What is geopolitics?

posted in: International affairs | 2

Geopolitics has two related but distinct meanings


International politics, the relationship between states, is complicated. What are a nation’s interests? Determined by who? How do national politics affect foreign policy? Can technology transcend geography? How do culture and “national character” play into all of this? Geography matters, but just how much?

The word geopolitics is used in journalism and international relations as shorthand for international politics of a scale that matters globally. So the continuing tensions between the US and China are one of the most important examples of geopolitics at present. The stand-off between India and Pakistan, especially over the disputed territory of Kashmir, is also geopolitically important, partly because both nations have nuclear weapons, and partly because Pakistan is an ally of China, a nation with which India has an intrinsic regional rivalry.

By contrast, the desperate situation in the Yemen, or the tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia over the flow of water in the Nile river, are not typically regarded as of geopolitical importance and would be described as regional politics.

How do we decide what has the extra status of geopolitics? It is what matters to the existing globally important players, what are sometimes called “great powers”. More cynically you might say that if it makes the front page of the New York Times it’s geopolitics. Bluntly, the West cares more about China than it does about Yemen or the Nile region, though we have a long history of neglecting regional politics and then finding that it actually matters to us after all.

But there is an older meaning of the word geopolitics, which is the study of the influence of geography on politics and relations between states. Geography has fallen somewhat out of fashion for some reason. The fact that one of the UK’s many recent undistinguished Prime Ministers, Theresa May, studied geography at Oxford somehow confirmed that she wasn’t up to the mark, unlike of course her two successors who studied classics and PPE (politics, philosophy and economics) at Oxford respectively and of course did a much better job. (I’m not making a Cambridge-Oxford rivalry point here; I studied economics (not PPE) at Oxford, and Kwasi Kwarteng, the recent, unfortunate Chancellor of the Exchequer, what the UK calls a finance minister, did a PhD in economic history at Cambridge, though I note that colleagues in the economics faculty are keen to point out that he studied in the history faculty).

But geography, the physical facts about a region or nation, clearly matter. The question is how far they explain, or dominate, the behaviour of nations. Two classic views of the importance of geography are those of Mahan, emphasising sea power, and Mackinder, with a grand theory of the importance of the Eurasian continent.

The American naval officer Alfred Thayer Mahan wasn’t the first to draw attention to the importance of controlling sea lanes, but he made it into the central principle of national strategic success. This is unsurprising during the 19th century, when the British Royal Navy controlled large parts of the world’s oceans, facilitating free trade (which suited UK interests) and preventing other nations from threatening the British Empire.

The US having two coasts, it was also unsurprising that American national security thinking would be influenced by the need to have at least two navies (at least until the opening of the Panama canal in 1914). But as a general theory of international politics it rather obviously reflects western hemisphere concerns. In Asia and Africa, land power has been far more important. China famously had the ability to control the seas but the Xuande Emperor abandoned it as being unnecessary, in an historically fateful act.

The importance of land is Sir Halford John Mackinder’s contribution to geopolitical ideas, specifically the idea that what mattered was control of the Eurasian land mass, which he called the World Island, with the Americas, Japan, Australasia and everywhere else relegated to the “peripheral” islands. Within the World Island, he identified the “Heartland” of Central and Eastern Europe as critically important, and famously declared:

Who rules Central and Eastern Europe commands the Heartland. Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island. Who rules the World-Island commands the World.


While current events have sadly remined us of the importance of that region, it perhaps takes a British geographer to attach so much importance to the western side of the Eurasian landmass. For most of history, the majority of human beings have lived in Asia, a long way from Europe.

Monocausal explanations of human behaviour are always dubious. It’s risky to elevate geography to something that determines either the interests or behaviour of nations. It is one but only one aspect of what determines a nation’s economic success. A long held view in Britain used to be that tropical nations were naturally undeveloped, a theory that has been simply but devastatingly refuted by the remarkable success of Singapore. But proximity to the coast and the absence of physical barriers to moving goods do matter, as do rivers.

The US navy now patrols the world’s seas, even more comprehensively than the Royal Navy used to do. This matters: free trade has been an important engine of economic growth since the 1950s and safe seas have been critical to that. China has been perhaps the largest beneficiary of that peaceful global trade. At the same time, China still imports most of its oil from the Middle East, a seaborne supply that the US Fifth Fleet could cut off at will. China is therefore building its own international or “blue water” fleet. (The 2022 US Department of Defense annual report on Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, a very detailed and sober document, notes that the PLA Navy’s evolving focus is from “offshore defence” to “open seas protection” (p.133), reflecting both China’s dependence on trade and its wider global ambitions.)

Another aspect of geography is that island nations like the UK and Japan are easier to defend from invasion, which is likely to have some effect on their long term political stability. But that doesn’t explain why certain elites in Japan decided in 1868 to modernise and industrialise their nation, with global implications for subsequent history. Large countries are harder to manage centrally, so local governments tend to have more power, regional influence is greater and so on. China and Russia historically have both faced challenges in keeping peripheral regions under control. But scale only explains so much.

The US has highly defensible borders, Russia does not, which may explain a certain rational paranoia among Russian leaders (and the country has been invaded a number of times, whereas the US has only been invaded once – by the UK). But individual leadership matters, as we currently see in the case of Russia.

Just as there is no single explanation for why some countries are richer than others, there is no single explanation for foreign policy or which nations come to be “great powers”. Explaining geopolitics requires more than just a knowledge of geography.

Further Reading

Former foreign correspondent Tim Marshall’s book Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps that Explain Everything About the World is a fascinating analysis of various key parts of the world and how geography explains a great deal about them.

2 Responses

  1. Luke Smith

    It’s nice that you mentioned how the word geopolitics is used in journalism and international relations as shorthand for international politics of a scale that matters globally. I was watching an educational TV show last night and it discussed the topic of geopolitics. According to the show, it seems there are geopolitical strategic advice speakers now, which seems pretty interesting.

    • Simon Taylor

      Yes there are organisations and individual experts who offer advice and predictions on geopolitics. I would be cautious about anyone who claims to be able to predict the future though!

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