The legacy of the discipline of geopolitics
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The disciplines of geoeconomic and geopolitics are closely intertwined. The discipline of geopolitics has a burden full past and can only progress through self-critique: that is through criticism of the discipline itself. For instance, it must be made clear what in geopolitics is objective and what is normative. So far this criticism has come mostly from outside, from its opponents, whether they represent critical geopolitics, political geography, or mainstream political science.
The predictive power of the method, that of geography + history + power/interests + resources, is very great, probably as great as any imaginable for a methodology in the social science or the humanities. Unfortunately the “geo-” part, that is the maps, serve in much of the existing literature merely as a means of illustrating ideas, not of drawing conclusions. How much history we decide to bring into the analysis, and what imperatives we infer from our conclusions, are always open questions. Then there is the whole issue of the history of the subject.
The term geopolitik was coined by the Swedish political scientist Rudolf Kjellen (1864–1922),14 who was much influenced by the German political geographer Friedrich Ratzel (1844–1904).15 Ratzel was appointed to the chair of geography at the University of Leipzig in 1886.16 As we would expect, his own ideas did not appear out of thin air either, but were influenced by others, such as the Prussian geographer Carl Ritter (1779–1859), Alexander von Humboldt (the founder of modern geography), and the German historian Leopold von Ranke (1795–1886), one of the founders of the objective study of history (Henning 1931: 2).
The initial scope of geopolitics included issues about the size, position, borders, natural resources, infrastructure, business structure, and population of countries (Maull 1936: 33). This is still very much the methodological core of geopolitics and geoeconomics today.
Kjellen, who was a well-known political scientist, was also an evolutionist: which for him meant that he saw the State as a living organism. That means that he looked for a broader biological explanation when trying to understand human behaviour. More precisely, he would complain about the narrow perspective chosen for the study of political science, claiming that it was frequently overlooking economic elements and problems related e.g. to international law.
Unfortunately for his legacy, in Germany the Nazis took a particular interest in his ideas, especially the notion of Volk as a racial conception of the state. At the time, this was not an extreme idea among onservative thinkers in the Western world, including Britain and the USA. It was difficult, then, to foresee its consequences.
The biological track was developed further in the writings of Oswald Spengler (1880–1936), a man who was later seen as more a political philosopher than a historian. From a social scientist’s perspective, the weakness in Spengler’s work is his determinism, the assurance with which he promulgates future scenarios without maintaining a proper distance from the methodological problems that confront him. In other words he did not distinguish clearly enough between his method and his examples.
If it was not for the fact that the Nazis banned him for his critique of their ideas of ethnic purity and the general vulgarity of their movement, he would have shared the fate of so many other German intellectuals who showed an interest in the evolutionary approach to human behaviour. He would probably have been demonized today, and would consequently be impossible to use as a reference. Another theorist who wrote extensively on political power, Carl Schmitt (1888–1985), was less fortunate.
Because he took a stand with the Nazis and in favour of anti-Semitism, even his most excellent works, for instance Die Diktatur (1921) (on democracy versus dictatorship), or Nomos der Erde (1950) (where he lays out the relationship between territory and juridical legitimacy), have not been sufficient to resurrect his reputation as a worthwhile social theorist in the eyes of the academic establishment to this day. The American journal Telos has made valuable contributions towards his rehabilitation, and deserves credit accordingly.18 Telos Press has also translated and published some of Schmitt’s leading works.
Although Kjellen is credited with coining the term geopolitik, it was Karl Haushofer (1869–1946) who developed the scientific method for the study of geopolitics into something that one could call a rigorous science. Coming from a Bavarian aristocratic and conservative background, he served as an officer and as a military attache in Tokyo. Following the First World War and the Versailles Treaty, he retired from the armed forces and devoted his time to geopolitical writing. After the Second World War, geopolitics and geopoliticians took much of the blame for German atrocities, and the discipline was outlawed.
Since the Second World War, a new academic phenomenon has arisen: scholars have appeared whose entire careers are founded on criticism of the study of geopolitics. This criticism became a subject in its own right, called critical geopolitics, the sole purpose of which is to deconstruct. It started with men like O Thuathail (e.g. 1996). Yves Lacoste said that the primary use of geopolitics was to wage war.19When some geopoliticians objected to this critique, beginning in the 1990s as the world of politics came out of the refrigerator, and continuing e.g. with Kaplan’s “revenge of geography” (Kaplan 2009), these reactions were quickly labelled neoclassical geopolitics by those who disagreed with them (e.g. Megoran 2010).
However, time tends to correct whatever fails to establish its worth. Consequently, today it is the study of geopolitics rather than the “counter-disciplines” which is set to prosper, in the world of policy making and political action at least, even though the counter-disciplines retain a dominant position within academia, in the world of theory.
With the shift to geoeconomics the focus has turned away from military ideas towards economic phenomena. The purpose of the new study is to show how to gain and maintain a national competitive advantage by economic means. Warfare, after all, is no more than the ultimate means of achieving that same goal. If one chooses war, one had better be sure it will actually lead to an improved economic position.
Military adventures, such as we have seen the US leading since the Second World War, have profited only the armed forces and the arms industry. They have impoverished that nation and disillusioned its citizens. Those who lost their lives in the field have come mainly from the disadvantaged classes in society, not from the broad middle class. In retrospect it is easy to see how the US military were tempted to start borrowing money to pay for
these adventures. It was the only alternative left. The military establishment and the arms industry in the USA have worked in symbiosis ever since, putting forward their own politicians, with no real concern for the future of that country. The same logic has been visible in other Western countries too, but in Latin America, Africa, and Asia it has been associated only with military dictatorships. It has been suggested that geoeconomics unlike geopolitics has a stronger focus on social evelopment, as it is more related to economic growth and the phenomenon of globalization (see e.g. Cowen and Smith, 2009).
There are good reasons to question the critique of geopolitics. Houweling and Amineh (2003: 316) see “critical geopolitics” as a reaction to the “failing study of International Relations starting with the wrong predictions about the end of the Cold War”. Others see critical geopolitics as a left-wing reaction to what is perceived as a conservative, right-wing body of research, or as part of the general “deconstructionist” project of post modernism.
Inflammatory statements by outspoken champions of geopolitics, men such as Henry Kissinger (see Kissinger 1994), General Pinochet,21 Zbigniew Brzezinski (see Brzezinski 1997), Vladimir Zhirinovsky (1997), and Alexander Dugin have not raised the status of the subject within academia, indeed quite the reverse. The geopolitical form of discourse often provokes outright revolt. It fosters ideas based on self-interest; it says what it thinks; its substance takes no account of political correctness, which the literature on political science and international relations trains us to take for granted. Consequently this discourse offers the ivory tower of academe a range of easy targets.
Other critics of geopolitics, for instance R. Muir (1997), M. I. Glassner (1996), J. Painter (1995), J. R. Short (1993), and J. P. Taylor (1993), have tried to create a less normative form of the subject with more emphasis on geography, called political geography. However, neither critical geopolitics nor political geography has attracted much interest among practising politicians and decision-makers, primarily because their ideas do not have sufficient significance for the world of policy-making.
The discipline of geopolitics on the other hand continues to be appreciated by men of power, whether corporate or political leaders. In the end it is all about relevance. Top government decision-makers pay little attention to most reports they receive. From a glance at the summary they can often guess the rest. Much is common sense or well-worn rhetoric, better suited for explaining policies to the public than as a basis for making courageous decisions in the interests of the nation. What decision-makers really want is good syntheses and strategies.
They seek a broader understanding of the situation they are in to serve as a general guide. They also need very specific reports, about the people they are meeting, their perceptions and expectations. These reports need to be “unvarnished responses” to specific questions, not highly-polished essays on general topics.
Decision-makers, whether in the private or the public sector, commonly work with two types of document, serving two different purposes. On one hand they need to know what is really going on, what strategies are open to them. This is covered in the form of intelligence briefings and strategic summaries, for the most part kept out of sight of the public. On the other hand they need a story to tell the mass media, shareholders, or employees, which will make their decisions acceptable to the public. For each public appearance, for each major event covered by the mass media, there is a strategy, which is never mentioned and always denied. On the face of it this may seem to describe a paranoid society, but that is not necessarily fair.
It could alternatively be argued that this very much how we function as humans in everyday life, even at home: thinking one thing, saying another, often with the interest of the greater good in mind. A good politician very much becomes a person who can persuade the public to believe that there is only one path to follow. Or you get puppet politicians, politicians whose ideas and actions are so tied to the interests of the economic elites that it does not matter what they think, they will simply do as they are advised. Reagan was such a president. Other politicians again see their decisions as necessary compromises.
This has been the basis of Barack Obama’s career. Obama is a pragmatist disguised as an idealist. Mechanisms like these are not explained through the study of political geography, and consequently it does not help that that study is rigorously scientific. Most champions of political geography say that this subject, unlike geopolitics, is about facts – historical facts – and not about interpretations. For others, though, political geography is too narrowly focused on the geographical dimension to be of much value. It ignores the all-important power dimension, and never tackles the normative problem as an important aspect of the social sciences. Nor has it attempted to preserve any of the insights or the experience that have been accumulated in the study of geopolitics.
A major reason for the current revival of geopolitics has to do with the collapse of, or should we say at least frustration with, political ideologies, and the lack of progress made by the social sciences in general when it comes to understanding and describing aspects of power (Blackwell et al. 2008: 6). The survival or revival of academic geopolitics today is due to uninterrupted attention to the subject on the part of contemporary American realists and practising politicians throughout the Cold War, by men like Stephen Walt,22 Christopher Layne (e.g. Layne 1993: 5–23), Zbigniew Brzezinski,23 and, before them, Henry Kissinger. Kissinger is probably the best-known geopolitician of the twentieth century, and the term “infamous” nowadays fits him as aptly as “famous”.
He is both a theoretician and a practical policy maker, and has been condemned as a leading architect of wars and coups d’etat in Vietnam and Cambodia, Chile, Central America, the Congo, and Angola. No other public official has initiated more covert operations since World War Two, and no adviser has lost more battles. In his defence one should bear in mind that he has been at the helm longer than any other decision-maker or adviser in modern American history, over a period when the USA was the world’s undisputed superpower. Many mistakes were made, but there was also much to do. No other adviser is likely to gain the same degree of strategic influence in the near future.
If geopolitics is still overlooked as a subject at many universities today, that is not because of the ideas and actions of the Cold War strategists, but because of the associations and the memories we have of what geopolitical theories led to when adopted by the ideologists of Nazism, in Germany and elsewhere. We see geopolitics as partly responsible for the German attempt to acquire Lebensraum in the East, with all the human suffering that entailed.25 It is the same phenomenon that makes anything which the Nazis used, or even touched, taboo in our society today: everything from the music of Wagner, to the swastika, to Nordic mythology.
The mere fact of an author being German and writing about the Second World War continues to raise suspicion and disapproval in certain academic circles, which to some extent explains the noticeable absence of German scholars from the social sciences, dominated as they are now by English-speaking authors.
(Others would argue that it has been quite advantageous to avoid the social sciences since the Second World War. It has led countries like Germany, Japan, but also Russia and now China to focus on natural sciences and technical education.) Postwar Germanophobia and anti-German sentiment has led to the loss of vital notions in the study of human behaviour.
We have become so used to seeing German soldiers from the Second World War portrayed as bad guys that we hardly question the one-sidedness of this any more. If we produced a film where the roles were reversed, that would lead to immediate scandal. More serious is the suppression of vital notions in European intellectual life. For instance, the term Volksgeist, the idea that a people through their common values give rise as it were to a common soul, has been suppressed (Motturi 2007: 32).
The origins of this term have nothing to do with Nazism. It was first introduced in the eighteenth century by Friedrich Carl von Savigny (1779–1861), and built on Montesquieu’s and Voltaire’s notion of esprit. If we remove the term from our vocabulary, we are reducing our ability to understand how it is that people belonging to different cultures think and act differently. It is the same logic that, a bit further down the line, leads many, especially on the left side of the political spectrum, to denounce all forms of nationalism, even the national flag, the national day, and any organization that preserves or honours them.
We have a problem if we can no longer have a rational discussion about any phenomena which happen to have caught the interest of someone in Adolf Hitler’s Germany, and treat everything the Nazis used or were involved with as contaminated. The strategy of defining the opposition by associating it with an ultimate evil has been used as a rhetorical weapon by left-wing politicians and social democrats for more than two generations now. According to this logic, “If you think so-and-so, then you are a Nazi”. The logic is irrational, but it still works and is hard to argue against. But this irrational pattern of behavior has severely held back the study of Man and hence the development of the social sciences.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, geopolitics was heavily entangled with racist ideology and racist research.28But this was not a specially German phenomenon: it was a Western one. Race biology was as well developed in Sweden and Britain as it was in Germany.
The Institute for Race Biology in Sweden was only wound up over the years 1956–8.29More precisely, it was never actually closed; rather, its name was changed in 1959 to the “Institute for Medical Genetics”, and it was made a unit of the University of Uppsala, where it still operates but with a different research programme. Now, we have pushed everything to the opposite extreme.
Politically-correct social scientists have convinced ethnic minorities, like the Sami (Lapp) people of northern Scandinavia, that it is degrading to be measured in any way, as if measurement in itself were an expression of inferiority. Thus measurement in the social sciences becomes a symbol of abuse. This again has hindered the progress of all kinds of research, notably in the field of ethnology. However, science always finds a way to move forward in response to our needs. Currently, DNA research is turning out to be a more efficient scientific approach to studying the same facts of ethnic diversity. Indeed many social sciences are becoming redundant, replaced by new developments within the natural sciences.
Thus neurology is taking over large parts of the problem-domains studied in the past by disciplines such as psychology, marketing, and sociology. An advantage of this development is that it allows us to dispense with political ideologies.
What we must ask, in order to defend geoeconomics, is whether there are necessary links between Nazism, and the elements it borrowed in order to construct its ideology? The ideas of geopolitics, the music of Wagner and indeed Beethoven, the nudism movement (we remember the Nacktkultur of the interwar years), and the work of philosophers such as Nietzsche and Heidegger were all exploited by Nazi propaganda, but the content of these things is not Nazi or even Fascist.
The Nazis had no monopoly on geopolitical thought. Mankind was devising geopolitical stratagems long before the Nazis came to power, indeed long before Germany existed as a State. Geopolitical thinking is found in Western civilization in the writings of Herodotus (484–24 BC), of Hippocrates of Kos (460–370 BC), and in Aristotle and Plato (Maull 1936: 1–12). In Asia its traces are even older. The discipline itself is not Fascist, only some of the ways it may be applied. We do not stop buying Volkswagen cars because the brand was promoted by Hitler.
Hitler had not even been conceived when Wagner wrote his music, yet many people think that Wagner’s music is Fascist. In the end all this is more to do with associations in our minds than with actual similarities. These ideas, even though understandable, are irrational. In the chapters that follow we shall look at a number of other irrational aspects of Western thought.
The seduction of maps
We come now to another pitfall in the study of geopolitics, the seduction of maps. Maps have always been used for political purposes, whether with good or bad intentions. Throughout modern history nation-states have deployed geographical arguments to make claims, just as the modern State uses statistics to support its policies. We can call this phenomenon the seduction of maps, or Gaia’s seduction.
When lines are drawn on maps they become contracts supported by rules and laws. In some cases in the past the great powers did not even know what they were signing up to at the time, and only found out afterwards. For instance, the sharing out of the American continent between Spain and Portugal was based on a hypothetical meridian line drawn 370 leagues (about 1400 miles) west of the Cape Verde islands.30 All the land to the west of the line was to go to Spain, and that to the east to Portugal.
The Portuguese soon discovered that they had drawn the short straw, and pressed to shift the line westwards; and to an extent they achieved this, thanks to the limited surveying technology of the period, though Spain still came away from the draw with the most attractive prize. This episode was to shape the course of European history and policy for centuries, yet the details were largely a matter of chance.
Another example is the nineteenth-century colonial division of Africa by the great powers of Europe.31 The colonial powers did not take into consideration the fact that African identity is based primarily on the tribal system. Tribal territories seldom coincided with colonial boundaries.
Consequently inhabitants of African countries acquired no real feeling of national identity, and often see themselves even now as less responsible for compatriots who belong to other tribes. This explains most violent conflicts in Africa to this day. A political candidate will receive votes from people who belong to his tribe. Thus the largest tribes or those who are best at getting their members to vote usually win. Having won, they allocate the lion’s share of resources to members of their own tribe, with obvious injustice for the rest of the population.
This is the story of Zimbabwe, for instance. We sometimes think that political and social turmoil is an African trade mark, but that is not so. As Leo Frobenius (1933) reminds us, before the white man set foot in Africa most tribes there lived in peace; their societies were quite orderly by the standards of most European countries.
Up to only a hundred years ago, nations often dealt with one another using different maps. It was therefore an important advance when a decision was reached on what representation of the world to use as a standard. Before Max Eckert in 1906 defined a map projection which represented the world without distortion of areas or angles, even separate social and professional groups preferred and used different representations of the world to suit their own interests and activities.
Seamen, for instance, typically preferred the projection of Gerhard Mercator, a Flemish geographer, mathematician, and cartographer, who developed his model in 1569. Mercator maps make the regions close to the poles appear very large relative to lower latitudes, which is more practical when sailing in those waters. There were others who challenged this map of Eckert’s, criticizing his projection as unfair to the poorer nations, since it gave less prominence to countries near the equator.
Thus Arno Peters, a German historian and cartographer, introduced a map in 1974 which was considered more politically correct, because areas of the same size in square miles are always shown as the same size on the map. The idea was to improve the way we display in two dimensions the three-dimensional reality of geographical space. This idea was noble, but the consistent equal-area principle implied distortion in other respects, so that the map is unusable in practice.
At another level, maps create basic problems about identity. When we point at a map and say “we are here”, this means that others are elsewhere. If we say that those others possess territory N, it soon happens that some other group somewhere else raises the question whether they should not rather have N–1. The second group may think they ought rather to have N+1, and so a conflict begins.
Since we have physical bodies, we need a geographical location. Being human, we tend to think possessively: that is our nature. This attitude is reinforced by our insistence on private property. We are tied to the land, we own it, and that gives us our identity. It defines and represents our culture, ultimately it is part of who we are. Cultures without a clearly defined geographical territory or cultures that have forsaken their land of origin often run into trouble with the local population.
Examples of this are found in the Jewish, Gypsy, and Chinese diasporas.
Much of this changed with industrialization, when large numbers of people started to move out of the countryside into the larger towns, and then moved between towns. This quickly created a more multicultural society. But we still tend to stick to people whose values we share. This is not even necessarily a cultural or ethnic divide, it is more often a social or economic divide.
In the Greater Los Angeles area, for instance, cities and neighbourhoods are very much divided along socioeconomic lines. When people’s income rises they often move to a “better” neighbourhood, regardless of their ethnic origin. Inhabitants of other neighbourhoods then become “the others”, even if these neighbourhoods include the placewe were living in earlier when we had less money. In all these cases the difference in geographical location becomes an important parameter determining our identity.
With globalization people are moving even further, changing places, working in one country and living in another, going on holiday in a third, and so forth. In the distant future entire civilizations or nations may have to move, whether because of global warming or because of the coming of the next ice age. For instance, it is calculated that less than 10,000 years from now, when the next ice age arrives, all Scandinavians will have to move south of Berlin which will then be the border of glaciation. This may sound radical, but it will not be an extraordinary incident in the history of Homo sapiens. Large scale emigrations of this kind have occurred before. The Indo-Europeans have been in Europe for less than 20,000 years.
The last group probably emigrated from the area corresponding to today’s Ukraine no more than three to five thousand years ago. Going back even further, we Indo-Europeans were living in the Caucasus–Afghanistan–Kashmir area for a long time. When the animals we hunted, initially the reindeer, moved into newly ice-free areas to the north, we followed them.
Because of these migratory paths, we who live in Northern Europe can trace not only our languages, but also our religious beliefs (the Nordic mythology), back to Sanskrit. Potentially it should also be possible to explain numerous traits related to our national and ethnic character by reference to DNA research tracing us back through the same migratory path.
Longer ago, perhaps some sixty to a hundred thousand years ago, we, Homo sapiens, once migrated out of Africa, at least according to the latest findings confirming the “out of Africa” theory of human origins. For all that time we have struggled for possession of territory, and for all that time there has been a need to draw maps, maps which must have begun with lines drawn in the sand or mud. The system of drawing lines to make maps has then become increasingly complex during our evolution.
As we have developed as a species we have demanded more order in our urroundings: not only in our own garden and neighbourhood, but ultimately in our relations with other nation states. Maps provide that order, but they can also sharpen conflicts with others. A good example of that is the disputes we have had and continue to have about maritime boundaries in connexion with fishing rights and, more recently, rights to explore for oil under the sea. There is also a race to claim rights to use waterways around the North Pole as the ice slowly retreats, allowing new transport routes which will replace much of the trade going via Suez and Panama Canals today.
Denmark has made a formal decision to train special forces for the defence of this territory. The citizens of Greenland are suddenly in a hurry to claim national independence from Denmark, now that they stand to become rich. At the same time, we could probably say there would be even more conflict if there were no maps at all.
In a wider perspective, it is the continuation of the logic of private property: “I own this, you own that”. Climate, people, and cultures may change, but there is always a need to draw “static” maps. We are at all times inclined, provoked, and indeed forced to produce a geographical representation of who we are. At the same time we must realize that all borders and political units are subject to continual change, however gradual. That they change does not mean that we can do without them. In much the same way, we need theories to help us function and understand the world in which we live.
Competition and possession of land are the ultimate expressions of our struggle for prosperity. Theories that cannot respond to these needs will eventually be discarded, since we must always be pragmatic. Earlier critics of geopolitics who pointed to its abuses, such as the sociologist Max Weber, saw it as an oracle for decisionmakers, a right-wing body of literature defending national interests. It can also be seen as left-wing, as in the case of Stalin’s great eastward expansion of the Soviet Union. Geopolitics has no political bias either to right or left; it is at the service of whoever is in power.
Others say that geopolitical literature nurtures prejudices, that the academics and intellectuals who produce it have their own political agenda, that its content misses too much of the social complexity it seeks to understand, that it is unduly focused on polemical aspects, and leads eventually to political determinism. Much of this is hard to deny, but the same can probably be said about most research. Anything can be misused. Other, better-known examples are physics (the atom bomb), biology (pesticides), engineering (weapons of all kinds), and economics (financial derivatives).
From an economist’s point of view, maps allow new and better predictions about economic behaviour. Geographical representations of natural resources are an effective way of presenting indicators of power, for both private-and publicsector organizations. Just as with the invention of the alphabet or numerical notation, ultimately maps and other graphics are simply a better way of communicating ideas.
While figures make analysis easier, and words are best for description and explanation, maps allow for a more immediate perspective and understanding of a phenomenon, a clearer presentation of facts, whether they are ideas or reality. In other words, we can often understand a phenomenon much more readily by looking at a map or a drawing than when it is explained to us using letters or numbers.
Looking at a map, where different colours represent particular concepts, we immediately get the feeling that we know what the person is talking about. It is the same with pictures, from which maps can be said to derive. Maps should be seen as one more language, as yet another way of representing reality, ultimately as a more direct and quicker means of communicating ideas. In connexion with historical and political analyses they become a powerful tool for understanding the world of politics and business.
The seduction of history
Maps, or atlases, are seductive objects once printed on paper or presented on a three-dimensional globe, especially when combined with the study of history in what we call a historical atlas. Many readers will no doubt recall the excitement of leafing through such a book as a child. Different features are given different colours, and we soon start to see patterns and look for more. Just through looking at the page for some country, if we know about its history we think we understand what
is going to happen in the future. This temptation has existed for as long as Mankind has had good maps at his disposal. The logic is expressed in deterministic statements like Napoleon’s La politique d’un Etat est dans sa geographie, “The politics of a nation is in its geography”, meaning: just by looking at a map we can tell what a country’s policy must be. Mankind has gone to war on such deterministic assumptions for as long as there have been maps, even when these were just scratches in the earth.
Leaders have wearied themselves with contemplation of how powerful their ancestors used to be, how much land they have lost, forgetting or refusing to see that there may have been good reasons for the alteration of borders. A just distribution of land and natural resources cannot be based solely on how things used to be. There are often good reasons to justify reallocation of resources.
To take an recent example, when Germany was reunited, many West Germans insisted on their right to reclaim property in East Germany based on prewar ownership, disregarding the fact that East Germans had created lives for themselves at the place in question in the mean time. In the end these issues were resolved by law, but specifically by West German law, since West Germany had bought back its former territories and not vice versa.
Large investments were made in East Germany to compensate, but these did not benefit everyone, and particularly not those who had been active members of the Communist party. Many people with party affiliations lost their jobs, at the universities and in the public sector. A whole generation of workers were humiliated, and many became bitter as a result.
Historical facts are frequently used as arguments for going to war or for defending unjust actions. Every smooth-tongued orator knows which historical references to select to support his own arguments and which ones to ignore, just as he knows which statistics to include and which to omit, or how to display a graph, for instance by showing a short or a specially favourable time interval.
The study of history is one of the more exact sciences relating to human life. The normative nature of the methodological problem lies not in the discipline itself, but in an individual’s choice of certain historical facts, or, more frequently, in the omission of others, and in the interpretation of consequences when an analyst assumes that the future will be like the past. In other words, a critique of the historical method should be directed not so much to the study itself as to its use or misuse.
To take another example, relating to the history of Anglo-German relations, if we want to defend the Allied policy of retaliation at the end of the Second World War we might point out that the great cultural cities of Germany (notably Dresden) were bombed because of the cruelties committed by Nazi Germany, such as their bombings of London and Coventry in England earlier in the war. But whether or not retaliation can be defended is another question.
With respect to Franco-German relations, if we want to defend the German aggression against France we might argue that Nazism was the result of the dire social situation in Germany in the 1920’s and 1930’s, created by the Treaty of Versailles which Clemenceau forced on Germany (the Americans were very much against it, believing that it would turn the Germans into slaves of debt for generations). If we want to defend the Treaty of Versailles we might say that it was a response to the treaty which Bismarck imposed at that same place after the Franco-Prussian War in 1871; and so on.
From one point of view we are dealing with chains of cause and effect; but from another point of view it is a matter of inclusion and exclusion (in other words, selection) of historical facts, and of our pre-selected perspective. Chains of cause and effect in the social sciences are a tricky matter which in the end become a question of degrees of truth, which are always difficult to measure.
They are seldom either–or issues. Instead we find ourselves having carefully to hedge our statements with words like “most”, “some”, “always”, “seldom”, etc. Use of numbers and quantifiable measures allows us to be more precise, but this is also riskier and potentially misleading. The more refined the measurement, the greater the chance of error. Thus we prefer e.g. a five-point Likert scale to percentages. Even then many will question how it is possible to say that a certain event is a four or a five, so that ultimately it is the reasoning behind the number that interests us, not the numbers in themselves.
Some problems are easier to solve than others. In the case of bombings of civilian targets in Germany by the British and other Allied forces at the end of the war, they can argue that Germany started the war, with the invasion of Poland, even though that does still not solve the moral question about retaliation.
In the Franco-German relationship we would have to go much further back in time to find the root cause, to the first major conflicts between these nations. In many cases we have to go so far back that any clear relationship of cause and effect will be meaningless. The example of Germany’s borders is well-known.
A map of Germany in 1919 will show that it then possessed the greater part of Poland and the city now called Kaliningrad, which used to be Konigsberg, the home of Germany’s greatest philosopher, Immanuel Kant. After the First World War Germany had to concede parts of this territory to Poland and Alsace–Lorraine to France. These “losses” fuelled Germany’s ambition to regain “its’” territory.
A feeling of injustice quickly built up. There are still many in Germany today who hold that the country has a right to reclaim the territories conceded after Yalta in August 1945 and Potsdam in July–August 1945 (namely Silesia, part of Pomerania, and East Prussia). This may seem fair if maps of the foundation of the German Bund and the Prussian-German Empire (1866–71), or maps of 1919 or 1939, are accepted as a reference point. The problem of course is who should decide what maps and historical starting point are to be used.
If we chose a map reflecting the situation in the ninth or tenth centuries, we would find the German border following a line close to the course of the Elbe river, from Hamburg to Magdeburg and Halle. Lubeck became German only in the fourteenth century. If that map is taken as a reference point, then the German people have come out of the territorial struggle with their eastern neighbours pretty well today. We could even further back in time, of course, but then any comparison to an existing group of people becomes virtually unusable for a cause-and-effect type of argument.
Thus, at one time Celtic tribes inhabited what later became German territories, and they were forced westward, eventually to Britanny and the British Isles. Today the descendants of these people are mostly found in Ireland, Wales, and Scotland. Should they make a claim on Germany today? Most of us would treat that idea as absurd. Not that the Celts have any intention of reclaiming Continental Europe; but it illustrates a problem with the use of historical arguments where there is a long history to consider. We all come ultimately from somewhere else, and our borders and conditions are changing continuously, making appeal to historical references often very problematic.
The historical method in science – often referred to in France as the memoire longue – is often applied on the assumption that the future will be like the past. Most will agree that is true to some extent, history does sometimes repeat itself. But because it is true only to a certain extent, because there is always an important element of change in human behaviour, the historical method cannot be used as the only method. The question is instead how to identify, measure, and account for changes.
The consequences of assuming lack of change have been catastrophic for mankind throughout history. We only have to think of all the horrible surprises men have experienced in wars when the enemy adopted a novel weapon technology, for instance what the first knight must have thought when his armour was pierced by an arrow from an English longbow. He was supposed to be invulnerable. Not only did he discard his heavy armour in preparation for the next battle, but he had also to breed a whole new type of warhorse, making them faster and more agile.
Or to take another example, relying solely on the historical method would imply that if we have fought wars with a neighbouring country a given number of times in the past, then we should expect to do so again in the future. This would mean for instance that Norway should be preparing for an attack by its friendly neighbour Sweden. From the perspective of the historical method – even based on statistical analysis – this makes perfect sense. The problem is that the method does not account for the changing relations between these countries over the past century, encouraged by new social and economic developments.
If we suggested to the Norwegian military command today that they ought to prepare for an attack by Sweden, they would probably think us mad. Nevertheless the possibility cannot be ruled out completely, if only because these two countries share a common border and inhabit the same peninsula.
Taking another scenario from the same area of the world: the fact that the Vikings plundered, raped, and killed people living on the coasts of Western Europe a thousand years ago does not mean that the descendants of those people need to prepare for such attacks today. On the contrary, one would hope that many would agree that the ethnic group which used to be seen as the most violent in all Europe in roughly the period from AD 700 to 1200, namely the Scandinavians (i.e. Vikings), are today one of the more peace-loving sets of people.34 There are many reasons for this change. Broadly speaking we might say that it was the result of an abrupt change of values, with the shift from Nordic mythology to Christianity.
For instance, the old Nordic belief was that a man should seek honour through the use of his sword, much as we see today in the more extreme, jihadist forms of Islam. If a Viking managed to die with his boots on, he was assured of a place at table with the gods in Valhalla. Among jihadists there is a similar promise which involves many virgins.
Nordic mythology created a warrior culture that encountered no equals before the Seljuks moved into Turkey. But there are other, more important reasons why the British no longer fear the Scandinavians. For one thing, scandinavians have become more civilized through continuous improvements in fields such as law, education, infrastructure, and economic prosperity (all of which are inter-related). Cultural evolution thus seems to be the solution for many of our historical problems. It is important to bear this in mind when we pass judgement on cultures today.
Geopolitics has always been inclined towards the historical method, but it also takes the volutionary perspective, which as we have seen is the foundation of its solution to the methodological problem. Historical method without the evolutionary perspective is a potentially dangerous tool, frequently leading us to the wrong conclusions. Unfortunately, coexistence between the evolutionary perspective and the social sciences ceased abruptly, and some would argue prematurely, after the Second World War.
To some extent this shift away from evolutionary theory had begun much earlier, around the turn of the nineteenth century. During the nineteeth century the evolutionary perspective was a well established approach among scholars. One of the most important centres for this school of thought was the interdisciplinary group at the University of Leipzig, including the zoologist and geographer Friedrich Ratzel, the historian Karl Lamprecht, the economists Karl Bucherand Wilhelm Roscher, the philosopher and psychologist Wilhelm Wundt, and the chemist and Nobel prize-winner Wilhelm Ostwald.
These men were the first academic group to take the implications of Charles Darwin’s discoveries seriously as applied to the study of Man. Then, following the Second World War, the direction of social science research was hastily altered, as the new academic establishment shifted to another and completely different scientific paradigm. The new social sciences sought to find a methodological home closer to the field of physics and the discipline of mathematics.
These latter disciplines were highly successful, so it was supposed that they would be good models for the study of Man as well. In any case, Darwin was never very popular among social thinkers in the USA (and still is not, outside the natural sciences). Apart from these considerations, the US required a distinctive scientific paradigm of its own, something that could reflect its new status as superpower.
The revolutions we are witnessing today within the biological sciences have brought Darwin and evolutionary thinking back to the heart of biology, medicine, and the study of living organisms in the natural sciences. In view of the shortage of meaningful results from the brave new social sciences, it has become increasingly difficult to continue in the present methodological direction without seriously questioning this lack of success. Why should the study of Man be any different
from the study of any other living organisms, unless of course (as is always an option) we choose to study Man from the perspective of moral philosophy? To do that seems to present an obvious problem about deciding which (whose) morality to use. But if we look closer, we find that our existing social-science methodology is no different in that respect. At its core lies the same moral choice. The difference is that neoclassical economics tries to hide it, pretending to be value-neutral.
The evolutionary perspective and also the historical method seem to have been dropped too early at our universities and, more important, dropped for the wrong reasons. The multidisciplinary approach of cultural studies (Kulturwissenschaft) and the humanities or moral sciences ( Geisteswissenschaften), as defined by David Hume and later by the German historian
and philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey, still merit our attention. The demonizing of past German social-science research by an academic establishment dominated by English-speaking scholars (on which see e.g. Smith 1991) is likely to fade away as two postwar generations of scholars advance into senior positions at our universities.
The main reason for that has less to do with the arguments against such demonization than because it conflicts with Asian values. The situation is likely to change as Asian, and particularly Chinese, leaders discover how Western social sciences deny them the right to preserve and defend their own values based on collective thinking. For the West it will become increasingly difficult to explain how our social sciences can be said not to be political. As an exercise, it is instructive to check the number of political-science articles about China on the ISI Web of Knowledge Social Science Citation Index which are negative about the Chinese government, and on what grounds.
Despite these issues, evolutionary theory is not likely to be integrated with the social sciences until another generation or two has passed, at the earliest. The reasons are not primarily scientific, but political. That is the time needed for the passing of a ruling generation reflecting world views formed by the Cold War. It is also the time needed for China to surpass the US as the leading economy, and for an Asian scientific paradigm to take shape and impose itself on the world.
The seduction of current events
The seduction of current events can be as threatening as the seduction of history. Politicians and their foreign policies, particularly in the Western democracies, are frequently influenced by stories running in the mass media, which often ignore historical facts. One example is current Swedish military policies towards Russia. After the Cold War, the threat of a Russian invasion was perceived as less immediate, and there was a considerable down scaling of military presence on the eastern front.
Then when Russia invaded South Ossetia this policy was seriously questioned, and politicians largely reverted to their former position. To a large extent that was the result of mass-media coverage of what happened in Georgia. Some would say that the risk of Russian aggression had been the same all along, that the Russian foreign-policy position had not changed that much – and more importantly that the Russian character and Russian values have been the same all along, so that no change of direction should have been expected.
It was only the events in Georgia which seemed to show that their intentions had altered. Clear geopolitical analysis would have revealed this, and indeed it did; but politicians in democracies are continually forced to respond to moods on the part of the general public, even with respect to military defence. The fact that we have identified a number of methodological pitfalls does not mean that we can always hope to avoid them.
More important, the fact that our methodology can on occasion lead to false conclusions must not be allowed to lead to an intelligence culture that shuns speculation. An over-cautious approach to intelligence is potentially more dangerous than one that is too crude, simply because what can be known for certain is always only a fraction of what can be known.
To draw a parallel from economics, very few economists come out with predictions of major changes or crises. Yet such things occur, indeed they occur repeatedly. But what is excused in the case of economics, because people forget or fail to keep economists responsible by defining their expectations, is less acceptable in the study of intelligence, because this often deals with life-or-death questions.
There is a fine balance to be drawn between drawing conclusions too readily from unreliable methods, and not reaching any conclusions at all because the methods are unreliable. Any methods will always be deficient in some respect when it comes to the study of Man, but they will improve – through discussion of methodological problems, and through application of more advanced technologies.
What must be avoided at all cost is group-think. No social mechanism fosters group-think like the mass media. To make things worse, employees of an organization learn to think in the same way as one another, to the point where new ideas become a function of recruitment. Intellectual work of real value comes about when someone thinks differently. That means questioning conventional wisdom. There is no better way to steer away from conventional wisdom and current events than to become engaged with history and to read the writings of long-forgotten scholars.