Rethinking Geopolitics: Geography as an Aid to Statecraft

Geopolitics has become marginalized in modern international relations scholarship despite its foundational role. This essay seeks to bring geopolitics back to the mainstream of international relations through conceptual, historical, and theoretical analyses. I make three arguments. First, definitional confusion about geopolitics comes from an overly broad understanding of geography. Notwithstanding various uses, however, geography itself should be re-centered as the analytical core of geopolitics. Second, classical geopolitics sought to inform grand strategy using geography as an explanatory variable and was thus institutionalized in U.S. strategic education. To wit, geography was used as “an aid to statecraft.” Finally, although largely ignored in mainstream international relations, the basic premise of geopolitics still undergirds much of its research. But the asymmetry, relativity, and comprehensiveness of geography have not been well explored. Drawing from classical geopolitical works, I offer some suggestions for future research on how to use geography in international relations scholarship.

Geopolitics has become an increasingly trendy subject over the past decade. A number of popular books on the subject have been published;1 savvy investors and businessmen are looking for “geopolitical” consultants;2 and research centers and programs committed to “geopolitical” analysis are emerging.3 However, the precise definition of “geopolitics” remains vague. One observer lamented some time ago that geopolitics means “everything from geographic determinism … to merely an analytical way of thinking.”4 This criticism remains valid today. Academic works embracing the term “geopolitics” offer ingenious, yet somewhat deflective, interpretations, from realism to post-modernism. While this definitional plasticity likely contributed to the widespread use of the term, such a sweeping conceptualization makes productive discussions of the topic difficult.5

Since the term “geopolitics” is often used almost synonymously with “international affairs,” and given the topic’s recent prominence, one would surmise that international relations scholars are familiar with the subject — especially since the “classical geopolitics” of the late 19th century effectively “inaugurated” modern international relations scholarship, according to one prominent scholar.6 But this is not the case. As intellectual historian Lucian Ashworth observed, geopolitics is “largely ignored” in the field.7 The discussion of early geopolitical writing is confined to a small group of defense experts, geographers, and historians.8 Yet, their fixation with specific concepts, such as the “heartland” and the “rimland,” discouraged engagement with the field.9 This is unfortunate, because classical geopolitics has much to offer. Understanding classical geopolitics and its relationship with international relations will help scholars to be more conscious of their own disciplinary history, to examine geographical assumptions underlying their scholarship, and ultimately to better incorporate geographic features into their research. This last point is especially important, since policymakers and strategists in Washington are debating where to draw defensive parameters against strategic competitors. Their answers, by and large, will depend on the value they assign to different geographic locations.10

This essay, therefore, seeks to re-establish the lost connection between geopolitics and international relations. It proceeds in three parts. The first order of business is to clarify the definition of “geopolitics,” given the habitual conceptual over-stretching of the term. After examining various uses of geopolitics in contemporary discourses, the first section will show that commentators generally equate it with international affairs in general or power politics in particular. This is understandable given the fundamentally territorial nature of states and their interactions — especially competition over geographic objects. In contrast, scholars tend to have more focused definitions of the term, but these are no less confusing. This section shows that this definitional confusion in scholarly works comes from different conceptualizations of the term’s analytical core, geography.

Even if we adopt a literal definition of geography, however, a question remains on the relationship between “geo” and “politics.” Thus, the second section briefly examines the history of geopolitics. Since the general story is well told elsewhere,11 it will focus on two particular aspects of the history of geopolitics. The first is the ideas of three key thinkers in what is often called the Anglo-American “geostrategic” school — Halford Mackinder, Alfred Mahan, and Nicholas Spykman — both their substance and context.12 This will not only clarify distinctions between geopolitics and political geography, conceptually if not substantively, but also show why classical geopolitics was essentially a precursor to modern international relations. In turn, the second aspect is the historical relationship between the two. While recent scholarship has started re-establishing the connection between geopolitics and international relations, how exactly the former influenced the latter remains somewhat unclear.13 By tracing the institutionalization of geopolitics in U.S. strategic education, we can gain a better understanding of how it actually contributed to the birth of international relations.

Not only did geopolitics help form the bedrock of modern international relations, but its intellectual premise — that geography affects state behavior — although under-appreciated, still undergirds much of contemporary research. Thus, the third and final section will illustrate this point by surveying geopolitical propositions in international relations scholarship, broadly defined. It will examine how leading works on foreign policy and grand strategy have used geography as a key explanatory variable. The list presented there is by no means exhaustive. Rather, the purpose is to identify the broad tendencies in the field. As will be shown, the use of geography as an explanatory variable in these works falls under one of the three pillars of strategy: the ends, means, and ways.14 Despite modern scholarship’s contribution, this essay finds that these works have fallen short of capturing the asymmetry, relativity, and comprehensiveness of geography. A more serious engagement with classical geopolitics, especially with how the three founding figures of the field conceptualized geography, would help scholars improve on these points. The paper closes with a brief remark on future research.

Together, these findings form three arguments about the concept, history, and theory of geopolitics. First, the meaning of the term “geography” itself should be reclaimed as the analytical core of geopolitics, as a concept, to avoid definitional confusion and to develop a constructive research program. Second, historically, geopolitics was conceived of as a group of grand strategic theories, akin to contemporary international relations scholarship, with geography serving as a key explanatory variable — in other words, geography was used as “an aid to statecraft.”15 Finally, international relations scholars can benefit from engaging classical geopolitics, especially its theoretical components, by paying attention to how geography interacts with human factors, such as technology and institutions, to dynamically shape the strategic environment, as opposed to fixating on particular geographies or geopolitical maxims.

The broad scope of this essay by default makes it interpretative and synthesizing in its approach. However, it relies on diverse sources, from published monographs to heretofore neglected unpublished works and recently released documents. It also draws from various disciplines across time, from the writings of classical geopoliticians of the late 19th century to contemporary scholarship in social sciences and intellectual history. Its purpose is less about breaking new theoretical or empirical ground than about bringing together compartmentalized knowledge in a holistic manner, thereby bridging the gap between the disconnected fields of geopolitics and international relations.
Geopolitics as a Concept

The term “geopolitics” has been rather loosely defined and used somewhat haphazardly. Commentators often use “geopolitics” as a substitute for international affairs in general. A corollary is that anything involving political and strategic rationale is deemed “geopolitical.”16 As Colin Gray argued, “all politics is geopolitics.”17 Although such an expansive definition of geopolitics omits “geo” altogether, it is not entirely wrong. Because states — the main actors in the international arena — are territorial entities by nature, their political relations are inherently geopolitical.18 But this excessively broad definition is unhelpful for analytical purposes. If everything is geopolitical, nothing really is. One intuitively knows that it would be absurd to describe a congenial meeting of heads of state discussing mundane issues as “geopolitical,” even though it involves interstate exchanges.

A related, yet more focused, definition of geopolitics is great-power competition.19 This is arguably the most common use of the term. Its progenitor, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, used “geopolitics” to denote “an approach that pays attention to the requirements of equilibrium,” understood as the balance of power.20 He popularized this conception during the 1970s, when the term itself had largely been forgotten in the United States.21 There is some truth to this way of conceptualizing geopolitics because great-power competition is often a competition over territory, resources, or other geographic objects. Kissinger himself is generally attentive to the importance of location throughout his works.22 Still, Kissinger as a theorist, much like his contemporary Hans Morgenthau, was an ontological “idealist” concerned with moral — not material — forces, and his equation of geopolitics with high politics led later generations of commentators to omit “geo” from their analyses.23

Conceptually, however, realism and geopolitics are different: The former is defined as a philosophical position that assumes the primacy of power and security in the struggle among self-interested political groups, whereas the latter does not necessarily have to make these assumptions and focuses instead on spatial dimensions.

If pundits have neglected the prefix, academics have either creatively overstretched the definition of “geopolitics” or reversed the order of “geo” and “politics.” Broadly speaking, in academia “geopolitics” means either “politics of geography” or “geography of politics.”24 The former is used in the “critical geopolitics” literature where assumptions underlying cartographic concepts and discourses are examined.25 While offering fresh perspectives, critical geopolitics has effectively gotten rid of the “geo” part — i.e., physical geography — and thus is more appropriately called the etymology or sociology of cartography.26

The latter approach, “geography of politics,” is more common. It is uncontroversial to state that geography constitutes the basic context, or milieu, of politics. But even those who take the “geo” component more seriously conceptualize geography differently. To Robert Kaplan, for instance, geography is synonymous with the realities of international politics, and geopolitics with political realism. As Kaplan wrote, “realism is about the recognition of the most blunt, uncomfortable, and deterministic truths: those of geography.”27 In fact, classical geopolitical thinkers, such as Mahan, Mackinder, and Spykman, regarded international conflicts largely as a reality to reckon with, and earlier realists did take geography seriously.28 One could also blame Mackinder for Kaplan’s conceptual overstretch, because he essentially contrasted geographic reality with democratic ideals.29

Conceptually, however, realism and geopolitics are different: The former is defined as a philosophical position that assumes the primacy of power and security in the struggle among self-interested political groups,30 whereas the latter does not necessarily have to make these assumptions and focuses instead on spatial dimensions. Moreover, both realism and geopolitics have different analytical focal points: power and space, respectively. This point is best illustrated in their different conceptions of the balance of power. As Jeremy Black wrote, “For realism, the relative physical strengths … are measured in terms of physical-balance relationships. In contrast, for geopolitics, balance-of-power relationships come, in part, in terms of spatial positions or patterns.”31 More intuitively, as Or Rosenboim analogized, if realism weighs the balance on a mental “scale,” geopolitics expresses it spatially on a map.32 In short, realism and geopolitics are two different schools of thought, albeit with some areas of overlap.

Another related conceptual cousin is historical materialism. Daniel Deudney defined “geopolitics” as a “historical security materialist theory,” equating geography with the material environment. Specifically, he argued that geopolitics explains the creation of the world order in terms of “violence interdependence,” which is determined by geography and technology.33 Geography does constitute the basic feature of the material world. At one level, geopolitics and materialism seem similar. Not surprisingly, E. H. Carr mentioned Geopolitik, albeit in passing, alongside other prominent historical materialists such as Georg Hegel and Karl Marx.34 In fact, communists were some of its earliest critics, because, according to them, the German “portmanteau science” essentially “stole” Marx’s materialism. As one scholar wrote, “For the economic materialism … the Geopolitikers had merely substituted the geographic materialism … . What the class struggle is to the Marxist the struggle for space is to the Geopolitiker.”35

On a closer examination, however, their difference is stark. While historical materialism, as manifested in classical Marxism, generally takes the “inside-out” approach, privileging domestic factors,36 geopolitics focuses primarily on international issues. Relatedly, Marxism presupposes the primacy of economics, or the “mode of production,” as opposed to geopolitics which does not make this assumption. Also, Deudney’s specific claim that geopolitics is a form of historical security materialism should be qualified. Classical geopoliticians did not periodize history according to the development of destructive capabilities. Mackinder’s “Columbian Epoch” and Mahan’s periodization had little, if anything, to do with weapons technology.37 Finally, geopoliticians do not share historical materialists’ determinism. They treat geography as a condition, albeit a major one, under which states operate. A wise statesperson can exploit geography to his or her advantage.38 Thus, geopolitics and historical materialism are profoundly different, despite some similarities.39

In short, geography itself, not its abstractions, should be returned as the conceptual core of geopolitics. This leads us back to a more traditional definition. Geographer Saul Cohen defined geopolitics as “the relation of international political power to the geographical setting.”40 While a useful definition, a question remains. How is geopolitics different from political geography? Is the distinction, as Franklin Roosevelt’s geographer Isaiah Bowman argued, one of purpose, where geopolitics is a pseudo-science that advances a particular agenda and political geography is a legitimate science that advances human knowledge?41 In contrast, political scientist Harold Sprout considered political geography as a subset of geopolitics, containing the latter’s best insights.42 Still others believed that the difference is one of methodology and ontology.43 Although unclear at the outset, they have different intellectual points of focus. Urban planning, for instance, is considered in political geography, but not necessarily in geopolitical analysis. To illustrate this point, some intellectual archaeology is in order.
The Rise and Fall of Geopolitics: A Short History

Background of Geopolitics

Historians and philosophers sought to explain human affairs with geographic referents long before the terms “political geography” and “geopolitics” entered the lexicon. Thucydides’ history, for instance, begins with “political archaeology,” describing how geography affected the domestic structure of Athens.44 Similarly, Montesquieu argued that the physical environment of the land affected not only its inhabitants’ physiology but also their political system.45 These early “physio-politicians,” who examined the interaction between humans and nature, were generally more interested in how the natural environment affected political organizations.46 During the Age of Discovery, geography served raison d’état by providing knowledge that was necessary to explore and, as new places and things were discovered, begat scientific disciplines.47

With the industrial revolution, the focus of physio-politicians shifted from domestic to international politics, influenced by technological developments that were shrinking the globe. Meanwhile, geography became an established discipline.48 This gave birth to political geography and geopolitics, both the terms and the substance of each. In the mid-18th century, French philosopher Anne Robert Jacques Turgot used “political geography” to refer to “the relationship between the facts of geography … and the organization of politics.”49 About a century and a half later in 1899, Swedish political scientist Rudolf Kjellen coined the term Geopolitik, which denotes “the harnessing of geographical knowledge to further the aims of specific nation states.”50 Kjellen, who had been influenced by German geographer Friedrich Ratzel, saw the state as a living organism. This line of thinking, often called the “organic state theory,” would in turn become prominent in Germany after World War I.51

Founding Figures: Mahan, Mackinder, and Spykman

Unlike in continental Europe, geopoliticians in the Anglophone world had a different set of concerns and analytical points of focus.52 Three key theorists in the “geostrategic” school are Mahan, Mackinder, and Spykman. In The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, Mahan argued that sea powers,53 defined as those that exert control over key waterways, played a decisive role in the military history of Europe, which he saw as marked by clashes of interests among nations. Because waterborne shipping is cheaper and easier than overland transportation, maritime powers have an advantage over land powers in trade and commerce. In addition, the strength of continental states is sapped by the requirements of territorial defense. Thus, sea powers have had an overbearing influence on strategic questions throughout history. This “essential” principle of statecraft was still applicable at the strategic level, Mahan argued, regardless of technological changes that might affect tactics.54

According to Mahan, sea power has three components: commerce, shipping, and colonies. While maritime trade is dependent on commercial shipping, the wealth generated should be protected by a capable navy. Also, the government should secure overseas stations and markets — what Mahan referred to as “colonies” — to fuel and maintain commercial and naval vessels, and to sell industrial products. Mahan argued that whether a country could become a sea power depended on six elements: “geographical position” (insular vs. continental), “physical conformation” (access to the sea and harbors), “extent of territory” (populated coastlines), “number of population” (seaworthy population), “national character” (commercial aptitude), and “character of the government” (regime type and policy). The first three are “natural conditions,” whereas the latter three pertain to human conditions. Their successful combination is subject to human agency, as illustrated in Mahan’s lengthy discussion on how Jean-Baptiste Colbert’s naval policy affected French sea power.55

Writing at a time when the U.S. Navy was smaller than that of most European great powers, Mahan’s initial concern was with the near seas, especially the Caribbean.56 However, he certainly believed that the Pacific Ocean would become a strategic focus in the future. For instance, Mahan noted that the Pacific frontier is the weakest, although at the time it was “far removed from the most dangerous possible enemies.”57 Having in mind the likely construction of an isthmian canal connecting the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, Mahan wrote: “The military needs of the Pacific States, as well as their supreme importance to the whole country, are … so near that provision should immediately begin.”58 After the annexation of the Philippines following the Spanish-American War, Mahan thought that the most pressing problem was the fate of the Chinese empire, which was increasingly threatened by the land power of Russia. To protect America’s interests there, Mahan recommended the construction of a powerful navy and an isthmus canal in either Nicaragua or Panama, a quasi-alliance with other maritime powers that shared common interests — Britain, Germany, and Japan — and, finally, retrenchment from the area south of the Amazon valley to focus on the Caribbean and the “problem of Asia.”59

The most fundamental geographic fact of Europe, Mackinder argued, lay in the divide between Western and Eastern Europe with Germany positioned at the center.

If Mahan believed that America’s future lay in the world’s oceans, Mackinder thought that the era of Europe’s maritime dominance — the “Columbian Epoch” — might be over due to technological changes and geographic discovery.60 In his lecture delivered at the Royal Geographical Society in 1904, Mackinder observed that the wealth and power of nations historically depended as much on natural resources and mobility, which were in turn determined primarily by topography, terrain, and animal power, as it did on national characteristics, such as socio-economic organizations. For Mackinder, that there was no more new territory to occupy meant the “closure” of the international political system, which would intensify competition among states. With the development of transportation and the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway, Mackinder speculated that the “pivot” state, Russia, would now pose a threat to Britain that was analogous to the Mongol threat to Europe several centuries prior. Because Russia’s large swath of land is inaccessible from the sea, it could tap continental resources with which to build an unmatchable navy. The post-Columbian period, therefore, would see a return to the status quo ante with the “pivot” of Eurasia once again overshadowing world affairs.61

While he did not make any specific recommendations then, Mackinder developed his geopolitical outlook further for a post-World War I world in Democratic Ideals and Reality. The most fundamental geographic fact of Europe, Mackinder argued, lay in the divide between Western and Eastern Europe with Germany positioned at the center. Eastern Europe could be used as a springboard for the “Heartland,” a wider region outside Europe extending from Siberia to Persia. While a maritime power’s fleet could not penetrate into the “Heartland,” a continental power could launch a navy from it, thereby potentially dominating the entire “World Island,” a joint continent of Europe, Africa, and Asia.62 In his view, World War I was essentially an attempt by Germany, organized by the “Going Concern” — the statist political-economic organizations — to subdue the Slavic people who would “grow food for her and … buy her wares” for “the occupation of the Heartland.”63 In a Thucydidean sense, Mackinder argued that great-power war was caused fundamentally by the “unequal growth” of nations, which resulted largely from different resource endowments and strategic opportunities.64 To construct a durable peace, the fundamental reality of political and economic geography should be factored in. A zone of viable buffer states, Mackinder advised, should be established in Eastern Europe to separate Germany from Russia.65

Mackinder’s outlook was not static, however. He was agnostic about which nation would occupy the “pivot” or the “heartland,” thereby commanding Eurasia. Mackinder’s nightmare as described in his “pivot” lecture was a Russo-German alliance. That talk closed with an interesting speculation about the possibility of Chinese domination of Russia under Japan’s tutelage, which would be equally menacing.66 Likewise, Mackinder distinguished the purely geographic from the strategic heartland. Because land powers could close the Black Sea and the Baltic with the development of transportation and weapons, the strategic heartland should include their basins.67 His last work, published in Foreign Affairs in 1943, equated the heartland with the area occupied by Moscow excluding “Lenaland,” the surrounding area of “the transcontinental railroad from Irkutsk to Vladivostok.”68 Therefore, his infamous aphorism evoking the Elizabethan statesman Walter Raleigh —“Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland: Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island: Who rules the World-Island commands the World.” — should be seen as a rhetorical devise, not a deterministic vision.69

Eschewing grand theorizing about the fate of nations, Spykman focused his attention more narrowly on strategic problems at a time when international relations in the United States was predominantly idealistic. Spykman laid out his geopolitical outlook in a series of articles written in the interwar years and in his magnum opus, America’s Strategy in World Politics. Presaging modern structural realists, Spykman argued that the absence of “governmental organization … preserving order and enforcing law” necessitates the formulation of geographically informed foreign policy. This was because “[g]eography is the most fundamental factor … it is the most permanent. Ministers come and ministers go, even dictators die, but mountain ranges stand unperturbed.”70 A nation’s size and location are two of the most important factors informing its foreign policy. The former approximates “potential strength” — a large territory gives a country advantages in defense and national power only if it is well endowed and effectively controlled by a centralized government. The latter is again divided into its location in the world, in relation to “the land masses and oceans of the world,” and its regional location, in relation to other regional competitors. The location itself does not change, but its significance — or relative value — does: with changes in the center of world power, routes of communication, and military and transportation technologies.71

Spykman outlined what is perhaps his most well-known contribution, the “rimland” theory, in his posthumously published work, The Geography of the Peace. It is essentially an extension of America’s Strategy, in which he argued that the security of the United States depends neither on insularity nor on a “world federation,” but on the country’s active participation in Eurasian power politics. The “rimland” is the intermediate region along the littorals of Mackinder’s Heartland, which serves as “a vast buffer … between [sea power] and land power.”72 Should this area be occupied by the Axis powers, the western hemisphere would effectively be encircled. This may not be an immediate and insurmountable military problem, given logistical difficulties. But further developments of airpower might change the situation. Moreover, the Old World’s combined resources would overwhelm the New World’s: The United States could face a significant challenge supplying essential raw materials from outside the western hemisphere. To forestall such a possibility, Spykman argued that America should maintain the balance of power in the rimland. Seen in this light, World War II was fought over “the rimland littoral of Europe and Asia.” Looking ahead, Spykman argued that who controls the rimlands would continue to be America’s most important strategic question.73

Although misunderstood at times, Spykman was not a determinist. He knew well the changing value of geography depending on such factors as technology, demography, and the distribution of power. Spykman argued that “special ‘geopolitical’ regions are not geographic regions defined by a fixed and permanent topography but areas determined … by geography and … dynamic shifts in the centers of power.”74 Moreover, Spykman explicitly distinguished his geopolitics from the “organic state” theory, which rejects individual freedom.75

This brief examination of classical geopolitics reveals distinctive characteristics of geopolitics in three interrelated areas: the subject of analysis, its causal mechanism, and its ontology. First, these theorists were concerned, above all, with the most pressing politico-strategic question of their time, namely, how to safeguard their nations’ security in the face of international conflict. Specifically, they tried to identify where to direct foreign policy: for Mahan it was the Caribbean and later Asia, for Mackinder the heartland, and for Spykman the rimland. In other words, the three geopoliticians were essentially developing theories of foreign policy with a particular focus on the spatial dimension. This makes them “grand strategists” in modern parlance. Seen as such, classical geopolitics in its original form, whose interest lay with politics, was certainly different from political geography, which concerns itself primarily with geography.

Relatedly, classical geopolitical theories contained unique causal mechanisms. Mahan, Mackinder, and Spykman argued that their respective nations should focus on particular areas as “natural seats of power,”76 due to natural resources, terrain, population, and the like — that is, geography. To wit, geopolitics posits geography, especially physical geography, as an independent variable in order to understand the strategic environment. This distinguishes geopolitics from not only political geography, where geography is the dependent variable, but also those theories often described as “geopolitical.” For instance, Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” thesis is only half-geopolitical, because “civilizations” predict the locus of international conflict.77 In contrast, Immanuel Wallerstein’s “World-System” theory is perhaps more geopolitical, given that the international division of labor between the “core” and the “periphery” is at least partially explained in spatial terms.78

However, classical geopoliticians were not geographic determinists whose focus was only on physical features of the earth. As illustrated above, geographic features were always combined with other variables, including technology, political structure, and the distribution of power. The same geographic features, combined with human factors, are manifested differently across time: Large territories, long coastlines and inland waterways, and a central location can be good or bad, depending on the historical circumstances. In other words, Mahan, Mackinder, and Spykman considered human factors to account for how the meaning of the Earth’s physical features changed over the long term.

These three characteristics — the subject of analysis, the causal mechanism, and the ontology — flow from the fact that the classical geopoliticians used geography as “an aid to statecraft.”

This emphasis on the material environment constitutes the final characteristic of geopolitical theory: a structural-materialist ontology. It has already been suggested that geography, an ontologically material factor, is the independent variable from which to deduce foreign policy. Geography is structural, that is, it exists independently from, and at times shapes, the agents — in this case, states. All three thinkers acknowledged the possibility of the agent altering the environment, most significantly with the aid of technology. But there is more to it. They all attributed the cause of conflict, for which nations need foreign policy, to structural factors: Mahan to the clash of commercial interests, Mackinder to the “unequal growth” of nations, and Spykman to “anarchy.” From the theoretical standpoint, classical geopolitics was a structural-materialist approach that derived the explanation for foreign policy from the geographic structure of the world. These three men eschewed, by and large, analysis of individual statesmen and their psyches. For this reason, as some scholars have pointed out, geopolitics represented the first attempt to move away from the agent to the structure.79

In sum, classical geopolitics, as conceived by Mackinder, Mahan, and Spykman, was essentially a group of theories on the geographic/spatial orientation of foreign policy. To locate their strategic points of focus, these geopoliticians used geography as a key explanatory variable. But since the value of geographic features depended on context, they examined human factors together with physical geography. Their emphasis on geographic factors as given makes geopolitics ontologically structural-materialist. These three characteristics — the subject of analysis, the causal mechanism, and the ontology — flow from the fact that the classical geopoliticians used geography as “an aid to statecraft.” Also, they make geopolitics a sort of applied social science compatible with modern international relations. Not surprisingly, geopolitics quickly became institutionalized in U.S. strategic education, especially during and after World War II.

Institutionalization of Geopolitics

The second half of the 20th century is often described as a period in which geopolitics declined. To be sure, the use of the term “geopolitics” went down significantly in public discourse after World War II.80 Scholars have identified various personal, domestic, and international causes for this decline, from Spykman’s early death and the closure of geography departments to the development of strategic nuclear weapons systems and superpower bipolarity during the Cold War, which seemingly diminished the importance of geographic knowledge.81 Above all, German Geopolitik’s somewhat unfair guilt-by-association with the Nazis is often credited as the major contributing factor.82 Edward Mead Earle, one of the major proponents of the geopolitical approach in the 1940s, cautioned U.S. Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal to “stay away from any word like geopolitics.”83Although the term disappeared from public discourse, geopolitical analysis, informing national strategy with reference to geographic features, was still relevant and therefore on the minds of American strategists and educators for some time after World War II. Several elite institutions — in particular, Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies, and Yale’s Institute of International Studies — made geopolitics the foundation of their approaches to international affairs. In the late 1930s, for instance, Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service started offering two courses on geopolitics at the behest of the school’s founder, Reverend Edmund Walsh. Walsh himself was a geopolitician in his own right. His book Total Power was based on his interviews with Karl Haushofer. After returning from Nuremberg, Walsh hired experts on geopolitics at Georgetown. In fact, his vision for the school was to be like Haushofer’s geopolitical institute, producing geographically informed assessments of world politics. Seminars on geopolitics lasted at Georgetown until the 1950s.84

At Princeton, several individuals advocated geopolitical analysis. Earle was one of them. According to one historian, he “whipped [eclectic ingredients] to create … security studies,” a subset of the broader field of international relations.85 For our purposes, he incorporated the geopolitical approach into the study of strategy. Notwithstanding his reluctance to use the term “geopolitics,” Earle occasionally invited geographers such as Derwent Whittlesey to his seminar on military strategy. He also suggested to Henry Holt & Company that the publisher reprint Mackinder’s Democratic Ideals, for which he wrote the introduction.86 Moreover, the first edition of Makers of Modern Strategy was based upon Earle’s seminar and included chapters on Haushofer and Mahan.87

Generally considered pioneers of foreign policy analysis, Harold and Margaret Sprout also showed keen interest in geopolitical analysis throughout their long careers.88 The Sprouts had already written an important book in the 1930s on the U.S. Navy that displayed Mahan’s influence.89 Their lectures for the Navy’s V-12 program resulted in the publication of Foundations of National Power, a textbook on international politics that included excerpts from geopolitical writings.90 After World War II, the Sprouts, both together and individually, kept publishing on the influence of geography on international politics.91 Margaret wrote the Mahan chapter in Earle’s edited volume.92 Harold, who had taught political geography at Stanford, ended up managing the relocation of the Institute of International Studies, arguably the most important institute for geopolitical studies in America, from Yale to Princeton in 1951.93

Created in 1935 under Spykman’s leadership, the Institute of International Studies promoted policy-relevant and interdisciplinary research, advocating for an interventionist approach based on power-political analysis. This went against the idealistic and isolationist intellectual currents in U.S. universities, which relied on international law and America’s insular position to safeguard national security. The Institute of International Studies brought together an impressive group of scholars — in George Kennan’s view, “the best and soundest” in the field.94 Since geography affected national power, geopolitics naturally became a major research theme at the institute.95 In addition to Spykman’s work, Brooks Emeny wrote The Strategy of Raw Materials, which caught the War Department’s attention.96 Arnold Wolfers emphasized the importance of geography as it relates to national power. His co-edited volume on Anglo-American foreign policy tradition is essentially predicated upon the dichotomous nature of land and sea powers, a classic theme in geopolitics.97

Later, Institute of International Studies members went on to lead similar power-focused and policy-oriented research initiatives across the nation, essentially laying the foundation for modern international relations. Wolfers was recruited by the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies to run the Foreign Policy Institute in a similar manner to the Institute of International Studies. William T. R. Fox, who had brought in University of Chicago scholars such as Gabriel Almond and Bernard Brodie, moved to Columbia University, where he founded the Institute of War and Peace Studies. This institute would later feature many prominent international relations scholars, including Huntington, Robert Jervis, and Zbigniew Brzezinski. Brzezinski’s Grand Chessboard is considered a modern classic of geopolitics and American foreign policy.98 Brodie, one of the most influential nuclear theorists of the 20th century, went to RAND, only to be joined by other Institute of International Studies alumni such as William Kaufmann. At Princeton, the Institute of International Studies became the Center for International Studies and continuously hosted the who’s who of the field: Gordon Craig, Peter Paret, and George Modelski, among others.99 In short, it served as an academy of American international relations during the early Cold War years.

The marginalization of geopolitical analysis in mainstream international relations scholarship is not surprising given their important differences.

An equally important development was the inclusion of geopolitics in professional military education, which indirectly affected strategic planning. U.S. military organizations had already been collecting geographic data to inform military strategy and foreign policy since the end of the 19th century, beginning with the creation of the Office of Naval Intelligence in 1882 and the Military Information Division in 1885.100 During World War I, President Woodrow Wilson created “The Inquiry,” headquartered at the American Geographical Society, to collect geographical data and prepare maps for peace negotiations. Wilson’s brain trust took part in the preparation for “The Fourteen Points” speech. Later, many of its members, including Bowman, joined forces with Elihu Root’s dinner club to form the Council on Foreign Relations. Bowman would later ask Mackinder to write a reflection on his “Heartland theory” in its publication, Foreign Affairs.101

But it was geopolitical theories that connected geographic data with national policy.102 During and after World War II, therefore, Walsh, Earle, the Sprouts, Spykman, and Wolfers, as well as Robert Strausz-Hupé, another prominent scholar of geopolitics, either served in military organizations, such as the Office of Strategic Services, or lectured at various professional education institutions.103 At West Point, Col. Herman Beukema, who led the Department of Economics, Government, and History from 1930 to 1947, promoted what can be essentially described as geopolitical analysis. Civilian scholars started developing a program on international affairs for naval Reserve Officers’ Training Corps students, resulting in Harold Sprout’s course at Princeton in March 1944, which began with a quote from Mackinder’s “Pivot” article. By the mid-1950s, U.S. military schools had essentially “institutionalized geopolitics.”104

Paradoxically, the rise of Morgenthau’s classical realism, made possible partially by the institutionalization of geopolitics, resulted in the decline of geopolitics in U.S. academia. By the mid-1950s, the discipline of international relations was going through an identity crisis. At issue was how the field could distinguish itself from more established, traditional disciplines, such as diplomatic history and international law. To many, the answer was grounding the field on a firmer theoretical footing.105 As late as 1954, geopolitics was still a venerable tradition in academia, as witnessed by a Council of Foreign Relations meeting where Spykman’s geopolitics was considered as a major theoretical approach to the study of international relations.106 By then, however, no scholar had come after Spykman to produce another major theoretical work on geopolitics.107 In this context, the Rockefeller Foundation’s “gambit” to promote Morgenthau’s realism marginalized other approaches, including geopolitics.108

The marginalization of geopolitical analysis in mainstream international relations scholarship is not surprising given their important differences. First, classical realism and geopolitics had fundamentally different ontological focal points. For Morgenthau, key variables were ideational, as exemplified by his emphasis on the timeless concepts of “interest” and “power.”109 Later, academic realism became even more abstract when it took a systematic turn, further neglecting geography and geopolitics.110 Kenneth Waltz’s structural realism privileges the distribution of material capabilities, but reduces the complex strategic environment under which states operate into a simple diagram. Thus, what becomes important is “polarity,” or the sheer number of great powers, in an imaginary and aspatial “international system.”111 In contrast, geopolitical analysis differentiates strategic spaces depending on their geographic features.112
Geography in International Relations

Geopolitical Hypotheses

If geopolitics as an intellectual paradigm has declined, its basic premise still undergirds much of international relations scholarship. At the deepest level, the fact remains that states, arguably still the most important units in international politics, are fundamentally territorial entities and that their most important activities — maintaining internal security and order, defending borders and territories, and protecting citizens abroad — take place on land and at sea. The key components of their power — military hardware, economic resources, and population — are distributed unevenly and transported across various geographies. As the geographer Jean Gottmann observed long ago, “The political divisions are the raison d’etre of international relations.”113 Technological developments have not changed this fundamental reality. Not surprisingly, geography, the core of geopolitics, still occupies an important, if unsatisfactory, position in the study of international relations.

Accordingly, it is worth examining the ways in which international relations scholars have used geography to explain foreign policy and grand strategy. Below, I identify the concepts or theories in international relations scholarship that imply some causal mechanism involving geographic features. Broadly speaking, there are three lines of inquiry. Geography is understood in international relations as an independent variable that conditions a state’s objectives, capabilities, or strategic orientation. To wit, these three elements can be conceptualized, respectively, as the ends, means, and ways of statecraft (Table 1).

Table 1. Geography in International Relations

First, if a state’s ultimate goals (ends) are security and power,114 they are manifested in the real world more concretely as “buffers” and “resources,” respectively.115 Perhaps this line of scholarship constitutes the most well-developed body of literature making use of geography as an explanatory variable.116 The strategic value of a place may primarily lie in its ability to deny an opponent access to major lines of communication, territory, and resources. Historically, Britain sought to preserve the independence of the Low Countries so that they could act as buffers against territorial threats from continental powers of Europe.117 In addition, as Morgenthau notes, the sheer size of its territory allows a state to absorb damage from strategic bombing in wartime.118 Alternatively, occupying a piece of fertile or resource-rich land can add material power to the state controlling it. Throughout much of human history, the possession of, or easy access to, forests — which supplied timber with which to build weapons and buildings — was a major factor that determined the fates of empires.119 In the early 20th century, the transition from coal to oil, ushered in by the development of the internal combustion engine, fundamentally altered resource requirements for the British Royal Navy, thereby increasing the importance of Persia.120 Other resources, such as food and water, are also crucial for national survival.121

In addition to affecting national power, geography also shapes the strategic domains in which states operate, conditioning their overall capabilities (means). Political scientists have been keen to use distance as an explanatory variable for force projection. As Kenneth Boulding wrote, a state’s “military and political power diminishes as we move a unit distance away from its home base.”122 During the Russo-Japanese War, for instance, Russia’s massive manpower and fleets could not reach the distant theater in the Far East on time, thereby contributing to its eventual defeat.123 Another geographic factor that explains the power-projection capabilities of states is terrain. Geographic factors can even modify the effects of distance at times. China and India, although close to one another, did not have much interaction until relatively recently due to the mountain ranges that separate the two.124 Similarly, John Mearsheimer argues that oceans hinder the movement and power-projection of armed forces — hence the “stopping power of water.” According to Mearsheimer, the late 19th-century power transition between Britain and the United States did not lead to conflict due to the buffering effects of the sea.125

Lastly, international relations scholars have not completely forgotten the contrast between sea and land powers, a major theme in classical geopolitics.

Some recent works have combined both physical geography with human factors to assess power-projection capabilities. Patrick Porter has developed a more sophisticated concept — “strategic distance” — which contrasts with physical distance. Combining geography with technology, Porter demonstrates how strategic distance, a state’s ability to project power affordably, still constrains the “Global Village” theory that the United States can project power and fix problems anywhere on earth. In addition to the logistical limits posed by geography, Porter considered two factors: technology and human agency. The development of defensive technology partially cancels an opponent’s offensive capabilities. Meanwhile, states resist outside intervention to maintain their sovereignty, thus limiting the power of weapons technology. Porter thus concludes that “the offensive shrinking power of technology-driven globalization is grossly overstated.”126 Similarly, Øystein Tunsjø has built on the “stopping power of water” to account for the interplay between geography and the distribution of power. In brief, he posits that Asia’s maritime geography would make an emerging bipolarity between the United States and China different from the U.S.-Soviet competition during the Cold War which took place primarily in continental Europe. Specifically, Tunsjø predicts that the “stopping power” would delay the balancing behavior of China’s neighbors, increase the likelihood of a limited conflict between the United States and China, and stabilize peripheral areas.127

Finally, geography, especially the location and the lay of the land, affects a state’s overall strategic orientation, or its preferred ways to achieve ends with available means.128 A large body of work on the “offense-defense” balance, pioneered by Jervis, takes into account geography and technology in determining a state’s overall military posture, or the “relative ease of attack and defense.”129 While some analysts have argued for its exclusion, geography still looms large in the “offense-defense” literature.130 But there is a flip side to this equation: Ease of attack for one state translates to an opponent’s vulnerability. Building on this insight, Stephen Walt argues that proximity, along with other variables (aggregate power, offensive capabilities, and intent), shapes a state’s threat perception and therefore affects its strategic behavior, e.g., balancing or bandwagoning.131 Barry Posen found that geographically encircled countries may develop offensive military doctrines, but ultimately he argued that geography’s overall influence is not as pronounced as that of the balance of power.132 Lastly, international relations scholars have not completely forgotten the contrast between sea and land powers, a major theme in classical geopolitics. This land-sea dichotomy is often used to explain the differential balancing behavior between continental and maritime states.133 By the same token, the argument for “offshore balancing” is predicated on the fact that Britain and America are both maritime powers insulated from the Eurasian continent.134


These scholars’ collective efforts have contributed to advancing our understanding of international politics in general and the role of geography in it in particular. Still, there are three broad shortcomings. First, scholars often use easily quantifiable or codable variables, such as physical distance or the allocation of resource and personnel. One flaw with this approach is that distance and terrain manifest themselves asymmetrically. Before the age of steam power, a ship bound for South America had to sail from New York all the way to the Azores to catch winds for a westward voyage.135 Likewise, the English Channel might have prevented the invasion of the British Isles by a continental power, but it did not stop Britain’s expansion throughout the world.136 After all, the superiority of waterborne transportation was the predicate for Mahan’s argument for sea power. “It is,” Mahan wrote, “facility of transmission, that has made sea power so multifold in manifestation and in efficacy.”137

A closely related issue is the question of determinism. While geography remains constant, its meaning changes, as classical geopoliticians knew so well. This aspect — the relativity of space — is underexplored in international relations scholarship.138 Location A may be three kilometers away from location B in absolute terms, but the time, cost, and possibility of traversing this same space varies. For instance, the development of the steam engine reduced the total distance of a voyage by a significant margin.139 But its effects were not merely one of “time-space compression.”140 In fact, steam-powered vessels required an extensive network of coaling stations and maintenance facilities, without which their movement would be restricted.141 Another factor is the socio-political context. During the Spanish-American War, Britain denied fuel to the Spanish fleet at Port Said pursuant to international law, complicating Madrid’s already cumbersome logistics.142 Similarly, as Strausz-Hupé observed, Asiatic empires were able to maintain a high degree of efficiency in communication even without modern technology, due in part to their organizational finesse.143 In short, the meaning of geography is relative, depending on various human factors.

Finally, these disparate studies deal with the ends, means, and ways separately. Geography, however, underlies all three elements of statecraft, as long as states remain territorial entities — in other words, geography is comprehensive. For instance, the Habsburg Empire’s rivers, vast territory, and precarious location at the center of eastern Europe circumscribed available resources, security requirements, and, therefore, grand strategy.144 Likewise, the vastness of the Pacific Ocean, complicated by the problem of moving fleets between the two oceans, shaped War Plan Orange, America’s strategy to protect its Pacific holdings from Japan.145 Spykman explained this best when he wrote,

Security must … be understood in terms of the integrity of control over the land … . [T]he physical characteristics of the territory will influence directly the manner in which that security is maintained because power is determined to a great extent by geography and natural resources … . [T]he nation has to act on the basis of the strength it can mobilize, either within its own territory or through its allies and protectors.146

Scholars, therefore, should consider geography in a comprehensive manner.

Future Research

Accordingly, future research in international relations should address the comprehensiveness, relativity, and asymmetry of geography to complement the existing research. Here, some suggestions are offered. First, scholars need to pay attention to the broader environment in which states and state systems are embedded. For instance, the offense-defense theory has been mostly applied to land battles. How this dynamic works out at sea merits further exploration.147 More broadly, the concept of the “international system” in the neorealist tradition is based on continental Europe’s experience. Thus, various theories deriving from this paradigm may not apply to different geographic conditions.148 William Wohlforth and others found that the balance-of-power theory, a key pillar of realism, has not held in past state systems outside of Europe, especially when these systems stopped expanding their geographic scope.149 Historian Ludwig Dehio argued that, even in Europe, the balance of power was maintained not within itself, but with the introduction of new powers from the periphery.150 Looking into the future, geopolitical analysis may provide useful insights into how to think about new frontiers, such as outer space.151

A second area in which more research needs to be done concerns the relativity of geography. Critics of geopolitics are not entirely wrong: The field does tend to pay too much attention to fixed geographic features, such as distance or terrain, and debate whether specific geopolitical ideas — for instance, the “heartland” theory — still hold today.152 Yet, how classical geopoliticians thought about geography, especially how its interactions with human factors change the value of a place, is worth considering. One welcome development has been the incorporation of technology into the geopolitical analysis of “means,” as in the case of Porter’s “strategic distance.” While his goal was mostly to deconstruct the “Global Village” myth, the concept of “strategic distance” can be further developed and more fruitfully used to compare the power projection capabilities of different actors in a given theater. As for the “ends” of statecraft, it is becoming increasingly important to identify and manage chokepoints in the supply of foodstuff and high-tech products, such as electric vehicle batteries and semiconductors.153 These changes will re-order the hierarchy of importance of different regions, thereby having broader strategic implications.

Moving forward, there is much room for scholars to explore the asymmetry, relativity, and comprehensiveness of geography.

There are two other avenues of future research relating to relativity. First is the inclusion of political institutions. While classical geopoliticians’ concern was mostly with how domestic institutions affected national capabilities, international institutions are also an important subject in geopolitical analysis. For instance, Harvey Starr’s observation that alliances enable states to “leapfrog” natural obstacles can be combined with Porter’s strategic distance.154 A second line of possible research is man-made changes to the environment itself.155 The melting of Arctic ice due to climate change is a case in point: It means the opening of a new trade route for East Asian countries. For Russia, however, it will create a long and open coastline to defend, spelling an end to its impregnable “heartland” status.156

Finally, states tend to focus their diplomatic and military activities on specific frontiers due to limited resources. In other words, the spatial distribution of foreign policy is uneven, partly because of the asymmetric nature of geography. However, there are few, if any, analytical frameworks to explain and predict geopolitical orientation, the object of inquiry in classical geopolitical writing.157 The standard realist literature yields only rudimentary predictions that states will prioritize the home front. Yet, great powers always have complicated interests across multiple frontiers.158 Not surprisingly, realists’ predictions about the next strategic “hot spots” have not aged well.159 In our time, arguably one of the most important strategic questions is whether China will become a sea power or remain a land power.160 Geography alone is insufficient to anticipate the future.161 The analysis on states’ strategic orientation can be done only when researchers properly consider geographic factors, along with human elements, in the way that Mahan, Mackinder, and Spykman did.

This article sought to bring geopolitics back to the mainstream of international relations scholarship. It did so in three different ways. An examination of various uses of the term “geopolitics” has shown that stretching the concept of geography has resulted in definitional confusion. Therefore, geography itself should be re-centered as the analytical core of geopolitics. Historically, classical geopolitics sought to inform grand strategy using geography as an explanatory variable and was thus institutionalized in U.S. strategic education. That is, geography was used as “an aid to statecraft.” Finally, although largely ignored in mainstream international relations, the basic premise of geopolitics still undergirds much of its concepts and theories. Moving forward, there is much room for scholars to explore the asymmetry, relativity, and comprehensiveness of geography.

As long as human beings reside on earth and states remain territorial entities, their various challenges will have geographic referents, from strategic competition over resources and buffers to climate change and space exploration. As Gottmann observed, “The differentiation arising between compartments of space is the very foundation of any study in international relations.”162 Wholly “social” intellectual paradigms are ill equipped to deal with such challenges. Classical geopolitics, a long-forgotten yet important tradition in the annals of international relations, dynamically incorporates geographic features into political analysis and thus can provide useful perspectives and insights. Scholars and policymakers, therefore, would do well to dust off old tomes and learn some new ideas from geopoliticians from the past.

Check Also

Operation Iron Swords Updated to 1 p.m., November 27, 2023

The deal to release the abductees: On the evening of November 26, the third group …