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Geography and Foreign Policy

Summary and Keywords

The relationship between geography and foreign policy is deep and fundamental. Yet it is far more complex than many recognize, and many authors, including scholars who should know better, fall into the trap of determinism. This article will describe the ways in which critical approaches can help us to look at geography and foreign policy by building the frameworks for analyses including religion, popular geopolitics, and feminism. Additionally, it will argue that once we have understood the dangers of an overly simplistic approach to geography, we need to apply new, cutting-edge geospatial methods to better understand how geography and foreign policy are related. By doing so, we can deal with important international issues, such as war and peace, and climate change.

Keywords: geography, foreign policy, war, conflict, geopolitics, science, pseudo-science, feminism, religion, media, elites, climate change

Foundations of Geography and Foreign Policy: The Greatest Hoax of the Twentieth Century?

Geography is fundamental to understanding foreign policy. Indeed, when we consider that some authors have argued that the function of geography is, above all else, to create war, we can see that geography must be a key concern in any analysis of foreign policy.

To understand the relationship between geography and foreign policy, we need to know something of the history of geography. Discussions of Eratosthenes and Herodotus are beyond the scope of this paper, so a sensible starting point would be a discussion of Sir Halford Mackinder’s famous lecture to the Royal Geographical Society in 1904 in which he presented his “Geographical Pivot of History.” Indeed, how could we understand the United States’ contemporary “pivot to Asia” (or pivot to China) without understanding Mackinder’s “geographical pivot of history” (Mackinder, 1904)? Yet while most geographers have moved on since Mackinder’s pivot, recognizing the inherent problems in its determinism, many political scientists and members of the foreign policy community have not, finding themselves trapped in the shadow of a curious beast called “geopolitics.”

The concept of geopolitics, while essential for understanding geography and foreign policy, comes laden with negative baggage. Passing through phases of (un)acceptability, this “pseudo-science”1 reached a stage during World War II when it was considered to be preferable by some to “leave the term geopolitics, with all its odious connotations … and simply speak of political geography” (Broek, 1943, p. 144) (for more on the history of geopolitics, see Pickering, 2017a). Yet we are now in a position where a whole generation of geographers coming from many different perspectives are taking back the term “geopolitics,” recognizing its history and applying it in new and useful ways. Geopolitics may be tainted by an association with Nazism, but we must not throw out the geopolitical baby with the Nazi bathwater; if we are to dismiss geopolitics, then we must find cogent critiques of its tenets not its fellow-travelers (Takeuchi, 1980, p. 16).

There is so much we can do with geography and there are so many ways in which we can use it to understand foreign policy. Indeed, we must use it, but to do so, we need to recognize its history and acknowledge its contested status: “Just as none of us is outside or beyond geography, none of us is completely free from the struggle over geography. That struggle is complex and interesting because it is not only about soldiers and cannons but also about ideas, about forms, about images and imaginings” (Said, 1993, p. 6). As Sharp (1993, p. 492) points out, “geography is not an unchanging or independent variable but rather it is a form of power/knowledge” (see also Agnew, 1994, 1998; Flint, 2005). Accordingly, to understand geography and foreign policy, we need to adopt a new framework.

Geography Gets Critical

Pivotal in the development of critical geography is Lacoste (1976).2 He looks at how people see geography and argues that the primary reason for geography to exist as a discipline is to make war. For Lacoste, geography has existed as long as the apparatus of the state, and it has always been a means of control. Indeed, as Lacoste reminds us, General Pinochet was a geographer.

The term geopolitics fell out of usage in France after World War II, but re-enters the discourse after the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1979. This re-entry takes two forms: a) it is used by young journalists for whom the terms geopolitics was not carrying any baggage; and b) it is used by scholars who want to reclaim the term from its Nazi connotations (see Giblin, 1985).

One of the areas Lacoste looks at is borders, and he is critical of the notion of natural frontiers: “When a border coincides over a considerable section of its length with a topographical ‘accident’ such as the crest of a range or a river, we speak of a ‘natural frontier.’ This is a euphemism; diplomats and military men chose this frontier at a given moment, given certain relations of force between two states” (Lacoste, 1984, p. 226).

From this observation and earlier arguments in Lacoste (1976) emerges the field of critical cartography, which aims to piece apart the key role of the map in influencing foreign policy (see Culcasi, 2006; Pickering, 2014). It draws on a rich body of work that is not formally identified as critical cartography but clearly is written in the same spirit (see Harley, 1989; Monmonier, 1991; Wood, 1992; Smith, 1995, 2001; Black, 1997; Visser, 2007; Pickering, 2012, 2017b).

Critical geopolitics is one of the most useful frameworks through which we can explore the relationship between geography and foreign policy. The influence of Yves Lacoste and Gerard Ó Tuathail3 can hardly be overstated: Fundamentally, they have allowed us to take ownership of geopolitics and move it into more productive directions. For both of them, it is important that before we apply critical geopolitics, we understand something of what geography is, in terms of its history and legacy, but also what it means to be a geographer today. Indeed, we cannot engage in critical geopolitics without asking ourselves what it means to do geography, and why it is that we are doing it.

The Development of Geospatial Approaches

While the emergence of critical geography is of key importance in understanding geography and foreign policy, we need to take the next step to critically engage with geography in order to understand the baggage it brings to the foreign policy arena. Once we are aware of this, we need to find ways in which geospatial methods can be usefully applied to the study of foreign policy.

Among the earliest researchers taking this next step are Harvey Starr and Benjamin Most who, drawing on earlier work by Sprout and Sprout (1957, 1960) and Boulding (1989) gives us the “opportunity and willingness” framework (see Starr & Most, 1976, 1978; Starr, 1978; Most & Starr, 1980; Siverson & Starr, 1991; Starr & Bain, 1995; Starr, 2003).

Writing from a comparable perspective, Buhaug and Gleditsch (2006) argue that interactions between actors in the international system, be they positive or negative, depend on opportunity, motive, and identity; similarly, using the drama of detective fiction, for Collier and Hoeffler (2004, p. 563), interactions such as rebellions require both motive and opportunity.

Building on these foundations, a new generation of researchers has been able to apply geospatial methods to the study of foreign policy, from the framework of interaction opportunities. Anastasiou (2002), for instance, argues that borders prevent interactions. Alesina and Spolaore (2003) find that smaller state size equals more interaction opportunities. Buhaug and Gleditsch (2005) observe that the distance between actors determines their interaction opportunities. Cunningham, Gleditsch, and Salehyan (2005) remind us that we need to consider not just interactions between states, but interactions within states. Finally, Robst, Polachek, and Chang (2007) find that more interactions means more possibilities for a conflict of interest.

Such research is ongoing, and as we will see later, provides one of the most exciting areas for potential new findings on the relationship between geography and foreign policy.

Feminist Geopolitics and Foreign Policy

Feminist frameworks, in terms of their aims, methodologies, and approaches, can be combined with geography to form especially useful lenses through which we can understand foreign policy in new ways—ways that cannot be achieved through other more traditional approaches. Dowler (2013) points out that feminist approaches help us to understand “intimate spaces of war and violent transgressions both at the scales of the local and global” (Dowler, 2013, p. 781).

Feminist geopolitics is able to look at not just foreign policy, but the effects of foreign policy: As Patterson-Markowitz, Oglesby, and Marston (2012, p. 87) point out, feminist geopolitics and feminist geography more generally have been able to look at post-conflict trauma and sexual violence in war time; indeed, feminist geographers are able to point out that such violence in war time is “a reproduction of the violence perpetrated in ‘peace time’” and thus must be understood as a key element in the “broader social, political, and economic processes that are embedded in state policies, public institutions, and the global economy” (Giles & Hyndman, 2004, pp. 3–4).

Feminist Geographies

Feminist literature in political geography starts to emerge in the 1980s, following the development of feminist geography a decade earlier. Early feminist political geography framed itself in terms of electoral geography, collective consumption, urban community activism, and the involvement of women in local government (Kofman & Peake, 1990, pp. 313–314). But this was seen by some as the domestic, working “low” politics, not the lofty “high” politics that feminists concerned with foreign policy would have to deal with. Kofman and Peake (1990) argue that feminist geography itself emerges from both within and without the discipline of geography: from within, as a result of developments and arguments within geography, and from without, as a result of feminist critiques of the study of geography and politics.

The emergence of feminist political geography and, later, feminist geopolitics was slow,4 partly because feminist approaches were reluctant to engage with geography,5 and partly because geography was reluctant to take on feminist approaches. Dalby lamented that “[a]lthough gender has been mentioned in places, until recently this literature has not directed attention specifically to the gendered dimensions of geopolitics” (Dalby, 1994, pp. 595–596). Yet when feminist geopolitics did emerge, Dalby’s expectations would prove too narrow. Feminist geopolitics was not just interested in gender in itself; instead it was concerned with “the social and environmental processes whereby the two genders—women and men—which make up the category ‘human’ are constituted, reproduced and changed. Feminist geography is about the way in which gender is constituted and how this relates to the constitution of the environment” (Mackenzie, 1999, p. 419).6

Feminist Geopolitics Defined

So what is feminist geopolitics? While some have attempted to define it (see Patterson-Markowitz, Oglesby, & Marston, 2012), it is perhaps a mistake to try, as Hyndman (2001) reminds us that there is not just one form of feminism; there are many. Accordingly, we should not expect to find a single type of feminist geopolitics; nor should we look for an easy and encompassing definition. In a later work, Hyndman (2007) goes as far as to ask whether there is a feminist geopolitics. Is feminist geography different to critical geography, or political geography? Writing in an earlier piece, Staeheli (2001) asks whether a feminist geopolitics is even possible. Her initial answer is “yes,” because there are many geographers using feminist theory. However, she takes a step back by arguing that although it would be possible to do such research, it would be hard to have it accepted: political geography would be highly unlikely to acknowledge feminist geopolitics and bring its literature into the canon.

What Might a Feminist Geopolitics Do?

Nevertheless, if there is a feminist geopolitics (or, if there potentially could be), what might it do? In some ways, this is a more useful question than trying to look for a definition, which would be too restrictive. What might a feminist geopolitics be, or do? Hyndman argues that a feminist geopolitics should aim not to look at the security of the state, but to promote the security of persons, and in so doing, reconstruct geopolitics itself (Hyndman, 2001). In a later work, Hyndman (2004) distills this further, pointing out that feminist geopolitics will recognize the importance of the state, but move beyond it, as it obscures our view of violence at other levels.

Geopolitics of the Everyday

The notion of “everyday geopolitics” or “banal geopolitics” occurs throughout feminist geopolitics. Hyndman (2007, p. 37) argues that political geography had spent so much time with grand theories that it had ignored the ways in which everyday politics affects people’s lives; to solve this problem, feminist frameworks are necessary. For Massaro and Williams (2013), feminist geopolitics is able to take the focus of geopolitics away from states and elites, and instead focus on the everyday, the mundane representations of geopolitical power (Massaro & Williams, 2013, p. 567).

By looking at the banal, everyday impacts of global politics, and by retaining the ability to look at the macro and micro levels, feminist scholars are able to open up entirely new discourses: Dowler (2013) argues that “feminist methodological approaches to geopolitics focus on inequality as the result of globalisation while emphasising transnational associations and individuality rather than global comparisons” (Dowler, 2013, pp. 781–782).7

Feminist Approaches: Not Just an Add-On, but a Restructuring

For Dowler and Sharp (2001), a feminist geopolitics would not be a bolt-on, but a lens. It is not as simple as just putting women into geopolitics and history, but it instead gives us a lens through which we can see the disenfranchised and their everyday lives (Dowler & Sharp, 2001, p. 169). Accordingly, feminist geopolitics does not give us a new theory of geography and foreign policy, a new understanding of space, or a different means of practice, but it instead gives us an approach to world affairs based on feminist ideas (Hyndman, 2001). Massaro and Williams (2013) agree that it is useful to regard feminist geopolitics as a lens, as in so doing, we can decide what to point our lens at; we can study new areas and change what is considered to be geopolitics.

Areas of Focus for Feminist Geopolitics

While a feminist geopolitics might be quite diverse, there are certain key themes that emerge as areas of focus for research.

Studying Up

Harding and Norberg (2005) point to an important principle taken from critical studies generally and applied by feminism to geopolitics: studying up. Studying up is to analyze the institutions and policies of the powerful, instead of just looking at those governed by the powerful. “By studying up, researchers can identify the conceptual practices of power and how they shape daily social relations” (Harding & Norberg, 2005; see also Massaro & Williams, 2013).

(Women’s) Bodies, International Relations, and National Security

Feminist geopolitics is concerned with bodies: bodies of women, bodies of men, bodies of the living and the dead. For Hyndman (2007), this is because feminist approaches are able to switch scale more easily than traditional IR or geographical frameworks. Feminist geopolitics can look at macro issues, such as state security, but it can also come down to the micro, to look at the safety of bodies, and of people in their homes. In so doing, it actively avoids the more “disembodied” geopolitical approach, instead looking at real human beings with names and families. For Dowler and Sharp (2001), this is important, as while women’s bodies have always been involved in foreign policy, this has been at the everyday level, so discussion of them has not made it into geopolitics texts (Dowler & Sharp, 2001, p. 168). Indeed, women in foreign policy have not typically been seen as decision-makers, but instead as migrants, or cross-border laborers, or alternatively “as ‘victims’ to be protected by international peacekeepers” (Dowler & Sharp, 2001, p. 168).

As has been mentioned, this concern with bodies extends to the dead: while websites such as those of the Iraq Body Count may serve a normative purpose, feminist approaches try to take a different perspective toward the same end: Hyndman argues that even death itself can be masculinized or feminized. Masculinized deaths are soldiers, which are recorded carefully and publically mourned; feminized deaths are Afghans, which are not (Hyndman, 2007, p. 39). By adopting this lens, feminist geopolitics is able to link events in a way that would not otherwise be possible with other methods: For example, Hyndman links deaths in Iraq with deaths in New Orleans as a result of Hurricane Katrina (Hyndman, 2007, pp. 40–41).

Feminist Geopolitics: Normative

Many feminist scholars employ geopolitics not to describe the international system, but to change it. Indeed, for some scholars, there is no point in academic research unless it is actively involved in making social and structural changes.8 For Staeheli and Kofman (2004), reworking the political requires commitment to social change.

Mixing Disciplines

Feminist research is uniquely suited to working across divides, and this is especially useful for geopolitics. An example of this can be found in the work of Olson (2013), who works at the intersection of religion, activism, and geopolitics. Looking at revolutionary movements in Peru in 2001–2002, Olson observes that nuns and priests had different approaches to the Shining Path in the rural regions of the Andes. She refers to the division of gender as one of “hypersexualised men and long-suffering women in the image of machismo and marianismo.”9 This ability to mix disciplines can only be enabled by the application of feminist approaches.

New Perspectives on Old Themes: The Potential of Feminist Approaches

Because feminist geopolitics is concerned with “peopling” and tends to focus on grass roots efforts, Casolo and Doshi (2013) are able to look at foreign policy from a new perspective: from below, by looking at debt and development from the bottom up in Mumbai and Guatemala. They reject the traditional top-down understandings of geopolitics; instead, “geopolitics is understood not solely as given from above through international security manoeuvres, but constantly produced and reworked through (sometimes contradictory) place-based struggles over meaning and resources” (Casolo & Doshi, 2013, p. 801). Such research is clearly important, and feminist methods are well placed to engage in it.

Entirely New Lenses

Feminist geopolitics is able to look at things in an entirely new light. In the IR and political geography literature, much has been written on terrorism, for instance. But feminist approaches can understand this in a fundamentally different way. Puar (2006), for instance, is able to present terrorists in terms of sexual identity (Puar, 2006, p. 67). Approaching from another perspective, Berko and Erez (2006) find that women involved in terrorism are socially conservative: Looking at the case of female Palestinian suicide bombers, they find that they are “firmly fixed in place by the norms of a patriarchal society and that their roles as terrorists are secondary and marginal” (Berko & Erez, 2006, p. 12). Again, feminist geopolitics is extremely well-suited to approach an issue like terrorism in this way.

Feminist approaches then, give us not only new ways to understand geography and foreign policy, but also new ways to engage in geopolitics.

Religion, Geography, and Foreign Policy

How can we study religion, geography, and foreign policy at the same time? What might the link between them be? Dijkink (2006) answers these questions by asking several other questions:

  • In what way does a religious bond with a territory change people’s behavior towards other peoples and territories?

  • What do ancient religious texts tell us about international affairs?

  • How has religion constituted the international system of sovereign states? (Dijkink, 2006, p. 195)

The answers to these questions are difficult, but to try to address them, we need to revisit some of the classics of international relations literature.

Using Geography and Religion to Justify Foreign Policy: From the “God Trick” to the “Jesus Trick”

Consider Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” thesis. Huntington identified several10 civilizations. Some of these civilizations had religious names (Islamic, Hindu, Orthodox, and debatably Buddhist) while others did not (Western, Latin American, African, Sinic, Japanese). Huntington argues that these are the parts of the world that will go to war with each other. Ó Tuathail (1998) refers to this as the geopolitical “god trick,” which “claimed to represent effortlessly the drama of international politics as an intelligible spectacle without interpretation” (Ó Tuathail, 1998, p. 6).

But Huntington was not explicitly interested in religion; he just found religion convenient for identifying some of his civilizations. If we take Huntington’s work, and then deliberately add religion (as we can see in Lindsey (2011), in which there is always going to be conflict because of the “Everlasting Hatred” between Muslim and Judeo-Christian civilizations), then we have Sparke’s “Jesus trick” (Sparke, 2005, p. 308) which, as Sturm (2010, p. 136) argues, “enables prophecy expounders to predict the future with no regard to its dehumanizing consequences.” The term “Jesus trick” was chosen because this form of determinism is especially attractive to evangelical Christian premillennialists, who believe that Christ will return before ushering in a thousand years of peace.

Christianity and U.S. Foreign Policy

While religion makes the study of politics hard, it also makes the practice of politics much easier. When communicating a message, fire and brimstone are better than forecasts and budgets: “[I]t is profoundly more effective to hide complex geopolitics in the simplistic, infantilizing language of religious apocalypse and millennialist logic” (McLaren, 2002, p. 330).

Wallace (2006, p. 210) states that the foreign policy of the George W. Bush administration was “avowedly, though contestably, ‘Christian’” (Wallace, 2006, p. 210). It is important to study the way in which the Bush administration used religion, “[p]lacing a veil of righteousness over the exercise of mass destruction and the quest for geopolitical dominance,” as McLaren (2002, pp. 328–330) puts it. But we also need to study the ways in which religion used the Bush administration.

Religion, Geography, and Determinism in Foreign Policy

Looking back to the first Gulf War and the George H. W. Bush administration, Harding (1994, p. 39) looks at the titles of some sermons given in American churches at the time. They included titles such as “Iraq in Bible Prophecy,” “The Persian Gulf War from God’s perspective,” “The Middle East Crisis: A Step Toward Armageddon?” Harding (1994) argues that these would leave church-goers pondering, “Is this Armageddon? Is Saddam Hussein the Antichrist?”

For premillennialists, the future is fixed and one cannot, and indeed should not, change it. This powerful sentiment uses geopolitical mappings of the world to justify violence and inevitable war (Sturm, 2006, p. 248). This branches out into other spheres of foreign policy, not just war; it alters the discourse in areas like climate change: “Even an evangelical, fundamentalist Christian can both lament the continued course of global warming and rejoice at its consequences, fulfilling the prophecy that God ‘is destroying … the destroyers of the earth’ (Rev 11:18)” (Skrimshire, 2014, p. 4).

Agnew (2006) argues that this view alters the debate on democracy and the rule of law, both domestically and internationally. The world to come will not be peaceful, so why waste time on negotiations in domestic and international politics? In this view, democracy is a poor neighbor to righteousness, so why bother pursuing it in Iraq (Agnew, 2006, p. 184)?

But it goes a step further than this: If the world is going to end, and we know how it is going to end, not only can one not change it, but one should not change it, as that would be acting against the word of God. As Sturm (2006) argues, “Even taking action to reverse this apocalyptic violence is seen as a challenge to God’s sovereignty because crisis is part of the divine End Time plan” (Sturm, 2006, p. 233; see also Weber, 1979).

This can explain why the evangelist James Robison, who had a significant impact on Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush (see Mansfield, 2003) was able to refer to peace activists as heretics, since “any teaching of peace prior to Christ’s return is heresy. It’s against the Word of God; it’s Antichrist” (Brown, 2009, p. 12).

Accordingly, if the world is going to end, and this cannot be changed, and it would be heretical to try, then people should start behaving as if the world is going to end. When policy-makers adopt these beliefs, the implications are worrying (Agnew, 2006, p. 185).

Influence of Geography and Religion on Foreign Policy and Elites

If we accept that such views are widespread, can we accept that they influence elites and foreign policy? This is, of course, more difficult. But evidence can be found in several places.

U.S. Congress

The former House of Representatives Majority Leader Tom Delay is one example: After he had listened to a sermon by John Hagee, the premillennial televangelist, Delay said, “Ladies and gentlemen, what has been spoken here tonight is the truth from God” (Sturm, 2006, p. 247).

Israeli Intelligence

We can also see evidence of the effect that dispensationalism has had on the Israeli intelligence services: Dispensationalists believe that at some point in the end times, one of the holiest sites in Islam, the Dome of the Rock, in Jerusalem, will be destroyed; accordingly, “Israeli Intelligence listens, lest any of the dispensationalist Christians who are in Israel ‘realize’ that God has chosen them to blow up the Dome of the Rock” (Harding, 1994, pp. 43–44).

Ronald Reagan

As Dittmer (2007) points out, “the psychology of decision making at the presidential level [is] of course well beyond the ability of academics to do anything but speculate” (Dittmer, 2007, p. 299). But we can look at their words, their actions, and the people who influenced them. Sturm (2010) is also reluctant to over-read but does see correlation: “It is not known whether Reagan’s foreign policy decisions were consciously shaped by his interpretation of prophecy. His massive military spending and his hyper-moral religious language of ‘evil empires’ was, however, consistent with prophetic belief (see Halsell, 1986)” (Sturm, 2010, p. 133).

We can glean some of Ronald Reagan’s religious geopolitics from the time before he became president. Speaking at a dinner with California state legislators in 1971, Reagan said:

Ezekiel tells us that Gog, the nation that will lead all of the other powers of darkness against Israel, will come out of the north. Biblical scholars have been saying for generations that Gog must be Russia. What other powerful nation is to the north of Israel? None. But it didn’t seem to make sense before the Russian revolution, when Russia was a Christian country. Now it does, now that Russia has become communistic and atheistic, now that Russia has set itself against God. Now it fits the description of Gog perfectly.

(Reagan, 1971, cited in Boyer, 1992, p. 162)

“Gog and Magog,” is a reference made in the book of Ezekiel (37–38); from this reference, authors such as Joel Rosenberg and Mark Hitchcock make deterministic predictions about when and where the end of the world is going to occur. If you had not heard of Gog and Magog, you are not alone; Jacques Chirac only discovered the phrase in a phone conversation with George W. Bush, in which the American president was trying to persuade his French counterpart to support an invasion of Iraq:

Jacques [said Bush], you and I share a common faith … we are both Christians committed to the teachings of the Bible. We share one common Lord … Gog and Magog are at work in the Middle East … Biblical prophecies are being fulfilled … This confrontation … is willed by God, who wants to use this conflict to erase His people’s enemies before a new age begins.

(Eichenwald, 2012, p. 459)

Whether Gog and Magog are people, places, or other-worldly beings is subject to debate, but it is interesting that during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, they were to be found not in the Middle East, but in the Soviet Union (see Sturm, 2010, p. 139).

Reagan concluded his dinner-speech by saying, “For the first time ever, everything is in place for the battle of Armageddon and the second coming of Christ” (Reagan, 1971, cited in Boyer, 1992, p. 162). A year later, when he heard about Gaddafi’s coup in Libya, Reagan responded: “That’s a sign that the day of Armageddon isn’t far off… . Everything is falling into place. It can’t be long now. Ezekiel says that fire and brimstone will be rained upon the enemies of God’s people. That must mean that they’ll be destroyed by nuclear weapons” (Sturm, 2006, p. 235).

George W. Bush

George W. Bush was also vocal in his faith, and as we can see in Mansfield (2003), he often cited the effect Billy Graham had on him.11

George W. Bush was something of a return to Reagan’s form12 regarding religious determinism: “Bush frequently conveys the sense that he, his administration, and the hegemonic nation which he leads are privy to God’s plan for the world and are the appointed agents to fulfill it: God is on their side, and they are unquestionably on God’s” (Wallace, 2006, p. 210; see also McLaren, 2002).

After listening to a sermon on how God had called on Moses to lead his people to the promised land, Bush announced, “I feel like God wants me to run for president… . I can’t explain it, but I sense my country is going to need me. Something is going to happen, and, at that time, my country is going to need me. I know it won’t be easy, on me or my family, but God wants me to do it” (quoted in Mansfield, 2003, p. 109).

The Importance of Understanding Religion

If we want to understand geopolitics, we need to consider all of the things that influence it, including religion. Conversely, we also need to understand how geopolitics has influenced religion (Sturm, 2006, p. 232).

Some of the discussion here has focused on extremes. We should not dismiss these. As Skrimshire (2014, p. 1) argues, “Apocalyptic arguments made by people of good and sincere faith have apparently succeeded in persuading millions; it is unfair and dangerous to dismiss these arguments as irrational and the audiences persuaded by them as ignorant fools” (see also O’Leary, 1998).

Religion is difficult for analysts of foreign policy to incorporate into their frameworks. Nevertheless, if we are to fully understand geography and foreign policy, then we need to do so. To put this in a rather more positive light, “[t]hese are exciting times for geographers of religion” (Kong, 2010, p. 770).

Popular Geopolitics and Foreign Policy

For a long time, popular geopolitics was not taken too seriously; it was certainly seen as a relative of other forms of geopolitics, but perhaps a sort of distant cousin who just gathered the low-hanging fruit. To an extent this idea remains: There is research in the sphere of popular geopolitics which is a little less serious than we might expect of other academic research, and many respectable geographers avoid popular geopolitics because to study it would require studying popular culture. But on January 7, 2015, when the brothers Saïd and Chérif Kouachi stormed the offices of the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, murdering 12 people, it became clear that the study of popular geopolitics would have to be taken more seriously. How did we arrive at a situation where two men decided to commit mass murder for a cartoon?

There is so much that we do not know about the relationship between elites, media, and the general public when it comes to factors like the formation of foreign policy, multiculturalism, identity, interstate relations, soft power, and the relationship between religion and the state. Popular geopolitics can give us a forum at which to start drawing together theories and research from many different areas to try to better understand these issues.

At the time of this writing, the Charlie Hebdo case has not made it into the popular geopolitics academic press, as journal review cycles are long. But an earlier case has: the drawings of the Prophet Mohammed in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005, which led to attacks on Danish (and indeed Norwegian and Austrian) embassies and Christian churches around the world. Ridanpää (2009, p. 732) sees this stemming directly from popular geopolitics, which had “conventionally been perceived as a more or less passive reflector of geopolitical processes.” We can no longer afford to simply view popular geopolitics as a “passive reflector of geopolitical processes” (2009, p. 732). As our daily interactions with media increase, that relationship between popular geopolitics and other forms of geopolitics will become ever more complex. But this presents an opportunity: As more data become available, we have more opportunities to research and better understand the phenomenon of popular geopolitics. As Dittmer (2005, p. 626) argues, if we want to understand national identity and global order, we need to understand popular geopolitics.

Defining Popular Geopolitics

The study of popular geopolitics emerges from critical geopolitics and indeed is still an integral part of it. But this study recognizes that geopolitics is an everyday occurrence that happens outside of academia and the policy world; it happens in the realm of popular geopolitics (Dittmer & Gray, 2010, p. 1664); see also Dittmer, 2010, p. 14). Of necessity, the term “popular geopolitics” refers to two things: the daily type of geopolitics which are presented through various media, and the academic analysis of that daily geopolitics (Dittmer, 2010, p. xviii). For the former category, Purcell, Brown, and Gokmen (2010, p. 377) propose a further subdivision: popular geopolitics produced by elites, and popular geopolitics produced by non-elites. Indeed, for Saunders (2012, p. 82), the aim of popular geopolitical research is to look at the complex relationship between elite geopolitics and popular understandings of how the world works. Furthermore, Narangoa (2004, p. 48) argues that we should look not just at the ways of thinking that led to political decisions, but also at the ways in which people are socialized to think about their world in certain ways.

Accordingly, popular geopolitics researchers need to study media in practically all its forms (Dittmer, 2010, p. 15). Purcell, Brown, and Gokmen (2010) see cinema, magazines, comics, and newspaper cartoons as producing elite geopolitics. For them, the non-elite-produced popular geopolitics comes from new social media and other such Internet-based technologies that have an interactive element (Purcell, Brown, & Gokmen, 2010, pp. 377–378).

History and Importance

Discussions of popular geopolitics generally start with the work of Ó Tuathail, but we can wind the clock back a little further. Takeuchi (1980, p. 15) discusses how geopolitics has always been of popular appeal because it gives novel explanations of political reality that conventional means have not been able to explain. However, this comes at a price: Geography’s scientific basis is lost for the sake of demagogy. Takeuchi (1980) is very seldom referred to in the literature, which is unfortunate, as this analysis remains nuanced and useful.

But we are indebted to Ó Tuathail for his work in advancing the field of popular geopolitics. Drawing on Michael Herr’s (Herr, 1977) account of the Vietnam war, referred to as “America’s first rock-n-roll war,” Ó Tuathail argues that the influence of Vietnam remains with us (Ó Tuathail, 1996, p. 171): “Chuck Norris/Oliver Stone/Rambo wannabes are shooting up wild zones across the globe while a remasculinization imperative—overcoming the lack and impotence that is the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’—underwrote the picture-perfect slaughter of the Gulf War.”

Prior to this, analyzing elite texts had been the norm, and while there was a recognition that popular culture had been feeding on geopolitical events, popular culture itself was seen as a bit of a waste of time (Dittmer, 2010, p. 1). It was acknowledged that popular culture could provide “‘easy access’ to the events of the geopolitical world in a simplified form,” but for many geographers, this was a little too easy (Ridanpää, 2009, p. 730). Accordingly, there was a reluctance among geographers to look at popular materials in a formal way. But after Ó Tuathail (1996), geographers realized that they would have to start looking at popular culture in their analyses (see Saunders, 2012, p. 83).

Elite/Pluralist Models

However, it continues to be the case that the study of popular geopolitics has, at the moment, mostly focused on elites. These are not the traditional foreign policy elites, but media elites. While Dittmer and Gray (2010, p. 1664) express a degree of annoyance that researchers of popular geopolitics have retained this elite focus, it is to a degree not too surprising. When analyzing elite texts has been the norm for years, it can be difficult to adjust to new methods. To really understand the new non-elites and their effect on foreign policy, we need to either run survey experiments, or start harvesting data from social media. Thankfully, some of this research is starting to be done. For the survey experiments, Atsushi Tago has led a team of researchers performing experiments on public opinion and foreign policy, regarding uni/multilateralism, fighter-jet near-miss incidents, and foreign denouncements of government foreign policy: all clear examples of new, non-elite-based popular geopolitics (see Tago, 2010; Ikeda & Tago, 2014; Tago & Ikeda, 2015; Pilster, Böhmelt, & Tago, 2015; Kohama, Inamasu, & Tago, 2016). By taking these approaches, we can start to reframe popular geopolitics, a version in which “power is more diffuse and relational, rather than caught up by elite agents—and thus is much more of an ‘everyday’ affair” (Dittmer & Gray, 2010, p. 1665).

Moreover, the move to social media forces us to reconsider the elite/non-elite binary: “When politicians (or celebrities) use Twitter or Facebook to engage with their fan-base/voters, the distinction between elite and popular political communication breaks down. The world of celebrity geopolitics would appear to connect the national parliament/congress with the popular/everyday and the ‘celebrity’ with the ‘politician’ (and the citizen) in interesting ways” (Benwell, Dodds, & Pinkerton, 2012, p. 2). Accordingly, we must start looking at social media in an organized way if we want to understand foreign policy.

New Media and Tabloid Geopolitics

Sharp (1993) debunks journalism of its notions of lofty objectivity. Media are part of geopolitics; they are not external. Falah, Flint, and Mamadouh (2006) go on to argue that media should not be regarded as separate from foreign policy and geopolitical conflicts; they are a part of them. To demonstrate this, they look at the case of Iraq in the run-up to the U.S. invasion in 2003. They argue that something new was happening there: Thanks to what they refer to as a “hypermedia environment” where news and information were instantly available via the Internet, popular and governmental opposition were fueled in a way they never had been before. As such, Falah, Flint, and Mamadouh argue that media helped build morale within Iraq and bolstered the rhetoric of the Iraqi leadership, domestically and abroad (Falah, Flint, & Mamadouh, 2006, p. 160).

Tabloid Truth-Telling

Debrix (2007) looks at the ways in which television news in the United States feeds back to elites. The United States has an especially aggressive type of tabloid geopolitics in which viewers are constantly told of the dangers facing the United States (see the discussion of The O’Reilly Factor in Dittmer & Dodds, 2008, p. 439). Because of the volume of talk shows and news programs presented in sensationalist ways, Debrix argues that the “intellectuals” of statecraft in the United States start to present foreign policy in the same way: as “eye-catching, fear-inducing, spectacular, shocking, scandalizing, and overtly simplistic” (Debrix, 2007). As such, IR scholars start presenting their work in terms of danger, national security, terror, and war.

Debrix (2007, p. 923) refers to tabloid geopolitics as something that entertains, shocks, sensationalizes, and simplifies. It does this by giving “common sense” explanations and fancy maps to create a sense of fear and inevitable danger. In an earlier piece, Debrix argued that tabloid geopolitics works from the assumption that Americans do not want to hear about their everyday lives in which they are “underpaid, overworked, bullied at work, in the home, [or] when serving their country in foreign lands. They want glamorous stories, scandals, exceptional events … they want to be entertained” (Debrix, 2003, p. 152). Glynn argues that this creates an environment in which people are constantly seeking new bits of exciting news, before the first bit has even finished (Glynn, 2000, pp. 18–19).

Tabloid Realism and Maps

One of the most powerful parts of the tabloid geopolitical discourse is the map. These take the “tricks of the cartographic trade” identified by Harley (1989, p. 7) to the next level: “[T]abloid realist maps are no longer the binary, simplistic red versus blue cartographical representations of the Cold War era. They are now fluid, multi-dimensional, almost ‘holographic’ projections of this geopolitical discourse. This does not mean, though, that these different-looking maps are necessarily less artificial, delimiting and reality producing than the older maps” (Debrix, 2003, p. 162).


Experts have been described as a “state’s privileged story tellers” (Dodds, 1993, p. 71), but there is seldom any questioning of their claims to this expertise or the power relations behind them.

There are different types of experts. Some experts have direct links to the policy community; others have more tenuous links through think tanks (see Debrix, 2003 on the work of Robert Kaplan).

Sometimes, experts come directly from the military, which is a particular concern for Ó Tuathail (1998, p. 4), who points out that if enough military experts frame an issue in terms of its danger to national security, and the need to control a region or buy a certain weapon, then there is a good chance that the military institutions will receive extra funding.

Additionally, organizations such as the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) or the International Institute for Strategic Studies deserve attention, as they play “an important role in cultivating and sustaining an elite audience…. This collective group, as feminist writers such as Christine Sylvester have noted, is overwhelmingly a white, middle class, university or military educated male elite” (Dodds, 1993, p. 72).

Celebrity Geopolitics

Celebrities in foreign policy are in the curious position that they can “issue official and policy-prescriptive statements endorsed by others” (Benwell, Dodds, & Pinkerton, 2012, p. 1).

There is a long history of celebrity involvement in geopolitics. For instance, Benwell, Dodds, and Pinkerton (2012) look at Jane Fonda and Muhammad Ali’s criticism of the United States’ involvement in Vietnam in the 1960s. More recently, they look at George Clooney being arrested outside the Sudanese Embassy in the United States in 2012, as he protested against the Sudanese government’s actions in Darfur. Additionally, they look at Bono and Bob Geldof’s campaign over the famine in Ethiopia, Richard Gere’s campaign on Tibetan independence, Oprah Winfrey on education in South Africa, Madonna on health care in Malawi, and the involvement in the Falklands/Malvinas by Sean Penn and Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters (Benwell, Dodds, & Pinkerton, 2012). These celebrity geopoliticians can be given impressive titles, such as UN Goodwill Ambassador (Céline Dion) or UN Messenger of Peace (Michael Douglas). However, these areas need more research in the relationship they have with the policy community.


Conspiracies also need to be considered as part of geography and foreign policy. For Jones (2012, p. 45), conspiracies are not just beliefs held on the fringes of society; they are commonplace. They cross the spheres of politics, science, and popular culture and should be seen as important to mainstream public debate.

In the case of conspiracy, we can see instances of feedback to overseas elites. Jones (2012) cites the case in 2010 of the then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addressing the UN General Assembly, in which he claimed that the majority of Americans believed that parts of the U.S. government organized the 9/11 attacks to stimulate the U.S. economy.

Popular Geopolitics: New Horizons

Popular geopolitics has much to tell us about geography and foreign policy. Yet in order to move the field forward, we need to start filling the gaps in the literature. We need to know how popular geopolitics feeds back into the formation of foreign policy, and perhaps most interestingly, how public opinion in one country affects foreign policy in another (see Dittmer & Dodds, 2008, p. 445; Dittmer, 2010).

While many researchers talk about the relationship between elite and pluralist models of foreign policy, few actually do any empirical research on it. There is a good reason for this: It is difficult (see Woon, 2014). But thankfully, researchers are finding creative ways to overcome these obstacles and move popular geopolitics in new, policy-relevant ways. As discussed earlier, Atsushi Tago’s research, which has been presented to the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, illustrates this trend (Tago, 2010; Ikeda & Tago, 2014; Tago & Ikeda, 2015; Pilster, Böhmelt, & Tago, 2015; Kohama, Inamasu, & Tago, 2016). Similarly, Woon (2014) is another notable exception: Woon carries out semi-structured interviews in the Philippines, looks at representations of life in Mindanao, and studies how the Philippines Daily Inquirer (the newspaper with the highest readership and circulation in the Philippines) covers conflict there.

Finally, Dittmer and Dodds (2008) highlight another area in which popular geopolitics needs to develop: new media. Since Dittmer and Dodds (2008), the number of people using social media on a daily basis has increased enormously, and this includes people from many parts of society. Researchers of popular geopolitics trying to understand how decisions are made about foreign policy need to analyze these new media, as they are breaking apart the old distinctions between elites and non-elites which popular geopolitics was built on.

New Quantitative Approaches: Adding Some Science to the Pseudo-Science

It is clear that critical approaches are needed when looking at the ways in which geography has been used by political scientists in their analysis of foreign policy. Yet there is a danger here: If this path is followed too far, geographical knowledge will be abandoned altogether. A compromise must be found, one that has an awareness of the history of geography and is sensitive to the ways it has been misunderstood and misused, but that also acknowledges that geography can tell us much about foreign policy, provided we apply geographical methods carefully.

This is where quantitative research can be usefully applied. But geo-spatial methods13 should not be applied blindly: It is important to be critical of the way geography has been used. More specifically, it is necessary to be critical of the data themselves being used: It is essential to make sure that any geo-spatial variables are tailored specifically to understanding foreign policy (see O’Loughlin, 2002; Cunningham, Gleditsch, & Salehyan, 2005; Gleditsch, 2007; Hegre & Raleigh, 2007; Ormhaug, 2007; Pickering, 2015, 2016, 2017b). Without this, false or inconsistent conclusions are reached. This is why it is important to bridge two disparate camps of social science research: the critical and the quantitative.

Climate Change and the “Inevitability” of Climate Wars: Hot Wars After the Cold War?

High geopolitics was de rigueur during the Cold War. Two decades after its end, the erstwhile cold warriors needed a new outlet for their environmental determinism. Human-induced climate change seemed a natural choice and global warming became a security issue. Our cold warriors have become hot warriors. Climate change has been linked in discourse to resource wars, population displacement, and refugee flows, conflict over resources such as water, altered rainfall patterns leading to drought and crop failures, and sea level rises leading to the destruction of island nations. In the United States, the Pentagon regards climate change as a “threat multiplier,” while at the United Nations, there has been serious discussion about the creation of UN “green helmet” peacekeepers (see, e.g., the UN Environment Programme’s “Greening the Blue Helmets” paper (UNEP, 2012)). Increasingly, environmental issues are seen as key factors in the future of human conflict, as is evidenced by the awarding of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Yet the science upon which the IPCC depends to relate climate change to conflict is thin at best.

Burke, Miguel, Satyanath, Dykema, and Lobell (2009) published an alarming piece in the American journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences titled “Warming Increases the Risk of Civil War in Africa.” This came as something of a surprise to conflict researchers, who had otherwise been noticing a decline in levels of conflict. It did not take long for a response to Burke et al.’s claim to be published, in the form of Buhaug’s (2010) “Climate Not to Blame for African Civil Wars” in the same journal. Not to be outdone, two of the original authors of the 2009 piece, this time writing with Solomon Hsiang, published an article in Science in which they offer “strong causal evidence linking climatic events to human conflict” (Hsiang, Burke, & Miguel, 2013, 1235367–1). Buhaug, this time with Jonas Nordkvelle, published a rebuttal which tended toward the technical (Buhaug & Nordkvelle, 2014) but a pre-publication interview with BBC News made his view clear: “I disagree with the sweeping conclusion (the authors) draw and believe that their strong statement about a general causal link between climate and conflict is unwarranted by the empirical analysis that they provide” (Morelle, 2013). Buhaug argues that other factors have a more significant relationship with conflict, such as infant mortality, proximity to borders, and population density.

An opportunity presents itself here. While some make the case that climate change will lead to more conflict, in reality, there is very little evidence for this, and indeed there is much that we do not yet know, (see Theisen, Gleditsch, & Buhaug, 2013). What we do know is that levels of conflict are decreasing (see, among others, Gleditsch & Pickering, 2014). There are still wide gaps in our understanding of the relationship between human conflict and the environment, so researchers would do well to consider new methods and approaches to analyze this relationship.


As has been shown in this article, great strides have been made in moving geopolitics from a pariah status to one in which it can be the subject of serious, useful, and non-deterministic work (see Pickering, 2011). To do this, it is absolutely necessary to follow in the footsteps of Yves Lacoste and adopt a critical perspective. Exciting new work by researchers such as Dowler, Hyndman, and Sharp show us the new lenses provided by feminist geopolitics which can help us to fundamentally change the way in which we view geography and foreign policy. Dijkink, Dittmer, and Sturm point to a whole field of research—religious geopolitics—that is waiting for more formal analysis and can surely help us to understand geography and foreign policy, but has currently been massively under-studied. Ó Tuathail unlocked the new area of popular geopolitics which gives fascinating and accessible ways to piece apart geography and foreign policy, but far more is needed in terms of formal analysis. Finally, as new methods and new data become available, we are presented with new opportunities to understand geography and foreign policy. As researchers, it is our responsibility to embrace these new methods, but this does not mean we should abandon those critical skills. The field of geography and foreign policy is fascinating, but there is still so much that we do not know.


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                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (1.) Many authors use the term “pseudo-science” when referring to geopolitics (see, for example, Bowman, 1942, pp. 654, 656; Broek, 1943, p. 143; Freeman, 1961, p. 225; Morgenthau, 1978, pp. 164–165; Fukushima, 1997, p. 408). Walsh (1948, p. 7) refers to it as “the greatest hoax of the century.”

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (2.) As Mizuoka, Mizuuchi, Hisatake, Tsutsumi, and Fujita (2005) point out, authors such as Isamu Ota (1966), Okuyama (1966), Isida (1966), Okuda (1969), Fujita (1971), and, most importantly of all, Ueno (1972) had already been developing an earlier version of critical geography in Japan, drawing on a period of geography in Japan inspired by Marx, Stalin, and Mao.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (3.) Nyroos (2001, p. 135) went so far as to coin the phrase “Tuathailian critical geopolitics.”

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (4.) Especially slow in east Asia (see Chiang & Liu, 2011).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (5.) See Hyndman (2007); Staeheli (2001) and Sharp (2007).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (6.) As Mackenzie points out, “Feminist geography, like feminism as a whole, is not ‘only’ about women” (Mackenzie, 1999, p. 419). Hyndman argues that this tradition has long held as geography expanded beyond “a ‘geography of women’ or ‘gender and geography’ to a thoroughly feminist geography” (Hyndman, 2000).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (7.) The approach of Dowler (2013) to look at everyday geopolitics is through a study of tourism in Northern Ireland (for more on tourism, gender and geopolitics, see also Ojeda, 2013).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (8.) For more on feminist geography and positionality/reflexivity/situatedness, see Rose (1997).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (9.) For more on this, see Stevens (1973).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (10.) The exact number varies, depending on whether we read Huntington (1993) or Huntington (1997). Across the two pieces, he identifies seven, eight, or nine. In the earlier work, they were Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American, and possibly African. By the later work, he had identified Western, Latin American, African, Islamic, Sinic, Hindu, Orthodox, Buddhist, and Japanese.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (11.) See Harding (1994) for more on the influence of Billy Graham on George H.W. Bush; Mansfield (2003) also gives background on the effect that that James Robison had on Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (12.) Or, phrased more figuratively, “Like a priest of the black arts, Bush has successfully disinterred the remnants of Ronald Reagan’s millennarian rhetoric from the graveyard of chiliastic fantasies, appropriated it for his own interests, and played it in public like a charm” (McLaren, 2002, p. 327).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (13.) Sometimes referred to as spatial econometrics, even when economic factors are absent.