National Academies Press: OpenBook

Understanding the Changing Planet: Strategic Directions for the Geographical Sciences (2010)

Chapter: 9 How Are Geopolitical Shifts Influencing Peace and Stability?

« Previous: 8 How Is Economic Globalization Affecting Inequality?
Suggested Citation:"9 How Are Geopolitical Shifts Influencing Peace and Stability?." National Research Council. 2010. Understanding the Changing Planet: Strategic Directions for the Geographical Sciences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12860.
×

9
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

1

Lashkar-e-Taiba is a South Asian militant organization that seeks to promote the Islamization of the region and to contest Indian authority over the Muslims of Kashmir. Mercy Corps is an extrastate nonprofit organization with headquarters in the United States and Europe that seeks to combat poverty, suffering, and oppression through community action projects. The European Union is the most far-reaching suprastate integration initiative in the world, encompassing 27 European countries.

Suggested Citation:"9 How Are Geopolitical Shifts Influencing Peace and Stability?." National Research Council. 2010. Understanding the Changing Planet: Strategic Directions for the Geographical Sciences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12860.
×

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

BOX 9.1

Spatial Distribution of Conflict

O’Loughlin, in collaboration with other researchers, has undertaken a series of studies on the spatial distribution of conflict that have provided insights into the causes and consequences of instability (e.g., O’Loughlin and Anselin, 1991; O’Loughlin and Raleigh, 2007). In one recent study O’Loughlin and Witmer (Forthcoming) compiled and mapped geocoded information on politically motivated violent events in the North Caucasus. Their research showed a steady spatial diffusion of military, rebel, and police engagements to the west and east from Chechnya’s capital into North Ossetia and close to Makhachkala in Dagestan, but much less expansion to the north and south (see Figure). Their study revealed how conflict diffused from Chechnya to neighboring republics and provided insight into both the spatial strategies of participants and the types of areas that are more prone to instability.

Mean center and standard deviational ellipse of violent events in the North Caucasus, August 1999-August 2007 by type of event. SOURCE: O’Loughlin and Witmer (Forthcoming).

Mean center and standard deviational ellipse of violent events in the North Caucasus, August 1999-August 2007 by type of event. SOURCE: O’Loughlin and Witmer (Forthcoming).

Suggested Citation:"9 How Are Geopolitical Shifts Influencing Peace and Stability?." National Research Council. 2010. Understanding the Changing Planet: Strategic Directions for the Geographical Sciences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12860.
×

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.

RESEARCH SUBQUESTIONS

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

Suggested Citation:"9 How Are Geopolitical Shifts Influencing Peace and Stability?." National Research Council. 2010. Understanding the Changing Planet: Strategic Directions for the Geographical Sciences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12860.
×
FIGURE 9.1 Map based on Jordan’s (1993) study of the relationship between functional regions in Bosnia and the Vance-Owen partition plan. SOURCE: As modified by Alexander Murphy for Geographical Approaches to Democratization: A Report to the National Science Foundation (printed by the University of Oregon Press for the Geography and Regional Science Program, National Science Foundation).

FIGURE 9.1 Map based on Jordan’s (1993) study of the relationship between functional regions in Bosnia and the Vance-Owen partition plan. SOURCE: As modified by Alexander Murphy for Geographical Approaches to Democratization: A Report to the National Science Foundation (printed by the University of Oregon Press for the Geography and Regional Science Program, National Science Foundation).

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

Suggested Citation:"9 How Are Geopolitical Shifts Influencing Peace and Stability?." National Research Council. 2010. Understanding the Changing Planet: Strategic Directions for the Geographical Sciences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12860.
×

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-

FIGURE 9.2 Focusing just on areas that are at “very high” risk from sea-level rise in one country is suggestive of the potential for rising sea levels to alter coastlines and disrupt the lives and livelihoods of people. SOURCE: USGS (2007).

FIGURE 9.2 Focusing just on areas that are at “very high” risk from sea-level rise in one country is suggestive of the potential for rising sea levels to alter coastlines and disrupt the lives and livelihoods of people. SOURCE: USGS (2007).

Suggested Citation:"9 How Are Geopolitical Shifts Influencing Peace and Stability?." National Research Council. 2010. Understanding the Changing Planet: Strategic Directions for the Geographical Sciences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12860.
×

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).

SUMMARY

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.

Suggested Citation:"9 How Are Geopolitical Shifts Influencing Peace and Stability?." National Research Council. 2010. Understanding the Changing Planet: Strategic Directions for the Geographical Sciences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12860.
×
Page 91
Suggested Citation:"9 How Are Geopolitical Shifts Influencing Peace and Stability?." National Research Council. 2010. Understanding the Changing Planet: Strategic Directions for the Geographical Sciences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12860.
×
Page 92
Suggested Citation:"9 How Are Geopolitical Shifts Influencing Peace and Stability?." National Research Council. 2010. Understanding the Changing Planet: Strategic Directions for the Geographical Sciences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12860.
×
Page 93
Suggested Citation:"9 How Are Geopolitical Shifts Influencing Peace and Stability?." National Research Council. 2010. Understanding the Changing Planet: Strategic Directions for the Geographical Sciences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12860.
×
Page 94
Suggested Citation:"9 How Are Geopolitical Shifts Influencing Peace and Stability?." National Research Council. 2010. Understanding the Changing Planet: Strategic Directions for the Geographical Sciences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12860.
×
Page 95
Suggested Citation:"9 How Are Geopolitical Shifts Influencing Peace and Stability?." National Research Council. 2010. Understanding the Changing Planet: Strategic Directions for the Geographical Sciences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12860.
×
Page 96
Next: 10 How Might We Better Observe, Analyze, and Visualize a Changing World? »
Understanding the Changing Planet: Strategic Directions for the Geographical Sciences Get This Book
×
Buy Paperback | $60.00 Buy Ebook | $47.99
MyNAP members save 10% online.
Login or Register to save!
Download Free PDF

From the oceans to continental heartlands, human activities have altered the physical characteristics of Earth's surface. With Earth's population projected to peak at 8 to 12 billion people by 2050 and the additional stress of climate change, it is more important than ever to understand how and where these changes are happening. Innovation in the geographical sciences has the potential to advance knowledge of place-based environmental change, sustainability, and the impacts of a rapidly changing economy and society.

Understanding the Changing Planet outlines eleven strategic directions to focus research and leverage new technologies to harness the potential that the geographical sciences offer.

  1. ×

    Welcome to OpenBook!

    You're looking at OpenBook, NAP.edu's online reading room since 1999. Based on feedback from you, our users, we've made some improvements that make it easier than ever to read thousands of publications on our website.

    Do you want to take a quick tour of the OpenBook's features?

    No Thanks Take a Tour »
  2. ×

    Show this book's table of contents, where you can jump to any chapter by name.

    « Back Next »
  3. ×

    ...or use these buttons to go back to the previous chapter or skip to the next one.

    « Back Next »
  4. ×

    Jump up to the previous page or down to the next one. Also, you can type in a page number and press Enter to go directly to that page in the book.

    « Back Next »
  5. ×

    Switch between the Original Pages, where you can read the report as it appeared in print, and Text Pages for the web version, where you can highlight and search the text.

    « Back Next »
  6. ×

    To search the entire text of this book, type in your search term here and press Enter.

    « Back Next »
  7. ×

    Share a link to this book page on your preferred social network or via email.

    « Back Next »
  8. ×

    View our suggested citation for this chapter.

    « Back Next »
  9. ×

    Ready to take your reading offline? Click here to buy this book in print or download it as a free PDF, if available.

    « Back Next »
Stay Connected!