Thursday, 6 October 2011

9/11 and the Revival of Geopolitics

Dr Thomas Moore, Department of Politics and International Relations

9/11 revived geopolitics. Whilst many scholars of International Relations have tinkered with the normative landscape of liberal international order or endlessly deliberated on anarchy as an imagined or constructed entity, the ‘real’ political ontology is geopolitics.  The new geopolitical discourse that has emerged from the post-9/11 landscape has thrown into question the capacity of international orders to function in terms of homogeneity. Difference is our international political condition and the security politics initiated in the aftermath of September 11 are essentially built around these differences.

In assessing the impact of September 11 for International Relations we should avoid an inward emotivism (reflected in the catchphrase where were you on September 11?) and look instead at the new geopolitics of international order. This new geopolitics does not necessarily reflect a break from traditional notions of geopolitics but signals the impossibility of defining cultures and regions in terms of crude political antinomies (north/south, east/west, enlightened/barbarian, secular/religion). As IR scholars, we might wish to document the way in which the world has changed but if we do so we are theorising these changes from romantic understandings of what the world was before September 11.

Werner J Cahnman in 1943 described geopolitics as a ‘total’ and ‘realistic’ political science “with its feet literally on earth as over against the customary legalistic or idealistic approach”. Geopolitics was tasked with providing the right tools for political elites to deliver security to their consumers. Gearóid Ó Tuathail notes that this understanding of geopolitics establishes itself as ‘problem-solving theory for the conceptualization and practice of statecraft’. The new geopolitics works towards a spatial understanding of international order and resists the tendency to rigidly define states as the primary entities within the international system.

Not all terrorisms are created equally and for this reason a complex political sociology of International Relations assists in moving beyond an instinctive response to terrorist violence within IR. The fact that subsequent terrorist attacks are framed through the political psychology of September 11 suggests that when a response is needed to political violence we inevitably reach for the September 11 toolkit. Witness the response to the terrorist attacks in Bali in 2005 which were called Australia’s own 9/11. Observe Russia’s President Medvedev describing Georgian attacks as Russia’s own 9/11.

We must resist reaching for the September 11 toolkit for a number of reasons. Methodologically, if we are to study the contours of international order and works towards political understanding then we need to engage in deeper forms of political ethnography than the ontological legacy bequeathed by September 11 thinking. Ethically, if we conceive of International Relations as a discipline then we must encourage deeper forms of analysis than that established by the proliferation of security strategy in the aftermath of September 11. If we mirror the policies we study and turn them into the primary objects of our investigation then we lose critical distance from our subject. Sociologically, if we flatten the analysis of September 11 into simple binary categories then we lose the fact that violence in IR (whether state sanctioned or not) is a classic example of power in movement. Historically, if we continue to understand history and time in IR as linear and defined in terms of strict periods then we have not got the capacity to move beyond the historical predicament of violence within IR.

A critical geopolitics of September 11 disavows the framing of terrorist violence as the struggle of civilized versus uncivilized persons. Those that yearn for this type of geopolitical framing are like H G Wells’ children playing a game of toy soldiers. We might observe patterns of terrorist violence but we should exercise great care in linking this violence to ways of being within the international order.  The new geopolitics acknowledges that the world is a pluriverse and that our analysis of continuums of violence must always have this pluriverse at the core. And, yes, power still remains the central concept to make sense of this pluriverse.

Werner J Cahnman, ‘Concept of Geopolitics’, Sociological Review, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Feb., 1943), pp. 55-59.
Gearóid Ó Tuathail, ‘Understanding critical geopolitics: Geopolitics and risk Society’, Journal of Strategic Studies, 22: 2, 107 — 124, 1999.

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