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Are State Power and Geography Related?

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Geography
Wordcount: 3554 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Critically assess the classical geopolitical claim that state power and geography are related.


In problematising the classical geopolitical claim that state power and geography and related, this paper will argue that classical geopolitics prioritises the strategic gain of states, and in doing so legitimates a perception of the world that is centred around western interests. This paper will firstly introduce the theory of Classical geopolitics, focusing specifically on Mackinder’s ‘The Geographical Pivot of History’ and Ratzel’s ‘The Territorial Growth of States’ in order to highlight the strategic undertones present in understanding the growth of state power as a ‘natural’ scientific phenomenon. This paper will then problematise the theory of classical geopolitics, specifically its methodological practices, with a critical interpretation. The first counter-argument will use Said’s concept of ‘imagined geographies’ to highlight the presence of a western-centric perception of the world that prioritises western standards in global politics and will use the example of diplomacy and the ‘Permanent 5’ of the United Nations Security Council to illustrate this. The second counter-argument will consider the role of metaphors in geopolitics and how this act of language establishes realities about what exists in the world. This will be illustrated through George Bush’s 2002 State of the Union Address, in which the establishment of an ‘Axis of Evil’ acted to legitimate U.S involvement in the Middle East post-9/11. The final counter-argument will problematise the use of mapping and cartography in classical geopolitics as a neutral medium of observing the world, and will be critiqued through introducing the concept of scopic regimes to highlight the role of privilege in observation that undermines the role of history, and akin to the prior arguments, prioritises the interests of western powers. This will be illustrated through the example of how President Trump’s calls for a US-Mexico border wall undermine the historical context of Migration in transforming American society, and the border war acts as a scopic regime for the U.S.

What is classical geopolitics? Understanding Mackinder and Ratzel.

Classical geopolitics represents the growth of states like that of the natural sciences in order to legitimate state growth as a natural phenomenon. Toal (1996) refers to classical geopolitics as the “institutionalization of geography as a self-fashioned ‘scientific’ discipline” (1996, p.21). Territory is equated with surface area, and subsequently, territory is equated to state power, so the reference to institutionalization connotes the naturalization of territorial ambitions in domestic society. Furthermore, classical geopolitics is an example of formal geopolitics, defined by Toal and Agnew (1992) as the “reasoning of strategic thinkers and public intellectuals…who…produce a highly codified system of ideas and principles to guide the conduct of statecraft” and is illustrated through “formalized rules of statement, description and debate” (1992, p.194). In this sense, classical geopolitics provides a base for which the state can legitimate its power through territorial expansion and moreover is strategic in nature.

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Mackinder’s ‘The Geographical Pivot of History’ (1904) is significant as he creates a picture of global space to answer the question of how states should strategize in order to achieve dominance. Mackinder establishes a geography first approach to understanding global space, due to the presence of “geographical causation in universal history” (1904, p.422). Global space is centred around geographical determinism in the sense that a particular type of geographical presence allows for a particular type of human response. Power to Mackinder was dependent on how states would act upon Mackinder’s all-encompassing demarcations of space.

Ratzel’s conceptualisation of geopolitics presents the state using biological language to justify territorial expansion. Ratzel states “for the state is a living organism, and therefore cannot be contained within rigid limits” (1896, p.351), which ‘animates’ the state to be living and therefore, like all living organisms, has a need to sustain itself (Toal, 1996, p.37). In this sense, power is also thought of in a zero-sum way, however the demise of the territorial state is thought of in relation to “civilised nations… for the great states are situated in Europe and the European colonial territories” (1896, p.352).

Ratzel’s theory can be understood as a form of legitimating imperial discourse in the name of domestic survival, as Toal notes Ratzel’s thinking aligns to the argument that “The organization of superior traits by certain peoples is the basis of human progress and cultural evolution” (1996, pp. 36-37). Ratzel makes a demarcation between civilised and uncivilised by stating that “people in a low state of civilisation are naturally collected in very small political organisations” (1896, p. 352). Moreover, considering Ratzel’s role in pushing for German colonial expansion in Africa to achieve Lebensraum (1996, p. 38), Ratzel’s application of Neo-Lamarckian biology is rooted in the understanding of the people as representing a superior culture, and “the most successful peoples are those who are forever expanding in to new regions and taking them over, impressing themselves and their culture” (1996, p. 38).

Following this understanding of classical geopolitics, this paper will now proceed to critique classical geopolitics through an understanding of Orientalism and what decentralising and denaturalising the West’s dominance in international politics can show about power relations in global space, and thus critique the classical geopolitical argument that global space can only be interpreted in objective terms.

Understanding Orientalism and ‘Imagined geographies’

Imagined geographies are what Gregory (2004) refers to as a “fabrication” because distinguishing what is, and thus what isn’t, ours relies on “imaginations given substance” (2004, p.17). The ability to construct a worldview based on our experiences in our geographical locations is significant in understanding the presence of power relations in geopolitics, because of the presence of difference. Said (1978) states that the production of an imaginative geography “help the mind to intensify its own sense of itself by dramatizing the distance and difference between what is close to it and what is far away” (1978, p.55). When considering the role of western intellectuals in creating the discipline of Geopolitics, as mentioned earlier by Toal, what is evident here is contrary to a natural organisation of the world alone. The presence of difference can be illustrated through the example of diplomacy, due to the fact that the understanding of geopolitics as theatre (Said, 1978) helps to illustrate how differences are represented in an everyday context that implicates global politics.

Ashley (1987) highlights the significance of statesmen, which is representative of the commitment to “Western rationalism”, and this commitment is dependent upon a defence against “dark and regressive modes of rule” (1987, p.418). Furthermore, because classical geopolitics understands the world through a realist lens in which the international community is characterised by anarchy (1987, p. 404), the representation of the statesman on the global stage becomes a reproduction of values identifiable by geographical location. This is evident with the UN Security Council, as its primary functions as a body to “maintain international peace and security” (United Nations, 2018) is based upon the presence of five permanent members, of whom two (the UK and France) are former colonial powers. Representation is theatre because “the Orient is the stage on which the whole East is confined… a theatrical stage affixed to Europe” (Said, 1978, p.62). This is also evident with how Dittmer (2017) who states that the coming together of the West is reflective of the power of the west to be able to constitute the threats of the Orient (2017, pp. 19-21).

 Consequently, what this can show about the UN Security Council is the notion that issues of international peace and security are interpreted and acted upon by the western presence that historically, through imperialism, sought to redefine civilisation to suit western norms of freedom and liberty. The presence of western powers in a permanent position is theatrical in the sense that global space is mediated through a lens that determines the significance of international security based on a set of [western oriented] interests, and consequently, western values are both centralised and naturalised through this permanent authority. As a result, state power and geography are not related in the classical geopolitical sense as a natural occurrence that determines power, but rather because the construction of difference has entrenched power in global space to be dependent on upholding what western powers are not. This paper will now consider the role of metaphors in establishing realities about what exists in the world, and why it is significant in understanding interventionist discourse that it perceived in classical geopolitics to be a natural consequence of state growth.

The role of metaphors and their link to space and power.

Metaphors are important to consider when critiquing classical geopolitics as it is an act of language that is used to determine our understanding of the world. Lakoff and Johnson (1980) highlight the significance of metaphors as “The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing or experience in terms of another” (1980, p.455). In regards to geopolitics, metaphors are a method of representation. Toal reflects upon a “Foucauldian premise that geography as a discourse can be understood in terms of power and knowledge”, due to the fact that “intellectuals of spacecraft ‘spatialize’ international politics in such a way to represent a ‘world’ characterized by particular types of places, peoples and dramas” (1996, p.59).

Consequently, language in geopolitics is a phenomenon that charts and affixes objects in space, just like the physical demarcation of space through maps. This can be related to the previous argument about the presence of difference and how this becomes ingrained in our understanding of who we are. Dikeç (2012) shows that the difference between ourselves and an other becomes materialised through discourse because space becomes “a mode of political thinking. Space therefore does a different kind of work here; rather than performing miracles, it becomes a mode of thinking politics” (2012, p. 670).

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Metaphors can be illustrated through practical geopolitics, which is described by Toal and Agnew as “reasoning by means of consensual and unremarkable assumptions about places and their particular identities. This is the reasoning of practitioners of statecraft, of state persons, politicians and military commanders” in addition to the fact that practical geopolitics is “ a common-sense type which relies on the narratives and binary distinctions found in societal mythologies” (1992, p. 194). This understanding of representation through politicians can be illustrated with US President George Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address, in which he introduces the concept of an “Axis of Evil”, comprising of Iran, Iraq and North Korea as designated enemies of the United States. As this was in a post-9-11 context, it is important to consider Said’s statement that “anyone employing Orientalism… will designate, name, point to, fix what he is talking or think about with a word or phrase, which is then considered either to have acquired, or more simply to be, reality” (1978, p. 72).

Due to 9/11, Bush’s ability to create this metaphor of an ‘axis of evil’ (BBC, 2002) reinforces the potential of further terror that pose a threat to international peace, and as a result, the US becomes a focal point that can establish threats in global space. Because of this, the “particularising and dividing of things Oriental into manageable parts” (Said, 1978, p. 72) is reflected in the use of “Axis”, which reflects a prioritisation of place over space because of the indication of a pivot that will inevitably tilt towards the worse without immediate state action. Ultimately, this example reflects Toal’s statement that in comparison to classical geopolitics understanding space as is, critical geopolitics understands space as taking place (1996. pp.59-61). This is evident in the speech as Bush states: “Some governments will be timid in the face of terror. And make no mistake: If they do not act; America will” (BBC, 2002).

Consequently, as the State of Union Address is usually a moment for the president to address the public about the future strategy of the administration, the 2002 address acted to legitimate the notion of US intervention in the Middle East (Dittmer, 2010). Moreover, this shows that the political landscape established through politics merges metaphors and reality in a way that cannot be distinguished. Classical geopolitics doesn’t make a distinction, and because of this, metaphors condition what is politically possible through simplifications that create identities to defend against. This paper will now problematise the idea that mapping, according to classical geopolitics, acts as a neutral medium of viewing space.

Problematising Cartesian Perspectivalism with Scopic regimes

In classical geopolitics, producing maps is considered to be a material way in which the world can be viewed objectively for what it encompasses. Viewing the world ‘objectively’ is the theory of Cartesian Perspectivalism, in which one “separates the self from who is viewing from the world itself” (Agnew, 2003, p.15). It’s also significant to consider that this particular viewing of the world was ‘rediscovered’ during the European Age of Discovery, in which the world can be understood as a whole from a linear perspective (2003, pp. 20-21).

 Toal refers to the fact that Mackinder and Ratzel’s works were written through the lens of Cartesian Perspectivalism, due to the fact that both works aimed to separate themselves as a viewing subject from an outside objective reality, and consequently “sanctioned forms of knowledge concerned with the synchronic unfolding and display of essential forms and patterns” (1996, p.24). Consequently, according to Toal, viewing through the lens of Cartesian Perspectivalism prioritises the current picture of space over the historical processes that have led to this current picture, and can consequently neutralise particular understandings of ‘foreign’ places in the world. In particular, Mackinder illustrates this through using mapping as a material way of viewing the world and what it encompasses in a presumed objective manner.

This understanding of the world can be problematic, primarily because Agnew (1994) argues that this allows for a territorial understanding of the state that ignores historical processes of state formation, thus presuming the existence of the state without thoroughly understanding how it came to be (1994, p. 55). Consequently, the nation existed before the state, and as a result defending the state territorially is conflated with defending the predominant society within the state (1994, pp. 68-72).

This understanding can be problematised through scopic regimes, which Grayson and Mawdsley (2018) conceptualise as a form of countering classical geopolitics through understanding visuality as a form of creating knowledge, and consequently power. The notion of an ocular-centric view of vision is problematic in this case because particular forms of representation dictate a particular understanding of the world (in this case cartesian perspectivalism) and vision is considered essential to declaring this understanding as truth (2018, p. 2).

This can be exemplified with the example of Trump’s consistent calls for a border wall between the US and Mexico, owing to the fact that this exemplifies borders as a scopic regime. Trump’s reasoning for such a visible demarcation of space is due to perceived swathes of crime that is undermining American civilisation (Politico, 2015). This relates to Agnew’s (1994) previous argument that society can be equated with the territory in which the society lives. The urgent calls for a border wall are also akin of Ratzel’s understanding of the legitimacy of space through territory, and consequently, the border wall can be interpreted as a final resort to ensure the survival of the American state from a barbaric enemy. The demand for a border wall can be understood as a scopic regime because of Trump’s intention to use the US-Mexico border as a lens through which America and American society can understand what it is not. The border, in this case, acts as a truth that must be rigorously enforced, thus ignoring Migration as an indistinguishable facet of American history and thus societal development (Hirschman, 2007).


To conclude, this essay has sought to problematise classical geopolitics from a critical perspective. This essay question has been answered with the understanding of why interpreting the world through a ‘neutral’ lens is a difficult understanding to sustain because of naturalised understandings of representation that unconsciously affect our interpretations of the world. The decisions a state makes is dependent on emphasising difference to what a state isn’t, and difference is exploited for power in global space. The exploitation of difference is sustained through metaphors, as language acts as a medium that engrains the superiority of nations as powers able to balance the system. Consequently, the basic observations of the world prioritise the notion of a one-way understanding of the world, showing that classical geopolitics relies on a presupposed inevitability of expansion to justify a hierarchy of global power within space.


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