Geopolitics, from Greek Γη (earth) and Πολιτική (politics) in broad terms, is a theory that describes the relation between politics and territory whether on local or international scale.

It comprises the art and practice of analyzing, proscribing, forecasting, and the using of political power over a given territory. Specifically, is a method of foreign policy analysis, which seeks to understand, explain and predict international political behaviour primarily in terms of geographical variables. Those geographical variables generally are: geographic location of the country or countries in question, size of the countries involved, climate of the region the countries are in, topography of the region, demography, natural resources available in the territory, technological development. Traditionally, the term has applied primarily to the impact of geography on politics (and likewise), but its usage has evolved over the past century to encompass wider connotations.

In the abstract, geopolitics traditionally indicates the links and causal relationships between political power and geographic space; in concrete terms it is often seen as a body of thought assaying specific strategic prescriptions based on the relative importance of land power and sea power in world history... The geopolitical tradition had some consistent concerns, like the geopolitical correlates of power in world politics, the identification of international core areas, and the relationships between naval and terrestrial capabilities.

Academically, the study of geopolitics involves the analysis of geography, history and social science with reference to spatial politics and patterns at various scales (ranging from the level of the state to international). It is multidisciplinary in its scope, and includes all aspects of the social sciences with particular emphasis on political geography, international relations, the territorial aspects of political science and international law. Also, the study of geopolitics includes the study of the ensemble of relations between the interests of international political actors, interests focused to an area, space, geographical element or ways, relations which create a geopolitical system.

Main schools and doctrines

The term was coined at the beginning of the 20th century by Rudolf Kjellén (1864–1922), a Swedish political scientist, inspired by the German geographer Friedrich Ratzel, whose book Politische Geographie (political geography) was published in 1897. It was later popularized in English by the hungarian historian Emile Reich and later by the American diplomat Robert Strausz-Hupé, a faculty member of the University of Pennsylvania. Although Halford Mackinder had a pioneering role in the field, he actually never used the term geopolitics himself.

German Geopolitik

German Geopolitik is characterized by the belief that life of States is similar to the one of Human beings and animals, mainly imposed by scientific determinism and Social Darwinism. German geopolitics will thoroughly develop the concept of Lebensraum (vital space) supposedly necessary to the developement of a Nation alike a favorable natural environment would be for animals.


Friedrich Ratzel (1844–1904), influenced by thinkers like Darwin and zoologist Ernst Heinrich Haeckel, contributed to Geopolitik by the expansion on the biological conception of geography, without a static conception of borders. States are instead organic and growing, with borders representing only a temporary stop in their movement. It is not the state proper that is the organism, but the land in its spiritual bond with the people who draw sustenance from it. The expanse of a state’s borders is a reflection of the health of the nation meaning that static countries are in decline.

He published several papers, among which the essay Lebensraum (1901) concerning biogeography, creating a foundation for the uniquely German variant of geopolitics: geopolitik. Influenced by the American geostrategist Alfred Thayer Mahan, Ratzel wrote of aspirations for German naval reach, agreeing that sea power was self-sustaining, as the profit from trade would pay for the merchant marine, unlike land power.

The geopolitical theory of Ratzel has been criticized as being too sweeping, his interpretation of human history and geography too simple and mechanistic. In his analysis of the importance of mobility, and the move from sea to rail transport, he failed to predict the revolutionary impact of air power. Critically also he underestimated the importance of social organization in the development of power.

The association of German Geopolitiks with Nazism

After World War I, the thoughts of Rudolf Kjellén and Ratzel were picked up and extended by a number of German authors such as Karl Haushofer (1869–1946), Erich Obst, Hermann Lautensach and Otto Maull. In 1923 Karl Haushofer founded the Zeitschrift für Geopolitik (Journal for Geopolitics), which later proved useful to Nazi Germany propaganda. The key concepts of Haushofer's Geopolitik were Lebensraum, autarky, pan-regions and organic borders. States have, Haushofer argued, undeniable right to seek natural borders which would guarantee autarky.

More recently Haushofer's influence within the Nazi Party has been questioned (O'Tuathail, 1996) since Haushofer failed to incorporate the Nazis' racial ideology into his work. Popular views of the role of geopolitics in the Nazi Third Reich suggest a fundamental significance on the part of the geopoliticians in the ideological orientation of the Nazi state. Bassin (1987) reveals that these popular views are in important ways misleading and incorrect. Despite the numerous similarities and affinities between the two doctrines, geopolitics was always held suspect by the National Socialist ideologists. This suspicion was understandable, for the underlying philosophical orientation of geopolitics ran counter to that of National Socialism. Geopolitics, deriving from the political geography of Ratzel, shared his scientific materialism and determinism. Human society was determined by external influences, in the face of which qualities held innately by individuals or groups were of reduced or no significance. National Socialism rejected in principle both materialism and determinism and also elevated innate human qualities, in the form of a hypothesized 'racial character,' to the factor of greatest significance in the constitution of human society. These differences led after 1933 to friction and ultimately to open denunciation of geopolitics by Nazi ideologues.[7] Nevertheless, German Geopolitik was discredited by its (mis)use in Nazi expansionist policy of World War II and has never achieved standing comparable to the pre-war period.

Anglo-American geopolitical doctrine

Alfred Thayer Mahan and the sea power

Alfred Thayer Mahan, a frequent commentator on world naval strategic and diplomatic affairs, believed that national greatness was inextricably associated with the sea, with its commercial usage in peace and its control in war. His goal was to discover the laws of history that determined who controlled the seas.

Mahan's theoretical framework came from Antoine-Henri Jomini, with an emphasis on strategic locations (such as chokepoints, canals, and coaling stations), as well as quantifiable levels of fighting power in a fleet. He proposed six conditions required for a nation to have sea power:

  1. An advantageous geographical position
  2. Serviceable coastlines, abundant natural resources, and a favorable climate
  3. Extent of territory
  4. A population large enough to defend its territory
  5. A society with an aptitude for the sea and commercial enterprise
  6. A government with the influence to dominate the sea.

Emile Reich

Hungarian historian Emile Reich (1854–1910) is considered to be the first having coined the acception in english as early as 1902 and later in 1904 in his book Foundations of Modern Europe.

Mackinder and the Heartland theory

The concept of geopolitics initially gained attention through the work of Sir Halford Mackinder in England and his formulation of the Heartland Theory which was set out in his article entitled "The Geographical Pivot of History" in 1904. Mackinder's doctrine of geopolitics involved concepts diametrically opposed to the notion of Alfred Thayer Mahan about the significance of navies (he coined the term sea power) in world conflict. He saw navy as a basis of Colombian era empire (roughly 1492–19th century) and expected 20th century to be domain of land power. The Heartland theory hypothesized the possibility for a huge empire being brought into existence in the Heartland, which wouldn't need to use coastal or transoceanic transport to remain coherent.

The basic notions of Mackinder's doctrine involve considering the geography of the Earth as being divided into two sections, the World Island or Core, comprising Eurasia and Africa; the Peripheral "islands", including the Americas, Australia, Japan, the British Isles, and Oceania. Not only was the Periphery noticeably smaller than the World Island, it necessarily required much sea transport to function at the technological level of the World Island, which contained sufficient natural resources for a developed economy.

Also, the industrial centers of the Periphery were necessarily located in widely separated locations. The World Island could send its navy to destroy each one of them in turn. It could locate its own industries in a region further inland than the Periphery could, so they would have a longer struggle reaching them, and would face a well-stocked industrial bastion. Mackinder called this region the Heartland. It essentially comprised Eastern Europe: Ukraine, Western Russia, and Mitteleuropa. The Heartland contained the grain reserves of Ukraine, and many other natural resources. Mackinder's notion of geopolitics can be summed up in his saying "Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland. Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island. Who rules the World-Island commands the World." His doctrine was influential during the World Wars and the Cold War, for Germany and later Russia each made territorial strides toward the Heartland.

Spykman and the Rimland

Nicholas J. Spykman could be considered as a disciple and critic of both geostrategists Alfred Mahan, and Halford Mackinder. His work is based on assumptions similar to Mackinder: the unity of world politics, and the unity of the world sea. He extends this to include the unity of the air. Spykman adopts Mackinder's divisions of the world, renaming some:

  • the Heartland;
  • the Rimland (analogous to Mackinder's "inner or marginal crescent" also an intermediate region, lying between the Heartland and the marginal sea powers); and
  • the Offshore Islands & Continents (Mackinder's "outer or insular crescent").

The purpose of Rimland is to separate Heartland from ports usable throughout the year (not frozen up during winter), therefore any attempts by Heartland nations (Russia) to conquere Rimland must be prevented. Spykman modified Mackinder's formula on relationship between the Heartand and the Rimland (or the inner crescent), he claimed, that "Who controls the rimland rules Eurasia. Who rules Eurasia controls the destinies of the world." This theory can be traced in the orgins of Containment, a U.S. policy on preventing the spread of Soviet influence after the World War II (see also Truman Doctrine).


Since then, the word geopolitics has been applied to other theories, most notably the notion of the Clash of Civilizations by Samuel Huntington thoroughly inspired from Fernand Braudel in Grammaire des civilisations. In a peaceable world, neither sea lanes nor surface transport are threatened; hence all countries are effectively close enough to one another physically. It is in the realm of the political ideas, workings, and cultures that there are differences, and the term has shifted more towards this arena, especially in its popular usage. Huntington’s geopolitical model, especially the structures for North Africa and Eurasia, is largely derived from the "Intermediate Region" geopolitical model first formulated by Dimitri Kitsikis and published in 1978.

French approach on Geopolitics

French doctrines mainly relies in opposition to German Geopolitik and rejects the idea of a fixed geography, hence french geography is focused on the evolution of polymorphic territories being the result of mankind actions. It also relies in the consideration of long time periods through refusal of taking specific events into account.

This Method has been theorized by Professor Lacoste according to three principles: Representation, Diachronie; Diatopie.


In The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu outlined the view that man and societies are influenced by climate. He believed that hotter climates create hot-tempered people and colder climates aloof people, whereas the mild climate of France is ideal for political systems.

Élisée Reclus

Considered as one of the founders of french geopolitics, Reclus, is the author of a book considered as a reference in modern geography (Nouvelle Géographie universelle). Alike Ratzel, he considers geography through a global vision. However, in complete opposition to Ratzel's vision, Reclus considers geography not to be unchanging; it is supposed to evolve in contingent with human actions. His progressive political views got him rejected from the academic establishment.

Jacques Ancel

French geographer and geopolitician Jacques Ancel is considered to be the first theorician of geopolitics in France notably through the lectures he gave at the Carnegie foundation and his book "Géopolitique" published in 1936. Alike Reclus he rejects German determinist views on geopolitics (such as Haushofer's doctrines).

Fernand Braudel, Vidal de la Blache

Braudel's broad view used insights from other social sciences, employed the concept of the longue durée, and downplayed the importance of specific events. This method was inspired by the French geographer Paul Vidal de la Blache (himself influenced by German thought especially by Friedrich Ratzel whom he had met in Germany). Moreover, Braudel's method consisted in analysing the interdependance between individuals and their environment.

"Vidalian” geography is based on varied forms of cartography and on possibilism (founded on a societal approach of geography ie on the principle of spaces polymorphic faces depending from many factors among them mankind, culture, and ideas) as opposed to determinism.

Lacoste and the rebirth of French Geopolitics

Because of the German Geopolitik influence on French Geopolitics, the latter were for a long time banished from academic works, often considered to be a Nazi science.

In the mid-1970s, Yves Lacoste a French geographer who was directly inspired by Ancel, Braudel and Vidal de la Blache founded l'Institut Français de Géopolitique (French Institute for Geopolitics) that publishes the Hérodote journal. While rejecting generalizations and broad abstractions employed by the German and Anglo-American traditions, the school focuses on spartial dimension on different levels of analysis.

In his work, Lacoste set a system of academic principle. According to Lacoste every issue (conflictual situation whether it is local or global) is to be apprehended through three key notions:

  • Representation: Each group or individuals is the product of an education, thus, views regarding every issues are oriented, being the product of their beliefs education ethnic group... Therefore one should analyse the representations of the forces in presence with distance in order to understand their motivations and revendications.
  • Diachronie: diachronic analyse is a tool that allows to conduct a Braudelian analyse (ie through long period of time)
  • Diatopie: diatopic analyse is a tool that allows to conduct a cartographic survey through a multiscale mapping.
  • Horogenesis: Neologism coined by geographer Michel Foucher, the concept consists in the studying of the birth and death of borders

Russian Geopolitics

The modern day Russian Geopolitcs is centered on Eurasianist tradition and is highly interlinked with politics. The trauma of the disintegration of the Soviet Union left behind various views ranging from moderate – stressing the unique position of Russia between Europe and Asia – to more extreme arguing for Greater Russia aspirations (renaissance of Russian empire in the borders of the fomer Soviet Union) associated with expansionist views of Alexandr Dugin.

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