Classical Geopolitics, A Review

Despite having started out near the beginning of this blog with a couple book reviews, I have not really kept the trend going. So, I figure it is time to look at a book I discovered purely by accident here in a DC bookshop and recently finished. ‘Classical Geopolitics: A New Analytical Model’ by Phil Kelly, Professor at Emporia State University.

Kelly seeks to make the article, in a vein similar to Brzezinski or Kaplan, that geopolitics is a lost art buried by frauds (such as the racist Nazi version of geopolitics) or obfuscated by…well, an ideology which does nothing but obfuscate, such as postmodernism (seriously, when did anything good ever come from putting the word ‘critical’ on the front of any academic topic?). The main thrust of his argument is that at its core geopolitics has an emphasis on the geo part-a la geography- and thus is an understanding about physical properties and the shapes of states and their access to resources with no predetermined ideological baggage. He goes even further than most in seeking to divorce geopolitics with the theory it is most widely connected to, that of realism. Kelly does not deny that on so many issues the theory of realism will in fact merge with that of geopolitics, and is its closest fit, but he seeks to establish geopolitics as a stand-alone strategic understanding in its own right. This may be one of the more unique arguments in classical geopolitics I have yet seen.

As to what he means by classical geopolitics, it is the method of focusing international and foreign policy strategy around geographically based strengths and weaknesses, resource bases, the trade routes that connect them, and the general logistical issues which arise between these physical factors. It is a kind of study which is often associated with being created by Halford Mackinder, but antecedents of which have been floating around many cultures and eras. Most notable would be Kautilya’s understanding of the geographic and political checkerboard made by multipolar systems in Northern India in the classical era early Maurya Empire as well as Sun Tzu’s clear prioritization of shaping ones military and sometimes diplomatic strategies primarily around the nature of the geography one has to work with. One does not have to agree with Mackinder to be into geopolitics. I myself believe that though he started an interesting discussion, if Mackinder were right A. land power would have long since superseded sea power before the 21rst century and B. that the Soviet Union would have come to at least equate if not outright outperform the United States. Obviously, none of these came true, though one could argue that in the case of the latter it was because of skillful grand strategy on behalf of the Nixon administration towards China and the exploitation of the Sino-Soviet split.

But Mackinder brought the centrality of geography to foreign policy back to the European (and North American) worlds as a keystone with a power unseen since Hadrian demarcated a defensible height and stopping point for the Roman Empire. Many of his acolytes were more interesting either by refining his thoughts in a more interesting way (Spkyman) or for being ridiculous and downright terrible (Haushoffer, Dugin). In Kelly’s book I also learned about the very recent ‘Great Powers and Geopolitical Change’ by Jakub  Griegiel, which I very much plan to read in the future based off the synopsis given. Perhaps it will be the next book review to appear here.

One commonality that most geopolitical thinkers have, no matter their interests or disagreements, is the importance of Eurasia. As a supercontinent (if India is not considered a separate continent than neither should Europe be, anyway). It is ‘the world island’, the place where the most people, land, and resources lie. If a single power were to exert dominance over all of it at once its power-projection capabilities would be truly immense. Of course, the nature of multiple large powerful states in Eurasia does make this exceedingly difficult and even the China of today is more constrained in the international hierarchy than the Han or Tang dynasties were at their heights.

Still, it behooves those on this landmass who are not major powers and are jealous of their autonomy to ally with stronger powers which can prevent such a geographic monopolization. The United States fills this roll better than any other country yet has. Its own fortunate terrain (total hemispheric dominance and major naval protection while also being located suitably far from major powder kegs) being the predominant factor in this equation.

What I like best about Kelly’s work however is not merely his defense of furthering this once popular but now on the back-burner field, but his South American academic background. Nearly every example of non-global but rather regional geopolitics comes from what I once referred to as ‘the strangely overlooked continent‘ which is a nice departure from normal literature on the subject.

I do have some quibbles with the text, however. First of all, many may be turned off by the very academic style of the writing. Being a veteran of academia, I was not, but its worth noting. Another thing is that Kelly argues that geopolitics should be positivistic, and I believe it is too into the humanities for this to be desirable. He also then adds little that could actually be in the field of positivism, further boosting my criticism. Arts of Strategy are often called arts for a reason. I feel if one wanted to go into that direction one should study geology and the earth sciences more. Even though I am not a fan of positivism in IR, geopolitics itself got me into the topic and I now possess a hobbiest level of knowledge about plate tectonics, ecology, and the like. But you never see any of that in geopolitical literature which makes it come off as a bit solely map-studyish.

But none of these concerns negatively impact the overall point of the book or the main arguments made therein.



2 thoughts on “Classical Geopolitics, A Review

  1. Good job on the review of my book, “Classical Geopolitics.” You nicely caught several of my main points – separating classical geopolitics from realism and from critical geopolitics, in particular. I too am skeptical of Mackinder’s original Eurasian heartland thesis. I accept the thesis but move the heartland to North America, to me, a much better fit. Also, I see South America as a good laboratory for the theories and applications of geopolitics, sort of an isolated Galapagos Island where such can stay original.
    I must respond to your two rather mild criticisms – my “academic” writing style and my reliance on “positivism,” both from which I cannot depart.
    Several other major points I wanted to contribute: (1) prompting a resurrection of classical geopolitics – point to its utility as a legitimate and useful international relations model; (2) defining the concept of “model” – a collection of like theories, with theories holding their own unique labels.; (3) the problem of applying theory to event – something that still perplexes.
    Again, I appreciated your review of my book. Phil Kelly

    Liked by 1 person

    • And I appreciate your comment. It is great to hear from the author. In the past few years my interest in South America in particular has grown and I find the focus of your research most interesting in that regard. Because of where my historical and brief academic background lies-in Eurasia-it is also nice to see that alternative view.

      I agree that North America probably best fits the Heartland thesis, though only after becoming a product of several historical forces. It could not be what it is before the rise of steam power for instance, and generally I have been recently moving in to studying it too, especially returning to my primary topic of historical study before Eurasia and grad school-which was the interaction of Native and settler powers during colonization as a multipolar system.

      Liked by 1 person

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