How Are Geopolitical Shifts Influencing Peace and Stability?
Sweeping geopolitical changes have unfolded during the past two decades. The bipolar system of Cold War alliances has disintegrated, several states have broken up (the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia), new states have emerged (Er-itrea, East Timor), and suprastate blocs have grown in significance, especially the European Union. Moreover, extrastate groups and institutions have challenged the state’s geopolitical primacy (e.g., Lashkar-e-Taiba, Mercy Corps, the European Union),1 even as new extensions of state power have undermined traditional sovereignty arrangements (e.g., the doctrine of preemptive warfare invoked to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq). At the same time, the globalization of capital, labor, and finance is challenging the state as the prime actor in the international arena—albeit with mixed success.
These developments highlight the inadequacy of the long-standing tendency to view international relations as the product of a set of static spaces (i.e., countries) jockeying for position on the world stage (see generally Agnew, 1994; Taylor, 1994). Instead, a high priority for researchers is to understand the nature, significance, and relationships among multiple spaces of political relevance. Taking up this challenge requires exploring how power, interest groups, and territorial ideologies are spatially configured; how political patterns relate to environmental, ethnic, and other kinds of patterns; and how geopolitical conceptions reflect and shape social and environmental outcomes.
Research into such themes is important because the remaking of geopolitical space carries with it changing conceptions of “us” and “them” that influence how people view their collective interests. At the same time, the prospects for war and peace in different parts of the globe are fundamentally rooted in changing political-geographical arrangements and understandings. To what extent is “the Islamic World” a meaningful geopolitical construct, and how does that construct relate to other geopolitical constructs? Are new spaces of geopolitical significance emerging around access to water, oil, or other resources? To what extent are local or subnational ethnic divisions undermining traditional geopolitical arrangements? These types of questions hold significance for researchers seeking to elucidate key contemporary sociopolitical trends and for policy makers struggling to design arrangements that will promote peace and stability.
ROLE OF THE GEOGRAPHICAL SCIENCES
As an arena of inquiry focused on analyzing the organization of phenomena on the surface of Earth, the geographical sciences are necessarily central to the effort to examine the changing geopolitical scene. Their contribution is rooted in a concern with how and why political-territorial arrangements come into being, how
they function given their geographical character, and how they relate to other economic, political, social, and environmental spaces (Gottmann, 1973; Sack, 1986; Paasi, 1996; Agnew, 2003). Researchers focusing on spatial orientation have also made significant contributions to the understanding of political developments, ranging from voting patterns (e.g., Shelley et al., 1996) to the distribution of armed conflicts (see Box 9.1).
In the geopolitical arena, work by geographical scientists has focused particularly on the cultural, political, and environmental impacts of boundaries (e.g., Rumley and Minghi, 1991; Newman and Paasi, 1998); the nature and implications of different geopolitical world views (e.g., Ó Tuathail, 1996; Dodds and Atkinson, 2000); and the relationship between territorial sources of authority and those that are not place specific (e.g., Flint, 2005a; Sparke, 2005). A study by Agnew and Min (2008) on the impacts of the U.S.-led surge in Iraq is suggestive of the value of probing the relationship between spaces of conflict and other geographical patterns. Using nighttime satellite images of Baghdad, Agnew and his colleagues were able to show that Sunni Arabs were driven out of many neighborhoods by militant Shiites in the lead-up to the surge. The research suggests that the reduction of conflict in the aftermath of the surge was not just a product of increased troop numbers, but of presurge ethnic cleansing and an associated spatial segregation of Sunnis and Shiites. Such
insights are of great value in efforts to understand the mix of forces that are shaping conflict and stability in different places.
The place-based approach that characterizes much work in the geographical sciences has also contributed to an understanding of the causes of conflict and peace. Viewed in general terms, many conflicts appear to be the result of a single economic, social, cultural, or environmental catalyst. However, myriad place-based studies have shown that violence is almost never a straightforward consequence of something such as resource scarcity (e.g., Peluso and Watts, 2001; Dalby, 2002; Le Billon, 2007). Instead, historical, political, and social processes operating at multiple scales affect how stakeholders attach value to the environment, contest claims, and struggle for outside support. Similarly, the potential for violent conflict among groups is often tied not only to economic or social inequalities, but also to localized geographical circumstances such as the distribution of groups and the availability of activity spaces that are beyond the reach of state authorities (e.g., Mikesell and Murphy, 1991; Fuller et al., 2000). Geographical perception matters as well, as made clear in White’s (2000) study showing how spaces of particular symbolic significance can help explain patterns of ethnic conflict and compromise in southeastern Europe.
For all the insights that have come from investigations of the geographical dimensions of peace and conflict, there is much to be learned from research on the changing nature and significance of geopolitical ideas and arrangements. The following questions provide examples of some particularly useful lines of inquiry that speak to this theme.
What types of boundary arrangements are particularly prone to instability, and why?
The combined forces of globalization and new forms of localism are challenging the traditional territorial powers of the state and fostering what some have termed a process of deterritorialization in the international arena. Nonetheless, bounded territories are still of enormous significance in human affairs (Elden, 2006; Newman, 2006), and in some instances boundaries are hardening (e.g., heightened controls at U.S. borders in recent years). The boundaries of some territories are widely accepted, but many are not. Interstate disagreements over boundaries are common, many ethnonationalist groups seek to alter existing territorial arrangements, and de facto internal territorial partitions are under great strain in many places (e.g., Jammu and Kashmir, Moldova, Bosnia). Understanding the potential volatility of different boundary arrangements requires consideration of how they are viewed; whose interests they serve; and how they relate to ethnic, economic, sociocultural, and environmental spaces at different scales (Herb and Kaplan, 1999).
The potential for geographical analysis to advance understanding of the nature and significance of boundaries is suggested by Jordan’s (1993) analysis of the Vance-Owen plan for partitioning Bosnia during the civil war of the early 1990s. Jordan focused on the spatial relationship between the proposed ethnic regions in the Vance-Owen plan and the way people in Bosnia moved around and used space before the outbreak of hostilities (Figure 9.1). Data on preconflict commuting patterns allowed him to construct micro- and macro-“functional regions” (the lighter and darker hashed lines in Figure 9.1), which he then superimposed on the proposed partition map. The clear disconnect between the two patterns on the map provides insight into why the plan was so widely rejected. (Unfortunately, those crafting the plan did not undertake this kind of analysis before the plan was promulgated.)
Assessments of the relationship between territorial arrangements and patterns of ethnicity, environment, economy, and social interaction around contested boundaries could yield significant insights into the sources of conflict in many places. How have the establishment and adjustment of boundaries affected where people live, their activity patterns, and their senses of identity? Under what circumstances have shifting boundary arrangements produced more or less conflict? Circumstances are different from place to place, and part of the point of geographical analysis is to unravel how the particularities of individual circumstances produce certain outcomes. However, comparative geographical assessments of major contested boundaries around the world could yield fundamental insights into the relationships between territorial structures and social, cultural, and environmental patterns that are particularly
destabilizing. Such assessments should focus not only on spatial patterns, but also on territorial conceptions as well. Past work has shown how dominant “senses of territory” are influenced by boundary arrangements and affect patterns of interstate and intergroup territorial conflict (e.g., Painter, 1995; Yiftachel, 2001; Murphy, 2005). What is needed is research that looks at both on-the-ground material circumstances and the senses of territory that are at play in different circumstances.
What are the implications of changing environmental circumstances and resource demands for geopolitical stability?
The environmental circumstances and resource endowments of different geopolitical entities have an impact on patterns of conflict and cooperation, power and political fragility. Yet these factors do not operate in isolation from other political, economic, and social forces (Clark, 2006b). As noted above, a significant body of contemporary work is aimed at highlighting the problems of attributing geopolitical circumstances solely to environmental or resource variables. Such work includes critiques of simplistic attempts to link conflict to resource scarcity (Fairhead, 2001), resource abundance (Watts, 2004), and common property resources (Turner, 2004). Although work in this vein has deepened understanding of the links between the environment and social stability, the combination of rapid environmental change and shifting resource demands opens a set of new research challenges that can only be met through analysis employing the approaches and techniques of the geographical sciences.
One particularly promising realm of research concerns the geopolitical impacts of sea-level rise in the wake of climate change. The relatively conservative predictions for the next century set forth in the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2007) point to a degree of sea-level rise in the 21st century that is likely to have significant
implications for many millions of coastal dwellers around the world, including those living in the United States (Figure 9.2). However, those implications are likely to be especially politically destabilizing in places with fragile governments, weak infrastructural coping capacities, and low standards of living. Assessments of the coping capacities of places with low-lying, densely populated coasts could provide useful insights into the geopolitical impacts of shifting coastlines (Heberger et al., 2009). Coastline changes will also alter the baselines that have been used to establish maritime boundaries. Determining where those changes are most likely to disrupt fragile agreements on ocean rights could help scholars and policy makers anticipate where problems are likely to arise and could promote understanding of the geography of conflict potential in the maritime arena.
It is important to recognize that environmental stresses are sometimes associated with cooperation, not just conflict (Wolf, 2002). Resource scarcity is a case in point. A body of work has yielded insights into the conditions that have produced cooperation in the face of resource competition at the local scale (e.g., Ostrom, 1990; Giordano, 2003). Others have examined how participatory resource management regimes may enable communities to prevent unproductive conflict (e.g., Martin, 2005). Still lacking, however, is much understanding of where and when such cooperation occurs at broader scales. Sneddon and Fox (2006) provide a useful starting point in their study of regional agreements on the sharing of water in the Mekong Basin. A systematic assessment of a variety of resource-sharing arrangements in other world regions could direct attention to the types of circumstances in which cooperation has been achieved and could pave the way to a better understanding of how general economic or political influences interact with local circumstances to promote stability.
Are territorial arrangements and ideas developing in ways that are consistent with the geopolitical visions of influential governmental and nongovernmental actors?
Ever since the publication of Samuel Huntington’s (1996) controversial book on the Clash of Civilizations, debate has swirled around the geographical framework that underlies his analysis. Huntington’s thesis is pre-
mised on the rising significance of broad-scale religious identity as an organizing force in the contemporary world. Proponents of his thesis point to the growing salience of geopolitical movements with an explicitly religious agenda (most obviously Al-Qaeda). Critics argue that Huntington has ignored the long history of divisions within religious realms (see Bassin, 2007). The stakes in this debate are high because geopolitical framings can greatly influence policy and practice (Gregory, 2004).
Moving the debate forward requires consideration of the extent to which identity constructs based on generalized notions of religious or cultural continuities are challenging national and local loyalties. Even though the state system does not have deep historical roots in most parts of the world, states play an extraordinarily influential role in defining contemporary identity communities (Murphy, 1996; Wimmer, 2002). At the same time, in many places localized ethnic identities have a powerful grip on the collective imagination. To what extent do nationalist and localized ethnic identities—along with the institutions and arrangements that support them—represent a serious obstacle to the formation of the kinds of civilizational blocs posited by Huntington? Addressing this question requires empirical research focused on where, and under what circumstances, commitments to large-scale religious-cultural communities are superseding national and local identities, and where they are not. Of particular importance are intensive field studies focused on the institutional arrangements, spatial networks, and cultural practices that are shaping senses of place and identity in particular places and regions (see Carnegie, 2008, for a discussion of the utility of this kind of research in the effort to understand conflict). Those in the best position to undertake such studies are researchers with significant regional knowledge and linguistic skills who are interested in investigating geographical patterns and variations, both at the local scale (e.g., Secor, 2004; Mills, 2006) and at broader scales (e.g., Leitner, 2003).
The Huntington thesis is just one example of an influential geopolitical conception. Such conceptions are formulated by international organizations, think tanks, insurgency networks, and militaries; initiatives such as the National Intelligence Council’s 2020 Project (NIC, 2004) shape decisions that can have sweeping social, economic, and environmental impacts. What do such initiatives include and ignore? What is the relationship between the visions set forth in them and underlying patterns of economic activity, cultural interaction, resource access, and territorial ideology? Which cultural, economic, or environmental circumstances are highlighted or obscured? Geographically grounded explorations of such questions can foster informed reflection on the often-unexamined geopolitical assumptions that guide policy making and scholarly analysis. The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq prompted an outpouring of scholarship on U.S.-based geopolitical visions (see e.g., Flint, 2005b; Bialasiewicz et al., 2007; Dalby, 2007), but much work remains to be done to assess the advantages and limitations of different geographical framings of this and other geopolitical issues (see Elden, 2009). It is also important to extend research beyond the major global powers of the 20th century. As Cutter et al. (2003), Flint (2003), and others make clear, to date relatively little attention has been paid to the assumptions and goals of emergent global actors, whether they be states (e.g., China or India), regional blocs (e.g., the European Union or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations), or extrastate religious and ethnic movements (e.g., Hezbollah or the Tibetan Autonomy Movement).
Research by geographical scientists along the lines outlined above will deepen our understanding of some of the fundamental geopolitical forces shaping the security landscape of the 21st century. What is needed is a sustained effort to investigate the spatial character of geopolitical developments and conceptualizations and to analyze their relationship to key political-economic, environmental, and social patterns. Without studies in this vein, our understanding of key sources of geopolitical stability and instability will be impoverished.