To simplify, analysis can be either “traditional” or “progressive.” The first views the past to reach the future, the second views the past as an impediment for the future. Alone, both are hazardous for serious analysis. Together, they both are needed for the same. There is an old expression, “Keep your eyes on the horizon, your feet on the ground.”
Determinism and Geopolitics
As an analytical concept, Geopolitics should follow this rule. Yet, typically, there are approaches on both sides that continue to see the subject in only one dimension. The first views the subject as a hard and fast, semi-deterministic guide to state policy. At first glance, this is understandable. Switzerland will probably never have a navy. Ecuador will probably never be a great power. The logic and constraints of nature alone has permanently decided the issue.
But geopolitics is not deterministic. Other factors interrupt. The American continent and South America are both vast territories, rich in resources, people, and land. Yet, one is a world “superpower;” the other is not. Why? Because one united itself, the other divided itself, basically. In 1917, Russia was captured by a tiny group of fanatics, and for the rest of the century challenged the legitimacy of the rest of the world. In 1962, it put missiles into Cuba, making that tiny place a geopolitical threat to nuclear peace. Today, both Cuba and Russia are more “traditional,” but Russia’s alleged “meddling” in U.S. political campaigns goes far beyond its traditional and geopolitical foreign policy interests (Which brings up the question: is Vladimir Putin a “Commissar” or a “Czar”?)
For most of its history, American foreign policy was “isolationist.” Since World War II, it has been involved everywhere, with something like 400 military “bases” worldwide. Why? The land stayed the same — what changed? The answer: circumstances, politics, ideologies, personalities, technology, sociology and other factors, both substantive and abstract. The geography, as always, stayed the same.
Progressivism and Geopolitics
Now, in an “aerospace” age, nothing seems the same. This is a field-day for “progressives.” They even have a new word for human history, “Anthropocene,” roughly defining humanity’s interactions with the earth. Generally speaking, Anthropocene asserts that, since the Industrial Revolution, mankind has been systematically destroying its geographic and human environment. Geographically, pollution and gaseous emissions threaten climatic life, while, sociologically, “racism,” “sexism,” “nationalism” and “imperialism” are simultaneously destroying human lives (progressives favor totalities, “isms”). The result concludes that the earth’s problems rise far above tradition and require new and adventurous solutions. If not, life is doomed.
Beyond these scenarios, the global Communications Revolution, like the previous industrial one, have rendered any reference to tradition not only obsolete, but dangerous. If the earth is melting and people can communicate instantly while global institutions make boundaries ancient, why worry about rivers, borders or mountains? “Protect the environment” and “open borders” are communal slogans.
These dominant notions associate geopolitics with history. It reminds critics of railroads, of cavalry charges, of armies in uniform, the draft, sea battles, men in top-hats making colorful appeals to national virtue, territorial disputes, and all other vestiges of a by-gone age.
Inside this culture reside “enemies.” The main targets, to use a “feminist” cliché, are “dead white males.” The expression “white supremacy” has become both a global accusation and assertion for society’s ills. The variety of “isms” that have dominated current cultural trends, needless to say, leave little room for geopolitics. It has, in this view, become, an intellectual relic, a “dinosaur.”
For its part, historic geopolitical thought lived by strictly deterministic, and singular, rules. It was tied to the nation, control of the earth and water, and, later, the air. Both the famous syllogisms by pioneers such as Halford Mackinder and Nicholas J. Spykman tried to demonstrate that location, “Heartland,” “Rimlands,” “World Island,” “pivot” state, and other territorial possessions determined life. Expressions such as “commands the world,” “controls the destinies,” etc. gave national strategies an “inevitable” scenario. Classic was President Eisenhower’s theory (1954) that if Vietnam fell, other countries would surely follow, “like a row of dominos.” Vietnam fell in 1975, nothing since.
Summarily, airpower advocates, like Guilio Douhet of Italy, argued that the airplane was the ultimate weapon against which there was no defense. British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin used this idea in support of disarmament and appeasement in the 1930s, stating in one speech that “the bomber will always get through.” In Vietnam, U.S. airpower exceeded the bombing tonnage from all air forces in World War II, but the jungle stayed impenetrable.
Mere location and size hold no promises. Geopolitics is geography with strategy. Britain is a stony island next to a continent, but once governed one-fifth of the world. China is a huge mainland, but suffered invasion and occupation throughout its history. Like Britain, Japan is an island, but once controlled the western Pacific and invaded China on multiple occasions. Today, Japan is peaceful and prosperous. France built the Maginot Line in the 1930s to stop the Germany army. The Wehrmacht went around it, and the Luffwaffe went above it. Nazi Germany had the greatest military forces in world history but couldn’t cross 26 miles of water to invade England. The U.S. crossed 3,000 miles of ocean and occupied Germany. Canada, Brazil, and Australia are continents the size of the U.S. None has ever been a world power and in all likelihood never will.
In today’s time period, both tradition and future can coexist. Since the last election, the border with Mexico has been (rightly or not) the chief security preoccupation of the American people. This is both natural and arbitrary. Natural since immigration is, and always has been, a security issue. Arbitrary since a “MAGA” is in office. Yet, even if an “open border” administration won, the same issue could very well return, meaning that it was postponed, not eliminated.
Still, a border is a geopolitical problem, even within a space age. In the last analysis, how do we reconcile geopolitics with the aerospace age?
Fact: At any given time, there are about 5,000 aircraft in the skies.
Answer: At any given time, each one will have to land.