Geopolitics makes a global comeback

Geopolitics and the new global economy require a qualitative refocusing of attention towards Russia's east. Source: ITAR-TASS

Geopolitics and the new global economy require a qualitative refocusing of attention towards Russia's east. Source: ITAR-TASS

The growing and increasingly open rivalry between the US and China is adding to Russia’s weight in matters of foreign policy.

For half a century, geopolitical theory was effectively banned. In the USSR, this branch of science was described as “bourgeois.” In the West, it was considered politically incorrect, and was largely the preserve of provincial professors with no hope of entering the establishment.

Geopolitics was also undermined by nuclear weapons, which did much to kill off the former’s military and political daughter — geo-strategy, and made war a far less convenient and morally acceptable instrument of policy.

The situation began to change with the advent of the new century, and now geopolitics is back in ordinary usage and quickly regaining its political correctness and legitimacy.

There is no single definition of geopolitics. But in the most general terms, it can be described as the science of investigating the relationship between foreign policy, international relations, and geographical and natural surroundings.

The revival of the term and the academic discipline that underpins it is of interest in more ways than one. For behind this renaissance there lie new realities.

For example, the pronouncements that the fate of all mankind depends on the situation in the Strait of Hormuz (the only sea passage from the Persian Gulf to the open ocean), through which 40 percent of global oil supplies are shipped, or in the Strait of Malacca, through which 40 percent of all international trade passes, do not seem exaggerated. If suddenly closed off for whatever reason, entire countries and continents would begin to crumble.

The explosive growth in Asia has hiked demand for raw materials, energy, and provisions, above all water and water-intensive goods. The political and economic value ​​of territories able to produce them has also risen sharply. Competition is unfolding not only for the islands on the periphery of China with their offshore and natural resources, but also for decades-long forgotten Africa. Reopened by the Chinese in their pursuit of provisions and raw materials, the continent is the focus of a new power struggle, hence the newfound attention to local crises, which in times gone by were simply ignored.

Another reason for the return of geopolitics is climate change. The fluctuating weather patterns, causing floods, droughts, and social explosions across vast regions, serve as a reminder that humankind still depends on nature and geography. Environmental pollution and its consequences are forcing us back to our “roots.”

Geopolitics is also making a comeback due to the renationalization of global politics. The dream of a concert of great powers or a liberal world body to govern the world under a democratic mandate has not been realised. Fears regarding the future omnipotence of international corporations were also misplaced. They and their related circles are certainly influential, but subordinate to the state and national-oriented policies.

The rise of Asia represents the rise of nation states founded upon sovereignty and traditional foreign policy values.

Moreover, the return of geopolitics is the result of the demise of the bipolar hegemony of the Cold War and the uni-polar 1990s. The relations of yesteryear were unfair, but they imposed an external framework of behaviour and froze conflicts, including territorial ones, which are now resurfacing.

Lastly, geopolitics is returning because of economic globalisation. The huge rise in international trade and the interdependence of nations is increasing dependence on geography and the safe transportation of goods. Ever more perceptibly, global politics is beginning to rotate not around caravan routes, like a thousand years ago, or railways, as in the 19th and 20th centuries, but sea lanes — both present and future. The rise in air traffic is partially adjusting, but not altering this trend. It is likely that Iran would have been subject to an attack long ago, were it not for its ability to block the Strait of Hormuz. The US is doggedly reducing its dependence on Middle Eastern oil, so as not to be in hock to the likes of Iran.

What does the return of geopolitics mean for Russia? Moscow is artfully playing a tough foreign policy game based on the traditions of Realpolitik and geopolitics. It adds weight and political clout to a country whose economic assets are not great and whose intellectual identity crisis does not even permit the use of its cultural legacy of "soft power."

This relative success has been facilitated in no small measure by geopolitical factors. Russia’s territory, combined with its natural resources and growing ability to produce scarce water-intensive goods and provisions, is once again becoming a powerful asset, at least potentially.

Energy riches and the ability (thanks to geographical serendipity) to influence the energy-rich, but sprawling greater Middle East, which stretches from Pakistan to the Maghreb, is another asset.

The growing and increasingly open rivalry between the U.S. and China is also adding to Russia's weight in the field of foreign policy, allowing it to act as a balancer, in which role it is proving to be adept: taking part in demonstrably anti-US (in the eyes of Beijing) naval exercises with China one day, and in drills with Western fleets and their allies in the Pacific the next. Although Moscow has yet to feature in the multilateral political "battle for the islands" currently raging between China, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, and the U.S., my guess is that some Russian diplomats are smiling.

For the next decade, the centre of the global economy and geopolitical rivalry will be the Pacific Ocean. By the end of the decade, given the rise of India and new conflicts in the greater Middle East, this centre could partially shift to the Indian Ocean. Fast forward 10-15 years, all these rivalries, congested and vulnerable transport arteries, and rising demand for raw materials will increase the geopolitical significance of the Arctic, especially the Russian sector. The shadow boxing has already begun. As the first to lay claim to the region’s potential hydrocarbon deposits, Russia is in the vanguard. And most significantly of all, it is all down to geography: its coastline offers a prospective alternative to some Indian and Pacific Ocean routes. The Northern Sea Route, as it is called, presently operates from Norilsk to the west. Work must begin to develop the eastern direction.

And, of course, Russia could reap huge benefits from the explosive growth of the Asia-Pacific region. But so far we have been unable to utilise these opportunities to develop the Trans-Baikal region and the country as a whole, save for the construction of new gas pipelines to the Pacific.

It is clear that geopolitics and the new global economy require a qualitative refocusing of attention towards Russia's east. But the policy should be based not only on geopolitical calculations, even if they have become important once more. It would be the height of folly to be lured away from Europe by other influences. First, since the days of the Byzantine Empire, Russia’s economic, social, and spiritual modernisation has come from Europe, especially over the last 300 years, and to abandon that would be to tantamount to self-rejection. Second, Europe could regroup, albeit in truncated form, around Germany. The latter’s heavy-handed treatment of Cyprus, in collaboration with its northern allies, for the edification of the southerners inspires hope.

The author is Honorary Chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defence Policy.

First published in Russian in Vedomosti.ru.

All rights reserved by Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

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