Geopolitics and the Quest for Dominance
Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana, 2016, 352 pages
Book Review published on: March 30, 2017
Jeremy Black, a notable author, scholar, and renowned history professor at the University of Exeter, asserts that the independent ways in which geopolitics are viewed and practiced needs a critical unifying adjustment that universally reflects the intricacies of today’s global environment. He notes there is still no widely accepted definition of geopolitics. This lack of cohesive clarity has led historians, geographers, political and military leaders, economists, and others to approach the subject from too narrow a perspective—which has undermined our collective understanding of how and why states interact as they do. He further asserts that geopolitics must be viewed through the multifaceted interaction of material factors such as distance, time, location, and resources in conjunction with history, and an enhanced human dimension that includes ideas and perceptions of the environment. This comprehensive approach ensures the best possible understanding of the thought behind policies and behaviors of states and their formulation of statecraft in an increasingly complex and interdependent world.
In support of his thesis, the author begins by detailing the historical use and misuse of the notion of geopolitics before it became a readily applied term. Through historical examples that date back to the Peloponnesian War (460 BC), he introduces conditions, concepts, and adaptations of geopolitical factors as they evolved over time. He includes elements such as spatiality, spheres of influence, balance of power, religion, conflict, economics, and grand strategy. Applying case studies beginning with the rise of the fifteenth century British Empire, through the post-9/11 U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, Black further details the emergence of other eclectic cogs—competitive power politics, trade, the role of naval military might as an instrument of power, and the introduction/application of mapping as a state geopolitical instrument. Furthermore, he features the dynamic relationship between geography and imperialism, as well as the nuances of international competition and cooperation (economic and political), that characterized the nineteenth century. Through the use of twentieth-century case studies, with primary focus on Nazi Germany, Black introduces the emergence of the cultural component of geopolitics. He details how extreme negative opinions of ethnic groups, shaped by propaganda, can lead to gross indignities inflicted upon them, including ethnic “cleansing” or genocide, as in the case of European Jews during World War II. Another use of the cultural component of geopolitics was to rationalize the seizing of another state’s territory as a means to reunite so-called suppressed peoples—a behavior readily used by Hitler to seize control of a number of German border states.
Finally, Black examines geopolitics in the context of the Cold War. He introduces the concept of containment in preventing the spread of communism, the emergence of nuclear weapons as a form of state power, the use of state counterbalancing (e.g., the United States using China to counterbalance against Russia), and the emergence of international organizations that shape international behavioral norms. The author concludes with presenting interpretive views of prominent geopolitical and international relations theorists, such as the late Samuel Huntington, Francis Fukuyama, Henry Kissinger, and Niall Ferguson. These theorists voice concerns over the rise of China, cultural clashes, growing national debts, oil politics, terrorism, cyberspace issues, and poor fragile states, to name but a few things further shaping geopolitics into the foreseeable future. He ties everything together in a way that compels support for the book’s premise.
The book is cleverly crafted with the reader in mind. Jeremy Black takes you on a fascinating historical journey through geopolitical thought as seen through the lens of prominent figures, the events that shaped them, and their outcomes. He does a superb job navigating the most relevant historical literature, drawing linkages that convincingly support his argument. The research involved in preparing this noteworthy contribution is beyond reproach. It is painstaking in detail, substantively rich in depth and insight. The book is a must read for those involved in international relations, strategic studies, geography, political and economic history, as well as government and military leaders. It is a treasure trove of thought for academics, for scholars to debate and advance.
Book Review written by: David A. Anderson, PhD, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas