Revisiting the Borders of Geopolitics

Image credit: Yerpo / CC BY-SA

Delimiting the boundaries of any social sciences discipline is a self admittedly difficult task, not only because of its interdisciplinary nature but also because there is no concrete definition for terms like politics, society etc. Geopolitics is no exception to this, a simple google search renders thousands of different definitions with no concrete commonality across them. Even if one  broadly describes geopolitics as the study of how geography shapes international relations, there is no consensus on how to define ‘geography’. A look back at the history of the discipline reveals that the building block of classical geopolitics was the nation state, an entity defined by territorial specificity and has sovereignty as its basis.

Modern geopolitics was the politics of border construction but the way borders came to be understood changed dramatically over time. Correspondingly the relation between borders and security has also changed in view of the larger international developments such as globalisation, which challenged the construct of territorialisation by promoting free movement of goods, services, people across borders. In its most common parlance it came to define a world that is shrunk, connected, integrated and interdependent.  Most importantly, with the advent of globalisation agency was no longer restricted to the state but new geopolitical actors emerged such as transnational economic organisations like International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organisation, MNCs, NGOs and even social movements. While this did not mean that states became irrelevant, on the contrary they were key actors in enabling transnational interactions, it did mean that the state centricity of classical geopolitical thinkers who viewed the world from a European imperialist lens was replaced by the narrative of worldwide networks.

This brings us back to the question of defining geopolitics we began with, the inherent elasticity allows for a manipulation of geopolitical imageries allowing it to adapt to a dynamic and changing world. As political and social boundaries  came to be redefined, critical geopolitics interrogated the assumptions of the discipline to incorporate the ideas of culture and identity. In the post-Cold War world the roles and responsibilities of states and transnational organisations came under intense scrutiny and geopolitics provided a platform for raising these issues through dynamic reconfiguration of its theoretical contours. The geopolitical architecture which emerged had to accommodate a deregulated vision of world geography, where borders existed but narratives of exclusive sovereignty became  increasingly obsolete.

In the past few years it has become difficult to escape the increased rhetoric about the need for stringent borders around the world, more recently the idea of globalisation came under scathing attack as a  novel strain of the coronavirus paralysed countries and sent the global economy in a downward spiral. Borders are closing, nationalist sentiments are rising which makes one wonder- are we witnessing the reversal of globalisation? While it is too early to comment on the same, there is no doubt that the contours of globalisation are changing. In 1987 then US President Ronald Regan in his famous speech in Berlin called out to Gorbachev to “tear down this wall”, jump to roughly 30 years later one can hear the echo of President Trump and his supporters proclaiming “build the wall.”  Trade wars has replaced the narrative of free flow of trade, what was once considered the most successful model of regional integration risks falling apart due to Britain’s exit and these are just some examples to illustrate this.

We are witnessing a dangerous pandemic, countries have unilaterally imposed strict international travel restrictions threatening the porosity of borders which globalisation offered. It also reminds us of the rising xenophobia as foreign citizens of Asian descent in European and American countries are being subjected to racial slurs since the origin of the virus is being attributed to Wuhan, a city in China. There are apprehension about rising  tensions between US and China as a blame game ensues where Trump and his party members have begun referring to Covid-19 as “Wuhan virus” while an official spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has suggested that the virus was bioengineered in a US army lab, ironically at a time when international cooperation and flow of transparent scientific information is necessary. Many have already attributed the accelerated transmission of the disease as a downside of globalisation, and this might further embolden nationalist parties in Europe which oppose pan Europeanism as evident from the minimal support provided by EU to Italy, the worst hit European country by the corona virus. Closer home as the SAARC members met through video conference to chalk out a joint strategy to fight the pandemic, Pakistan raising the Kashmir issue only served to remind us why political tensions remain the greatest hindrance to an almost obsolete regional organisation. 

What do these developments mean for the discipline of geopolitics?  Is there a need to rewrite the geographic understanding of global politics? Do we need new definitions and concepts to address new international developments? These are questions which cannot be answered in a straitjacket formula but nevertheless need to be probed. We are living in a time of profound uncertainty which inevitably lead to questioning the inherent assumptions of the discipline but also reminds us of the inherent complexity of geopolitics not only due to multiplicity of agents but also rapid structural transformations.