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The return of geo-politics

By Peter McMahon - posted Friday, 19 January 2007

This is supposed to be the age of globalisation when the productive forces of global capitalism are let loose to generate unprecedented wealth for all. Under this meta-logic politics was supposed to be superseded by economics, nation-states by markets. But there are signs that big-picture politics is back in the driver’s seat, that real problems are emerging on the international scene, and that over the next few decades we are in for a very interesting time indeed.

During the Cold War it was generally believed that world affairs were dominated by political relations between the major powers, generally known as geo-politics. This geo-politics reached its apogee with the nuclear stand-off between the two great powers of east and west, Russia and America.

These were the two survivors out of a centuries long struggle between the great European powers, the United States, China, Japan, Russia and, for a while, Turkey.


In geo-politics, geography, national resources, spheres of influence and military capability were considered of primary importance.

The US was the classic example of a country whose destiny had been decided by geography. It was separated from bellicose Europe and any other potential rival by oceans, and its wide open and resource-rich spaces promoted continental expansion. Eventually, a combination of American strength and the failure of its rivals meant that the US came to dominate the world.

As the 19th century concluded, a decadent China was broken up by industrialised imperial countries, and then actually invaded by the neo-imperialist Japanese, while in Europe the old global empire of Britain fought it out with traditional rivals France, newly united Germany and always imperialist Russia for supremacy. After two horrific world wars, the almost untouched US and the ravaged but militarily strong Russia were left facing each other over a weakened world.

But the Cold War ended in 1991 and the age of geo-politics was supposedly finished. Instead the world was supposed to enter a new era where economics was king and boundaries hardly mattered.

Transnational corporations seemed to be claiming more and more power, and global markets reached extraordinary levels of value. As for the geo-political powers, Russia was a basket case and the US was just another nation-state in a world where the driving forces were no longer national politics but global markets.

Sure, there were a few problems, like the emergence of concern about climate change due to global pollution and the depletion of key resources like fresh water and oil, but none of this seriously impacted on the great surge of wealth. Wealth which, in the more developed parts of the world at least, was making lots of people very rich indeed.


Well, how quickly things have changed. Led by an unusually incompetent and ideologically driven government, the US has managed to entangle itself in a complete disaster in the Gulf. Along the way, Washington basically undermined any and all attempts to create a stable world governance system through multilateral agreements.

America, the neo-imperialists in Washington proclaimed, would go it alone. It also managed to inadvertently empower an anti-modernist political movement, Islamic terrorism, that has generated an unusual amount of panic. The world now seems to be a much less secure place, and hardly ideal for the business of making money.

Furthermore, the erstwhile enemy, now under the traditional strong and authoritarian leadership of Vladimir Putin, is beginning to play the energy card, acting to control supplies of oil and gas - so vital to Europe - coming from the Caspian region. Meanwhile, that engine of so much of the economic growth after the 1990s, China, is flexing its muscles, again in regard to oil.

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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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