views updated May 21 2018


At one time the term geopolitics referred almost exclusively to the determining effects of global location and environmental characteristics (climate, soils, topography, etc.) on conflict between powerful states and empires. In popular usage this remains the dominant definition. Since the 1970s the meaning has shifted among scholars toward a more critical appreciation of how interpretations of geographical divisions, conditions, and designations enter into the foreign policies and military strategies of the great powers and their adversaries.

As a result, for example, in the twenty-first century it is how the Middle East is constructed as a region in American foreign policy (including the role of the Israel–Palestine conflict, the rise of militant Islam, and the region's oil in world trade) rather than the environmental characteristics of the region (deserts, relative location between Europe and South Asia, limited resource base beyond oil, etc.) that constitutes the dominant understanding of how geography affects the making of world politics.

Population and Geopolitics

Population characteristics and processes are among the most important elements that enter into geopolitical interpretations. In the classical deterministic geopolitics that prevailed from the 1890s until 1945 population was introduced in terms of a series of differences between dominant states with respect to their need for territorial expansion (known in German as Lebensraum): racial hierarchies, comparative fecundity, population vitality (a euphemism linking population growth with the need for territorial expansion), and population degeneration (associated with population decline and/or miscegenation). Writers such as the German Friedrich Ratzel and the Englishman Halford Mackinder preached an organic conservatism in which human history was seen in terms of a struggle between geographically concentrated groups (typically the state or empire of the writer in question) and threatening outsiders, such as other states with burgeoning populations or nomadic invaders sweeping across the land to transform history. In an attenuated form this type of thinking maintains a hold on those who see states as the sole containers of economic activity and as being the exclusive source of political identity. Population size and growth thus are seen as significant indicators of political strength and actual or potential great-power status.

Whether this way of thinking continues to make sense in a world in which national economies are subject to global competitive pressures rather than existing as isolated entities building purely on their internal assets is open to question. Tremendous increases in the mobility of capital, technology, and people suggest that the relationship between population and geopolitics is quite different from the relationship problematically mapped by classical geopolitics. Avant-garde thinking about geopolitics tends to see states as historically contingent actors with powers within their territories and beyond them that wax and wane in capacity and scope rather than as transcendental entities with permanent drives and needs.

How Population Enters into Contemporary Geopolitics

Eschewing the determinism that afflicted and, after the Nazi period, discredited classical geopolitics does not mean abandoning attention to material factors (such as population characteristics and processes) that potentially impinge on the geographical conditioning of world politics. However, it does require seeing those factors as they are refracted through the discourse and practice of politics. In the end it is whether population issues are seen as important by political leaders and mass publics and enter into the calculus of public decision making that matters, not whether there really is a specific population problem per se.

Debates in the most widely circulated foreign policy magazines (such as Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy) and in the professional literature on international relations and world politics suggest that a number of population-related issues are of vital importance to contemporary geopolitics. Of course, this assumes that these debates reflect the sensibilities and concerns of many contemporary "intellectuals of statecraft," a term coined by Gearoid Ó Tuathail and John Agnew (1992) to cover the array of policy professionals, military strategists, and politicians involved in shaping foreign policies in the United States and other countries.

European states and states established by European settlers (such as the United States) have long dominated world politics. Japan's status as the sole representative of the rest of the world in the ranks of the great powers is the exception that proves the rule. Though never numerically as prevalent as their global power status would suggest if there was a oneto-one relationship between population size and global political significance, Europeans today constitute a shrinking portion of the world's total population. As the first part of the world to experience the demographic transition, Europe has since been joined by much of the rest. Its loss of demographic singularity can be seen in prophetic terms. In many recent commentaries, the rise of India and China to global political prominence is predicated on the potential linkage between their massive populations and economic growth. As a result, the Eurocentric world of the past four centuries is seen as facing eclipse with the emergence of a world in which the distribution of global power finally catches up with the relative distribution of population.

This logic is based in part on historical analogy with cases such as France in the mid-twentieth century, when population decline seems to have been correlated highly with political immobilism and defeat. However, it also reflects the sense of threat that countries with large and growing populations pose to countries that have passed their demographic peak. In this understanding population growth is taken as a surrogate for a vast array of national characteristics, particularly the idea of national vitality as indicated by population growth and the association of population decrease with national decline (and fewer bodies to throw into battle).

These "classic" ideas persist despite all manner of counterfactual information. For example, countries with smaller populations tend to have higher standards of living and lower levels of inequality in incomes and wealth than do larger countries, and, not unlike smaller families everywhere, countries with smaller populations invest more per capita in their children. At the same time countries with relatively small populations at the time of their initial territorial expansion and relatively few resources, such as Britain and Japan, have been major world powers. There is also tremendous inertia in world politics, giving established powers numerous advantages over rising ones, not the least of which is access to financial and military information that others do not have the resources to acquire. Whether Europe and its overseas offshoots are ripe for eclipse, therefore, is open to doubt.

Less problematic is the view that the global dominance of the rich few over the poor many is politically and environmentally unsustainable over the long term. If anything, the absolute gap between global haves and have-nots has grown since 1980. In this perspective the development gradients between rich countries such as the United States and poorer ones such as Mexico could produce increasing conflict.

The logic here is that of relative deprivation combined with rising expectations. On the one hand, high average affluence exists alongside high average penury. On the other hand, there is increased information about what is possible on the other side of the border and resentment that prospects are so poor on this side. What seems more likely than open conflict–and is already under way–is that people who are able to will try to move from the poor area to the rich one in the hope of bettering their and their children's life chances. This accounts for one of the major intersections between population and geopolitics in the late twentieth century: the massive increase in migration from poor countries to rich ones. This is stimulated in part by the large economic differentials (employment, income, welfare, etc.) between countries but also by the so-called gray dawn in many industrialized countries as the population ages and many economic sectors can continue to function and prosper only if they are staffed by immigrants. Some of these immigrants carry out low-paid labor, but a considerable proportion is involved in highly skilled activities (medicine, software engineering, etc.), thus draining their home countries of many of their most talented and ambitious people.

The vast heterogeneity of the underdeveloped world makes the employment of terms such as the "Third World" and "global South" potentially misleading, however. Such terminology characterizes the world in geopolitical abstractions that disguise the fact that some countries and regions, such as Southeast Asia and coastal China, have made major strides in economic development, whereas others, such as much of Africa, have become less rather then more important to world economics and politics. Of course, growth in incomes and exports is not always synonymous with development, particularly in regard to improvement in the living prospects for the very poor. However, those prospects are definitely not the same everywhere within the erstwhile Third World (a term that is the fruit of the cold war opposition between an American-allied First World and a Soviet-organized Second World), suggesting the limits of the global-rich-versus-global-poor geopolitical scenario.

A more apocalyptic scenario, named "the coming anarchy" by the journalist Robert Kaplan (2000), sees the global development gap as increasingly likely to impose costs on the rich and powerful because of the spread of diseases and famine and the subsequent spilling over of pestilence and political instability into the world at large. This logic is one of contagion from threatening places that cannot be contained by conventional military or economic means.

In this perspective the world is headed for a Malthusian crisis based on a world divided into two halves. According to Kaplan, the danger lies in the spread of diseases (beginning with AIDS) for which there are no cures; the collapse of states whose territories then provide refuge for terrorists, criminals, and drug traffickers; and the specter of perpetual low-intensity conflict involving ethnic cleansing and local warlordism. A world divided between an affluent global North and a penurious global South therefore threatens the long-term prospects of the North as much as those of the South.

This portrayal of geopolitics after the cold war, however, obscures the more specific causes of environmental degradation and disease propagation. In particular, it ignores the dispossession of people to permit resource extraction, the immense increase in the number of refugees because of civil wars, the global debt crisis, the decline of traditional social mores that govern sexual behavior, and the corrupt behavior of local political elites, often supported by foreign sponsors. More generally, it colors a more complex geography in black and white terms, with countries allocated neatly into North and South. Not only are countries internally differentiated in complex ways with respect to the incidence of disease, famine, and instability, the North–South division obscures the degree to which each geopolitical division contains islands and archipelagoes of the other (Garrett 2001). The threat is at home as much as abroad, suggesting that home is where solutions are to be sought, wherever home might be. The geopolitical framing misconstrues more than clarifies the nature of the problems that must be addressed.

The Threat of Terrorism

One population issue relating to the North–South tension that does seem to have had an impact on American geopolitical thinking has taken on special importance since 2001. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon near Washington, DC, on September 11, 2001, much attention has been given to the fact that the Arab world in particular and the Islamic world more generally have a huge number of alienated young men with poor job prospects who are possible recruits into terror networks, such as Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda, for suicidal terrorist missions. The mismatch between population growth and economic development, the identification of repressive governments with developmental failure, the attraction of a religious utopia based on a return to the caliphate of early Islam, and the role of the United States in backing repressive and non-Islamist governments are connected by Islamic militants to create a geopolitical worldview counter to the discourses of positive globalization and modernization emanating from Washington and other Western capitals. More specific concerns about the failure of local states to address inequalities and the festering conflict between Israel and Palestine probably have as much to do with recruitment into terror networks as do perceptions of the role of the United States. However, the relative youthfulness of the population in Middle Eastern cities and the well-known disposition of young men to risk life and limb for a cause probably play a contributory role in creating the terrorist threat that has become the main leitmotif of post–cold war global geopolitics.


Contemporary geopolitics therefore is marked by a number of important population-related themes. From the aging of populations and mass immigration to the increasing global divide between haves and have-nots, the possible spread of disease and instability from South to North, and the availability of youthful zealots for terror networks, politicians and commentators are not short of population-related threats against which to organize their countries.

See also: Geography, Population; Lebensraum; States System, Demographic History of; War, Demographic Consequences of.


Agnew, John A. 2001. "Disputing the Nature of the International in Political Geography." Geographische Zeitschrift 89: 1–16.

——. 2002. Making Political Geography. London: Edward Arnold.

Corbridge, Stuart. 1988. "The Debt Crisis and the Crisis of Global Regulation." Geoforum 19: 109–130.

Dalby, Simon. 2001. "Geopolitics and Ecology: Rethinking the Contexts of Environmental Security." In Environment and Security: Discourses and Practices, ed. Miriam R. Lowi and Brian R. Shaw. London: Macmillan.

Flinn, Michael W. 1981. The European Demographic System, 1500–1820. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Garrett, Laurie. 2001. Betrayal of Trust: The Collapse of Global Public Health. New York: Hyperion.

Grigg, David. 1993. The World Food Problem, 2nd edition. Oxford: Blackwell.

Harding, Jeremy. 2000. "The Uninvited." London Review of Books February 3, pp. 3–25.

Hewitt, Paul. 2002. "Managing the Global Aging Transition." Brown Journal of World Affairs 8: 241–249.

Kaplan, Robert. 2000. The Coming Anarchy: Shattering the Dreams of the Post Cold War World. New York: Random House.

Kennedy, Paul. 1986. The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000. New York: Random House.

Knox, Paul, and John Agnew. 1998. The Geography of the World Economy, 3rd edition. London: Edward Arnold.

Loup, Jacques. 1983. Can the Third World Survive? Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

ÓTuathail, Gearoid, and John A. Agnew. 1992. "Geopolitics and Discourse: Practical Geopolitical Reasoning in American Foreign Policy." Political Geography 11: 190–204.

Peterson, Peter G. 1999. Gray Dawn: How the Coming Age Wave Will Transform America and the World. New York: Times Books.

Posth, Martin. 2001. "China's Economic Powerhouse." Internationale Politik, transatlantic edition 3: 47–54.

Scott, Bruce R. 2001. "The Great Divide in the Global Village." Foreign Affairs 80(1): 160–177.

World Bank. 2000/2001. World Development Report: Attacking Poverty. New York: Oxford University Press.

John A. Agnew


views updated Jun 11 2018

ge·o·pol·i·tics / ˌjēōˈpäləˌtiks/ • pl. n. [treated as sing. or pl.] politics, esp. international relations, as influenced by geographical factors. ∎  [treated as sing.] the study of politics of this type.DERIVATIVES: ge·o·po·lit·i·cal / -pəˈlitikəl/·o·po·lit·i·cal·ly / -pəˈlitik(ə)lē/·o·pol·i·ti·cian / -ˌpäləˈtishən/ n.

About this article


All Sources -
Updated Aug 13 2018 About content Print Topic