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date: 18 August 2017

Defending Classical Geopolitics

Summary and Keywords

Three successive parts are presented within this article, all intended to raise the visibility and show the utility of classical geopolitics as a deserving and separate international-relations model: (a) a common traditional definition, (b) relevant theories that correspond to that definition, and (c) applications of certain theories that will delve at some depth into three case studies (the Ukrainian shatterbelt, contemporary Turkish geopolitics, and a North American heartland).

The placement of states, regions, and resources, as affecting international relations and foreign policies, defines classical geopolitics. This definition emphasizes the application of spatially composed unbiased theories that should bring insight into foreign-affairs events and policies. Specifically, a “model” contains theories that correspond to its description. A “theory” is a simple sentence of probability, with “A” happening to likely affect “B.” Importantly, models are passive; they merely hold theories. In contrast, theories possess their own titles and perform actively when taken from such models.

Various methodological challenges are presented: (a) combining concepts with theories, (b) estimating probability for testing theories, (c) claiming the “scientific,” (d) accounting for determinism, (e) revealing a dynamic environment for geopolitics, (f) separating realism from geopolitics, and (g) drawing classical geopolitics away from the critical. Certain theories that are placed within the geopolitical model are examined next: (a) heartlands and rimlands, (b) land and sea power, (c) choke points and maritime lines of communication, (d) offshore balancing, (e) the Monroe doctrine, (f) balances of power, (g) checkerboards, (h) shatterbelts, (i) pan-regions, (j) influence spheres, (k) dependency, (l) buffer states, (m) organic borders, (n) imperial thesis, (o) borders/wars, (p) contagion, (q) irredentism, (r) demography, (s) fluvial laws, (t) petro-politics, and (u) catastrophic events in nature. Additional theories apply elsewhere in the article as well.

Of the three case studies, the Ukrainian shatterbelt represents the sole contemporary geopolitical configuration of this type, a regional conflict coupling with a strategic rivalry. Here, partisans of the civil war between the eastern and the western sectors of the country have joined with the Russians against the Europeans and Americans, respectively. Next, Turkey’s pivotal location has afforded it both advantages and disadvantages, a topic discussed at some length earlier in the article. Its “zero-problems” strategy of seeking positive relations with neighbors has now been forced to change tactics, reflective of new forces within and beyond the country. Finally, a North American heartland compares nicely to Halford Mackinder’s earlier Eurasia heartland thesis, with the American perhaps proving more stable, wealthy, and enduring, based in large part on its stronger geopolitical features.

Keywords: classical geopolitics, international-relations theories, international-relations model, Eurasian heartland, North American heartland, shatterbelts, empirical international relations theory


The label geopolitics has been ignored and neglected because of its past associations with disreputable and discredited descriptions and ideologies. Only recently has the term experienced more visibility, although this has occurred largely in the press, where it unfortunately and incorrectly has been connected to alleged international disruptions harmful to international tranquility and stock market profits. It has not been available in a positive sense for extending the insights into its potential, yet hidden, theoretical contribution. Accordingly, the goal of this article is to convince the reader that geopolitics deserves a separate and higher respectability and utility within the realm of international-relations theory.

At least two confusing and faulty meanings have risen to diminish its legitimacy:

  • A “power politics” and “realpolitik” description of a manipulation alleged to the larger nations, probably derived from the misperception that geopolitics resides within the realist international-relations model that emphasizes power. Rather, the focus of geopolitics, away from realism, should be upon states’ geographic positions, reflective of the term’s spatial heritage.

  • Once more, an image of catastrophe and crisis—war and threat of war, economic news depressing world financial markets, and so forth—often heard in reference to Wall Street reporting.

Neither of these versions receives any sort of definition; both are negative and reference a world at fault. Until these two negative images are deflected from classical geopolitics, our study of spatial impacts upon policy (i.e., geopolitics) will not see a full contribution. To repeat, that correction represents the goal of this article—a defense of classical geopolitics.

The traditional concept offers a practical and neutral tool for students and statespersons to enlist as an insightful guide within the milieu of foreign affairs, the assumption being that geographic placement of countries can affect their actions. This spatial linkage seems to derive from pure common sense. Such a reliance upon a geographic location conditioning international events has long been in evidence for millennia, perhaps being the earliest form of military and diplomatic planning. This continued widespread practice of geopolitics as a policy and action guide in itself should lend some credibility and resurrection as a useable international relations IR model.

Accordingly, the author has chosen three ways to show a better use of classical geopolitics. The first will illustrate a representative definition of the traditional concept, a not too difficult feat already since most of the extant classical depictions tend closely to parallel, with their emphases resting upon the geographic placement of states affecting their policies and actions.

A second way to recognition will be to locate relevant theories that will enter the geopolitical model, with a “model” being merely a container for theories that fit the definition of geopolitics. Important to this task, it appears that more theories may correspond to the classical model than to any of the other IR models—the evidence coming from the assembling of over 60 generalizations (Kelly, 2016) that relate to the positional-geographic features of geopolitics. As this research proceeds onward, that collection of 60 should continue to expand. This second way of locating relevant theories that correspond to a common definition is suggested as further evidence of a utility of classical geopolitics.

Finally—and with more difficulty than the first two ways—any series of theories that attach themselves to a particular model should themselves be useful for giving good insight into foreign policies, actions, and events. The next sections outline four suggestions for attempting theory applications for gaining better understanding of international events. Thus, a series of brief examples applying theories to events will be offered, with the hope that these instances will further the goal of demonstrating geopolitics as a useable international-relations model.

To expand upon the abovementioned concepts, a more precise definition of classical geopolitics reflects the thesis that the positions of states, regions, and resources can affect states’ actions and policies. In political geography, we assume that one’s environment may influence one’s behavior. And raised to a higher level, we assume in geopolitics that the geographic placement of a country, likewise, may influence its regional and international involvement. Such a location, it is believed, will affect decisions and actions, whether or not statespersons are aware of these stimulants.

In addition, from a multitude of similar definitions, the author has taken the following from Jorge Atencio’s influential book among South American scholars, ¿Qué es la Geopolítica? (1986, p. 41; the translation is the author’s):

Geopolitics is the science that studies the influence of geographic factors in the life and evolution of states, with an objective of extracting conclusions of a political character . . .

[Geopolitics] guides statesmen in the conduct of the state’s domestic and foreign policy.

Atencio’s definition of geopolitics adheres closely to the tack taken here, with the primary departure being his stronger identification of scientific and organic features.

Another recent definition likewise corresponds both to this depiction and to Atencio’s—namely, that of Saul Cohen (2009, pp. 11–12):

A . . . modern geopolitics is . . . a scholarly analysis of the geographical factors

underlying international relations and guiding political interactions. . . the analysis of the interaction between, on the one hand, geographical settings and perspectives and, on the other, political processes.

In sum, with the three definitions of classical geopolitics taken together, their common elements include certain geographic factors that may affect a country’s foreign policies and actions.

The classical label is chosen to separate the traditional geopolitics from the postmodern “critical geopolitics,” the latter differing quite extensively from the former (Kelly, 2006). The classical label emphasizes the gathering and applying of neutral and interpretive theory; the critical one focuses on deconstructing alleged exploitation of leaders’ “scripts,” with theory largely ignored and geopolitics discredited as a tool used by corrupt elites to exploit and to aggress.

An international-relations model denotes a container or typology of theories that corresponds to the definition of a particular foreign-affairs approach (to geopolitics, in the current case). Theoriesmerely take the form of simple sentences of probability: If “A” happens, it is somewhat likely that “B” will happen as a result of “A.” For instance, “the more borders a country possesses (A), the more war involvements that country may suffer” (B). Also, “distance tends to weaken, as the impact of a state’s influence (A) may wane as space increases” (B). A satisfactory level of probability, often difficult to determine, assists in selecting a theory. Importantly, models are not theories; as stated previously, they contain theories that fit the definition of the models. Otherwise, these containers are passive, with theories possessing their own titles and performing actively when taken from such models.

Berger, Wagner, and Zelditch (1985, pp. 1–5, 30, 57–58) depict a “theoretical research program” that closely follows this author’s thoughts about a model, with theirs being a “family of interrelated theories” or “an interrelated set of theories together with theoretical research relevant to them and applied research grounded in them.” Accordingly, their assortments of common theories join within “families” or “sets” (again, theories contained in models) that adhere to a familiar definition, with these generalizations enjoying clarification and testing within that definition when necessary. Individual theories or bundles of theories are then available, as taken from this program, to attempt interpretations of events of interest.

The unique geopolitical model by its definition contrasts to realist, fascist, liberal-functional, and other political and international-relations models. But note that individual theories possess their own designations—heartlands, checkerboards, shatterbelts, frontiers, contagion, and so forth. These particular theories fit within the geopolitical model because they conform to the model’s geopolitical definition as resting on positional and spatial designs. There are no geopolitical theories (or realist, fascist, etc.) as such, because these enjoy their own names separate from the models they might join.

Sometimes a particular theory might apply to two separate models. Take the balance of power theory. When the power aspect arises (symmetric or asymmetric power blocs), this theory will enter the realist model. Yet, when position is considered (encirclement, checkerboards, or heartlands versus rimlands), all of these placed within the geopolitical model. Likewise, for the core/periphery thesis, the geopolitical model reveals a regional placement (continental/maritime) among nations, but the systems model demonstrates an action/reaction phenomena of one movement affecting others within that core/periphery structure.

Consider this further example that contrasts model and theory, the shatterbelt theory as taken from the geopolitical model.

  1. 1. Event: the Peloponnesian war of ancient Greece. The Adriatic coastal colony of Corcyra (today’s Corfu) in 435 BCE rebelled against its parent city, Corinth, prompting the interventions of both Athens and Sparta. Soon, the naval battle of Sybola ensued, with the Athenian fleet in alliance with Corcyra defeating the Corinthian fleet supported by Sparta. This episode helped bring on the war.

  2. 2. Theory as taken from the geopolitical model. Shatterbelts: This shatterbelt conflict arose as a rather isolated local conflict that eventually drew the more distant rival city-states of Athens and Sparta into an escalation of strife that both had sought to avoid. Shatterbelts appear in regions where such local contests intersect with ongoing strategic rivalries.

  3. 3. Discussion: These shatterbelt configurations depend upon leaders’ decisions that create contrasting country-to-county alliances and confrontations, with Athens aligned with Corcyra (as opposed to Sparta aligned with Corinth). Were such alliance decisions not made or carried out by the respective state leaders, the shatterbelt escalation would not have ensued.

Shatterbelts are war-prone and dangerous; their conflict-spreads often will bring about local warfare amid strategic warfare (thus two levels of violence—local and strategic). Such regional structures can be avoided by moderate leaders, peace conferences and procedures, threats and sanctions, and certain types of “firebreaks,” or other restraints to the spreading of conflict that will halt the escalation toward war. However, such settlements did not appear in ancient Greece during this period, and the fighting lasted 30 years. In sum, the shatterbelt theory, a local to strategic spatial structure that resides within the geopolitical model or toolbox, might offer some deeper insight into this international event.

Several methodological challenges toward constructing and applying this geopolitical model have arisen, ones that the author has attempted to satisfy here. For instance:

Separating the Realist Model from the Geopolitical Model. The realist model needs to be detached from the geopolitical model. One might see some overlapping between the two models occasionally, but each clearly springs from differing definitions and assumptions. Once more, realism emphasizes power as a way to security, whereas geopolitics focuses upon position as a way to understanding foreign affairs. We should want to remove power from geopolitics and have it lodged instead within realism, its logical home.

The “Critical Geopolitics” or Postmodernist Challenge. These two versions of geopolitics, the classical and the critical, also separate widely and should be kept apart because, like the previous realist/geopolitics discussion, the definitions and assumptions widely depart. The critics see, inherent to traditional geopolitics, an elite subjugating and exploiting of peoples and nations, with geopolitics as a compliant tool of this violence. They gather evidence of this conspiracy via deconstructing or exposing the greed-laden scripts and metanarratives of state leaders. In contrast, the classical version provides students and statespersons with a neutral and ubiquitous tool for understanding international relationships and for offering prescriptions for policy questions. Here, one should rely upon theory, whereas the critics reject theory as biased. In sum, this author, in defense of classical geopolitics, argues that the classical should be separated from the critical.

Claiming the “Scientific.” A scientific methodology can be attributed to classical geopolitics in just one instance, as the statistical or quantitative approach applied to spatial or geographic influences upon states’ foreign behaviors. For instance, a distance feature can be seen in the voting of the Latin American countries relative to that of the entire General Assembly of the United Nations (U.N.) on peacekeeping roll calls (Kelly & Boardman, 1976). In the Kelly/Boardman study, a significant statistical association appeared between the locations farthest from the United States and more positive votes toward U.N. peacekeeping. The situation is the same with the border-wars thesis for South America (Kelly, 1992), where the number of frontiers significantly equated with war involvement.

The problem with this statistical hypothesis-testing approach, nonetheless, is that so little of the data in geopolitics can adhere to numeric methods. Consequently, one must accept as not scientific (but still acceptable) certain other theories and ideologies of past decades that have attached themselves to traditional geopolitics, some claiming a scant scientific thoroughness, such as autarky, organic and natural frontiers, and riverine assumptions. Yet, note that there is a danger here—let us take care to separate Machiavellian “realpolitik,” organic and social Darwinian theories of “lebensraum,” aggressions of fascism, U.S. cold-war containment policies, and critical geopolitics of postmodernism and consider them as ideologically motivated doctrines that are harmful to, and not a part of, the classical version. Most of these notions should be rejected as pejorative and as damaging infections.

A Threat of Determinism. Similar to political geography, geopolitics suffers past accusations of “determinism,” the broader premise that geography and the environment substantially dictate individuals’ and states’ action or inaction. Such rigidity is not a true description. Rather, the premise is that geography and environment may condition or affect human and foreign-policy outcomes, but these will not be determined absolutely.

A “Dynamic” Quality Lacking in Geopolitics. Advocates of the postmodern approach assert that classical geopolitics is “outmoded” and not sufficiently “updated,” and thus, it has lost its usefulness (Ó Tuathail & Dalby, 1998, p. 1). The critics claim that contemporary technologies of travel and communication have made geography obsolete. On the other hand, though, tools or methods for interpretation, being theories, do not require an updating themselves; they remain relatively constant through time. What changes is the environment itself, and accordingly, statespersons and scholars instead must consider the dynamics of the international system and not reject the constant geopolitical tools for interpreting and prescribing the dynamics of foreign-policy dramas. The checkerboard aligns successfully both to the Peloponnesian war of ancient Greece and to contemporary South American diplomacy (Kelly, 2011), with the regional configurations being the same over a span of two millennia but the patterns within showing divergences (the first in conflict, the second in peace).

Contrasting Concepts and Theories. “Concepts” represent passive describers of events and policies, differing from theories, which figure as active performers of probability. A heartland is both concept and theory, and the intent is to avoid locating the place where they separate.

Theory Selection. The choice of theories, those fitting the geopolitical definition, should be approached objectively, with the premise of a spatial or geographic bent taken from historic examples, common sense and logic, maps and pivotal locations, statistical testing, rationality, and scholars’ and statespersons’ views and practices.

As detailed in a recent book (Kelly, 2016), these selection examples have resulted in the finding and clarifying of more than 60 theories that correspond to the classical geopolitical definition. The present article describes an assortment of these theories, but of course, not all of them. It would again be the assumption that the classical geopolitical model, in comparison to the other international-relations models, contains by far the most theories, and that the practice has been utilized by countries’ leaders for a longer period of time. Hence, these additional points are raised to argue the utility of the classical approach.

A bundling or grouping of theories merits mention here—a linking of certain generalizations that might broaden an application toward deeper insight. For instance, Middle-American shatterbelts couple with the Monroe doctrine (the first to be avoided by the second), or the prevention of hostile Eurasian intrusion into the Caribbean. Likewise, heartlands/rimlands link with land power/sea power, offshore balancing, influence spheres, and shatterbelts. Further, these concepts join organic frontiers: contagion, buffer states, irredentism, fluvial laws, and checkerboards, among other theories. We might assemble such bundles, such as shatterbelts, fluid borders, influence spheres, distance, contagion, and demography in particular, for the purpose of examining the recent Ukraine crisis.

Estimating Probability for Testing Theories. With the exception of statistical hypothesis-testing, which measures some likelihood of correlation, solutions to finding an acceptable objective test for assessing probability of theories amount to the following: If a reasonable predictive spatial generalization arises within the literature or within policy statements and actions, the result will be to accept this as a sufficient theory. Or, if a term appears to show a rational, logical, or common-sense probability within a geographic design, usually set within a particular event of history or location, it, too, might be chosen. In addition, acceptable generalizations as posed by notable scholars and leaders (i.e., heartlands by Halford Mackinder and rimlands by Nicholas Spykman) are recognized, although neither of these paths lends itself to a high level of substantiation. Otherwise, the author cannot envision other testing methods for probability.

Describing Certain Theories That Relate to International Happenings

The theories described in the following subsections come in approximate groupings of common application: first, those affixed to Eurasian-continental balances; next, to strategic and regional structures of various spatial patterns; then to frontiers; and finally to concepts that tend to exist alone. These sets are designed both for clarity and in order to link similar generalizations for deeper insight into international happenings.

Eurasian-Continental Balances

Heartland/Rimland. These initial two concepts, heartlands and rimlands, can easily be combined. The first originated in a book by Halford Mackinder (1919), and the second came in a book by Nicholas Spykman (1942); these men were the founders of the English–North American geostrategic school of classical geopolitics. These terms are joined because they link to Eurasian continental impacts, with some scholars (Gerace, 1991; Kirk, 1965) respecting the importance of both inner and outer land sections.

With heartlands, the focus lies with interior continental locations that lend a strategic pivot outward, a central position providing several arguable advantages: (a) protection from invasion due to isolation, distance, harsh weather, and topography; (b) maneuverability within and beyond this central pivot due to shorter lines of communication with railroads contributing to regional unity; (c) closer access to continental resources, both within the heartland itself and also extending into the peripheral rimlands; and (d) the ability to probe for vulnerabilities against the outer rim of countries and of the maritime bases of the rimlands. Mackinder asserted that the Eurasian pivot was so powerful that whichever nation possessed the heartland held the capability of eventually dominating the Earth.

Unfortunately, evidence for the Eurasian heartland’s prominence weakens in certainty due to lack of historical example, statistical analysis, or other measures of probability, and as such, it simply cannot be shown with assurance. But British, Russian, and North American security policies have rested upon these assumptions for decades and centuries, and these assumptions and policies bring importance to the thesis, whether objectively provable or not. What might still qualify the evidence would be if we control for the unique placement of a particular heartland (for instance, whether it is encircled by hostile great-power opponents or is far from such threats).

To broaden this assessment, an inner-core placement could give regional leadership in integration, security, and identity; a pivotal location for thrusting authority outward; and the ability to balance neighbors for security. But disadvantages accrue as well: encirclement by hostile and powerful neighbors; more borders, conflict, and invasion; and the costs of leadership and balancing. Examples include the following:

  • If a centrally positioned country is surrounded by other great nations of roughly equal power, if that state’s resources are limited and access to needed wealth becomes difficult, if oceans and seas are distant and blocked by coastal nations, and if natural barriers against invasion are missing, then central placement can be limiting.

  • On the other hand, a pivotal heartland can be an advantage. If a centrally located state is surrounded by weaker, nonthreatening countries, if such a pivotal nation resides distantly from challenging great powers, if that state possesses ample resources, and if that country is a maritime nation, blessed with natural ports and internal waterways, a central location can be beneficial.

  • Russia, China, and Germany represent countries disadvantaged by their centrality; the United States reflects the advantage of central location.

With rimlands, perhaps one sees evidence of a strategic relevance as opposed to heartlands. For instance, both world wars were fought within the rimlands—Russia in the heartland in alliance with the outer bounds of the maritime United States, and Germany (and later Japan and Italy) fighting for control of the middle sectors between the two extremes. The cold war containment of the democracies formulated rimland dikes to constrain the supposed expansion of the Soviets from their heartland base into the maritime realms. Mixed into this nexus of heartlands/rimlands is the billeting of U.S. military forces within the three marginal regions of western Europe, the Persian Gulf, and East Asia, all thought to have more strategic importance for the United States than direct involvement in the affairs of the Eurasian heartland.

Land Power Versus Sea Power. A common theme in traditional geopolitics characterizes states as either seafaring or land-based in their regional and strategic orientations. Theorists debate which stance is better, with land-power proponents arguing that navies require bases on land, and thus they can be intercepted by opponents holding a territorial position. In addition, the middle areas of continents enjoy security via distance, topography, and the ability to pivot onto the coastal enclaves. By contrast, it is alleged that maritime countries gain some advantage via their mobility astride rimlands, which tends to give them greater access to mineral, energy, trade, and food wealth in marginal and distant territories. The oceans themselves provide some resources in foods and minerals, as well as providing distance from Eurasia (this latter has been a factor historically in American security considerations).

Mackinder and Spykman differed on this equation, with the former trusting the continents and the latter more the seas. It appears that a majority of students would side with Spykman. Certainly, the United States, as a two-ocean maritime power, now possesses the ability to balance offshore the larger states on either extreme of Eurasia, giving it a pivot toward maintaining global paramountcy. Nonetheless, it could be concluded that any merits of sea power over land power depend upon the time and place in question, similar to heartlands, and not upon a general rule of one or the other always being superior.

Choke Points and Maritime Lines of Communication. The term choke points refers to territorial and maritime straits, passes, channels, and canals that hold pivotal importance—that is, their positions exert influence outward, over land and sea territories and regions. Examples include the Straits of Malacca, the Beagle Channel, and the Suez and Panama Canals. Mountain passes, highway and rail connections, river estuaries, and watersheds all contain spatial value as well. The spaces between such points and among other areas of impact come as land or sea lanes of linkage.

Offshore Balancing. This strategy, affixing maritime positioning to the U.S. naval balancing of Eurasian states in its favor, is a companion to the heartland/rimland thesis, but with the added formula of the balance of power, when position and not power is emphasized. Offshore balancing refers to the benefits derived from the strategic and isolated American position, a maritime relevance located far from either flank of Eurasia, but where North America is able to balance or bandwagon (bringing equal or unequal status) with its naval forces astride the regional powers of Europe and East Asia. No other great power holds such leverage to challenge the United States.

Indeed, the pivotal advantages enjoyed by U.S. naval forces likely translate to an extension of the present U.S. global hegemony or strategic leadership onward for the remainder of the present decade, if not beyond. Earlier, many realist scholars during the 1990s alleged that a “unipolar moment” would soon end in an immediate transition from U.S. unipolarity to a multipolar structure among the larger powers once the cold war ended, with the United States losing its hegemony. Alas, this transition has not yet appeared, in part because North America, being located outside the Eurasia power balances, gives the United States more maneuverability to orchestrate favorable outcomes within these regions. An offshore American state would be more trusted by the regional players of Europe and Asia as an outsider that is not bent on absorbing their territories, as might be the case with their more immediate neighbors (Levy & Thompson, 2010). Distance and isolation give the Americans added security, as they face no serious threats from neighbors and are able to access the resources of the entire northern hemisphere without undue competition.

Monroe Doctrine. Also a sphere of influence, the Monroe doctrine is based on the U.S. interest in dominating the Caribbean and excluding Eurasian influence. Likewise reflective of preventing shatterbelts, the 1962 Cuban missile crisis revealed this strategic vital concern of enforcing the doctrine.

Certain Strategic and Regional Structures

Balances of Power. The concept of balance of power could factor into both the realist and the geopolitical models, as described previously. For instance, is China eventually set to replace the United States eventually as a new global hegemon? When raw estimates of power are made, the realist school holds sway, whereas when regional pivotal locations such as offshore positioning or regional encirclement of China by suspicious neighbors are compared, the geopolitical view takes hold (Kelly, 2014). This feature of one theory utilized within two distinct models is unusual but not without merit, as theories taken from two models should tend to strengthen our foreign-affairs interpretation, and these combinations should be encouraged where feasible.

Checkerboards. Checkerboard spatial configurations arrange themselves in leapfrog patterns, where “my neighbor is my enemy, but the neighbor of my enemy is my friend.” In a previous study (Kelly, 2011), the author located this mandala structure both in the ancient Peloponnesian War and in contemporary South American diplomacy. Yet, the patterns within the checkerboards varied, with the former stimulating a terribly destructive war lasting 30 years and the latter contributing to the continent’s present stability and peace. Hence, the checkerboard as a theory has remained consistent with insights into both events, giving some ability to figure out why the divergences occurred.

Shatterbelts. These clash or crush zones (Kelly, 1986), presently known as shatterbelts, are regions that encounter both local and strategic rivalry and strife, with each of the outside great powers in alliance with the regional competitors. The danger comes in the high potential for escalation to war, as proved to be the case with both world wars of the twentieth century. The mere fact of areas being in strife is not enough to define a shatterbelt; the necessary condition depends upon leaders’ decisions at both the strategic and local levels to align together against opponents in regional violence. While the turmoil in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Palestine, and Afghanistan seem endemic and serious, escalation to higher levels has not occurred because larger states, including Russia, appear unable or unwilling to intervene against each other in these locales. Yet Russia, near in distance and ethnicity to eastern Ukraine and opposing the Kiev government’s desire to join the European common market, does qualify as causing a contemporary shatterbelt once Western allies chose to resist the Russian territorial advances (Jalilov & Kelly, 2014). Fortunately, this shatterbelt is frozen in stalemate, with neither side wishing to escalate the strife.

Pan-Regions. Pan-regions possess a rather tawdry reputation because they derived from the German fascist and geopolitik schools, which afforded them their aggressive lebensraum and autarkic themes from the earlier writings of Frederick Ratzel and others. Henry Kissinger, too, has referred to favoring the northern power zones in pentagonal configurations, stating his lack of interest in southern-world issues. A parallel condominium has been alleged to the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council, with its opponents decrying a hegemonic plot of northern dominance and of preventing southern nations from developing—a system of exploitation that fits the image of dependency as well.

The pan-regional thesis offers a global structure of three or four diverse regional compartments, each divided according to north-south or longitudinal spheres. The advantages of this configuration are derived in autarchy or self-sufficiency in resources for each sector, with the various climates and wealth within the regions providing all the necessary ingredients for a greater autonomy.

Influence Spheres. The concept of influence spheres features dependent countries and regions being controlled by powerful outside states; normally such lands carry prized, strategically important locations and resources. The structures could also take the form of buffers or protectorates, but usually the design accords to military, political, and economic subservience.

Dependency Thesis. Another core-periphery configuration, and likewise a recognized international-relations model that combines with geopolitics, the dependency thesis features the technologically advanced core areas of international capitalism, North America, West Europe, Japan, and some metropolitan centers of the emerging nations. These areas are set against and dominant over a periphery of semideveloped countries and regions, kept weak and dependent on the strengths of the core in a mercantilist or colonialist pattern. The center is superior because it already possesses abundant natural and energy resources, and these are supplemented further by sophisticated technology, central and healthy locations, an educated middle class, and strong consumer and stock markets. Hence, the outlying regions are left without facilities for effectively competing against the core in the global arena, nor can the periphery unite with other like areas because these partisans of the quadrant produce similar products, are reliant upon the core for sustenance, or both.

Buffer States and Regions. Sometimes located astride heartlands, rimlands, checkerboards, and shatterbelts, certain smaller and weaker nations positioned between larger state competitors may serve to alleviate strife by distancing themselves from such competitors, thus lessening regional conflict. As already stated, in these patterns, wider space separates likely disputants, weakening their contact with an expanded distance in between. Such a condition may be observed in South America (Kelly, 1997, pp. 33, 39) along a northwest-to-southeast continental zone of “polandization”—with the buffer countries of Ecuador, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Uruguay shielding escalation among the larger states, but themselves suffering both the ensuing battlefields and territorial losses to the victorious outsiders. Middle America, likewise, has tended to buffer South America from North America.


Organic Borders. The concept of organic borders includes the premise of dynamic frontiers, expanding or contracting in rhythm and reflective of national power and other considerations. A majority of countries have experienced such motion, based upon artificial frontiers, demography and resources, conquest/purchase/occupation of territories, and other instances of growth or diminished land ownership.

Imperial Thesis. Lying within a core-periphery dichotomy is the imperial thesis, a premise showing territorial growth of a country outward, from an undefended central core, and reaching an eventual expansive empire that enjoys security and wealth via the absorption of more outlying territories. Yet, such spatial growth suffers an inevitable contraction falling back to the original center due to the imperial core failing to sustain the envelopment of hostile and rebellious outer margins. This “rise-and-fall” scenario could fit into the history of ancient Rome and the former Soviet Union, with Mexico, Brazil, and perhaps the United States added to this listing.

Borders/Wars. Here, we see that the more frontiers a country has, the more war involvements that country suffers—a rather common-sense assumption, but one that can also be tested by a statistical routine. For instance, this spatial association occurred among the 10 South American republics (Kelly, 1992) where a simple spearman-rho calculation shows a significant score of association between borders and war. Brazil and Peru have endured the most violence, possessing relatively more international frontiers, whereas Venezuela and Chile, the most isolated countries with fewer exposed borders, experienced the least strife. Evidence also shows (e.g., Wesley, 1962) that more populated frontiers, as well as locales with busier trade across such boundaries, saw more warfare.

Contagion or Diffusion. These concepts describe the movement across national borders of such phenomenon as riots, rebellions, depression, democracy, military dictatorships, and other such features via a geographic “demonstration affect.” Govea and West (1981), for Latin America, and Huff and Lutz (1974), for central Africa, located this diffusion with some statistical satisfaction, particularly when such states were located near each other and were centrally positioned within a region. More recently, one might envision this in the now-diminished “Arab Spring” among several of the Middle Eastern states.

Irredentism. Advocating the annexation of territories for the purpose of uniting peoples of common ethnicity or of past nationality into new states or into adjacent states represents another geopolitical configuration called irredentism. Since many countries’ borders have been redrawn over time (i.e., organic frontiers), a good number of nations could affirm irredentist claims toward their neighbors.

Examples abound in history, but two current instances might be of particular interest. The first, an “Aztlan” expression of Mexican-American citizens of the U.S. Southwest, legitimized their territorial claims of this former tribal homeland in Arizona, one since deserted when the Aztecs migrated to form their empire in central Mexico, only to return in the 20th Century with land-grant claims. Contemporary Zionism, a political movement that rests upon aspiration for a Jewish homeland, fits the irredentist label as well. The so-called Exodus, when the Jews were exiled from their lands by the ancient Romans, afforded some legitimacy to the creation of the Israeli state, although the original frontiers were vague and are still disputed today. The persecution of the Jews by the Nazis in the Holocaust was another reason for creating a new state.

Demography. Patterns of populations offer a further spatial characteristic, that of distributions and densities of peoples over lands and resources that may exert a political impact. Examples of this include underpopulation or overpopulation in places on Earth, which can creates competition for scarce natural and energy resources.

Fluvial Laws. A variety of fluvial laws of rivers can be outlined, showing a number of advantages and disadvantages to states’ security, unity, and prosperity that correspond to classical geopolitics (Kelly, 1997, p. 44):

  • Mediterranean or landlocked countries inherently strive for an ocean outlet.

  • Centripetally flowing rivers unify nations.

  • States naturally expand to dominate entire river watersheds.

  • Major river estuaries embody strategic places, and sometimes shatterbelts, where larger countries compete for control.

  • States that occupy estuaries tend to expand along adjacent seacoasts.

  • The direction of a river’s flow reveals the regional directions in a country’s foreign policy.

However, none of these generalizations could be considered law, or spaces that have been tested systematically, although one could note instances where these areas may resemble historic logic.

Other Concepts

Petro-Politics. A negative designation, the “resources curse” of petro-politics, links a nation’s taxation dependence on the exporting of oil and gas (clearly geopolitical factors) with a decline in civil rights and democracy, causing an inverse association between resource dependency and freedom (Ross, 2001). Beyond petroleum, any sort of resources reliance, such as copper in Chile and Peru and sugar in Cuba and Brazil, can spawn serious social imbalances that create political disruptions.

Catastrophic Events in Nature. Certain natural disturbances may have an immediate impact upon a country’s political response, thus offering evidence of an environmental tie between human events and surroundings. These instances include the following:

  • Earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes—Not only do these disruptions create economic havoc, they expose political liabilities of elites’ malgovernance as well.

  • Global warming—Evidence shows the polar ice caps melting at a rapid pace, causing rising sea levels that appear set to flood low-lying but populated coastal areas, forcing migrations inland to already overpopulated megacities. Volatile weather patterns, such as droughts, tornadoes, and floods, also tend to accompany this warming, along with possible political disruptions.

  • Polluted oceans—These pollutions deplete marine food and oxygen supplies, reducing nutrition and health of peoples inhabiting coastal zones. The same applies to deforested jungle regions. Declines could stir conflict and prompt reckless actions among nations, as well as in a growing number of failed and rogue states.

  • Pandemics as widespread diseases, as well as scarcities of water, land, and other resources, may pit stronger populations against weaker ones.

Three Wider Applications of Geopolitics as a Concluding Test for Validating the Utility of Classical Geopolitics

Once assembled, theories should be applied to events and policies as described previously relative to the shatterbelt of the Peloponnesian War. Frankly, the application process of theory-to-event resembles more of an “art” than a “science,” statistical testing being the exception. The process itself is abstract, imprecise, and ripe for mistakes. Yet, with care and experience, the exercise of placing certain theories toward gaining insights into pertinent events actually can be understood and helpful to one’s study.

Here are several theory-to-application suggestions to students (Kelly, 2014, p. 15):

  • Carefully examine the event or policy that you have selected.

  • Closely study the theory that you have chosen.

  • Does the theory seem to fit the event, lending it some insights?

  • Make certain that you have selected the correct theory that fits the event.

Before progressing to Ukraine and Turkey and then onward to North America, it might also prove instructive in this final section to review once more and to broaden the methodological platform that undergirds the application of classical theories to selected events. First, in this geopolitical model, we will see no quantitative inputs attached to outputs and feedback loops and arrows, with nothing precisely and mathematically connected or calibrated. Instead, traditional geopolitics is theory-focused and replete with neutral and timeless premises, which have been chosen as objectively as possible. Such theories attach to foreign-affairs events and policies whenever these may lend some deeper insights that would not be present if this process were not followed. Although seemingly simplistic, the author can imagine this same general approach applying to realism, systems, dependency, and like IR models. A more complex methodology appears not to be possible, perhaps revealing some amount of weakness but showing strength and utility as well.

Accordingly, among pertinent theories that may help explain contemporary Ukraine, a shatterbelt configuration could prove insightful, among other explanatory tools. A central pivot leveraging outward in three directions, mixed with increasing domestic demographic turmoil, may assist in depicting part of Turkish geopolitics. And finally, a heartland motif for North America might guide the reader in showing the Mississippi River watershed’s geopolitical parameters.

The Shatterbelt of Contemporary Ukraine

A contemporary application of the shatterbelt theory can be found in the Ukrainian crisis, a civil war between the eastern and the western portions spawned by Russian intervention into the eastern parts of the country (Jalilov & Kelly, 2014). This regional strife alone does not make a shatterbelt. But Vladamir Putin’s outside Russian involvement, as resisted by Western powers (that are also outsiders), confirm the structure once the competing local forces align with their strategic allies. Several intriguing features of this new shatterbelt have broadened the application of this concept: (a) the ethnic divide within Ukraine, which has reenforced the civil strife; (b) the nearness of Russia to the conflict, which affords Putin an advantage over his more powerful (but also more remote) opponents in the West; (c) the prediction that this shatterbelt could persist at moderate levels of intensity for some time—perhaps even years—without serious spread of violence; and (d) the idea that shatterbelts could be located in certain places without strong strategic intervention taking place, a more reduced spatial involvement of the concept.

Turkey’s Contemporary Geopolitics: Transition into Turmoil and Confrontation

In classical theory, a country’s pivotal location renders both advantages and disadvantages, as described previously. Turkey readily possesses this pivotal location, a connector between East and West and among Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. Further, the second aspects of pivotal expanse seem to outweigh the country’s advantages, with the governors of Turkey facing in their strategic planning a new array of complexities that are reflective of the state’s exposed geographic placement, which has diminished the enlisting of clear and satisfying geostrategic directions at present. Hence, ambiguity impedes decision and balance (Kelly & Jalilov, 2016).

Several decades ago, Turkish foreign policy conformed to a “zero-problems” strategy, one where the leaders sought to settle disputes with neighbors peacefully, enhancing positive relations that were beneficial to Turkey without risking undue threats from beyond its frontiers and within its national bounds. This damage-limiting and rather passive and nonaggressive approach has proved to be a modest success. Nonetheless, times are changing, and for the country’s unique position and substantial regional importance (reflective of new forces and circumstances within its sphere), the present environment now appears to have forced upon the national elite different policies that must be more assertive, activist, and partisan than was the previous zero-problems tactic.

Three new developments have expanded the current ambiguity:

  1. 1. The emergence of Islamic militancy throughout the region, which reflects a desire by some groups to blend religion more directly into partisan politics.

  2. 2. The consequent rise of the alleged Islamic caliphate [i.e., the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS)], stemming from religious militancy and from the U.S. occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. There are intense international pressures on Turkey to oppose ISIL, to support Kurdish resistance to the caliphate, and to absorb hordes of refugees fleeing the violence.

  3. 3. The increasing activism of Kurdish nationalism and yearning for autonomy, which also has forced Turkey to balance its hostility toward these peoples with its need to ally with them against common threats.

National demographic changes enter into this increasing complexity as well, with the national identity becoming more unsettled with the growing population and economic power of its Anatolian hinterlands. These lands were formerly less developed and less involved in the country’s affairs than the more competitive European bastions near the Marmara Lake region, Turkey’s traditional focus of power. Of late, however, the Anatolian residents have gained new authority to move their traditional values into the national scene. Add to this mix a more potent Islamist uprising throughout the nation’s parochial sectors, coupled with heightened assertiveness and, in some sectors, a feared Kurdish identity as well. Accordingly, ethnic and religious factors have clouded the country’s plans for the future, imparting increasing uncertainty in both domestic and foreign policy.

As a procedure for giving Turkey’s foreign affairs more understanding, the following theories, each fitting the classical definition, should lend deeper insight into Turkey’s contemporary geopolitics. Here again is another test for attaching theory-to-event, whose success demonstrates the utility of classical geopolitics as a legitimate international-relations model:

  • Chokepoints—The Bosporus and Dardanelle straits give the country some central advantage but they expose Turkey to possible intervention by other states in these pass ways as well.

  • Contagion—An event (war, failed state, rebellion, etc.) in one country may cross frontiers to affect adjacent countries; for instance, Syrian refugees and ISIL threats are now penetrating the Turkish interior.

  • Demography—The movement and concentration of peoples influencing nations and regions; the opening of Anatolia to Turkish politics plus migrants entering the nation offer good examples.

  • Encirclement—Turkey finds itself at a crossroads among three regions: central Eurasia, middle Europe, and the Middle East; this prompts conflicting security assessments.

  • Frontiers and borders—The country enjoys certain natural borders, created by isolation and topography. Nonetheless, some face irredentism or Kurdish homeland aspirations, while others suffer ISIL and refugee incursions.

  • Heartlands/rimlands—The traditional concepts of Halford Mackinder and Nicholas Spykman, the Marmara region depicting the former and Anatolia and the borderlands facing Asia, Europe, and Iraq/Syria/Iran portraying the latter.

  • Irredentism—The aspiration of peoples to unite under one sovereignty or to be annexed into another country, with the dream of a Kurdish homeland representing the best example, but apparently at Turkey’s expense.

  • Topography—The physical characteristics of the landscape, with the Marmara region in contrast to the disruptive uplands of Anatolia dividing national politics and geopolitical expression.

Additional concepts could be lifted from the geopolitical toolbox in a similar way, but the examples presented here might be enough to satisfy the reader. Once more, the requirement of a useful model is reflected in its ability to attach theory to events, with Turkey representing a further expression of this utility.

The Heartland of North America: A Suitable Fit for Mackinder’s Eurasian Thesis

In a 1904 address, Halford Mackinder first formulated a central Eurasia “pivotal” formation, which he later (Mackinder, 1919) labeled a heartland, in which he posited that whichever country or alliance came to dominate such an isolated and distant region could leverage it for the purpose of eventual global domination. Other scholars since have debated his premise, some adding to his formulation. But whether or not the thesis is relevant, the important point is that the heartland idea forms the basis to the strategic grand strategies of the United States and other nations. It is believed to be true by many statespersons, so this awareness lends some credence to the concept.

As already stated in this article, Mackinder argued: (a) central Eurasia’s remote location protected it from hostile neighbors; (b) it encouraged a regional unity, bolstered by interior railway networks; (c) it drew upon significant resources; and (d) it allowed selective outward expansion onto peripheral lands, and once this penetration reached ocean frontiers, a world empire “would be in sight” (Mackinder, 1904, p. 436).

In this essay, the author has argued that these four heartland descriptions reflect likewise, and perhaps more intensely, the global location of the United States, indeed, another and perhaps exclusive heartland formation, since each of the descriptions applies well to North America. For instance, the entire North American continent lies distant from any threatening Eurasia states; it faces no dangerous neighbors; the Mississippi watershed, with barge traffic, interstate highways, and intrusive topography, helps unify the region; the territory is rich in well-placed mineral, energy, and food resources that have created a globally significant industrial and technological base; and its maritime reach extends to the flanks of Eurasia, where the United States now dominates in offshore balances among allies and likely opponents via its strong sea-power presence.

George Friedman (2011, p. 1) substantiates this claim by depicting the United States as “the inevitable empire,” further stating: “The United States has capital, food surpluses, and physical insulation in excess of every other country in the world by an exceedingly large margin . . . the Americans are not important because of who they are, but because of where they live [i.e., in North America; italics added].” In solid agreement with Friedman, this author extends his argument by maintaining that North America signifies a stronger heartland than even that of Eurasia.

Accordingly, the following outlines eight geopolitical perspectives about North America that should provide further evidence that the United States resides within a newly recognized American heartland:

  1. 1. The United States location is a good distance from threatening Eurasian great powers, with its immediate neighbors, Mexico and Canada, posing no danger and Brazil encircled by potential adversaries. Shatterbelts and checkerboards do not happen in the sector.

  2. 2. In terms of land size, the United States ranks third worldwide, with its middle plains holding the largest contiguous area on Earth of rich and well-watered farmland. As a result, the country enjoys food surpluses. A great majority of the inner continent’s arable territories reside within 200 kilometers of navigable rivers, making them available for low-cost barge transport.

  3. 3. Having faced little opposition in its historic expansion from Atlantic to Pacific, and firmly settling the middle portion because of its wealth, the United States ranks as the sole two-ocean continental nation, safe from Eurasian attack and its navy able to balance states favorably on either flank of Eurasia.

  4. 4. A rectangular configuration encouraged unity among the country’s regions and left no continental sector exposed.

  5. 5. Natural frontiers erased land disputes with neighbors; no mountain, desert, or jungle impeded continental settlement.

  6. 6. The Mississippi basin and the intracoastal waterways hold more navigable internal passages than the rest of the world combined. The river affords water traffic in less costly barge commerce over the middle third of the United States, extending a distance of 3,000 kilometers inland, and the five Great Lakes also allow ocean shipping well into the U.S. interior. Both systems help integrate the continental economic and political systems.

  7. 7. Abundance and location of adjacent energy and mineral resources, all relative to a strong industrial and technological infrastructure, perhaps makes the United States the best placed, most abundant, and strongest country in these respects.

  8. 8. Finally, these factors have attracted much immigration to the United States of productive peoples, still a fast-growing but relatively youthful population, with an average age less than the other great powers and with the least density of usable land.

With these depictions now assembled, it does appear that the two heartland configurations, Eurasian and North American, equate in theoretical structure, with the latter emerging as the stronger. If this is the case, the North American heartland may likely continue its world hegemony for at least several more years, or even decades, reflecting this heritage of wealth.

In conclusion, these examples of Ukrainian, Turkish, and North American geopolitics are offered as appropriate describers for the approval of classical geopolitics that this article is seeking to demonstrate. The descriptions in this text all appear to satisfy the linkage between theory and event, the associations assisting, as they must, with giving better insight as contributed by geopolitics into the machinations of international-relations theory relative to foreign and security policies and actions of individual countries and the world at large. This defense of classical geopolitics now rests, having given readers an appropriate definition of the term, a description of theories that attach to the traditional definition, and several applications of the theory toward interpreting instances of past and recent history.


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