"Renaissance Thinking About the Issues of Our Day"
I am always flattered when a scholar finds my area of expertise, international relations, more interesting than her own. I strongly champion interdisciplinary approaches to important research questions, but "interdisciplinary" does not mean abandoning the tenants of one's field for those of another. A case in point is Colin Flint's Introduction to Geopolitics 2nd. (Routledge, 2001).
Flint's work is an exemplar of what has come to be called by some "critical geography," in contradistinction to "classical geopolitics" and "feminist geopolitics." Flint purports to "challenge" the former and "engage" the latter, portraying "classical geopolitics" as "white, male, elite, and Western situated knowledge." "Feminist geopolitics," by comparison, avoids the "binary" categories that plague "classical geopolitics," and elaborates instead upon the "complexity of people's positions and the connectivity between people and places." While the works of classical geopolitical scholars like Mackinder, Mahan, and Haushofer were intended to inform and guide the ambitions of white, Western imperialists, including and especially Hitler's Nazis, critical and feminist geopolitical scholars seek to promote "interpretations of world events that are counter to dominant government and media representations" and to encourage "practices by individuals, groups of citizens, indigenous people, etc., to resist the control and classification imposed by states and other power institutions, such as the World Bank." In short, "critical geopolitics" as practiced by Flint applies the insights and criticisms of "post-modern, social constructivist" works to the field of international relations. Geography as such is relegated to an artifact of power politics and the various social constructions created and used by dominant social forces to perpetuate the domination and exploitation of subordinate social entities.
Applying social science to particular political agendas, whether Mackinder's imperialism or Flint's anti-imperialism, does not necessarily render the fruits of an academic enterprise wrong. There is much to admire about Flint's approach and I am personally inclined to share his opinions. The post-Westphalian, territorial, sovereign state is unquestionably a social construction located within a specific historical context. World political authority has not always been structured thusly and there is no reason to assume that it will always be organized as such. The extent to which the current organization of world political authority fails to protect nations, groups, and individuals is a legitimate concern and a damning criticism of the system of nation-states. There are other, more equitable ways by which to imagine the organization of political authority on planet Earth, and the future viability of the human race may well depend upon the timely elaboration of alternatives.
My criticism of Flint lies not in his contribution to international relations theory but rather the virtual absence of geographic analysis in his book. He describes his field as a part of "human geography," which I suppose is different from "physical geography." Flint does not carefully distinguish "geopolitics" from "political geography." Just as Political Scientists famously "put the state back in" their theories, perhaps it is time for Human Geographers to "put geography back" into theirs.
Consider, for instance, Flint's key concepts of "place" in terms of "location," "locale," and "sense of place." Here, location means "function," locale means "institutions," and sense of place means "identity." Other, traditional geographic concepts like resource endowment, climate, natural obstacles, transportation and communication corridors, population distribution, neighbors, isolation, and agricultural and industrial capacity receive short shrift from Flint, and then in only the most abstract fashion. Flint connects deserts, mountains, forests, plains, headwaters, watersheds, lakes, oceans, and sheltered harbors with neither function nor identity, although common sense and the historical works of the ages tell us differently.
Like other social constructivists, Flint grapples with the relationship between "structure" and "agency." Tellingly, Flint's definition of "structure" includes "rules and norms" but not geography. For Flint, a "country's code" is more determinative of its foreign policy than its geography. These codes include "calculations" about one's actual or potential allies/enemies. The extent of an enemy's threat or the value of an ally's help, however, is unrelated to its distance from or proximity to the country in question, in Flint's analysis. Michael Doyle and others have argued convincingly that distance matters in the calculations of a country's situation, notwithstanding the advent of intercontinental ballistic missiles and thermonuclear weapons.
I also question Flint's methodology when it comes to determining a country's "code." For this Flint relies on the official documents and policy statements of prominent intellectuals and statesmen. George Kennan's "X" article and Paul Nitze's "NSC-68" along with the writings of Mackinder and Mahan are illustrative here. Irrespective of whether these works are definitive with respect to the "American code," and the work of Morton Halperin, Graham Allison, and others should counsel caution, Flint proceeds to explain the "codes" of Russia, India, and China without citing any authoritative documents whatsoever. Flint includes non-state actors as important "agents" in geopolitics without suggesting what "code" may be animating those actors, if any. The United States has articulated a code with respect to Al Qaeda, but what is Al Qaeda's geopolitical code, if any? Is Al Qaeda's code morally superior to that of the United States because the Islamist group resists the domination of "white, male, elite, and Western situated" oppressors? Those who, like Prof. Flint, explicitly make normative evaluations an essential part of their scholarship owe their readers an answer to the tough questions along with the easy ones.
Explaining state behavior is difficult but divining the intentions, motivations and "codes" of foreign policy-makers is even more difficult, if possible at all. How reliable are public justifications and rationalizations as actual explanations for foreign policy actions? Allen Dulles taught us the meaning of "plausible deniability" while Robert Merton explained the notion of "unintended consequences." Deceit and mendacity seem integral to politics whether in the family, the workplace, or international affairs. Machiavelli instructs the Prince to have no concern about lying if "without which the preservation of his state would be difficult." Donald Rumsfeld reminds us that, in addition to "known knowns" and "known unknowns," there are also "unknown unknowns."
My international relations students have a poor understanding of geography and its relationship to world politics. Not only can they not distinguish the Baltics from the Balkans, but they do not understand the critical importance of the Øresund Strait to the states of the Baltic Basin or the Dalmatian Coast to the Balkans. The Rhine, the Caribbean, and the Sea of Japan have important implications for international relations; without understanding those implications, students have a hard time understanding the origins of World War I, the Cuban Missile Crisis, or the Korean War. If, like me, the Reader seeks a good introductory text concerning geopolitics, Flint's work is not the place to start.