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The Costly Return of Geopolitics

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June 19, 2023 ROBERT SKIDELSKY Geopolitics, which originated during the run-up to World War I, represents an inherently pessimistic view of international relations as a perpetual power struggle. But as the world’s military and policy establishments prepare for prolonged conflict, we must resist the allure of the zero-sum mindset. LONDON – One of the regrettable consequences of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was the advent of the pseudoscience known as geopolitics. Drawing inspiration from Darwin’s concepts of “natural selection” and “survival of the fittest,” the progenitors of geopolitics argued that all of history was shaped by a competitive “struggle of nations.” This approach, which stood in stark contrast to the harmonious view of international relations

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June 19, 2023 ROBERT SKIDELSKY

Geopolitics, which originated during the run-up to World War I, represents an inherently pessimistic view of international relations as a perpetual power struggle. But as the world’s military and policy establishments prepare for prolonged conflict, we must resist the allure of the zero-sum mindset.

LONDON – One of the regrettable consequences of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was the advent of the pseudoscience known as geopolitics. Drawing inspiration from Darwin’s concepts of “natural selection” and “survival of the fittest,” the progenitors of geopolitics argued that all of history was shaped by a competitive “struggle of nations.” This approach, which stood in stark contrast to the harmonious view of international relations championed by Enlightenment thinkers and classical economists, viewed all countries as potential predators, with the most successful ultimately subduing the rest.

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, leading Western universities created geopolitics departments with the goal of educating future leaders in this emerging “science.” German thinkers like Karl Haushofer, eager to establish Germany’s claim to a “place in the sun,” were enthusiastic advocates. But geopolitics also captivated British intellectuals like Halford Mackinder, who sought to preserve Britain’s naval supremacy. In his 1904 essay “The Geographical Pivot of History,” Mackinder famously asserted: “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; who rules the World-Island commands the world.” The ambition to challenge the United Kingdom later drove Germany to initiate two world wars to wrest control of the Eurasian heartland from Russia.

As the British Empire began to decline, geopolitics found a new home in the United States. But while thinkers like Mackinder focused on the Eurasian heartland, the political scientist Nicholas Spykman highlighted the centrality of the rimland, which encompassed all the coastal regions in Western Europe, the Middle East, and the East Pacific that surrounded it. In 1944, Spykman revised Mackinder’s dictum, stating: “Who controls the rimland rules Eurasia; who rules Eurasia controls the destinies of the world.” With this in mind, the US set out to control the Eurasian rimland.

To be sure, geopolitics never claimed to be a purely positive science. Power struggles were invariably framed – and perhaps genuinely perceived – as battles between good and evil. Allied propagandists characterized World War I as a conflict between democracy and Prussian autocracy. Conversely, the German writer Thomas Mann viewed the war as a struggle between Germany’s notion of kultur and Western civilization. Similarly, while US geopoliticians viewed the Cold War as an existential battle between democracy and totalitarianism, their Soviet counterparts portrayed it as a defensive war, with socialism facing off against predatory capitalism.

In his 1919 polemic The Economic Consequences of the Peace, John Maynard Keynes refrained from blaming Germany for World War I, even though Germany was clearly the aggressor, having violated Belgian neutrality. Instead, Keynes considered the war an inevitable outcome of the geopolitical mindset. To him, geopolitics was the “serpent” in the garden of liberal internationalism. Keynes faulted the peacemakers for their failure to repair the devastation caused by the war.

Today, the world’s military and policy establishments once again find themselves under the sway of the geopolitical mindset. Inspired by Mackinder and Spykman’s theories, foreign-policy experts in Washington, London, Moscow, and Beijing believe that the future of international relations hinges on the power struggle between the US and China, which they view as a battle between democracy and autocracy. By the same token, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could be depicted as an attempt to maintain control over the heartland, while NATO’s response arguably represents the rimland’s counterattack. Western powers are also seemingly engaged in an artificial-intelligence war with China, with the outcome ostensibly deciding who gets to rule the world.

This perception of international relations has already generated severe economic consequences. First and foremost, the war in Ukraine has led to a surge in energy and food prices, triggering a cost-of-living crisis, slowing economic growth, and fueling inflation. Any war, even a proxy war, inevitably leads to a decline in civilian living standards. The only question is whether this decrease is triggered by higher taxes or rampant inflation.

While the West may be willing to pay this price for a greater sense of security or morality, what about the developing world? Although they are not directly involved in the Ukraine war, the world’s developing countries have suffered extensive collateral damage in the form of rising energy and food prices, with no global redistributive mechanism in place to compensate for it. The impact has been particularly severe in the North African and Middle Eastern countries that are heavily reliant on food imports from Russia and Ukraine and are now facing acute food shortages.

Rising food prices have often served as the primary catalyst for political unrest in poor countries. An estimated 48 countries experienced domestic political unrest or civil war during the global food crisis of 2008-12. Today, the political ramifications of food shortages are clearly evident in Sudan, where more than a million people have been displaced as the army and rival paramilitary groups fight for control of the country’s scarce resources.

Economic sanctions originated during World War I as a means of blockading the enemy’s trade. In situations that fall short of a full-scale world war, however, their implementation renders an open, globalized economy unattainable. Given that sanctions make it impossible to guarantee the security of supply chains, the thinking goes, it is better to limit trade relations to “friendly” countries. But world leaders seem not to have considered the economic and political ramifications of reorienting international trade and finance away from efficiency and toward national security.

Geopolitics represents an inherently pessimistic approach to international relations, as it is willing to accept the risk of large-scale destruction to secure a future that could otherwise be achieved through cooperation and goodwill. Keynes’s prescient warning against the hasty embrace of violence should resonate with political leaders worldwide: “it is not sufficient that the state of affairs which we seek to promote should be better than the state which preceded it; it must be sufficiently better to make up for the evils of the transition.”

Robert Skidelsky
Keynesian economist, crossbench peer in the House of Lords, author of Keynes: the Return of the Master and co-author of How Much Is Enough?

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