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What has changed in geopolitics?


By Klaus Dodds


If a week is a long time in politics then goodness knows what seven years represents in geopolitical terms. The publication of the second edition of the VSI to Geopolitics was a welcome opportunity to update and reflect on what has changed since its initial publication in 2007. Five issues loomed large for me in terms of the second edition.

First, the onset of a global financial crisis and the geopolitics of austerity deserved greater recognition. While much of the conversation focused on the failings of neoliberal globalisation and the banking/financial services sector, the financial crisis was also geographical and geopolitical in nature. Geographically, the impact and scope of crisis and austerity remains resolutely uneven with some communities and localities more exposed to debt, liability, loss and dispossession. The retrenchment of government spending and investment hit those communities highly dependent on public sector employment for example. Geopolitically, the financial crisis brought to the fore the manner in which some countries were represented and understood as financially reckless, political weak and incapable of reforming their economies. The so-called PIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Greece, and Spain) within the European Union context might be one such example of this geopolitical profiling but another might be the manner in which Cyprus was depicted as a source of ‘hot money’ from Russia and China, which was disrupting the capacity of the Cypriot government to make ‘necessary’ fiscal and political reforms to its economy and society.

Second, the ongoing legacies of the War on Terror needed further exposition. The recent rise of Sunni Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has generated a plethora of commentary much of which insists that the contemporary crises in Iraq and Syria are related to the deeply controversial invasion of Iraq in 2003 by a US-led coalition and a US-led strategy designed to use the invasion of Iraq as a way of introducing democratic transformation in the Middle East and Central Asia. What we now appear to face is a situation where the US and Iran might find they are able to collaborate with one another in a mutual goal of preserving the territorial integrity of Iraq (and perhaps also Syria). All of this seems far removed from the situation in January 2002 when President George W Bush described Iran as part of an ‘axis of evil’ with Iraq and North Korea. As critics noted at the time, this opportunistic labelling did not reflect the complex geopolitical circumstances surrounding those three states. And the refrain ‘states like these’ in the 2002 State of the Union Address by President Bush suggested that there might be even more to add to the list.

Third, the Edward Snowden revelations have highlighted the second edition had to talk more explicitly about an ‘invisible geopolitics’ or one perhaps barely visible to those of us not well connected to the intelligence community. While few would have been surprised by the rise of a surveillance culture post 9-11 in the US and UK (for example), it took these revelations to bring home quite how involved the communications sector was in enabling these mass surveillance cultures. Had popular culture, including films such as Enemy of the State (1998), offered us a pre-warning of the kind of surveillance capabilities that might be brought to bare on domestic citizens? What might the implications be for citizens to express geopolitical dissent in a world where telephone conversations and electronic conversation might be capable of being recorded, analysed and actioned?

Fourth, a new chapter on objects is introduced for the express purpose of focussing attention on the materiality of geopolitics. In other words, stuff. Whether it be either the CCTV camera on the high street or the flag being waved at an official ceremony, geopolitics is made possible by our relationship to objects. In the midst of the 2014 World Cup, it is difficult to avoid the sight of various national flags fluttering from buildings and cars, and being waved vigorously by supporters. In the contexts of mega events such as the Olympics and World Cups, the flag is an essential accomplice to host governments eager to capitalise on such global media exposure while at the same demanding ever more investment in security projects designed to safe-guard participants, spectators and the interests of government sponsors. But the flag can also matter in more mundane ways as well; the flag that might hang from someone’s house barely noticed but a powerful marker of geopolitical possibilities which extend far beyond national identification.

Fifth, and finally, the second edition was a welcome opportunity to remind readers that geopolitics is always embodied. It is not abstract. It is not something merely preoccupied with the global. It is a subject matter that is resolutely everyday. Geopolitics is about the various ways the geographies of politics are made to matter and the manner in which the local, national, regional and global co-constitute one another. Feminist geographers have been at the vanguard of this realisation and demonstrating how bodies, sites, objects and practices are inter-linked to one another and capable of producing very real consequences for people, communities and environments. The border and associated border regimes provide a rich source of material; linking border control/policing ideologies to the mobility and vulnerability of bodies. Sites and environments matter as anyone who has attempted to cross the US-Mexican border or the Mediterranean in a ramshackle boat would testify. For many of those migrants the journey itself will be one they won’t survive.

Professor Klaus Dodds is Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway University of London. Since publication of Geopolitics: A Very Short Introduction, he has co-edited three books, Spaces of Security and Insecurity (2009), Observant States: Geopolitics and Visual Culture (2010), and The Ashgate Handbook on Critical Geopolitics (2012). He has also written The Antarctic: A Very Short Introduction. The new edition of Geopolitics: A Very Short Introduction publishes this month.

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Image credit: © Marie-Lan Nguyen / CC-BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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