, Crimea, Syria, Korean peninsula. Yet this overlooks the root meaning of the word and the fact that physical geography — if not completely determines — still heavily influences the dynamics of many conflicts, whether military, resource-driven, ethnic, political and so on.
To understand the different meanings of the word, we must first grasp the rationale behind the two leading schools in the realm of geopolitics, which are the classical geopolitics and the more academically-based critical geopolitics schools. The former stems from late nineteenth and early twentieth century writings, primarily those of Sir. Halford Mackinder, Friedrich Ratzel, Alfred Mahan, and Nicholas Spykman, whose work, to this day, is still taken into account in contemporary analysis (the Eurasian landmass as the holy grail of natural resources, the state as a living organism, the paramount importance of controlling the seas, and the importance of littoral/rimland territories in the Asian continent). The critical geopolitics school, championed by prominent scholars such as Simon Dalby, John Agnew, Gerard Toal, and Klaus Dodds, has advocated another point of view within the field of geopolitical studies: that geopolitics is the spatialization of international politics, generally portrayed via words and images by an elite, the media, or academia itself.
Both schools are valid when discussing contemporary geopolitics. However, do they leave any room for the inclusion of physical geography when analyzing a nascent geopolitical conflict? Unfortunately, the theory of environmental determinism – the limits of human development owing to geography and environment – is automatically discarded and viewed pejoratively, as if it were an archaic interpretation of a particular human occurrence. My response to those who would automatically discard such matters: The ‘geo’ in geopolitics still matters.
Which climate type is the most ecumene for human living conditions? Which climatic conditions are most favorable to produce an adequate amount of food and water? Could physiographic conditions isolate certain types of groups that could eventually become guerrillas or terrorists? For example, stretching from Oregon to the Midwest, the United States is blessed with a favorable, temperate climate, balanced enough to have the right quantity of rain, temperature, and soil fertility, which as a result produces enough potable water, rich farmlands, and temperate forests to aid – not determine – the geopolitical condition of the United States as a whole. In Europe, if you are a farmer in the north European plain or in the lowlands of the British Isles, well, most likely you will not have much to worry about planting and harvesting cash crops, since the temperate climate provides similar climatic features to that of United States, thus providing a stable and moderate temperature that is perfect for farming．
Now what if you are a born in the central highlands of Afghanistan, with an unfavorable soil type for planting and harvesting, obligating you to become a pastoral nomad by raising cattle in the foothills of the mountains? What type of life and behavior do you think these herders would have after generations in the harsh, indomitable, fluctuating weather of the unforgiving central Afghan highlands? Most likely it would not be the community-oriented attitude of a farmer living in the Corn Belt region of United States. Possibly your comportment would evolve into a protective, reserved, distrustful-of-others variety, for in animal grazing you most prevent the theft of your only resource to provide a living for your family: your cattle. Thus, honor and reputation would be your dearest, most sacred elements to prevent others from trying to steal from you. As a result, you would rather be feared than loved, for the only respect and honor comes that from your kinship and clan. This is how Afghanistan has been for hundreds of years, given the numerous feuds the country has had amongst tribes and clans.
What if your cattle and your fellow tribesman live in a disconnected and inaccessible mountainous region where hunting, grazing cattle, and felling trees is imperative for the survival of your clan? Possibly, you would develop a separate identity given the isolation of your group over time, forming a different concept of what governance is and how you should be governed according to your own codes and laws. Now, this has been the social structure of the Russian North Caucasus nations—from Karachay-Cherkessia to Dagestan—as well as northern Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro, Iraqi and Turkish Kurdistan, the Basque region of Spain, northern Greece, the highlands of Guatemala, southern Mexico, and parts of southern Italy, particularly Calabria and Sicily. These regions have been fashioned by a ‘pastoral/mountain culture’- protecting your resources, your kinship and honor – which in turn affects the cultural character of their contemporary societies.
Now to the formula of geopolitical analysis, please add culture, religious beliefs, political concepts of governance, ethnic affiliation, and production means – all the elements of what make a geographic entity ‘unique.’
Nigeria, like many countries in the tropics, enjoys substantial levels of precipitation in the south, consistently up to Nassarawa state in central Nigeria. And as in many tropical/equatorial climates, there are favorable climatic conditions to animal and plant life in the southern lowlands of Nigeria. Yet this is not the case for Borno state – the symbolic hub of Boko Haram. Northern Nigeria is affected by what a physical geographer would call ‘the rain shadow effect,’ originating in the humid waters of the Gulf of Guinea, which, to put it simply, means that it rains more on one side of a mountain (windward side) or plateau range than the other (leeward side). This produces the arid and dry, Sahel-like climate that exists in most of Nigeria’s Islamic north—Kano, Sokoto and Borno. As a result, this type of geographic phenomena has given the local population in the north—the leeward side of Nigeria—a less favorable climatic condition than in the predominantly Christian south, providing both populations with different means of production and different conditions to manage their local economies, in great extent influencing their behavior and shared experience given the uniqueness of each group’s territory.
It’s worth noting that the insurgency problem of northern Nigeria is not exclusively a consequence of climate and agricultural productivity. Borno state lies right in the middle of the African Transition Zone — the cultural border dividing North Africa from Sub-Saharan Africa (different climatic conditions alongside religious and cultural dynamics). Now add the political history of Borno: a part of Nigeria that was not entirely penetrated by the British colonial apparatus; was deeply affected by trade routes vis-à-vis other Muslim tribal-polities; was marginalized prior the birth of Boko Haram; and is a part of Nigeria with poor arable land that mostly depends on animal grazing. As a result—and begging the question—how do these physiographic effects shape the cultural and religious dynamics that, in turn, influence the character and behavior of northern Nigerians, more precisely Borno state villagers? What are the cultural legacies of their villages and tribes? By analyzing Borno villagers’ ecosystem—arid climate and dry savannah/grasslands—alongside productivity means and cultural legacies, could it help us to understand the rise of a group such as Boko Haram and its growing geopolitical impact in Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, and Niger?
As initially mentioned, physiographic conditions do not determine our destiny as humans, but it would be fallacy not to think that some nations are simply more favored than others in terms of physical geography. Would it be helpful to break the taboo on the importance of analyzing the climatic and topographic characteristics of a particular territory for a particular population? For instance, one thinks of human possibilism when thinking of Hong Kong, Singapore and Dubai. Yet, arguably, these ports are located in some of the most geostrategic hubs of maritime commerce, without forgetting the fact that a country like the U.A.E.—thanks in great part to their natural resources, political institutions, and migrant communities—has taken advantage of its strategic location to become the global city it is. Now could the Central African Republic have the same level of geostrategic importance as Djibouti or Crimea? Most likely not. Some territories are simply more strategic than others—mobility, location, geographic chokepoints, maritime commerce, agriculture, natural resources, and so forth.
Perhaps the secret to further understanding geopolitical events and insurgencies lies in the notion of biogeography in combination with cultural legacies. For instance, Professor Jarred Diamond points out that the main reason why Australia remained the biggest territory inhabited by hunters and gatherers for thousands of years prior to British colonization was mainly biogeographic: a very small number of plants could be domesticated. Thus it was only after the British arrived with domesticable animals and crops that Australia was put on the path of becoming the world exporter of wool and food it is today. Additionally, if you wonder in what type of climate the major Australian cities are located? Well, you guessed correctly: in the temperate climate zone—Brisbane to Adelaide and also a small regional area that circulates the city of Perth—where the most favorable climatic living and agricultural conditions occur.
Yes, political institutions and reforms were paramount in the socioeconomic transformation of countries like United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia and, a most recent example, Israel (prior to massive migration from Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews, it was generally a semi-arid, deserted space). Yes, human decisions, opportunities and implementation of new technologies have made other polities more competitive than others; yes, technology, social media networks and the Internet, have shortened time and space across the globe; yes, theories like environmental/geographic determinism were written by racist, bigot-type geographers and anthropologists; and yes, it is extremely difficult to scientifically prove how climatic and biogeographic conditions may influence our behavior and political identity as human beings. Yet, human possibilism still has limits, as Professor Diamond once again argues: “the human spirit won’t keep you warm north of the Artic Circle if you are nearly naked, as are equatorial lowland peoples. Nor will the human spirit enable you to herd kangaroos, whose social structure is different from that of the dozen species of herdable Old World large domestic mammals.” Were the Australian aborigines – before the British settlement – less competitive because of environmental determinism and/or geographic limitations? If no, well, how could human possibilism have made the aborigines more competitive without domesticable plants and animals? This is why I still think environmental determinism should not be discarded automatically; instead one should ponder the more undeniable physiographic, climatic, and biogeographic conditions that can shape the character of the inhabitants in a particular ‘place,’ allowing them to become more competitive than other ‘places.’
In the science and interpretation of geopolitics, it should be paramount to comprehend how different biomes (e.g. grasslands, highlands, coastal regions, deserts, lowlands, basins, valleys, and so on) and climatic conditions (e.g. tropical/equatorial, arid/dry, moderate/temperate, continental/cold, polar/extreme, and highland) could have an effect on a given communities’ political and social behavior, especially and more specifically in the Global South, where many conflicts are arising, and which is why scholars, policymakers, journalists, business leaders, and all of those interested—like myself—in the realm of geopolitics, should break the environmental determinism taboo by simply asking ourselves: Could climatic and biogeographic conditions further helps us in our understanding, analysis, and forecasting of geopolitical events?
As a last remark, in his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell brilliantly expresses the fact that “each of us has his or her own distinct personality. But overlaid on top of that are tendencies and assumptions and reflexes handed down to us by the history of the community we grew up in, and those differences are extraordinarily specific. Why is the fact that each of us comes from a culture with its own distinctive mix of strengths and weaknesses, tendencies and pre-dispositions, so difficult to acknowledge? Who we are cannot be separated from where we’re from”…
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