Geopolitics is a tricky subject. The term is often used and abused by scholars and politicians in trying to explain what is presently happening in the world. Combinations of words such as “new geopolitical reality,” “geopolitical influence” etc. are used interchangeably with such fashionable terms such as “new order” or “political impact,” and others. This often leads to oversimplification, which often obscures the intricate processes flowing underneath a certain military or political development.
Geopolitics extends beyond the present moment, goes back in history and helps forecast the future. In other words, correct understanding of geopolitics relates to things eternal, identified through the prism of geography and political power, and a reader needs to know how the things work which can allow them to pinpoint not only long-term developments in a certain region, but also understand the nuances underpinning those unfolding changes.
To do this, knowledge of history is critical. It provides a vast pool of examples from the past which can enable a reader to quickly understand the basics of the present dynamics. Historical parallels can be dangerous too, but the ability to differentiate between them is rooted in an adequate knowledge of the present and the past. Both are about understanding geopolitical processes and therefore first identifying such constants as geography and power.
Empires and nations have risen and fallen, great leaders are followed by lesser ones, and economic development varied from period to period and region to region. What is however constant is geography, which consists of rarely changing features, such as rivers, mountains, deserts, large forests, and seas.
Geography conditions human behavior, and thus the behavior of entire states. Mountainous masses serve as a significant blockage against invaders and can also serve as an anchor for a nation which tries to be defended.
For instance, small Georgia managed to withstand successive invasions because it was inaccessible for many – mountains, gorges and a great number of rivers helped it. In Central Europe, the Carpathian Mountains served a similar role. For the Russian Empire’s westernmost frontier, the mountains were often seen as a natural border beyond which the empire would not place any significant claim.
In the northern part of Eurasia, we are confronted with Russia, often described as an irrational actor. Yet geography could elucidate important points as to why Moscow behaves in such a radical way as it presently does with its brutal invasion of Ukraine. Russia’s vast expanses are spread across the entirety of the northern part of Eurasia. But the very fact that no significant geographic barrier was in the way of Russian expansion, in many ways conditioned perennial Russia’s need to seek defenses, buffer territories, which in turn invited its annexation of additional territories until checked by a combination of European powers in the west, and Ottoman and Persian civilizations to the south. So, when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014 and again 2022, it did so not only because of purely grand imperial motivations, but also because of its ingrained geographic vulnerabilities – open, largely undefended and therefore vulnerable borders – which from the Russian perspective would invite foreign military expansion. The nightmare of Charles XII’s of Sweden, Napoleon’s and Hitler’s invasions still live on in the psyche of the Russian political leadership.
The importance of geography can play out in other ways too. In China, a critical element to build a powerful polity was to maintain effective control over the Chinese heartland around the Yangtze and Yellow rivers, the second imperative was to hold onto peripheries from the desert in the north-west to mountains and jungles in the south and south-east.
Control over the heartland has likewise been central to the rise of the United States as a global power. The Mississippi basin united the center of North America and allowed the nascent US from the Atlantic shore to extend toward the Pacific Ocean. In a way, the US has been an inevitable superpower. Its resources have allowed it to project power beyond its borders, and the specific geography pushed to dominate world oceans as a way to safeguard free trade and economic development.
But geography alone would not explain all the intricacies of a geopolitical process in a given region. There is also power – a second critical element in understanding how geopolitics works. Assessing power is a more delicate issue than the analysis of geography. Indeed, while the latter is static, power is fluid, and varies not only from region to region, country to country, and even a country can become radically different within short timeframe. For instance, materially much weaker state can at times be more successful in foreign policy than a traditionally more influential actor. Take Russia, whose capabilities are far behind that of the US or China. Yet Russia has been able for decades since the early 2000s to defy expectations of its decline, and actually to increase its regional clout even in the Middle East and Africa. Incorrect reading of Russia’s power led to the invasion of Ukraine and the near successful attempt to upend the present world order.
Emil Avdaliani is a professor of international relations at European University in Tbilisi, Georgia, and a scholar of silk roads.