Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Geography, culture and power: The prism of geopolitics

The inter-connectivity between geography, culture and power starts with geography. Even before organized society, humanity would bundle collectively to survive the testaments of nature. Tribes would form primarily on the basis that coherent interaction with one another on the foundation of mutual struggle for water, food and shelter would bind them unconditionally.

Editors note: This piece is a collection of thoughts and ideas expressed through the medium of geopolitics. It is, in some ways, a platform to "think out loud" on certain trends, concepts and theories that are prevalent in the international system.

Hunting practices and traditions transcended and banded these tribes, consolidating their position in the unforgiving nature of the world. Indeed, perhaps another aspect of this journey of survival is the protection of one's own species from another.

Tribes would fight under the following premises 1) to consolidate power in a region to harbor vital resources for a tribes' own well-being 2) To counteract any  potential power that threatens the tribes' power in the region. Humans are sophisticated biological machines. Their ability to adapt the environment for their purpose as opposed to their purpose being shaped by their environment are is what makes them unique to other animals.

Geography that can satisfy demands

The most notable and founding things of human development started with agriculture. Agriculture allowed for greater expansion of food and therefore population growth. This meant that men of military stature were well-fed and could defend adequately. the survival rate increased lending hand to greater manpower and thus the protection from external threats that hindered a tribe's development.

Indeed, this is only made possible by the geography that can satisfy the demands of agriculture and farming. For some of the greatest powers, including ancient Egypt to the industrial United States, river networks were paramount to the longevity of these powers.

For example, in the United States, the Mississippi river network was instrumental in connecting and facilitating resources whilst being able to aid transportation to move human capital across vast land masses.

Geography is a limitation, which vary. Culture on the other hand can be seen as a bi-product the conditions of geography and human necessity. Firstly, a definition of culture must be established. Culture is loosely defined as an umbrella term. Culture encompasses ones history, language, traditions, social habits, cuisine and religion.

The same definitions is what drives a group of people to belong. Indeed, what we are looking at is the nation-state. The nation-state, in essence, is the marriage of a defined territorial border with a population that share a similar culture, ethnicity, practices and historic tradition. They can be defined outside their citizenship.

It is important to realize that, in international relations and the paradigm of geopolitics, that the nation-state is a very European idea. The origins of which can be traced back to the Treaty of Westphalia, whereby after the "Thirty Years War", the Holy Roman Empire, Spain, France, Sweden and Dutch Republic came to respect the territorial integrity of one another. The state's borders defined which is based on the mutual recognition of the autonomy to use force in their own respective regions.

As a consequence, the state has the monopoly of power and violence over its territory. This shifted the international system into the use of legitimate power. Power can be attained in many ways. However, it is important to note that geography limits others utilization of power. Rivers, mountains and areas of in-negotiable terrain hinders an adversaries' utility of power.

Domination of the international system

Thus, it is important to establish the state's projection of power and how it is intends to consolidate it. Firstly, power is relative. States being central to the international system and being the ones who distribute and contribute power (which includes the international institutions) is purely measured on the gains and shortfalls of other states. In other words, power is not absolute. Power can only be measured in reference to other states.

With this in mind, how does the United States dominate on such a perplexing scale never seen before? The United States simply has executed to success the three paradigms of geopolitics - the geography, the culture to facilitate growth and innovation and the ability to project military power, at will, across the globe.

The United States is in control of a continent and is politically unified. Whilst there are contentious issues surrounding the debt default at the time of this writing, the United States is driven by forces that go beyond Capitol Hill.

The United States' domination of the international system lies primarily with its navy. The United States possesses ten aircraft carrier strike groups which are able to be strategically placed in the advent of any event that threatens its interests. The flexible application of these strike groups allow air superiority and small-land based, highly trained, U.S. Marine units to be deployed at will.

It is able to limit other states' power by striking at the economic, blockading of key arterial maritime trade routes inevitably make any state fear the United States' dominance. Like the Royal Navy in the 18th and 19th century, the key to sustaining dominance is through the seas.

Geopolitics dominates ideology

Another key issue is to be addressed - the juxtaposition of ideology and strategy. Ideology is a demanding creature that, by its nature, leave little to compromise. Ideology by definition a collection of doctrines that position an attitude to certain beliefs and practices with a clear distinct, theoretical vision  of how the world should operate.

In reality, geopolitics dominates ideology. Take, for instance, the Second World War. Hitler's conquest was two-folds. It was indeed an ideological objective for Nazi Germany to facilitate lebensraum  by blitzkrieg conquest in Eastern Europe. On the other hand, in order to achieve this, it compromised its own line with the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a deal struck by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union on the division of Poland.

This was also a Non-Aggression Pact. Traditionally, Russia's security predicament has been subject to the North European Plain which has traditionally allowed armies to march to the doors of Moscow. Indeed, as history demonstrates, Hitler's Nazi Germany attempted to exploit geography in order to conquer the Soviet Union. Crucially, however, it is important to address that this was more realpolitik than ideological. It is in the interest of Nazi Germany to destroy a great power neighboring it than risk a surprise, mechanized attack.

The United States, to paraphrase Franklin D. Roosevelt, would "hold hands with the devil" to defeat Nazi Germany with the Soviet Union as its ally. Ideology takes second place when power and geopolitical necessities take precedent.


The issue of power and utility has become contentious since the End of the Cold War and particularly since 9/11. Geography and culture are becoming important pillars of understanding when a nation conducts military operations in areas it has little understanding.

When we analyse Afghanistan, it is the perfect state that has not undergone what the discussion has previously addressed. It has far from a nation-state, it is multi-ethnic, lacks unity and industrialized society. It takes us back to the start where communal tribes, traditions and familial identity rank supreme.

The power vacuum of Afghanistan allows exploitation of groups such as the Taliban to take hold of these tribes. It is not a case of ideology, it is a case of organization and utility of force. The Taliban's systematic infestation of tribal groups by means of assassination, intimidation and arranged marriage into various tribes, particularly among Pashtun areas allows a particular type of influence.

The alliance that emerged between al-Qaeda (which, too, compromised of veterans of the Soviet Occupation of Afghanistan) and the Taliban allowed the security, or lack of, exploitation by jihadists fighters to organize and conduct attacks against numerous targets. These attacks range from the 1993 World Trade Center Bombing, the 2000 USS Cole bombing and notoriously, the attacks on the World Trade Center towers on September 11th, 2001.

The United States' retaliation was emotional but calculated. As a consequence, it devoted time, resources and power to fighting an enemy that could melt into the environment. The lessons learnt from the War on Terror (and still being learnt) is the importance of human terrain, the culture and structure of societies.

This is startlingly true in a counterinsurgency, with what a US military footprint brings, which can only be adequately achieved by winning the population. An insurgents strength and longevity is relies primarily on its relationship with the local population.

The prism of geopolitics sees itself into the 21st century is multi-axis. Great powers with geographical advantage will try to maximize their security and will carefully watch the balance of power. However, with the globalized world we live in, this empowers organized, franchised groups to exploit conventional power into the realm of asymmetric warfare. The key to this is the tools of globalization, which ironically, groups such as al-Qaeda aim to resist, is what enables these groups to deliver stings to the established powers. The considerations of geography, culture and power will be emphasized in the 21st century, not, contrary to other writers, diminished.

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