Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Concept of Eurasia - Part I

The concept of “Eurasia” illustrates well the problematic nature of geopolitics. “Eurasia” is one of the most important geopolitical concepts; as Zbigniew Brzezinski said, “ever since the continents started interacting politically, some five hundred years ago, Eurasia has been the center of world power.”[1] “Eurasia” encapsulates the problematic aspects of geopolitics, starting with semantics. Indeed, it is a portmanteau word with a slightly artificial ring to it, somewhat clumsily combining the words “Europe” and “Asia.” It is thus a typical geopolitical term; i.e. one whose different definitions reflect nations' different geopolitical interests. 

Originally, “Eurasia” is a geographical notion: in this sense, it is simply the biggest continent; the combined landmass of Europe and Asia. However, geopolitically, the word has several different meanings, reflecting the specific geopolitical interests of each nation. In the widest possible sense, the geopolitical definition of “Eurasia” is consistent with its geographical area. This is sometimes the way the word is understood in countries located at the fringes of, or outside, this area. This is generally what is meant by “Eurasia” in political circles in the USA, Japan and India.[2] Two other, narrower definitions of “Eurasia” are also worth noting: the European one and the Russian one.

When Western European political scientists talk about “Eurasia”, they generally mean Russia integrated into Europe (including Ukraine of course), economically, politically, and even militarily. At least since Napoleon, if not since Peter the Great, European strategists have understood the importance of allying with Russia, and the potential consequences of failing to do so. However, the current European view of “Eurasia” is, for obvious reasons, a far more recent concept, having emerged only in the last two decades, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Incidentally, this political entity is about half the size, and has only 15% of the population, of the geographical “Eurasia.” Two observations are necessary with respect to what is assumed to be “Europe.” Firstly, in this case, “Europe” is seen as a single economic and political entity; i.e. the European Union.[3] Further, in this context of “Eurasia,” Europe” primarily means Germany. Not only has Germany emerged as the de facto leader of Europe both economically and politically after the recent financial crisis, but it also has deeper historical ties with Russia than most other nations of the European Union. It also has a stronger geopolitical interest in a political and economic integration with Russia, than the rest of the EU.[4]

Therefore, from this Western European perspective, “Eurasia” means specifically the idea of Russia's close integration with the European Union in general and with Germany in particular (not the other way around, of course). What would this European concept of “Eurasia” mean in practice? As always, integration between nations can take place in several ways; economically, politically, militarily, and even culturally. “Eurasia” would mean at least the following, from a European point of view: at an economic level, the signing of trade agreements removing trade barriers and lowering tariffs as well as removing legal and bureaucratic hurdles to European investment in Russia; at a political level, an agreement of a EU integration model for Ukraine that is acceptable to Russia, the reduction of Russian border controls and Russian visa restrictions between the two entities, and increasing institutional collaboration; and at a military level, closer Russian alignment with the European Common Security and Defence Policy as well as, inevitably, NATO, as well as some coordination between security and military forces, and a substantial increase in procurement of European weapons by the Russian armed forces.[5] Most of these cooperation areas are already included in the concept of “Four Common Spaces” which was established in 2003 between the EU and Russia, but funded by the former.[6] 

Europe's geopolitical interest in “Eurasia”, as understood by European policy-makers, is clear and the would-be advantages for Europe are well known.[7] However, though Russia would make some gains in the long term from such an integration with Europe, Russia's geopolitical interests are clearly not complementary with the European version of “Eurasia.”[8] As one of the few independent nations of the world, Russia insists on establishing relations with Europe, “on a basis of equality and mutual benefit.”[9] This is something that Europe neither has the interest, nor the obligation, to accept. Not surprisingly, and often to the frustration of European policy-makers, naturally interested in pushing their own agenda of further integration, Russia has different geopolitical interests, as becomes clear from the Russian definition of “Eurasia.” 

The Russian concept of “Eurasia” is very different from the European one. It is a view that has older roots than the European one - not surprisingly, considering Russia's geographic position. Russian politologists traditionally view Russia itself, being both European and Asian, as “Eurasian.” The geopolitical area of the Russian concept of “Eurasia” corresponded initially more or less to the land area of Imperial Russia in 1914, including parts of Eastern Europe.[10] There is undeniably an influence of Panslavism in this definition; originally the idea of “Eurasia” was more romantically rooted in natural geography. It was the idea that the people scattered across the land called “Eurasia” shared common spiritual values due to its geographic traits, such as a flat land with few coastlines but important rivers, a particular climate (continental, often harshly so), and a certain flora (steppe, taiga, tundra). This idea had more or less been realised, but with difficulty, during the last phases of the Russian Empire and was then realised again with the Soviet Union after 1945, though not stably enough for enduring success.

Today, though this Russian geopolitical interest still exists, a more realistic assessment has been made. The physical area of the Russian “Eurasia” is now more realistically assessed. The Russian view today is that “Eurasia” consists of the land lying between Europe and Asia proper; namely, those made up of Western and Central Russia, Ukraine, part of Caucasus, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan.[11] Just as in the case of the European concept of “Eurasia,” the Russian version of “Eurasia” is a geopolitical interest that underpins foreign policy in that part of the world. Thus, it is not surprising that today one of Russia's main geopolitical interests lies in ever closer integration with those countries that it considers part of “Eurasia.”

This review of the main definitions of the concept of “Eurasia” clearly bring forth the many different geopolitical interests with regard to this part of the world. The next post will treat the concept of “Eurasia” by looking at the important tactical aspect of geopolitics; namely the question of the realisation of the concept of “Eurasia.”


[1] Z. Brzezinski, highly influential National Security Adviser under US President Jimmy Carter. The quote is from his book “The Grand Chessboard” (Basic Books), p. xiii. Further: “A power that dominates “Eurasia” would control two of the world’s three most advanced and economically productive regions. A mere glance at the map also suggests that control over “Eurasia” would almost automatically entail Africa’s subordination, rendering the Western Hemisphere and Oceania geopolitically peripheral to the world’s central continent. About 75 per cent of the world’s people live in “Eurasia”, and most of the world’s physical wealth is there as well, both in its enterprises and underneath its soil. “Eurasia” accounts for about three-fourths of the world’s known energy resources.” (p.31) 

[2] For instance, this is the way Zbigniew Brzezinski sees ”Eurasia”, naturally taking the US position. 

[3] Indeed, both Ukraine and Turkey have their own very specific historical, economic, and geopolitical relationship with Russia. And as for “Europe” meaning the EU in this case, this is not to say that the EU is not still quite far from being such a “single economic and political entity.” 

[4] This is all the more true today since Germany in the financial crisis has further increased its economic and political domination of the European Union. At the same time, the British are probably distancing themselves from the EU, if not de jure yet, at least rhetorically, and France has deep structural problems of its own, preventing it from driving the EU project together with Germany like it has in the past. Germany export-oriented industry is perfectly suited to address the Russian market, and at the same time it needs Russia's resources. Further, Germany has already got the most developed economic ties with Russia of any major nation. 

[5] Russia has recently bought French war ships. See RIA Novosti “France Floats Out First Russian Mistral”, Oct 15, 2013 (en.ria.ru/trend/warship_01102009/) 

[6] At the St. Petersburg Summit in May 2003, the EU and Russia agreed to reinforce their co-operation by creating, in the long term, four common spaces in the framework of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement of 1997: a common economic space; a common space of freedom, security and justice; a space of co-operation in the field of external security; and a space of research, education, and cultural exchange. 

[7] Main advantages: The wealthy but struggling economies of the European Union could certainly benefit from tighter integration with the Russian economy for the resources the latter has to offer. These include both the human and natural resources of Russia. There is an obvious interest in getting close access to a large, low-wage and relatively well-educated population. It would bring energy security to Europe by removing once and for all the political and bureaucratic obstacles to the cheap and joint use of Russia's rich natural resources (gas and oil, but not only). Economically, the realisation of this concept of “Eurasia” would mean that European companies would gain direct access to the huge investment needs of Russian society. From a military perspective, a closer collaboration with Russia would add precisely the element of hard” power that Europe lacks in order to fulfil its geopolitical interest of dominating the world once again. It would also close once and for all the security issue that Europe perceives in having an independent Russia so close to its eastern borders, as the adherence to NATO of many Eastern European countries show. 

[8] See for instance, the following information about EU/Russian trade. Russia EU trade, at: russianmission.eu/en/trade 

[9] See quotation from Mr. Lavrov, Russia Foreign Minister, at: russianmission.eu/en/brief-overview-relations 

[10] This Russian concept of “Eurasia” can trace its origin to certain Russian émigrés in the 1920s Berlin, Prague and Sofia. For more details regarding the entire paragraph above, see История евразийского движения, at: www.gumer.info/bibliotek_Buks/Polit/nart/04.php 

[11] See for instance, this interesting discussion of the Russian view of “Eurasia.” Article by Dmitry Trenin, VPK daily, 29th January 2013, at : rbth.co.uk/opinion/2013/01/29/revising_the_concept_of_“Eurasia”_22305.html 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Problematic Nature of Geopolitics - part IV

In the previous posts, two essential though often overlooked aspects of geopolitics have been presented. These two important distinctions – between geopolitical interests and the realisation of these interests, and between the interests of the state and the interests of the people – are rarely taken into account in geopolitical discourse. From the point of view of the general public, which should always be the reference in a representative system, geopolitics is not only incomplete but also morally ambiguous without these two distinctions. Only by taking them into account can geopolitics be seen in the right light.

The first of these distinctions makes it evident what should be the focus of geopolitical studies: it is the realisation, or attempts at realisation, of geopolitical interests that should be monitored, analysed, and lauded or criticised, as the case may be. Geopolitics should therefore be more practical than theoretical in its approach. What should be of critical importance to the people are not the geopolitical interests of the state as such, though they should be more widely known, but the waste of public resources – human, financial, material – for the realisation of geopolitical interests that are not shared by the public.

The second of these distinctions goes even further in this direction; for it naturally raises the question of the moral position that should be adopted by the expert in geopolitics. Should he support the realisation of geopolitical interests of the state he serves, directly or indirectly, even though he knows, or should know, that they are not only not in the interest of the people, but actually contrary to the interest of the people? In a democracy, the answer should be obvious. Perhaps subjects like ethics and political philosophy should become a more important part of the curriculum of students in geopolitics. Optimally, a different type of education in geopolitics could even be undertaken along these lines, by independent seats of learning.

When these two distinctions are considered together, it becomes clear that geopolitics is fundamentally incompatible with democracy. For every nation that is looking to realise its geopolitical interests, a people is not democratically represented. In a truly democratic system, in which the interests of the people reign supreme, only geopolitical interests of a lower level would be realised. The states of such nations would then realise only the fundamental geopolitical interests of security and defence, leaving the rest of their geopolitical interests unfulfilled. More space would then be created between nations, both physically and politically, which would not be occupied or controlled by any nation in particular (but for instance by independent organisations or a community of nations, such as a reformed United Nations). In such a world, all other interests would be commercial interests, which national governments would not need to get involved with, and which would be managed internationally between individuals, corporations and international organisations.

Individuals often have conflicts of interests, but in a environment of rule of law they have shown that they are able to resolve them consensually, at the negotiating table. For nations, a system of rule of law – i.e. blind and enforced – may not become reality even in the long term. Geopolitical conflicts will thus continue to simmer around the world, until they are settled by coercive methods rather than by consensual ones. The complete acceptance by the public itself of the current geopolitical language is a sign that geopolitics will likely continue to dominate international relations for the foreseeable future.

Nevertheless, the nations of the world have been slowly surrendering sovereignty in the current international context. Not only are geopolitical interests progressively losing in importance, but nations are also having more difficulties than before to realise them. Though this may not directly give more power to the people over international affairs, it still represents a small step towards a more democratic world.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Problematic Nature of Geopolitics - Part III

Government can never be fully representative, even in an ideal democracy. Yet, though no government can possibly represent all interests of all people, in a democracy the government's interests are the people's interests (or at least of the majority that elected it). One of the reasons modern nations should not be called “democratic” is that their governments have many interests which are not the interests of the people.[1] Geopolitical interests are a good example of such government interests that are not shared by the people.

There is an obvious reason for this misalignment of geopolitical interests between the state and the people. Nations, as opposed to individuals, are defined by territorial boundaries and geographic characteristics, which the governments of these nations use to project power internationally. Since this is not the case for individuals, the people cannot possibly have “geopolitical” interests. By definition, therefore, geopolitical interests and the intricate question of their realisation are of concern to the state, not to the people. Thus, geopolitics is, by its very nature, a fundamentally undemocratic activity, conducted specifically by the state, in contradiction with the principles of representative government.[2]

There is, however, one exception to this rule: geopolitical interests of the lowest order, i.e. those related to the defence of the nation, are shared by the people. The people has the same interest as their government in realising such primary geopolitical interests; they seek security and protection, which, not coincidentally, was the original and only function of the early state. The monopoly of physical force is arguably the only monopoly that cannot be avoided in society; therefore, the provision of security and protection of the people is the only legitimate function of the state.[3] Other geopolitical interests, i.e. those of a higher order, are not shared by the people; their realisation by the state cannot therefore be legitimate.[4] This reasoning is in line with the principles of the Charter of United Nations, which states that military force can only be used by a nation in order to exercise the right of defending itself against foreign aggression.[5] 

Many modern nations only realise primary geopolitical interests, though not because they are committed to conducting an ethical foreign policy, but because they are unable to realise interests of a higher order. In theory of course, the divergence of interests between the state and the people then still exists, but it is not apparent in practice. Therefore, such nations have foreign policies that generally represent well the public interest in this regard. Because they are more constrained, the smaller and less powerful nations of the world, such as Austria, Sweden or Switzerland, are in this regard more democratic than the bigger and more powerful nations. The latter nations, such as the US, the UK or France, who often realise (or attempt to realise) interests of a higher order, therefore lead a foreign policy that is in conflict with the public interest. As Brzezinski put it, “democracy is inimical to imperial mobilization”.[6] 

The example of the US may briefly illustrate this point. The United States has set up a huge military-industrial complex and hundreds of military bases around the world in order to realise its highest geopolitical interests. It is doubtful, to say the least, whether these efforts of the US government are at all beneficial to the US people. Any benefit to the US people of this enormous military and surveillance bureaucracy is marginal and indirect at best.[7] On the contrary, there are many ways in which the foreign policy conducted by the US government is antagonistic to the interest of the US people.[8] As mentioned above, the same reasoning is valid for other nations, albeit in more subtle forms since they are geopolitically more constrained. 

Despite this bleak reality, and though the public often shows a certain healthy distrust of government, there is still an implicit assumption that the people shares the state's geopolitical interests. As was seen above, this is not the case, and even the language of geopolitics confirms this. Indeed, semantically, there is no question that geopolitics belongs to the realm of the state alone. For example, terms also used in this essay, such asnation,” “Europe,” and “Russia,” refer in geopolitics to the governing body of the particular society. Thus, by “the nation” is generally implied the state” or “the government;” but certainly not “the people.” By the words “Russia” and “Europe” is usually meant, respectively, “the Russian government” and “the European Commission and the national governments in Berlin, London and Paris.” In a geopolitical context, these terms certainly do not mean the “Russian people” and “the peoples of Europe.” This is also clear from the fact that in foreign policy the names of the capitals, e.g. “Washington” and “Moscow”, can be used interchangeably with the names of the nations, United States” and “Russia,” to mean the governments of these countries. To take another example, the national interestdoes not mean the “public interest”; it is largely used as a euphemism for “the interest of the state (specifically the three branches of government and certain parts of the state bureaucracy) and the interest of the leaders and largest shareholders of the country's most powerful corporations.” The same is valid with many other terms that are commonly used in geopolitical discourse.

Since the public also uses these words with the meanings presented above, it implicitly and often unwittingly accepts that they have no say in the foreign policy of their governments because they do not share the geopolitical interests of the state. However, the ruling parts of society are undoubtedly aware that their geopolitical interests are not shared by the people. Those who serve the state at the highest levels rely on a number of methods in order to maintain this inherently undemocratic status quo. The best way is simply to make use of the weaknesses of human nature. A general inclination for conservatism and tradition can be relied upon for the public's support of the established political system, simply because it is the existing system; the one with which the people is familiar.

Additionally, a quite natural sense of patriotism is also very useful in order to align the interests of the people with the interests of the state. Patriotism is often encouraged by the government and the military in order to gain the support of the people for the realisation of the “nation's geopolitical interests (e.g. what is called in the US torally 'round the flag”). It is no coincidence that patriotic feeling is so strong in the United States, the country whose state has gone farthest in the realisation of its geopolitical interests. Indeed, in the US patriotic fervour is often whipped up when needed. Patriotism can then take extreme proportions: not displaying the correct patriotic feelings (e.g. “Support our troops!”) and the correct patriotic attire (e.g. the flag pin on the lapel or on the porch), can at times have social consequences, such as being frozen out of the community, being passed over for promotion, etc.[10] 

There is, therefore, usually little need for the government to communicate and explain much to the public about its foreign policy plans.[11] Indeed, geopolitical discussions are almost always held by politicians and high officials behind closed doors, keeping the involvement and consent of the people to a minimum. (For instance, this is the case with the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations.[12]) When it is impossible to be completely silent about the realisation of geopolitical interests, the docile mainstream media can be relied up to manage the information flow in the interest of the state. Indeed, it is generally difficult to find any serious and objective geopolitical analyses in the mainstream media.[13] The role of the mainstream media is also important in making sure the “right” geopolitical semantics is maintained. Geopolitical terms must continuously imply that the state is alone responsible for geopolitics, and that the people should not get involved because they do not understand it. Of course, the emergence of the Internet has weakened a little the effect of this kind of media control of the public. This is the reason the internet is perceived by the political and military establishment as a threat, and why many attempts to monitor and control it, technically and legally, are being undertaken by governments in a number of countries, as recent disclosures have shown.[14] Before the existence of the Internet, the only way for the layman to learn about the geopolitical interests of hisnation” and get a glimpse of what his government was doing to realise them, was to read specialised foreign policy magazines that most people hardly knew existed (and if they did, they did not have easy access to them).

To the annoyance of the state, sometimes none of the above methods work as hoped. Sometimes the people anyway opposes the realisation by the state of certain geopolitical interests, both military and commercial.[15] The state then usually tries to realise them anyway, by simply ignoring public opinion and relying on clever communication.[16] This has often worked reasonably well, not least since public opposition usually is only temporary; in the long term, it is often possible for the government to count on a high level of indifference among the people towards question of geopolitics and foreign policy. Again, this public indifference is not particularly surprising, since geopolitical interests are not shared by the people.


[1] There are other reasons for not called modern nations “democratic”, but they are not connected with geopolitics and can therefore not be brought up here. 

[2] Geopolitical interests are of course not the only interests that drive a nation's policy. Its geopolitical interests are an important subset of many national interests upon which the policies of its government are based. 

[3] This is the concept of the state as “Night-watchman”. See for instance the thoughts of Frédéric Bastiat (e.g. “Avis à la jeunesse”, 1830), and for a more recent thinker, Robert Nozick (in “Anarchy, State and Utopia”, from 1974). 

[4] This can also be seen in the often cited argument for US foreign interventions: what is invoked is the “threat to national security”. This is an implicit admission that this is precisely what the people are really and only concerned about. 

[5] See www.un.org/en/documents/charter/. (See article 51). If this is too strict for any state to actually follow, at least then the less strict “doctrine” from the US, called the “Powell Doctrine”, also demands, in its first statement, that foreign aggression be linked with a risk to national security. It is from 1990, and named after Colin Powell. 

[6] The full quote goes as follows: “Never before has a populist democracy attained international supremacy. But the pursuit of power is not a goal that commands popular passion, except in conditions of a sudden threat or challenge to the public’s sense of domestic well-being. The economic self-denial (that is, defense spending) and the human sacrifice (casualties, even among professional soldiers) required in the effort are uncongenial to democratic instincts. Democracy is inimical to imperial mobilization.” Z. Brzezinski, The Grand Chessboard (Basic Books), p.35. 

[7] Though it is true that US military installations around the United States, and private contractors and weapons manufacturers create jobs for the US people, this employment factor has been shown to be inefficient and limited. For instance, according to Robert Pollin, Professor of Economics at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, public expenditure in education creates two and a half times as many jobs as the same expenditure in the military. See following interview on The Real News Network, June 9, 2013: therealnews.com/t2/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=767&Itemid=74&jumival=10284 

[8] The pursuit of these interests is very attractive to the civilian and military leaders of the military-industrial complex, as well as for the big egos of politicians and civil servants in Washington. But for most of the US population there is not much, if any, benefit. On the contrary, not only is the US population being spied upon by the NSA, not only are US soldiers being killed and wounded in faraway lands for geopolitical purposes, but the huge financial resources which could go to support urgent domestic needs are diverted away from those to which it really belongs: the US people. Further, the image of the US abroad is now so bad because of its foreign policy, that regular average US citizens suffer from this when they travel abroad. 

[9] This has been done on a number of occasions, starting with US public opinion in WWI. See Edward Bernays' candid exposition: “Propaganda”. 

[10] The treatment of US people of Muslim/Arab descent after 9/11, or of Japanese descent during WWII, are other examples of extreme proportion of patriotism. 

[11] For example, the latest military conflicts initiated by the West generated very little debate or disclosure from the governments involved. Information often came after the act, which seemed acceptable to the people. Examples are NATO's attack on Libya, France's attack on Mali and Central African Republic. 

[12] The TTIP, Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, is a so-called “free trade agreement” being negotiated at top level between the US, Canada and the EU, with a minimum amount of exposure to or debate with the public (see article in below from Le Monde Diplomatique). The TPP, Trans-Pacific Partnership, is a ”a secret trade negotiation that has included over 600 official corporate "trade advisors" while hiding the text from Members of Congress, governors, state legislators, the press, civil society, and the public.” Sources: 

[13] See instance, the following excellent analysis: Controlling the Lens: The Media War Being Fought Over Ukraine Between the Western Bloc and Russia, by Mahdi Darius Nazemroaya, March 14th 2014. Source: http://www.globalresearch.ca/controlling-the-lens-the-media-war-being-fought-over-ukraine-between-the-western-bloc-and-russia/5373364 

[14] This is the case in most countries, also in the West, such as the UK, US, France, etc. For attempts to monitor Internet communication, see recent revelations by Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald and the Guardian newspaper. Further, a rare admission by a senior official about the threat of the Internet to the powers that be: when the current Secretary of State John Kerry said that "this little thing called the Internet ... makes it much harder to govern.". See article from Aug 13, 2013: www.cnsnews.com/news/article/john-kerry-little-thing-called-internet-makes-it-much-harder-govern#sthash.8FDQM59H.dpuf 

[15] For instance, during the Vietnam war or before the Iraq War in 2003, as well as more (sometimes more localised) opposition to the realisation by the state of geopolitical interests of a commercial nature, such as trade agreements, etc. The EU treaties were sometimes rejected by voters, but this did not prevent the treaties to be signed anyway (for instance after another referendum was held). This was the case with Ireland for the treaty of Lisbon for instance (voted against in 2008, and then voted for in 2009). 

[16] There are highly visible recent examples, the US war on Iraq in 2003, the NATO war on Libya in 2011, the French intervention in Mali and Central African Republic in 2012/2013, and many other less visible cases.