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  • Writer's pictureGeopolitics.Λsia

Geopolitics Strikes Back

In the Fall 2023 edition of the Texas National Security Review Journal (Vol. 6, Iss. 4), Jaehan Park, a postdoctoral fellow and adjunct lecturer at the Edwin O. Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, offers a rigorous literature review in the domain of geopolitics. Framed almost as a spirited attempt to vindicate the field, his work is aptly titled "Geography as an Aid to Statecraft". Park contends that the postwar decline of the geopolitics discipline is largely due to the ascent of "realism", spearheaded by thinkers such as Hans Morgenthau. Yet he keenly differentiates between the two. While realism is underpinned by the notion that power and security dominate the contest among self-interested political factions, geopolitics, in contrast, doesn't make such assumptions and hones in on spatial considerations. Today's article delves into Park's extensive analysis, shedding light on the increasingly blurred lines between the rules-based international order and geopolitical anarchy.




The postwar decline of the geopolitics discipline, especially in the US, is well documented. Instead of laying blame on the discipline's unfortunate association with the tainted image of the Nazi regime, Park points to scholars like Hans Morgenthau, who championed "realism" within the realm of International Relations, as a primary cause. Park acknowledges the influential work of geographer Sir Halford Mackinder, who in his 1904 lecture at the Royal Geographical Society, posited that national wealth and power historically hinged not just on characteristics like socio-economic structures, but also on natural resources, mobility, and factors determined by topography and terrain. Yet, Park relegates Mackinder to being merely one among the "geostrategic" trio of Anglo-American scholars, which also includes Alfred Mahan and Nicholas Spykman. Mahan, renowned for his advocacy for naval supremacy, focused particularly on the near seas, notably the Caribbean, though his broader considerations of sea power have also been widely dissected. Meanwhile, Spykman's "rimland" strategy was designed not for global domination, but as a deterrent against a potential heartland superpower, aiming to maintain global peace.



The revival of geopolitics, from Google Ngram View


For some, the push and pull surrounding the revitalization (and simultaneous dilution) of "geopolitics" stems from human geography or critical geography—a sub-discipline of geographical studies. This school leans heavily on concepts from critical theory and deconstruction, seeking to challenge the conventional "bird's-eye view" and the historically "white male" lens of geopolitics. Based on our direct observations, critiques from this arena are particularly vehement. These scholars tirelessly endeavor to "reclaim" or "reframe" geopolitics, often seeking to significantly diverge from traditional interpretations.



Rockefeller Factor


Park's analysis strikes a compelling chord, unearthing what may be termed a "hidden agenda" behind the Rockefeller Foundation's academic interventions. This is no conspiracy theory, but rather an audacious and innovative viewpoint. It posits that the objective was to pivot from the prevailing British colonial perspective to a more open and liberal American-led postwar global view. The Rockefeller Foundation's support wasn't limited to realism; it encompassed comparative studies and area studies.


As the mid-20th century unfolded, global power dynamics underwent a seismic shift. The diminishing British Empire paved the way for the U.S. to ascend as the paramount global force. This ascent posed a challenge: how could the U.S. sculpt a foreign policy distinct from Europe's colonial baggage, particularly that of Britain?


The Rockefeller Foundation's academic funding initiatives provide some clues:


  • Crafting an American Lens: The foundation's endorsement of the "realism" school, emphasizing power dynamics and state interests, fostered a perspective divergent from the colonial narratives saturating international relations. Realism presented a view anchored in post-WWII realities, sidestepping colonial tales.

  • Comparative Studies as Gateways: The emphasis on comparative studies, epitomized by the works of F. W. Riggs, became instrumental. The goal? To comprehend nations newly emerging from colonial shackles without the tinted lens of colonial history. By probing the political and administrative infrastructures of these nations, the U.S. sought to devise policies untainted by colonial residue.

  • Shaping the Global Discourse: The foundation's funding was not merely about U.S. foreign policy. By steering the academic discourse, it was influencing the thought processes of upcoming scholars and policymakers globally. This represented a deliberate effort to transition from European colonial tales to fresher, modern narratives.

  • Reimagining U.S. Leadership: The U.S., especially amidst the Cold War backdrop, aspired to champion self-determination and democracy. This aspiration demanded a break from colonial standpoints and a fresh grasp of global intricacies.

  • Area Studies - A Beacon for Policy: The Cold War's shadow necessitated a deep dive into the socio-political and cultural tapestries of diverse regions. The Rockefeller Foundation's support for area studies aimed at equipping American decision-makers with a perspective beyond colonial legacies and Cold War paradigms. By delving deep into the roots of regions — their history, culture, language, and socio-political structures — the U.S. aspired for a nuanced policy approach.


Historically, international relations predominantly wore a Eurocentric cloak. Area studies offered an escape, enabling U.S. scholars and policymakers to truly grasp the multifaceted realities of regions spanning Asia to Africa to Latin America. This understanding was pivotal, especially given the geopolitical significance of these newly sovereign nations. As the U.S. strategized to bolster its influence and counter Soviet maneuvers, an in-depth understanding of potential allies and foes became crucial. Area studies, with their deep regional insights, became key instruments in this high-stakes geopolitical game.


Park's insights illuminate a crucial nuance: geopolitics, contrary to some perceptions, has never truly faded from the tapestry of US foreign policy. As Park elucidates, premier institutions — such as Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies, and Yale’s Institute of International Studies — anchored their international affairs methodologies in geopolitics. A case in point is Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. By the late 1930s, the institution had already introduced two dedicated geopolitics courses, spurred by its founder, Reverend Edmund Walsh. Walsh wasn't just an academic overseer; he was a practitioner of geopolitics. His work, "Total Power", drew insights from his dialogues with Karl Haushofer. Post his Nuremberg stint, Walsh brought geopolitics experts into Georgetown's fold. His vision for the institution? A mirror to Haushofer's geopolitical institute, crafting geographically nuanced analyses of global politics. This focus on geopolitics remained a Georgetown hallmark well into the 1950s.


In addition to the stellar analytical segments in Park's piece, his meticulous breakdown of institutions deeply tied to the likes of Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies, and Yale’s Institute of International Studies offers illuminating insights. These insights map the complex web of American foreign policy practitioners and reveal how deeply entrenched the concept of geopolitics remains within their intellectual toolkits.



Beyond Classic Geopolitics


However, the narrative does exhibit a few blind spots. While Park's scope is impressively wide, there's room to broaden the horizon even further. The engagement with geopolitics in nations like France, as evidenced in the works of figures like Alexandre Kojève, as well as its interpretations in Germany, Japan, contemporary Russia, China, and potentially other nations, remains largely untouched. Exploring these avenues could add more depth and nuance, providing opportunities for future scholars to build upon Park's already commendable work.



In a recent introductory geopolitics class, we polled participants on their perceptions of global order typology. Given a choice between the stark dichotomies of pure anarchy and a rules-based international order, their collective response intriguingly mirrored reality: a hybrid of the two. Source: [Mentimetor]



While Park's analysis is in-depth, there's an expansive dimension to geopolitics to ponder, especially given its intrinsic emphasis on the application of power. This encompasses the varied facets of three distinct power types: hard, soft, and smart. Naturally, a key question arises: how are these power forms channeled and expressed through traditional instruments within the terrestrial confines, as underscored by the "geo" in geopolitics? Beyond this earthbound focus, we are compelled to consider novel frontiers: what about the arenas beyond our usual terrestrial parameters, like the vast expanse of space or the intricate labyrinth of the human mind? These considerations beckon deeper exploration in burgeoning fields like astropolitics and noopolitik.






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