The Return of Geopolitics

Weekly Focus curated by Anita Dick, Marion Gollner and Ludger Hagedorn

We face a complicated, volatile and uncertain geopolitical situation today. The post-Cold War order is over – along with its proclaimed “end of history” and the end of geopolitics. We are once again discussing a politics of national interests and geopolitical spheres of influence (cf. Stephen Kotkin’s groundbreaking IWM lecture on “Sphere of Influence”). How much the geopolitical landscape has changed in recent years, becomes clear by re-reading Robert Cooper’s assessment from 2013, where he bluntly states that “the Cold War is over and Russia is preoccupied with making money.”

The new world order is characterized by a growing geopolitical fluidity and insecurity. The old governance of security is in flux. Geopolitical rivalries take center stage, while a new security architecture is not in sight. Escalating US-Turkish tensions in recent years, for instance, show how relations between traditional military and political allies are being recalibrated. The new geopolitical landscape is complex and open as it remains unclear which choices countries will make and what resources they will use towards these newly defined ends. Alternative scenarios that were simply unthinkable a few years ago have entered Realpolitik today. In order to map and analyze these new international developments, IWM Permanent Fellow Ivan Krastev initiated in 2018 a series of “Geopolitical Talks” in cooperation with the Austrian Ministry of Defense. We highlight here some of these discussions at the IWM with Robert John Sawers, former chief of the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) on Changing Politics and Geopolitics, the former national security advisor to the Prime Minister of India Shivshankar Menon on The New Asian Geopolitics, American policy analyst and government official Wess Mitchell on current geopolitical challenges and lessons from the past, and William Joseph Burns, former career Foreign Service Officer and President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on American Diplomacy in a Disordered World.

In addition to the “Geopolitical Talks”, the IWM has organized the “Political Salons” in cooperation with the daily newspaper Die Presse in recent years. A highlight of this renowned series was undoubtedly the visit of the former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who discussed – together with Gerald Knaus (Europe’s Futures Visiting Fellow) and Christian Ultsch (Die Presse) – the topic of “Global Responsibility. Europe, the US and the Refugee Crisis“.

New geopolitical claims take place in a multipolar world, a world without an uncontested hegemon. Multilateralism as a principle of international political order is increasingly losing ground. While countries, like the USA and UK, which decisively contributed to the establishment of the global architecture of multilateral governance after 1945 try to shake off its constraints in order to opt for bilateral solutions, other countries, like China, have been the new proponents of multilateral governance. As Mary Kaldor reminds us, if the politics of war is back on the international agenda, it is one of “New Wars” that challenge conventional theorizing (cf. her lecture on “New Wars as a Social Condition).

The new world order is also a post-American one, i.e. a world without a single hegemonic political center. Western liberal democracy has not only lost in attractiveness on a globally as a model but is being seriously challenged within the West as well. Widespread dissatisfaction with neo-liberal economic globalization has fueled the resurgence of nationalisms, albeit often at the expense of liberal principles. Moreover, Russia and China offer two different alternatives to the former hegemonic model of liberalism that may prove to be attractive to political elites and citizens alike in many countries of the world. The geopolitical role of Russia is further complicated by its ambitions in Ukraine. IWM Permanent Fellow Timothy Snyder, a leading expert on the history of the region that he once described as “Bloodlands”, cautions us about these ambitions in a lecture with the title “Ukrainian History as World History”.

One response to these shifts and the “illiberal” turn is denial. Another is to wait for America to return to its liberal self once Trump is out of office. This bet on the illiberal model exhausting itself may be one that will not pay off. There are many reasons to believe that the US is unlikely to embrace with enthusiasm once again its role as the leader of the free world and the guarantor of the liberal system. The effects of these developments on the European Union were the subject of the IWM initiated Debating Europe on “The Return of Geopolitics in Europe”. Although the EU Commission has defined itself as a “geopolitical” one, the EU seems ill prepared to live in a world where geopolitics has returned, i.e. where national governments as well as citizens are obsessed with securing borders and territorial sovereignty. In many parts of the EU national pride seems to gain salience over economic success.

As Stephen Holmes and Ivan Krastev argue in their recent book “The Light that Failed,” (see excerpt IWMpost 124) the supposed end of history turned out to be only the beginning of an Age of Imitation. They argue that right wing populism and xenophobia that challenge liberal democracy in some Eastern European countries stems from a resentment against the demand to become Westernized. Ironically, while just 30 years ago it was expected that the former communist countries would sooner or later start to resemble the United States, it now appears that Putin’s autocratic Russia is the model for the Trump administration.