On May 20th, the International Institute for Peace (IIP) in cooperation with Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen (IWM), Institute for Security Policy (ISP) and the Amsterdam Centre for European Studies (ACES) hosted a conference on Geopolitics with the title: “Contested sovereignties, Contested global orders? On May 20th, the International Institute for Peace (IIP) in cooperation with Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen (IWM), Institute for Security Policy (ISP) and the Amsterdam Centre for European Studies (ACES) hosted a conference on Geopolitics with the title: “Contested sovereignties, Contested global orders? Understanding the new geopolitics of Eurasia”. Numerous experts from a variety of countries and disciplines took part in the discussion approaching the topic from many different points of view. This short contribution is based on the topics discussed.”. Numerous experts from a variety of countries and disciplines took part in the discussion approaching the topic from many different points of view. This short contribution is based on the topics discussed.
Geopolitics as a concept
What does the concept ‘geopolitics’ mean nowadays? Is it still relevant for contemporary international relations theory? Apart from the fact that in some countries, notably Germany, this term has a largely negative connotation, as it is closely associated with the Nazi regime, overall, geopolitics considers ‘territoriality’, it emphasizes that geography significantly shapes international relations. Relatively recent technological developments, enhanced transportation and communication means, and digitalization have to a certain extent diminished the importance of territory in international politics. Also, the influence of trans-national companies has restricted the power of the state – a key, if not the only, actor considered within the geopolitical perspective. Since the end of the Cold War globalization and ‘the end of history’ have dominated the theoretical debate in International Relations. Modern economies are not dependent on territory any longer (such as agricultural or industrial economies were) but more on digital technologies. Nevertheless, the 2014 annexation of Crimea signified that conflicts still arise due to geopolitical reasons. This means that nowadays globalization and geopolitics coexist and are both relevant.
Geopolitics in practice
While the West spoke about the end of history and the victory of a liberal democratic world-order in the 1990s, for Russia, arguably, geopolitics has never lost its relevance as a foreign policy approach. Russia is the biggest country in terms of territory, directly bordering other big players such as China and countries in Central Asia, South-Caucasus and East Europe which share a common history, which goes back to the Russian empire and the Soviet Union. Russia still plays or wants to play a relevant role in these regions. Geography, involving the territorial proximity with competitors and rivals as well as with spaces of historical influence, is something that matters.
These days we can observe a new confrontation between Russia and the West. Sanctions have been imposed on the Russian economy due to the illegal annexation of the Crimea Peninsula. A creative solution to overcome the situation could involve a sub-regional approach, relaunching institutions such as the Baltic Sea Forum. A different super-regional project instead is the Eurasian Union where Russia seeks an effective integration of its former soviet republics. However, the countries in the region have their own traditions and norms, which many times are disregarded by the West. Moscow could play a bridge role adapting western policies into the Eurasian context. Looking to the east, Russia views China ambivalently. On one side, the official rhetoric speaks about the “best relations ever” and Moscow in some respects looks at Beijing as a model for internal political stability. At the same time, China is much stronger in economic terms and poses a threat to Russian security by building up its military structure and deploying intermediate-range missiles.
Geopolitics are present in other regions too. A clear example is the strait of Hormuz, which is located between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman and which is the main route of oil transportation in the Middle East. With the current tensions between the United States and Iran, the latter has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz. Additionally, nearby Iranian and Pakistani ports have become another object of geopolitical competition for the access to the Indian Ocean. The Chabahar port in Iran has been developed with the support of the Indian government, while the construction of the Pakistani port of Gwadar was financed by China. This poses a series of geopolitical issues. Pakistan feels more insecure because of a stronger Indian presence, while the US has already raised concerns about an increased presence of China in the area.
The role of Europe
Where and how does Europe come into this picture? What role can it play in a world where globalisation and geopolitics coexist? If one looks at the current political debate in the US, one can clearly see that Europe plays only a marginal role, unlike under the Obama administration. President Trump’s slogan “America first” is a clear example of this. But in the academic debate this trend has been present already since the end of the Cold War. American scholars viewed the US as a producer and defender of Western values and civilization, while Europeans were considered as followers who missed a strong independent foreign policy and armed forces. The American-European alliance is taken as a given as well as the supremacy of the US in it.
However, the European Union has had different instruments that it used to advance its positions worldwide. They are mostly connected with soft power. In this sense, the EU’s success story of regional integration is the key factor that shaped its image around the world. Th European project is viewed as a model for achieving peace and better living standards on the continent. The EU promotes this model in other regions mainly through trade and development which are the strongest elements of EU foreign policy. They are normally related to integration processes, such as in Africa where the EU is pushing for regional and continental integration processes. While the European model is still considered a valid option for achieving peace and economic prosperity, it starts to be questioned. Internal challenges, such as Brexit and the economic crisis, have possibly damaged credibility of the European model. In addition, EU’s development policy now has to compete with other development models, most notably the Chinese one. A relaunch of the European project is desirable and should be anchored in the fundamental values of multilateralism, interconnectedness, interdependence and institutionalism.