International Relations. Foreign policy. Statesmen and ambassadors. International Organisations. Global society.

All of these are aspects of geopolitics but they don’t quite express the full concept of what, exactly, is meant by that term.

Political scientist Rudolf Kjellén coined that expression early in the 20th Century, applying his notion to alliances during the 1st World War; by the end 2nd World War, everyone was discussing international relations theory.

Still, geopolitics is not a word you hear in everyday conversation; at least not outside of political science circles.

News sources seldom mention it but most outlets discuss geopolitical situations such as instability in the Middle East or unease over Russia in virtually every broadcast.

These are only a couple of aspects of the discipline we call geopolitics; there are others.

In fact, to thoroughly acquaint you with the principles of geopolitics, Superprof dissects the concept to give you a comprehensive look at what geopolitics is and isn’t, what factors come into play and where to look to see geopolitics in action.

What Geopolitics Is

No country is completely closed off from global politics
No country functions in geopolitical isolation; today, all countries enjoy interdependence, no matter how small Image by Elias Sch. from Pixabay

No man is an island – John Donne

This 17th Century poem, espousing the human need for interconnection, could be seen as the basis of geopolitics. It expresses the idea that no single individual, his actions or thoughts, can be separate from greater society.

As for individuals, so too for nations.

Our interconnected world demands interaction between governments, whether they hold similar ideas or not. Out of this need arises a set of protocols predicated on a variety of factors, including:

  • natural resources, including raw goods such as minerals, ores and rare earth metals, as well as coal and petroleum
  • topography: is the land in question easy to live on? Easy to access? Easy to defend? Is there ample water to sustain the population?
  • Population and demography: how many people is that land expected to sustain? What are those people’s religious and dietary requirements? Can they be met?
  • Climate: which foods can grow in which regions? Does the climate pose a significant danger to life or food production?

One aspect of geopolitics we hear quite a bit about is territory.

Last year, the American president broke with decades of diplomatic effort to declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel.

The problem is that at least a portion of that city had previously been promised to the State of Palestine, to say nothing of the fact that Jerusalem holds special significance for all the three of the Abrahamic religions.

You can read more about the implications of this declaration in our companion article covering the geopolitics of the Middle East.

Conversely, an ongoing dispute over waterways is taking place in the South China Seas. Territorial waters is another pertinent feature of geopolitics as it encompasses everything from national security to trade and food supplies.

Whereas it is easy to draw a border on land, it is much more difficult to mark off where a country’s waters end, which can sometimes lead to squabbles.

Obviously, it would be difficult to circumnavigate those waters in an attempt to appease the nation that claims them, a factor that leads political bodies to the negotiation table.

How much power one side or the other exerts over its neighbours and global affairs, and how that power is exerted falls under the header of geopolitics.

Now that we know a bit about what geopolitics covers, let’s look at what it doesn’t.

Did you know that there is a whole other article written about geopolitics in Asia?

What Geopolitics Isn’t

Money makes the world go ‘round – John Kander and Fred Ebb, from Cabaret

There are tons of quotes, such as the one above, about money but, interestingly enough, a country’s economy has little to do with its geopolitical status.

A country’s economy depends on many factors, some of which also determine its geopolitical position and its role in global governance. Human and natural resources top that list.

If there is nothing to work with or, conversely, nobody to perform work, the economy will not grow – and that country will not be able to exert as much political power in the region.

Social and political factors also weigh heavily on a country’s economy.

Not allowing a segment of the population to work and forcing retirement at an age where one could still be productive undercuts the available pool of labour, a condition for which the economy suffers.

The trading of goods is an important part of international relations so, if a country has few goods to trade or cannot afford to trade without tariffs, its geopolitical position would be weaker than nations who do have a strong economy.

One more way that a country’s economy plays a role in geopolitics: being able to provide for her citizens.

Venezuela’s currently destabilised economy is a dramatic example of collapse that drives people to flee to other countries.

We examined the Venezuelan crisis in depth in our article on geopolitics in Latin America.

Such a case would be a perfect set-up for a vicious cycle: people flee to a nation with a stronger economy, which they then contribute to by finding work and paying taxes, making that country’s economy even stronger.

Countries with a strong economy have the ability to build military power which gives them more clout in transnational as well as international affairs.

Still, because a country’s economy is meant to satisfy the needs and desires of that nation’s people, it has no consideration in international politics.

This mock caravan can be found along the historic Silk Route
Today's Belt and Road initiatives is less about political economy than global leadership Image by Konevi from Pixabay

Examples of Geopolitical Initiatives

The simplest definition of geopolitics is political power linked to geographical location.

To give you a good idea of how geopolitics affect countries’ foreign affairs, we put two well-publicised instances of world politics under the microscope.

The rise of China as a world power led to global security concerns; whether they are well-founded remains to be seen.

However, China’s Belt and Road initiative, a plan to connect that Asian superpower with three other continents by land and sea, serves to present China as an arbiter of world peace and security.

The grand strategy behind these multiple infrastructure projects in Europe, Africa and Latin America is to promote trade while advancing China’s diplomacy across the globe.

You can learn more about this ambitious project’s impact from our geopolitics in Africa article.

The intended consequence of this international system is to reconfigure the global balance of power so that that Asian nation may claim a larger share than world powers had previously accorded it.

With China well on its way to becoming a great power, the U.S. senses their global hegemony slipping away.

Uneasy over the subtle shift of power, the Obama Administration announced it’s Pivot to Asia plan, in which meagre peacekeeping forces kept in Asia would be augmented to full military contingents.

This was done in an effort to contain China’s peaceful rise, all while protecting American allies Japan and the Philippines from a possible military threat from their much larger neighbour.

International studies have concluded that the Pivot to Asia initiative did nothing to stop China’s rise as a global power.

However, it did much to reinforce that nation’s grip on the South China Seas, even to the extent that China built military outposts on formerly deserted islands.

Not all geopolitical initiatives have a catchy name.

During the Cold War, containment was the strategy applied to the former Soviet Union to halt the spread of communism. After the fall of that regime, Russia painstakingly rebuilt its infrastructure and reasserted its century-long ties to the Middle East.

Russia’s role as a conflict resolution orchestrator in Syria and Afghanistan has no snappy title, partly because Mr Putin prefers less scrutiny of his global politics.

The other reason is that the Middle East is both strategically and economically important to Russia: it benefits that country to improve relations between themselves and those nations through which their pipelines run.

Discover the many ways those pipelines impact geopolitics in Russia.

Working and studying abroad will be made more difficult after Brexit
What Brexit represents to those who are working or studying abroad is still an open geopolitical question Image by Stux from Pixabay

The Geopolitics of Brexit

Finally, we come close to home!

As you might have learned from this article or from studying geopolitics around the world, virtually everything one people (think 'Jihadist') or government does sends ripples – if not outright shockwaves around the world.

We need only to look at events following the Cold War for proof.

The tension between competing powers (China and the U.S.), the use of force in the Middle East and emerging powers such as Russia, plying heretofore unseen soft power and economic clout in regions traditionally overlooked.

All of this competition is taking place against a backdrop of rising nationalism.

Over the last decade, shifts in power and international development have clashed against international security concerns, causing foreign relations to deteriorate... or, at least, cloak themselves in mistrust.

Sometimes, it is just best to pull back, right? Take oneself out of the fray and reassess where priorities lie for that country and that population.

Three years ago, our country put that question to its citizens: would our interests be better served remaining in the European Union or would we fare better without?

Whether we like our Brexit hard or soft, leaving the European Union is already causing substantial geopolitical concerns.

Those great powers, Germany and France, have a strong influence in Brussels; our most advantageous exit may depend on how favourably they see our role in international institutions and how generous they are in their trade agreements.

No man is an island; neither is any nation-state.

Barring the fact that our country is indeed an island, we will nevertheless have to find our place in today’s world order once we are no longer a part of Europe.

That is going to take a lot of studying global trends and rethinking our position. Which countries would work best with our international policy? Once separated from Europe, where would our rivalries lie?

To understand our position better, we really need to delve deeply into the geopolitics of Europe.

For further reading on the topics presented in this article, you may enjoy these pages:

TopicWeb Address
Pivot to Asia
The Belt and Road Initiative
Geopolitical maps

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A vagabond traveler whose first love is the written word, I advocate for continuous learning, cycling, and the joy only a beloved pet can bring. There is plenty else I am passionate about, but those three should do it, for now.