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Why Geography Still Matters

December 1, 2014

by J. Andrew Zalucky

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History is long, but the political memory tends to be short. In looking at modern geopolitical issues, most are still stuck in the euphoria following the end of the cold war and, without realizing it, have taken “the end of history” for granted.

This explains why so many people in the cable news watching, Huffington Post-reading west still gasp in disbelief when reading about modern conflicts, especially those laced with the undying beasts of nationalism, tribalism and ethnicity. However, there’s another, possibly more important, element that gets lost as well: geography. While it may sound like that class you had to take in 5th grade (and may or may not have slept through), geography actually plays a pivotal role in why certain groups of people hold onto their unique set of fears, concerns and interests.

While technology, the globalization of capital and the rise of international institutions have changed the way peoples interact, the world is still very much enamored with the idea of nation-states. When deconstructed, borders are basically social illusions, meant to serve the interests of powerful individuals and groups who draw them up and work to ratchet them onto the populations that inhabit them. Much like other catch-all words like “society” and “the community,” the words “nation” and “country” are essentially meaningless (at least in an a priori sense), useful only as rhetorical devices.

Still, there are real, material and historical reasons why certain states adopted the characters associated with them. In the abstract, it would be nice if people could see the world as borderless and adopt a sense of enlightened internationalism. This has not occurred. Where it has, it’s usually due to a sense of common interests, with mutual respect and fraternity developing over time.

For example: Germany and France have fantastic relations now, but that was spurred on during the Cold War out of necessity and shared economic interests. The United States and Great Britain have enjoyed a “special relationship” since at least 1941, but this was very much due to mutual economic and existential (see: National Socialism) threats. Sure, we and the British have always had shared values of fair play, the common law and civil liberties- but that didn’t pan out into being BFFs until our survival depended on it. True, human beings all have common interests that should prevent us from tearing each others guts out. And as people like Steven Pinker have noted, more and more people are recognizing this.

However, the idea of “the nation-state” is still taken very seriously by those who wield political power and control the world’s natural and military resources. So for that reason, it’s important to assume the mistake and understand its logical cause and consequences.

Why am I going on about this?

First of all, I think it’s interesting. Second of all, I needed a reasonably intelligent preamble to introduce a bunch of Stratfor videos. Of the many nation-states competing for influence on “the world stage” (another artificial, but rhetorically useful term), there are six which merit study in relation to their political geography: Russia, Ukraine, Germany, China, Iran and North Korea. For the North Korean example, I’ve also thrown in a (very depressing) video from Vox.

Russia

You often hear people shriek in amazement at Russia’s tendency to fiddle with the countries on its periphery. Though it’s part of the picture, this attitude owes much less to a resurgent jingoism and more to a desire for strategic security. As much as the west tried to bring Russia into the great family of liberal democracies after the Cold War, it’s horrific experience during the 1990s left it distrustful of this system. Thus, it sees itself better off by looking inward, relying on its oil revenues and keeping its threats either divided or hopelessly confused. Russia has no interest in taking over all of Georgia or all of Ukraine, this would be expensive and could potentially yield horrendous casualties, both on the battlefield and the balance sheet. It’s bad enough they have to put up with Chechnya and Dagnestan. Instead, they’ve taken the example of the British Foreign Office: leave your former territories divided, that way they’ll never be strong enough to be a threat to you. This hasn’t earned the country a lot of goodwill, but its done something the Russians wanted perhaps a little more since 1991: they’re taken seriously again.

Ukraine

Speaking of former territories, Ukraine’s post 1991-borders have always been something of an absurdity. In the abstract, the country would be more cohesive and secure if it’s borders were framed around natural barriers- i.e. the Carpathian Mountains and the Dnieper River. Instead, it’s found itself clumsily trying to govern the territory allotted to it as a Soviet republic. This puts any current or future leader of the country into a trap. While it might be in Ukraine’s best interest to let go of places like the Donbas and Crimea, any President who willingly did this would look at best like a defeatist, at worst like a traitor. Poroshenko has had to make it look like a struggle, even if he knows his shiny, new, pro-western parliamentary coalition only exists because he lost that struggle.

Germany

The history of Germany, and the role its geography plays, has helped to shape much of the psychology of its French, Polish and Russian neighbors. As the above video describes, the northern European plain has been a highway for major battles and invasions since Roman times (“Give me back my legions!!!”). One of these episodes, The 30 Years War, is often cited as one of the most pivotal moments in European history. Some scholars will even tie the 1648 Peace of Westphalia as the beginning of a string of events that eventually led to the cataclysm of National Socialism and the Third Reich.

China

Like Russia, China consists of a core set of territories surrounded by an almost incomprehensible hinterland. And like Russia again, much of its history has been determined by how well these “buffer zones” have worked to stem the tide of invasions by foreign powers- particularly the Mongols, whose brutal and astounding conquests of China (and then the Middle East…and Russia) are detailed in Dan Carlin’s excellent Hardcore History series, “Wrath of the Khans.”

Iran

Iran was once conquered by the Mongols as well, and like both China and Russia, it sits in a difficult neighborhood. While its location puts in on the classical “silk road” linking Asia and Europe together, this has made it a valuable target over the centuries (millennia actually). Greece, Rome, the Turks, the Mongols have all clashed with the old empire of Persia. Even during the Second World War, Stalin and Churchill recognized the risk of Tehran turning toward the Nazis and teamed up to occupy the country.

North Korea

With it’s location between powers who would prefer to keep it as a buffer-state (Russia and China) to the north, and those who view it with hostility (South Korea and Japan), North Korea is the ideal zone for isolation and dictatorship. However, a look at its internal geography fails to account for its lingering historical ties to the militarism and fascism of Imperial Japan. In the below video from Vox, the narrator details how the current system, rather than being the Stalinist/Maoist holdover we imagine it to be, reflects the old god-king dynamic of the Japanese Emperors.

Of course, culture and individual actions matter in politics as well. However, these things are often framed and guided by material realities like geography. A nation housed within an inhospitable desert climate will be very different from one based in a fertile plain, guarded by mountain ranges and oceans on all sides. In order for any people to survive, they need access to resources and a way to share or produce them so that the maximum number survives in the best way possible. This has driven (and continues to drive) the need for new ways to produce and spread resources. And it has led people to look elsewhere, often across their borders.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. ehparenting permalink
    August 25, 2015 6:49 pm

    I largely agree with your argument. I think you make some compelling points about mutual interest and in fact your point about the United States and Britain is even more relevant to Germany and France. I wouldn’t say they have fantastic relations, but they are certainly fantastic compared to hundreds of years of war. And I think that is because as you say they have strategic and mutually aligned interests now. But I also think that part of the reason more people have not truly embraced internationalism and a common sense of humanity outside the nation state system is that they are still fighting for basic needs: safety, food, security. So in many ways it is the same strife that justifies the nation state or at least gives people cause to create and use it that prevents the people themselves from throwing it off later. This is the fundamental quandary of the nationstate that I think you’re getting to: it doesn’t actually solve anything. It just puts lines around existing problems.

    • August 26, 2015 9:24 am

      So in a way, the need for the nation-state syncs up rather conveniently with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs- another interesting point is Britain and France who fought countless wars, and look at them now- they even share an aircraft carrier!

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