In The Modern World Of Geopolitics, The Study Of Classical Theorists Remains Important

With the end the of the Cold War and the rise of China, the geopolitical landscape has changed dramatically in the last few decades. According to one analysts, this shift has left the US “drifting into an era where geopolitical competition between major world powers obviously continues, without a firm understanding of it on the part of Western opinion.”

In an article for the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Colin Dueck argues that technological and institutional changes have not altered the underlying features of world geopolitics even if the “specific distribution” may have changed. In order to gain a foothold, he says, it remains “instructive for statesmen” to study the classical theorists.

“Today, it is China’s economic and military power that is rising, not only on land, but at sea. Yet the basic patterns of its rise are not entirely without precedent.  So it is appropriate that we go back to the classical geopolitical theorists, to deepen our understanding of current international trends and how to manage them,” suggests Dueck.

Dueck, Senior Fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and an Associate Professor at George Mason University, says these classical theorists are key to this understanding:

Alfred Mahan, a US admiral, was a proponent of theory that dominance of the seas is central to the rise and decline of great nations. In his mind, sea power encompassed more than sea power, but also “a national orientation toward the ocean, in terms of geographical position, commercial shipping, maritime production, and intelligent policies.”

Halford Mackinder is best known for his Heartland theory, which was rooted in the belief that because the world had become a “closed” system with no new lands left for the Europeans powers to conquer. As a result, sea and land-based powers would then struggle for dominance of the world, and the victor would be in a position to set up a world empire.

“In a thesis titled “The Geographical Pivot of History,” Mackinder theorized that: In the industrial age, the natural resources of Central Asia—‘the great pivot’—are so vast that it will serve as the geostrategic instrument for the state that controls it to become ‘the empire of the world,’” write Creighton University professors Margaret Scott and Westenley Alcenat in a 2008 paper analyzing the role of this theory in modern geopolitics.

Nicholas Spykman was a Dutch-American geostrategist and Yale University political scientist who saw geography as the determining factor in global dominance.

In his 1944 book, The Geography of the Peace, Spykman wrote: “Geography is the most fundamental factor in foreign policy because it is the most permanent.”

“Moreover, compared to other factors that influence the foreign policies of states—population density, economic structure, form of government, personalities and prejudices of statesmen—geography is more permanent,” writes Alfred Sempa in a 2006 analysis of Spykman’s work featured in American Diplomacy.


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