All empires instinctively felt, studied, built strategy around geopolitical realities and grew. They also fell when imperial ambitions overshot the limits imposed by geopolitical reality. I start with empires because all our democracies are relatively recent phenomenon of history. It is also becoming clearer that from the collapse of the Soviet Union (1991) to the Credit Crisis (2008), this period of 17 years witnessed something interesting and intriguing.
From 2008 to 2016 – what we observe is not some definitive march towards open countries and free people but something very strange and contrary. In the middle East, a new state is emerging that draws its existential fire from 7th century, a powerful China shows tendencies which are like small tremors of a dragon wagging its long tail before a jump, many democracies are showing clear polarization in far left or far right ( European democracies), a faded Russia that bemoans its Soviet imperial past, not with apology but with a sense of nostalgia. Great Britain’s people think completely opposite to what the Premier thought they were thinking in terms of regional integration as Brexit demonstrated. India – showing a clear inclination to electoral right in the last election goes for a “surgical strike” while the status quo so far was “strategic restraint.”
For all the matured democracies of the world, it is imperative to keep this geopolitical reality in mind because geography is a continuous and dense rock-like presence whereas ideologies are like layers of slime in underwater rocks that move with the undercurrents.
The post at the end will discuss the recent “surgical strike” by India in Kashmir in the light of the geopolitical aspect.
First some axioms which are self-evident and we can easily verify them without becoming an expert.
I. Geopolitics is not some theory. It is an existential baggage of a nation. Simply put, geography is, in a sense – destiny.
II. “A nation does not have any permanent friend or permanent enemy – only permanent interests” – this was from a British Prime Minister at the just peaking period of British empire.
III. There are certain geographical locations which may be valueless in themselves – a barren desert, an icy mountain area, a shallow marshland but has tremendous geopolitical and geo-strategic value with relation to its position vis-a-vis the current order of military, political, trade, transport connected realities. Their “geopolitical value” attracts powers at all stages (matured, decaying, emergent, established) and all these locations will be conflict zones. There is no exception to this observation. The conflict may manifest in various forms but the underlying causes reinforce them because of the principle of least resistance.
IV. It is quite possible that a nation – weaker and vulnerable in comparison to a more powerful enemy will survive and even overcome if it remains aligned to its geopolitical wisdom but it is certain that it cannot but perish if it goes against its innate geopolitical wisdom.
V. Quo bono – the first question of Roman criminal jurisprudence. Who benefits ? World events do no happen by complete co-incidence. Someone benefits in whatever happens. It is like a trade – you can go long or go short and both ways there will be benefit for someone, somewhere.
Russia : Napoleon and Hitler – both experienced their worst defeat near Moscow. If you see the map of Russia, you shall find that from the West, there is no geographical barrier. It is a vast steppe and plain lands. This vulnerability remains in Russian psyche and as a counterbalance, Russia has always sought sphere of influence or buffer zone in the East. Russian government has always left the seat of government in Moscow when an enemy stands at the Gates and is saved by her weather. When Soviet Russia collapsed in 1991, first the buffer zones melted away and this perhaps makes current Russian President Putin say that the break-up of the Soviet Union is a catastrophic geopolitical event of last century. This statement is very important when we see the timing and the speaker.
China : One of the clear handicaps of China is her having no direct access to Arabian sea and Indian ocean because of being land-locked in the south. How China can have access to Arabian sea or Indian ocean ? It can either take a route from South China sea via Hongkong, connect to Burma and reach northern reach of Bay of Bengal. Then it drops south, touches Sri Lanka and takes westward route and connects to Arabian sea. Or it can drop overland and connect to Arabian sea at some port in North West of India or in Pakistan.
Q1: Why is China investing so much in Burma ?
Q2: Why is China building a port in Pakistan ?
Q3: Why is China building highways through Karakorum range all the way to Kashghar from the port at Pakistan ?
Q4: Does this highway cross through a zone called “Kashmir” ?
Q5. Who benefits if that zone is not under complete control of another regional player ?
Afghanistan Since the time of Alexander, the overland access to India has been through Afghanistan and it still remains so. if the so called Aryans came to India from North West and they must have crossed Afghanistan and this area is one of the most scenic places in the whole planet. Why didn’t they settle there ? There can be only two conclusions : a) Aryans did not come this way b) They came this way but there previous settlement was very different from the mountain valleys of Afghanistan. In other words, the Gangatic valley of North India suited their taste. This river might have saved Eastern India from becoming Hellenic. Alexander’s army never saw anything in the dimension of the Ganges in their whole journey from Macedon to Patna. The holiest river of the Aryans stood in front of the mightiest Hellenic warrior to save Eastern India and after 2500 years, a son of the greatest city of the East of India, Calcutta – Swami Vivekananda declared that ..”in the domain of ideas, ancient Hindu and ancient Greece are meeting.”
Bosnia-Herzegovina and Nagarno – Karabach : These are small regions in Caucasus. Why there has been continuous conflict in these areas ? Hint : Caucasus oil (especially of Azerbaijans Baku oil fields) and these are the points where most strategic oil-pipeline can have their choke points.
British Empire : British empire was the last empire before the age of airplanes. Military application of airplanes drastically changed the geopolitical equation as there is no ocean in the sky ! In its height, British empire dominated all trade routes and controlled all “choke points” – Suez Canal, Panama Canal, Afghanistan as a counter-balance to Russian expansion in the East), India (entire sub-continent), Hongkong, Singapore. This maritime umbrella made sure an island continent like Australia supplied Britain with soldiers although Australia has no interest in those conflicts. Why ? It is to keep the master of the global trade routes pleased, otherwise Australia will be doomed. Air-power changed everything. British empire’s floating army – Royal Navy was too costly and inefficient to police the world.
Fifty years after the 2nd world war, we can easily see why nations have no permanent friend or foe, only permanent interest. America’s entry into war did save the world from becoming a Nazi empire but it did not save British empire. Actually, the global dominance was inherited from British to America. We now find Australia dutifully supplies soldiers to die in Iraq although we do not see any logic what strategic interest of Australia can lie in a conflict in Iraq. Answer : geopolitics.
Geopolitical Studies in India
Unfortunately for India, there has not been first-rate geopolitical thinkers. During British rule, their was no need as British imperialism’s broad shoulder bore the burden, for good or for worse.
Post-independence, economics was considered to the branch of knowledge and still today this veneration continues. This unduly and blind veneration for economists among Bengalis always irks me and I have once quipped once in a polite company just after Dr. Amartaya Sen was awarded the Nobel prize : ” the more a community studies economics as a branch of study, the overall economic health of the community goes down.”
Two Bengali thinkers (not intellectuals as understood in India), with the risk of being labeled as prejudiced towards fellow Bengalis, I must declare that these two thought about the issue with great foresight and originality. Bankim Chnadra Chatterjee (in Bengali essays) and Nirad C Chaudhuri in his works in English analysed the geopolitical realities and the policy implications. As early as 1952 (two years after India became a Republic), Nirad C Chaudhuri was talking of the need of a military aristocracy and he was citing the example of Roman republics. He also cautioned us of a military jingoism and how such mis-adventures can bring untold harm to a young republic and gains to third parties who may channelize their interest through “proxies”. He was perhaps a lone Indian, admittedly and bitterly, who like Putin, considered the collapse of British Empire as one of the pivotal historical event for India and the world and again, in a nostalgic sense.
The young republic of India in 1950 has matured. The military, administrative and political elite must concede to the fact that we need to have a culture of geopolitical studies among our young men and women for whom geopolitical realities will be starker and nearer.
As an Indian of 40+ years, I entreat the young men and women who are in their 20+ to consider the fact that the world order where globalization, private enterprise, free flow of capital and innovation, rising middle class income, the “3BHK, Wagon R, 2 private school, 2 credit cards”, economics and investment uber alles model of urban elevation may not continue as geopolitical re-configuration are due. It is easy to deny this as healthy men deny death, rich deny poverty, stable people deny disturbance.
You may expect to be an entrepreneur in the common sense of the world but this sense of a world itself is a political construct. You may not be interested in politics but changing politics is interested in you.
“We may not be interested in geopolitical cataclysm but geopolitics is interested in us.”