What is Geopolitics?

An overview of the influence of geography and politics on each other

What is Geopolitics?

Geopolitics is the study of how geography and politics influence each other

The characteristics of an area of interest (AOI) such as its topography, climate, and natural resources all have an impact on political decisions and attitudes of its leaders and population, as well as the political decisions and attitudes of leaders and populations of other areas towards the AOI.

As an example of this, Japan is a seismically active country (meaning it regularly experiences earthquakes). To ensure the safety of its citizens, its government has introduced increasingly strict building regulations over the years to ensure new buildings are able to withstand powerful earthquakes without collapsing.

The political decisions and attitudes of leaders and populations also have an effect on both local and global geography. One of the most prominent examples of this is the impact of the ban on certain chemicals which were commonly used in aerosols and refrigerators.

While in use, it was discovered that the chemicals, called CFCs, were responsible for opening up a hole in the Earth’s ozone layer - a natural shield of gas in the atmosphere that protected us from the majority of the Sun’s ultraviolet radiation. CFCs were banned in 2010 as a result of this, and by 2018 NASA reported the ozone layer had begun to recover.

"File:Ozone-depleting substance emissions, OWID.svg" by Our World In Data is licensed under CC BY 3.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0?ref=openverse.

Why Study Geopolitics?

Studying geopolitics will allow you to better understand the interplay between these elements and make educated predictions about events likely to occur in the future.

For instance, we know that many island nations will be partially underwater by the end of the century due to the impact of climate change on global sea levels. Therefore, we can predict there will be an increase in migration from these countries in the next few decades.

Lloyd’s City Index found geopolitical risk - that is, the risk posed by geopolitics - accounted for over $133bn of the risk to the economies of the 279 cities they analysed. This amounted to almost 25% of their total economic output, so you can see how valuable a skill being able to make these kind of predictions is.

To that end, geopolitical analysis is a highly sought-after skill and companies in almost every industry employ analysts to aid them in doing this, including:

  • Insurance

  • Energy

  • Travel

  • Banking

  • Military

  • Government

  • Business

  • Travel and tourism

  • Journalism

The Historical Impact of Geopolitics

Geography has had a huge influence on the political make-up of the world as we know it today.

Many of the major cities across the globe owe their status to the fact they lie on a major trade link such as a river or port (London, Shanghai, Durban), and national borders are often determined by natural obstacles such as mountains (e.g. France and Spain are separated by the Pyrenees) or rivers (e.g. Romania and Bulgaria are separated by the Danube).

Topographical map showing the France/Spain border

Victories in historical conflicts were often aided by geographical advantage (the logistical challenges posed by fighting a war across the Atlantic hindered Britain’s efforts against what would become the USA in the War of Independence).

Meanwhile, some only came about because the eventual winner managed to nullify their adversary’s geographical superiority (William the Conqueror tricking Harold Godwinson’s army into running down Senlac Hill and therefore giving up their strong defensive position was a key factor in his victory in the Battle of Hastings).

The death of King Harold at the Battle of Hastings, as depicted in the Bayuex Tapestry

Both of these examples would go on to change the course of history.

The viability of agriculture in an area also had an impact in shaping nations and borders, with the majority of major population centres forming in areas which offered favourable conditions for growing crops and rearing livestock (which is one of the reasons there aren’t many cities in the Sahara desert or Antarctica!).

How Geography Influences Politics Today

In the modern world, trade connections, agricultural viability, and natural obstacles such as mountains and rivers are still crucial characteristics when discussing geopolitics.

However, as time has moved on, many other factors have become just as significant. These can generally be divided into two main categories: Physical aspects, such as terrain and climate, and human aspects, which includes population and culture.

Physical Characteristics

The physical characteristics of an AOI relate to its surface and situation. This includes:

  • Topography: The elevation of the AOI, as shown by contour lines on maps;

  • Climate: The long-term and predictable weather conditions of the AOI;

  • Surface materials: The composition of the ground (e.g. clay, sand, or stone);

  • Flora and fauna: The biological life whose habitat is in the AOI (e.g. plants, animals, and pathogens);

  • Water features: Any significant accumulations of water in the AOI (e.g. rivers, lakes, and sea);

  • Tectonic activity: Phenomena affecting the AOI as a result of activity in the Earth’s crust (e.g. volcanoes, earthquakes, and tsunamis);

  • Resources: Materials in the AOI that can be used in construction or energy, or that hold monetary value (e.g. oil, stone, and rare-earth metals).

Contour lines depicting the topography in the vicinity of Eitseal on the Isle of Lewis

Note: Some definitions of physical characteristics will state that they are unchangeable - this is not the case as these characteristics are constantly changing due to both natural and human activity.

Human Characteristics

The physical characteristics of an AOI relate to its surface and situation. This includes:

  • Political: The distribution of power in an AOI, its stability, and its ideals;

  • Economy: How wealth is created and distributed within the AOI;

  • Social: The demographic make-up within the AOI the attitudes, culture, and traditions of its population;

  • Security: How stable the AOI is, its security forces (e.g. police, military, and intelligence agencies), and security threats faced by the AOI (e.g. terror, civil unrest, and conflict);

  • Infrastructure: The networks that facilitate society in the AOI (e.g. its healthcare and education systems, communications networks, and utility supply).

  • Information: How easy it is for citizens and authorities to collect, use, access, and distribute information in the AOI (e.g. using the internet, legacy media, or word of mouth).

Who’s Politics does it Affect?

As well as understanding how geography influences politics, it is also important to be clear on the groups whose political attitudes and decisions it is capable of shaping. This includes:

  • Governments: The legislation and policy decisions taken by the AOI’s government, its diplomatic relations with other governments, and the stability of its leadership;

  • Populations: The political leaning and attitudes of the people living and working in the AOI, the level of migration in or out of it, and its crime rate. All of these factors have the potential to cause knock-on effects such as civil unrest;

  • Terrorists: They types and beliefs of terrorist groups operating in the AOI, their access and attraction to potential new members, the sympathy of the local community to them, and their propensity or likelihood to carry out an attack; and

  • External governments and populations: The diplomatic stance (be that hostile, neutral, or friendly) of governments and populations of other regions will be influenced by the geography of an AOI, affecting their likelihood to trade with, attack, provide aid to, or otherwise interact with it.

How Politics Influences Geography

Traditionally, geopolitics referred almost exclusively to the study of geography’s influence over politics. However, this definition is becoming increasingly out-dated as politics’ impact on geography grows. Areas in which politics has a major impact on geography include:

  • Climate: Human activity is pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere causing the global temperature to rise. This is melting ice caps, raising sea levels, and causing an increase in instances of extreme weather.

  • Flora and fauna: Massive numbers of species are becoming endangered and extinct as a result of human activity. Other species - such as sharks and mosquitos - are migrating to areas they have never inhabited before due to climate change.

  • Physical environment: Urbanisation, damage from wars, the creation of artificial islands, and the destruction of forests for agriculture are all examples of political impact on the physical environment.

  • Space: The Earth’s atmosphere is increasingly becoming littered with satellites and other man-made debris, effectively creating a man-made asteroid belt around the planet. As space exploration progresses, it is likely the physical environment on the moon and other celestial bodies will be altered by political decisions.

  • Tectonic activity: Four main types of human activity have the potential to cause seismic events; extracting material from the subsurface (e.g. mining, fracking, and extracting oil), loading the Earth’s surface, injecting fluid such as industrial wastewater underground), and underground bomb and nuclear tests.

Aerial view of artificial island construction process in Kaafu Atoll of Maldives in February 2019. Image credit: Luka Peternel

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