A Brief on Geopolitical Theory

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Geopolitical theory came into literature as a sub-discipline of geography during 19th to 20th century. The term ‘geopolitics’ was formerly invented by a political scientist from Sweden named Rudolf Kjellén, where he had mentioned ‘geopolitik’ in his book called Der Staat als Lebensform in 1917. The term ‘geopolitics’ in his idea was the problems and circumstances within a state that arise from its geographic features and the geographical influence on the behaviour of states. Therefore, geopolitics is simply a combination of the word geography and politics. The idea had then significantly spread throughout Europe during the period between World War I and World War II before it was accepted worldwide[1]. According to Geoffrey Sloan:

“Geopolitics provides practical guidance whenever a policymaker seeks to alter the political, economic, and/or military terrain in favour of his or her nation-state by deploying military force or economic leverage, engaging in intelligence, chicanery and diplomacy, and securing new alliances.”[2]

The important elements of the Geopolitical Theory.

The theory of geopolitics is categorized into two, “classical geopolitics” and “critical geopolitics”. Classical geopolitics was the product of imperialism and colonialism in the 1880s. Before Kjellén introduced the term geopolitics, a German writer named, Friedrich Ratzel introduced the term ‘Lebensraum’, meaning living space, where he connected the interrelationship between state, culture, and environment. Ratzel argued that to secure the survival of nation-state, Germany needs to strive to secure additional land (space) and resources which is deemed to be scarce. This is to say that it was rationale for the expansion of power to occur over conquered land in the name of Germany’s survival.[3] Classical geopolitics examined and justified the importance of state’s colonization, exploration, hegemony, and the used of military force for territorial control (space). Meanwhile, neo-classical geopolitics view the world from a realist point of view that based on the balance of power and geographical factor as the basis.

On the other hand, critical geopolitics carries another perspective of geopolitics that differs from classical geopolitics. In fact, it somewhat opposed the justification of classical geopolitics on power expansion using force. Instead, critical geopolitics examines the geographical assumptions that shapes the making of world politics pervasively. Critical geopolitics had also derived from knowledge and power theory by Michael Foucault as it became a useful discourse to study. According to Gerard Toal, critical geopolitics can be understood as “the idea that intellectuals of statecraft construct ideas about geographical circumstances and places that influenced the political behaviour and policy choices, and these ideas affect how we, the people, process our own notions of places and politics”.[4]

Lassi Heininen-Differences between ’Classical’ and ’Critical’ Geopolitics

The geopolitical theory developed in two phases, called as “early naturalism” and “global geopolitics”[5]. Early naturalism is the period where the naturalist arguments regarding security-political effect of geography by the famous figure like Aristotle (384-322 BC) and Montesquieu (1689-1745) begun. Whereas the global geopolitics is the emergence of geopolitical literature by prominent figure like Alfred Thayer Mahan, Halford Mackinder, Nicholas J. Spykman, Friedrich Ratzel and Karl Hausehofer in the 19th and 20th centuries. These geopolitical thinkers had developed the idea of geopolitics according to the technological advancement and the concept of global power that existed during that period of time and eventually become a relevant idea until this present day. The strong correlation between technology and global power of geopolitics that we understood today was the result of the industrial revolution interactions with the geographical factors of states in the past.

British imperialism was heavily influenced by Halford Mackinder theory of Heartland that stated, “who rules the East Europe commands the Heartland; who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; who rules the World-Island commands the World.” Mackinder expanded the scope of geopolitics with his Heartland theory by examining the interaction between geostrategy, geotechnology and geoeconomics. The idea was inspired by the Russian power expansion using the railways constructions (geotechnology) as a mobile land power to advance and mobilize their army to exploit resources (geostrategic) on the conquered land for Russia’s economic purposes (geoeconomics). It was also driven by the concept of geographic determinism that believed space is considered as scarce and a contested source.

Then came the idea of “sea power” by Alfred Thayer Mahan in 1890, where he wrote a book titled “The Influence of Sea Power”. In that book he emphasized the need to invest on modern fleets or known as navy this day (geotechnology) and to increase the training of crews. He also mentioned that states should developed the strategies to target enemy’s shipping to gain more advantage in sea power (geostrategy). He believed that with more fleet or navy technological development and well-constructed tactical plan, a state will be able to control the chokepoints through which the enemy’s trade flows (geoeconomics), hence that is how a state can gain more sea power and be at advantage.

After the end of cold war, geopolitics was rediscovered by a scholar named Nicholas J. Spykman. He suggested that state needs to develop grand strategy for both war and peace time according to their geographic location in the world because geography is a permanent factor for state. He established the theory of Rimland which derived from both Mackinder and Mahan theories. His famous dictum was, “whoever controls the Rimland controls Eurasia, who controls Eurasia control the destinies of the world”.


The combinations of these three prominent geopolitical theories can be fathomed better with world map. Geopolitical theory can help explain the phenomenon of shift of global power from the past to the present. For example, the rise of British Empire was heavily contributed by its navy sea power, but it falls due to the lack of land power and its failure to conquer (or to win against) the heartland nor the rimland power. Another example was the rise of United States as the unipolar power after the end of cold war. Geopolitical theorist sees that the rise of United States as global power was mainly due to its significant amount possessions of all the elements of land and sea power, as well as the air power (Giulio Douhet’s air power strategy) to control the heartland and the rimland even without conquering them. United States global power consist of strong geostrategy, geotechnology and geoeconomics that contributes to its success in geopolitics.     

Critique on Geopolitical Theory

There are reasons why geopolitical theory did not gain much popularity among scholars, political scientist, and realist in international relations, in compare to the realism, Marxism and liberalism theory. The main critique is because geopolitics fails to produce a profound and significant scholarly work. To be precise, Christopher Fettweis argues that “geopolitics suffers from major descriptive, prescriptive and predictive deficiencies.”[6] He further elaborated his argument by saying that geopolitics did not describe the way the world works, fails to provide policymakers with advice on how to progress and also fail to further extend the explanation into the future.  In another argument, Albert and Reuber stated that more work needs to be done to enlighten the diversity of geopolitical arguments in different countries and in different spheres of social life, because it was heavily constructed on the European and the Western geopolitical region.

The second critique on geopolitics is on its strong association with imperialism and colonialism. Classical geopolitics that was introduced by Friedrich Ratzel and Rudolf Kjellén was heavily practised by the German during the imperial era to the extent that the Lebensraum was set as the political goal for Germany. After the end of world wars, people assumed and perceived the geopolitical theory as favouring imperialism, colonialism, and supporting the ideology of the Nazis expansionism for its justification. One geopolitical critique believed that German geopolitics was the key to Hitler’s global mind that drives his catastrophic political ambitions in WWII. As a result, geopolitical theory was shunned by many after the trauma of world wars the ideology had (accused to be) caused. In another argument, classical geopolitics was criticized for its zero-sum nature, where the theory was made not to coexist but rather to dominate and to conquer others. Other than that, classical geopolitics was also criticized for its false/fails prediction that Russia or Germany will become the global power for their geopolitical advantages and spatiality in the heartland and rimland region. In reality, it was the United States that became the global power without even having to conquer the Heartland or the Rimland as the theory had suggested.

Third, geopolitics was widely criticized by many social sciences’ scholars for not being a pure science. Unlike other theories, critical geopolitics do not employ the scientific methods in its study. People are confused whether geopolitics is a science or an ideology. For examples, instead of providing casualties, geopolitics gives justification on foreign policy of the state. Geopolitics also received pressure from other mainstream IR approaches that have more solidified foundations and far more influential than geopolitics. Another interesting argument that was brought about by Ian Klinke was that critical geopolitics is not a development or an add-on to the classical geopolitics, rather it was an alternative to it. According to Klinke, critical geopolitics:

“Rejects the causal relationship classical geopolitics detects between geographic space and global politics, questions the rigid boundaries the latter draws between essentialised territorial identities, problematises the supposedly objective yet thoroughly political perspective classical geopolitics offers and exhibits the connections between geopolitical thought, the structures of the modern state and the waging of war.”[7]

Geopolitical Theory in the field of Security Studies.

Despite the heavy critiques on geopolitical theory by realist, political scientist, and social science scholars, geopolitics still remains relevant in the field of international relations, particularly in the security studies. As I discussed in the earliest part of this writing, geopolitics came into literature by the naturalist arguments regarding security-political effect of geography. Even though geography is regards as permanent factor in the study, the geopolitical factors are meanwhile variable, changeable, and unpredictable in nature. As the geopolitics foundation believe that geography plays vital role in state’s behaviour and foreign policy, geopolitics also influenced and shaped security studies as one of its main elements.

 In the history of geopolitics, the theory itself was flourished during the peak time of security conflict which was during the WWI and was practised by Germany in the WWII. Geopolitical study in that time was deeply concern on security of state against rising in Europe and as mentioned earlier, Ratzel argued that Germany needs to strive to secure additional land (space) and resources to secure the survival of its nation-state. This shows that geopolitical approach was initially constructed due to the insecurity and the threat existed in the European region at that time. Many geopolitical scholars state that the geopolitical literature begun as an explicitly strategic analysis strongly linked with foreign and security policies of the states.

According to Coleman (2007), “the enactments of state interest (security) and identity are therefore among the key themes of critical geopolitics.”[8] This is to say how profound is security study in the geopolitical discourse beginning from the past, in the present and in the future. Dalby (2002) and few other scholars also agreed that,

Geographers were latecomers to the critical study of security, but there are now a number of specifically geographic studies on the processes of securitization. They flesh out the inherent spatiality of these processes – the ways in which practices of securitization necessarily locate security and danger.

One of the modern interesting discussion of geopolitics today is on the geopolitics of the Artic. The geographical landscape of the Artic had tremendously impacted by the result of climate change. It is one of the most isolated region in the map that have almost nothing but solid ice and freezing sea water. According to environmentalist, the heavy impact of climate change over the next decades will change the geographical structure of the region and will make the Artic passages and resources become more accessible. As the abundance of resources and essential trade routes will become accessible, scholars believe that the Artic will become a new geopolitical hot spot. Geopolitical theorize that when geographic conditions of the Artic change, the national interest of the states in the region will also shift.

Aisyah Hadi is a Political Science degree holder from International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM). Currently pursuing her study in Master of Strategic and Defense Studies in Universiti Malaya (UM).


[1] https://www.britannica.com/topic/geopolitics

[2] Sloan, Geoffrey. (2017). Geopolitics, Geography and Strategic History. 10.4324/9780203489482.

[3] Friedrich Ratzel, Politische Geographie (München: Oldenbourg, 1897).

[4] Ó Tuathail, G. (1996) Critical Geopolitics: The Politics of Writing Global Space (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press)

[5] http://www.unice.fr/crookall-cours/iup_geopoli/docs/geo-geopolitics-as-theory-ejir-deudney.pdf

[6] https://www.classicsofstrategy.com/2015/03/a-critique-of-classical-geopolitics-christopher-j-fettweis.html

[7] Ian Klinke https://exploringgeopolitics.org/publication_klinke_ian_five_minutes_for_critical_geopolitics_a_slightly_provocative_introduction/

[8] Coleman, M. A Geopolitics of Engagement: Neoliberalism, the War on Terrorism, and the Reconfiguration of US Immigration Enforcement. Geopolitics 12, 607–34. 2007

[9] Njord Wegge & Kathrin Keil. Between classical and critical geopolitics in a changing Arctic, Polar Geography. 2018

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Ajar Demokrasi editorial stance.

Aisyah Hadi

Aisyah Hadi

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