For a long time, ‘geopolitics’ has been a dirty word – an insult hurled by the moral to the asshole leaders who bombed North Vietnam or collaborated with the Shah or sought to liberate Kuwait because it had oil. When it’s that way, people can feel they know what the term is – the implication of “Me First” conduct on the international stage comes to mind, forgetting the poor little peoples of whatever country who must live in the shadows of great armies.
But geopolitics is a bit more than just a buzzword that helps evil men sleep at night.
Two years ago, I read The Next 100 Years, and it blew my mind. The book tries to guess what the world will look like by 2100. That should be a stupid task for bad writers, but what was so different about The Next 100 Years is that it makes insane amounts of sense.
I’d formally studied international relations during my undergraduate (typically with an emphasis on the Middle East), but a lot of that ended with political scientists writing into oblivion using secret academic language, flavors-of-the-day strategy and tactics, and punditry that pandered to pro and anti-war biases.
In 2005, I was reading about the “oil spot” strategy for Iraq. This “oil spot” was a little outpost of American troops who’d set up shop in some really busy place in an otherwise violent city. Eventually, this outpost was supposed to “spread” security like oil slick by putting tiny pockets of troops all over the place instead of concentrating them in big bases outside the cities. It was nonsense and it didn’t work. Why? Well, partially because humans don’t behave the same way as oil, but also because it ignored the geopolitics of Iraq itself.
Geopolitics helped me understand how certain pieces of real estate ended up establishing more prosperous (and more powerful) societies than others. America is a superpower because it owns a vast piece of land that’s great for farming, has huge amounts of natural resources, and gives easy access to both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. As early as the 19th century, some far-sighted people saw the eventual dominance of the United States. It was just too big, with too good of geographical advantages, not to.
Geopolitics doesn’t say that environment is everything. But it gives a bigger role to the environments we live in than other disciplines. History is a record. Political science is the study of politicians maneuvers and dealings. Strategy explains how best to move armies. Economics analyzes the use of resources and money. Geography, even, is descriptive. Geopolitics attempts to combine them all into a method that can allow for successful prediction.
I say can – nothing is certain. But the bigger they are, the easier it is to guess their trajectory. Once upon a time, economists were predicting the Soviet Union would overtake the U.S. as early as the 1990s in GDP. But these predictions ignored not just communism’s fallacies but Russia’s – Russia was big, yes, and resource rich, yes, with lots of people, yes, but lacked transportation systems that made moving those goods from A to B easy. Moreover, because it was so big, it had lots of enemies, which it had to spend huge amounts of resources trying to control. Add into this the “politics” of the term and you got a leadership caste obsessed with preventing invasion and believing only expansion and high walls could prevent such a thing. All of this was in clear evidence in the 1950s; a big, resource-rich country that would be hobbled by high transport costs and both a practical and psychological need for a powerful and expensive defense system. On a long enough timeline, such a nation-state was bound to go bankrupt.
Of course, the Soviet Union didn’t have to enjoy its relatively velvet divorce. Much of that is owed to Gorbachev and his commitment to peace. What didn’t change was that the Soviet model was doomed, and no personality could have changed that.
The analogy I’ve always thought is that of a person going to a refrigerator to make a choice for lunch. Theoretically, he could do anything. He could have a pudding, a sandwich, a beer, a hot pile of cow vomit – anything. But alas, his environment dictates several of his behaviors and traits. He will not hunt nor gather, nor compete with other hunters or gathers. He could, of course – he could go dumpster diving and some people do go dumpster diving. But he probably won’t, because such a thing is unseemly and he’s got a fridge in the house anyway.
So, quite hungry, he throws open the fridge. And he sees just two bananas and a bottle of milk. His choices are thus reduced. He can, of course, ignore the food. He can go hungry. But if he can’t afford another meal, or if he hasn’t time for another shopping run, he will eat those bananas and drink that milk. He might not even like either. But because his environment has conspired against him, he ended up fulfilling a basic need with little choice.
Now imagine what might happen in that room if you doubled the population, locked the doors, and told them to wait a month.
Human societies are still made up of humans. We all essentially have the same problems. Our cultures attempt to help us solve problems before we encounter them, but our environments dictate entirely what problems we’ll even have. Many of our behaviors hinge on where we’re standing.
While it is true that humans, as well as nation-states, are unbelievably complex, our trajectories are not. A group of people with food, water, and shelter prosper; a group that doesn’t dies out. Many high dramas may happen in between (and be worth remembering as well as doing), but the essentials remain the same.
Thus it is possible to stand quite far back from a place and make an accurate guess as to its success or failure, given enough time. Certain, strong leaders can enable stunning successes for otherwise unremarkable places – look at Timur or Genghis Khan. But both of their empires were geopolitically unsound – both of their empires collapsed under the limits that could be spotted by a cursory understanding of geopolitics.
It doesn’t always go down well, this viewpoint, because you often sound like you’re writing off morality, culture, religion, etc. That’s not quite true. Those sorts of things do inform choices, and Gorbachev didn’t have to tear down the wall (Stalin would have probably leveled Berlin before he allowed that). But they don’t ultimately decide a nation-state’s success or failure. That’s left to bigger, more basic principles.
It has reshaped the way I view things. When you come to see the world as divided between choices we’re allowed and choices we’re not, the feeling that the world is out of alignment diminishes. Of course America will attempt to control other countries. As a world hegemon, it must enforce its authority. Of course Middle Eastern countries will often be victims. As overpopulated places near strategic resources, they’re prone to both instability and interference. Culture, morality, and political systems are all still important, and they do factor into decisions – but no matter how wrong it feels, or how much you believe in it, or how much you voted for it, when you open the fridge, you might still only have two bananas.