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Geopolitics is for losers | Aeon

Adolf Hitler with high-ranking Nazi officers during Operation Barbarossa, the failed offensive against the Soviet Union, 7 August 1941. Photo by Ullstein/Getty

Adolf Hitler with high-ranking Nazi officers during Operation Barbarossa, the failed offensive against the Soviet Union, 7 August 1941. Photo by Ullstein/Getty

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Geopolitics is for losers

The concept of geopolitics comes from German and Russian attempts to explain defeat and reverse loss of influence

by Harold James + BIO

Adolf Hitler with high-ranking Nazi officers during Operation Barbarossa, the failed offensive against the Soviet Union, 7 August 1941. Photo by Ullstein/Getty

Today everyone talks geopolitics. The idea is infectious. It appears to come from nowhere. Twenty years ago, the term was exotic, and the meaning behind it quaint. The world was different then. In 2002, America Unrivaled – a book edited by my Princeton colleague, G John Ikenberry, the foremost exponent of the idea of liberal internationalism – asked why there was so little resistance from other countries to American power projection. That was when the momentum in the United States for an attack on Iraq was building up. The contributors argued that there was no balancing against the unipolar moment that had been created with the disintegration of the Soviet Union: in short, no geopolitics. That changed in the course of the 2000s, and the word ‘geopolitics’ began its road to a dominance of political discourse.

There are simple numerical indicators (see Figure 1 below). A compilation of all newspaper uses of ‘geopolitics’ in English-language publications shows a remarkable increase, in two surges, one after the 2007-08 global financial crisis, and the second after 2014-15, in the aftermath of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the European refugee crisis that followed the Syrian war.

Figure 1

We often associate the beginning of the modern turn to geopolitics with two men, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. Putin defined his historic mission in terms of geopolitics. The collapse of the Soviet Union, he declared, had been the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. The explosion of geopolitical thinking already took place in 1990s Russia (see Figure 2 below). Putin’s speech at the Munich Conference on Security Policy in 2007 was a turning point, which he began with a denunciation of the concept of unipolarity:

One state and, of course, first and foremost the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way. This is visible in the economic, political, cultural and educational policies it imposes on other nations. Well, who likes this? Who is happy about this?
Figure 2

Putin’s language is a characteristic expression of the geopolitical mindset, and reflects the sense that geopolitics involves making good losses, and compensating for inferiority and the memory of humiliation. That language is also present with China’s wish to break the legacy of ‘a century of humiliation’ that followed the Opium Wars, when Britain and other imperialist powers used the trade in drugs to destroy the morale and the capability of the Chinese population.

The Chinese turn to reflection on global geopolitics also started with the global financial crisis, when it looked as if China was rescuing global capitalism. Xi Jinping’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, had already urged in 2009 that China should assert four strengths, ‘more influential power in politics, more competitiveness in the economic field, more affinity in its image’ and ‘more appealing force in morality’. He concluded: ‘The prospect of global multipolarisation has become clearer.’

Crimea and the Syrian refugees brought geopolitics home to everyone else. The Russian attack on Ukraine in 2022 is another turning point, where attention was focused on Russia’s ability to exert pressure by choking off gas supplies. Today’s US is obsessed with geopolitical challenges, and consequently with reframing the world. The US treasury secretary Janet Yellen talked about a reordering of globalisation in which countries should reorder trade relations so that they would manage supply chains by ‘friend-shoring’, building relations only with countries that were reliable allies, and reducing dependence on strategic competitors. That vision is a sign of a new US nervousness.

The soft-power European Union too has taken up the fad, as the European Commission’s president Ursula von der Leyen promised a turn to a geopolitical Commission. In a globalised world, many Europeans thought that Europe needed a voice. The argument that large member countries – France, Germany or Italy – could not on their own be really influential in global politics appeared attractive. Josep Borrell, the EU’s de facto foreign minister, gave programmatic statements about the problems of multilateralism and openness, and how ‘we must relearn the language of power and conceive of Europe as a top-tier geostrategic actor.’

Do the politicians and pundits who speak of geopolitics really know what they are talking about? Geopolitics is a classically ambiguous or nebulous term, with an innocent and a dangerous use. For some, it is a vague sense of continents and big geographical spaces, or just that geography matters in the sense that the United Kingdom is more likely to trade with France and Ireland than with New Zealand; for others, it is about a claim that reality consists of endless conflict and struggle, in which space matters more than ideas, maps more than chaps. This is a bleak, conflictual, zero-sum world.

Space and place clearly matter. At some times, the attention of the world focuses on particular geographic hotspots: some dominate the geopolitical imagination, the eastern Mediterranean, the Dardanelles. The passage between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean assumes a global significance, a thin needle that connects the grain-producing areas of autocratically controlled central Eurasia to starving consumers.

It is worth asking where all this demand for geopolitics originated, where the link between geopolitics and humiliation was born. What could be further from the carnage of Ukraine, the tensions in the Taiwan Straits or Gaza, or the busy waters of the Bosporus, than a peaceful Bavarian farm? Set in the green rolling hills to the south-west of Munich, near Lake Ammer, and just a few miles away from a Benedictine monastery on a hill overlooking the water, it’s where thousands of Bavarians come annually in a pilgrimage – for beer. Unlike most Bavarian cattle farms, the cows are not a mottled brown and white, but heavier, bigger, with a thick tousled black coat: a Scottish breed, Galloways. The farm, the Hartschimmelhof, has been in family hands since the beginning of the 20th century, when it was given as a wedding present from his father-in-law to Karl Haushofer, the most influential figure in the development of the study of geopolitics in the early 20th century.

It was Haushofer who laid the basis for the definitional shiftiness of the term. He saw himself as the prophet of geopolitics, but – typically and revealingly – could never clearly explain what it actually was. A characteristic attempt was ‘the science of the political life form in its natural living space’. Or a normative demand that ‘geopolitics will and must be the geographic conscience of the state’.

I visited Hartschimmelhof last summer with my family. The farm shop that sells paper goods was open only a few hours a week, as publicised online. We arrived in the right time slot, and the door was open. As we entered, an eerie mixture of music and birdsong started to play from a speaker in the corner of the room. But there was no one in sight. Outside the old farmhouse opposite the shop there was a notice warning of a dangerous dog and, indeed, hidden behind some rather overgrown bushes rustled a large dark shape. It didn’t bark, and on a closer approach it turned out to be a black Galloway calf that seemed to have separated itself from the main herd.

Hitler found the concept congruent with his amoral view of international relations

The whole setup at Hartschimmelhof exudes mystery. That is appropriate for geopolitics. The word Geopolitik, which Haushofer took up with relish, had been coined by a Swedish politician, Johan Rudolf Kjellén, above all in the book Introduction to Swedish Geography (1900). Kjellén later developed the theory that European history was driven by the contest for three river basins: of the Rhine, the Danube, and the Vistula.

Haushofer conscientiously listed his other influences as the German geographer Friedrich Ratzel, whose work centred around the concept of space (Raum) and who introduced the concept Lebensraum or living space, and the English geographer (and director of the London School of Economics) Halford Mackinder. Mackinder laid down a distinction, which became very influential in both Germany and Russia, about the different ideologies and structures of maritime and land powers, although he – unlike the German and Russian successors – saw classical Rome as a sea power, and the Greeks as a Slavic land power. ‘It is probably one of the most striking coincidences of history that the seaward and the landward expansion of Europe should, in a sense, continue the ancient opposition between Roman and Greek,’ he wrote in 1904. The critical impulse, to which Mackinder gave the label ‘pivot area’, always came from the centre of the Eurasian landmass.

Haushofer was fascinated by Asian politics, and used his Tokyo experience for his doctoral thesis Dai Nihon: Reflections on Greater Japan’s Military Strength, World Position, and Future (1913). Oddly, it looked as if the countries on the ‘outer crescent’ identified by Mackinder knew better about how to use or apply power than the continental countries, which still needed to learn geopolitics. Specifically, Haushofer was convinced that Germany should imitate Japan and Japan’s pursuit of clashes with its neighbours, China and Russia. Haushofer wanted to ‘direct Central Europe’s gaze to the strengthening and rejuvenation that Japan owes to the storm of steel,’ necessarily produced by war.

Karl Haushofer and Rudolf Hess c1920. Courtesy Wikimedia

After the end of the First World War, Haushofer thought that there was a need for a vast public re-education to ‘awaken the sleeping geopolitical instinct’ that British and Japanese people already possessed, the lack of which was leading to chaos in central Europe: ‘decomposition’ in Upper Silesia, on ‘the dissolving Rhine front’ which would be followed by ‘dissolution’ on the Vistula and Danubian fronts. One of Haushofer’s students, Rudolf Hess, brought Haushofer’s view of Geopolitik to the attention of the young Munich agitator Adolf Hitler, who found the concept useful and congruent with his amoral view of international relations, and made the critical term Lebensraum a central part of a new political programme. Haushofer’s most intense contact with Hitler was probably during the period of Hitler’s very loose confinement in Landsberg Prison after the failure of the 1923 Beer Hall putsch. Haushofer regularly visited Hess in prison, where the Nazi leader was dictating his biographical manifesto Mein Kampf to Hess. How much of Haushofer went into the Nazi bible? Most recent scholars of Hitler and Nazism are sceptical; the innumerable Hitler biographies devote little space to him. There is no mention in Hitler’s book of the noun ‘geopolitics’. But there is plenty of reference to the inevitability of conflict and of the imperative German demand for Lebensraum.

In the 1930s, however, especially in the UK and the US, Haushofer was frequently regarded as the central influence on Hitler. Immediately after the 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact, the British New Statesman and Nation magazine explained that the Russo-German agreement had ‘little to do with the official “ideology” of the Nazi programme, the rantings against “Bolshevik subhumanity” or the romantic vision of a trek of German colonists on the medieval model to win a new “Lebensraum” in the Ukraine. They are hard and realistic and to a considerable extent they have been stolen from the intellectual arsenal of British Imperialism,’ – ie, from Mackinder. On the other side of the Atlantic, there were similar interpretations. A magazine article of June 1941 claimed: ‘Major General Professor Dr Karl Haushofer and his Geo-Political Institute in Munich with its 1,000 scientists, technicians and spies are almost unknown to the public, even in the Reich. But their ideas, their charts, maps, statistics, information and plans have dictated Hitler’s moves from the very beginning.’

In fact, Haushofer was in increasing difficulty during the Nazi dictatorship. The initial problem was that Nazi race laws categorised his wife Martha, to whom he was absolutely devoted, as Jewish. As long as Hess was the fuhrer’s deputy, Haushofer was protected. Then after Hess’s dramatic air flight to Scotland in May 1941, itself a manifestation of the way Hess interpreted geopolitics, there was no powerful patron, and the Gestapo suspected the Haushofer family had given Hess advice about his flight. Haushofer’s eldest son Albrecht, who had worked in the office of Joachim von Ribbentrop, was arrested briefly, and on his release cultivated a new relationship with the military opposition. After the July 1944 bomb plot, Albrecht tried to hide, but was eventually arrested and killed by the SS in the last days of the war, on 23 April 1945. Karl Haushofer was also interned for a month in Dachau.

Geopolitics was turning into a new manifestation of US nervousness and a rationale for asserting dominance

After the war, preparing for the Nuremberg war crimes trial, the US chief of counsel Sidney S Alderman, in a memorandum for the US associate justice Robert H Jackson, wrote that:

Haushofer was Hitler’s intellectual godfather. It was Haushofer, rather than Hess, who wrote Mein Kampf and who furnished the backbone for the Nazi bible and what we call the common criminal plan. Geopolitics was not merely academic theory. It was a driving, dynamic plan for the conquest of the heartland of Eurasia and for domination of the world by the conquest of that heartland.

However, in the end Jackson appears not to have been convinced, and a few weeks later released Haushofer from internment.

The background to Jackson’s surprising decision was the intervention of the Jesuit scholar of international relations (and geopolitician, and founder of the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington, DC) Edmund Walsh. Haushofer quickly saw Walsh as his benign and powerful ‘mentor’, and succeeded in convincing him that Mein Kampf was just one of ‘many ephemeral agitational publications’ that had nothing to do with geopolitics. Geopolitics might be useful: the concept had begun to fascinate many US thinkers.

Walsh was not an obvious candidate to be a geopolitician: as a Jesuit, he had always insisted on the strong necessity of morality in foreign relations. But by the end of the Second World War, he believed that ‘with the annihilation of the German Geopolitik, a new form [of] geopolitics is asserting itself in Eastern and Central Europe,’ and the Soviets were ‘succeeding brilliantly in acquiring domination of Mackinder’s heartland’. Geopolitics was turning into both a new manifestation of American nervousness and a rationale for asserting dominance. There was then a need for something more than the assertion of morality: ‘Unless you can back up your ideals and your hopes by something more than mere words, then the steam-roller goes on and on and on.’

Months after his release from American internment, on 10 March 1946, deeply depressed, Karl and Martha killed themselves, and were buried on the Hartschimmelhof. The devoted couple left a note and two empty coffins for their younger son Heinz to find, and a precise map of the location on the farm where their bodies were to be found.

The geopolitical doctrine was not just attractive to the emerging Western superpower. Haushofer also had a substantial following in the Soviet Union. The most prominent disciple was Karl Radek, the secretary of the Comintern, who later became a critic of Stalin, but in the 1930s maintained contacts with German diplomats that his friends attempted to justify as an anticipation of the geopolitically necessary Stalin-Hitler pact of August 1939. The driving idea was to reverse the loss of influence that Germans and Russians believed they had suffered at the hands of the Western powers. Radek also was involved in an initiative to translate Haushofer into Russian. There was a wider interest: a Russian geopolitical journal flourished in the 1920s. The Great Soviet Encyclopaedia (1929) included an interesting article by the Hungarian cartographer and Soviet intelligence official Alexander Radó on ‘Geopolitics’, which it explained as a largely German phenomenon, intensified by the experience of German defeat and revolution in 1918-19: ‘Geopolitics ideologically sharpened and distinguished itself as a distinct academic system only thanks to the ideological upheavals linked to the imperialist war and revolution in Germany.’

Geopolitics had a powerful attraction in Russia, the focus of Mackinder’s 1904 pivot. As in 1920s Germany, the doctrine flourished in the wake of the disintegration of a powerful old empire, pushed by the perception that disintegration meant political humiliation imposed by the outside world. There was then a renaissance of geopolitics in 1990s Russia, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Putin argued that there was a spiral of decay triggered by the collapse of the Soviet empire: ‘The epidemic of collapse has spilled over to Russia itself.’ The man who prompted the revival was Alexander Dugin, who in 2019 explained the origins of his interpretation:

[I]n the 1980s-90s I encountered the status of geopolitics as a discipline in the international expert community. I discovered geopolitics by way of Karl Haushofer and the works of the Conservative Revolution and I thought that geopolitics is a kind of politically incorrect doctrine which is greatly explanatory and of great use to us, to Russia. In my eyes, I thought that geopolitics has the status of something past, something prohibited, something politically incorrect – and I liked that.

Dugin bears more than a casual resemblance to his mentor Karl Haushofer. In the same way as more commentators outside Germany held Haushofer to be the strategic mastermind of Hitlerism, it is much more common in the West than in Russia to attribute to Dugin Putin’s espousal of the obviously geopolitical Eurasian project. Haushofer wanted a land bloc stretching from Germany through Russia to Japan, and was upset by Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa. Dugin talks about creating a Eurasian empire and a new-fascist international that encompasses Europe; Putin often seems more interested in recreating a Russian empire and sphere of influence, and in weakening the EU and the US.

Even the personal lives of these two ideologues present a grim correspondence. The Nazi regime killed Haushofer’s son. It is likely that the Russian security services were behind the assassination of Dugin’s daughter Darya after a festival called Tradition, and that they wanted to use the killing both to place the blame on Ukraine and to intimidate Darya’s father, who had been criticising Putin from a nationalist perspective.

Both thinkers fascinate outsiders trying to work out the intellectual dynamics of a dangerous challenge. When the US imposed sanctions on key figures in Russia back in 2015, Dugin was on the list. Like the US and UK commentators of the 1930s, academics are probably overestimating the appeal of a geopolitical thinker to a political leader. Putin himself consistently downplays the connection of Dugin to the Russian government; but it may well be useful to Putin to have even more radical figures in the background in order to appear reasonable, calculated and statesmanlike in his methodology and approach to international relations.

As in the interwar era, geopolitics has become a buzzword that brings with it a contagious idea. Geopolitics should be recognised as what it is: an attempt to understand the world by people and countries that believe they are losing out. As in post-1919 Germany, it looks like an appealing way of explaining a newly chaotic world to the confused. The real danger is that this mode of thinking appears so attractive that it poisons everyone else’s politics too. The haunted world of Haushofer, and of the Hartschimmelhof, is a monument to a confusing response to confusion: and a grim warning.

Global historyHistoryPolitical philosophy

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