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Diplomacy

How national diplomatic missions are adapting to a fast-changing environment

Rodrigo Vaz

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Diplomacy at a crossroads

The impact of technology in diplomacy cannot be overstated. If “twenty years ago, telegrams from embassies would arrive in paper form”, in the past years an avalanche of technological breakthroughs forced diplomatic representations to adapt. Embassies are increasingly making use of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, even if that embrace is still made with reluctance by practitioners. Moreover, the phenomenon of big data suggests that the role of diplomatic missions as ‘gatherers’ of information will be enhanced, provided national diplomatic systems make good use of the ever increasing amount of data available.

Even if it is still looked with suspicion by diplomats, the role of digital diplomacy paves the way for another important shift in diplomacy, which is the rise of non-state actors that “present a formidable challenge to state primacy in the diplomatic world”. These new digital platforms give non-state actors a much easier way to reach and influence bothlocal and global audiences. Indeed, as Shaun Riordan puts it, “the sheer range of new actors – governmental and non-governmental – in international relations is truly staggering, as is their exponential growth”.

All this comes at a time when domestic circumstances are also undergoing deep change. MFAs are increasinglypressuredto cut expenditure as many countries, particularly across Europe, seek to balance their public budgets. This has led to a rationalisation of costs where possible, often with allied countries deciding to pool their resources together. This has in turn set the scene for the rise of commercial diplomacy. Increasingly “governments encourage home firms to trade, as well as seeking to make their countries an attractive destination for foreign direct investment (FDI), research and development (R&D) and knowledge”.

One example that seems to have attempted to meet all these new challenges was the period that Tom Fletcher spent as British Ambassador to Lebanon. The Ambassador chose to adopt a direct and informal communication style to reach out to his host country that included tweeting and blogging frequently. During his tenure, Mr Fletcher actively promoted trade between the United Kingdom and Lebanon by sponsoring several trade fairs and showcases of British products, while facilitating defence trade deals between the UK and Lebanon.

The impact seems to be have been highly positive. UK-Lebanon business doubled in the space of three years and the “Lebanese Armed Forces are now using British-supplied vehicles and a string of British-built watchtowers”. The period of Mr Fletcher as UK Ambassador seems to suggest a new way of diplomacy-making, with added roles for the Ambassador: perhaps more informal in style, but undoubtedly with greater public exposure and a vocal promoter of the country on cultural and commercial terms.

“The news of my death have been greatly exaggerated”: Diplomacy lives on

Despite all the changes and the lively discussion around the changes-in-waiting in the diplomatic world, it is worth pondering whether the excitement over the future of diplomatic missions is not without some hyperbole. After all, many of the novelties discussed are but means to the primary goals diplomatic missions have since time immemorial served: the advancement of a country’s interests and the protection of its citizens abroad.

Moreover, as ‘digital’ as diplomatic representations may eventually become, the role of the embassy as a building is and will remain a potentially key instrument of a country’s foreign policy. Here, the exile of Julius Assange in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London since 2012 provides a clear – if unlikely – example. After being accused of crimes of sexual nature in Sweden and declaring himself a political prisoner, Mr Assange was granted asylum by Ecuador. As at the time he was in London, he took refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, which he has not left since. Even if this is an admittedly unusual example, it nonetheless shows that embassies remain irreplaceable; indeed, diplomacy can never be fully uploaded onto a ‘cloud’. When Tom Fletcher writes that the model diplomat in 2025 will not “see the embassy as a building, but as an idea”, that idea cannot in any case be disassociated from the building itself.

Conclusion

Embassies will remain essential assets of a country’s national diplomatic system. They retain replaceable function in terms of a country’s power projection worldwide and in protecting its citizens abroad in emergency situations.

However, the tectonic shifts we are witnessing will force the structure of embassies to change radically. There is a multiplication of available information due to issues such as big data and the emergence of new digital platforms and social media networks. Thus, embassies are likely to be, in the words of Tom Fletcher, “managers” instead of “creators” of information when communicating with their national Foreign Offices.

Naturally, this is not a model that will necessarily fit the realities of all states in the world. First of all, there is a high degree of agency in the diplomacy envisioned by Mr Fletcher. Not all diplomats are or will ever be “authentic, flexible, connected and influential”. Moreover, the economic, social and cultural particularities of each country will always define the priorities it sets out for its diplomatic representations to achieve. It thus follows that national diplomatic systems were always highly asymmetric among each other and will undoubtedly remain so – in number, size and scope. For instance, the United Kingdom has 226 diplomatic missions abroad; Estonia, at 45, has far less. Nevertheless, both countries have issues they will want their diplomatic missions to tackle, and both have political, economic and cultural agendas they will seek to project abroad. Those topics will often interact: Portugal’s economy diplomacy agency AICEP’s work in projecting the country as being at the forefront of digital innovation was certainly a key factor in convincing Egypt to buy Portugal’s public administration innovation technologies. In this kind of synergies lies the key to overcoming the challenges diplomatic representation will face in the future.

Rodrigo Vaz holds a MA in EU International Relations and Diplomacy Studies from the College of Europe, where his thesis was recognized as the best dissertation on EU-Africa relations. He also holds a MSc in African Politics from SOAS, University of London. He was until recently Assistant Project Manager at the Assembly of European Regions in Brussels and he has worked as Graduate Attaché Researcher at the British Institute in Eastern Africa, Nairobi. His research interests lie mainly in political transition and the role of international actors in political dynamics in Africa. His work has been featured in publications and websites such as OpenDemocracy, Social Europe, the World Economic Forum, EurActiv or Portugal’s DiárioEconómico.

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Diplomacy

Blue Gold: An Emerging Source Of Global Conflicts

Abdul Rasool Syed

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Depleting potable water resources have sent alarm across the globe pertaining to the emergence of a new spree of future global conflicts in quest for occupying available water reservoirs of the world. Water is an indispensable sine qua non for human existence, hence, its dearth, for sure, endangers the very survival of humankind. It is the lifeblood of human species. Unfortunately, rocketing population, rapid industrial growth, and drastic change in global climate have pushed the world into water bankruptcy. Today our world suffers from acute shortage of fresh drinking water and this very scarcity has kicked off a scramble among global powers to occupy as much water of the world as possible. For them it is combat for survival-a matter of life and death. Realizing this enhancing worth of this most essential commodity of life (water), the world has nicknamed it as “blue gold” and “oil of the 21st century”; it further, attests to the ballooning value of fresh water and its importance to the people of the world.

 According to some experts, in 21st century, the “blue gold” will replace the “black gold (oil); and since the world has seen fierce wars in quest for oil, now, it is likely to witness another round of wars on water.  This very fact was highlighted by Frederic lasserre, a professor at the Laval university, in Quebec and head of the observatory for international research on water (ORIE) who argued: “so few wars have been broken out because of conflicts on water, their passed rarity is not a guarantee for the future in a world affected by climate change and where populations are rising at a rhythm never seen before”.

Scarcity of fresh drinking water is going to be   the first and foremost factor that might trigger global water wars. The on-going regional water conflicts too testify to the fact that the global water wars are eminent.

Reportedly, Global water utilization has tripled over the last 50 years. The World Bank reports that 80 countries now have water shortages with more than 2.8 billion people living in areas of high water stress. This is expected to rise to 3.9 billion — more than half of the world’s population — by 2030 in a ‘business as usual’-scenario. This, definitely, is going to be an alarming situation.

To add, according to water project, one in nine people don’t have access to clean drinking water and 37% of those people live in sub-Saharan Africa. Internationally, half of all hospital beds are filled with people suffering from water related diseases. What is more appalling is that in developing countries, around 80% of illness can be linked to poor water condition.

Apart from this, Global water partnership says that two and half percent of total volume of water on earth is drinkable and out of which only 0.3% is located in rivers and lakes. Further, National Geographic predicts that by 2025, about 66% of the total population of the world live in water- stressed regions as a result of over use of water and climate change.

Furthermore, reportedly, every minute, 15 children die from drinking dirty water. Poor people are dying from want of water, while rich people are consuming enormous amounts of water. This water paradox also vividly illustrates that we are looking forward at a global water conflict in the making.

The growing water scarcity as mentioned earlier is a primary driver for insecurity, instability and conflicts and is currently setting the stage for future water wars — unless global action is taken. This was also the main message from a report released few years back by US Senate captioned as “Avoiding Water Wars: Water Scarcity and Central Asia’s Growing Importance for Stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan”. The report also warned of coming water wars in Central and South Asia due to water scarcity and predicted that it “will be felt all over the world”.

Moreover, the rapid commodification of water and subsequent emergence of water barons have further aggravated the problem.  A handful of private companies could soon control a large chunk of the world’s most vital resource. While the companies portray the expansion of private water as the natural response to a growing water shortage crisis, thoughtful observers point out the self-serving pitfalls of this approach.

“We must be extremely careful not to impose market forces on water because there are many more decisions that go into managing water — there are environmental decisions, social-culture decisions,” said David Boys of the U.K.-based Public Services International. “If you commodify water and bring in market forces which will control it, and sideline any other concern other than profit, you are going to lose the ability to control it.”

So far, privatization has been concentrated in poorer countries where the World Bank has used its financial leverage to force governments to privatize their water utilities in exchange for loans.

Interestingly, according to ICIJ (International consortium of investigative journalist) the enormous expansion of these companies could not have been possible without the World Bank and other international financial institutions, such as the IMF, the Asian Development and the European Bank for Reconstruction. In countries such as South Africa, Argentina, Philippines and Indonesia, the World Bank has been advising the leaders to “commercialize” their utilities as part of an overall bank policy of privatization and free-market economics.

Now, let’s discuss some of the areas of the world which are more susceptible to coming water combats. Beginning with tension between India and Pakistan, swiftly melting glaciers in the Himalayas will soon reduce the flow of mighty rivers like the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra making the Indian sub-continent one of the most exposed area to drought.

Control over the remaining water in the Indus will ignite fire of war around Kashmir where the river emerges more acute. Pakistan is highly dependent on the flow of the Indus for its agriculture and freshwater supplies. Hence, any attempt by India to subdue the Indus water or tamper with its smooth flow will face major resistance from its nuclear armed neighbor Pakistan.

Further to say, In Pakistan, meanwhile, runaway population growth and shifting rainfall patterns threaten its water outlook. With a massive population set to nearly double in next 35 years, Pakistan’s demand on its very limited water resources will intensify in a way that is almost unimaginable. Already, the country is one of the most water scarce on earth.

The Tigris-Euphrates River is another area which is likely to witness water conflicts. In more recent years the Turkish have built dams which control the flow of water to Iraq and Syria.

If Turkey continues to take more water or drought reduces the river’s flow even further then the two water stressed countries downstream could become extremely unhappy with Turkey. This in turn could spark violent conflict.

In addition, Water has also played a significant role in Yemen’s ongoing collapse. Decades of mismanagement have left the country — one of the world’s most water-scarce nations—with dilapidated water infrastructure, severely depleted groundwater reserves, and high rates of water-use inefficiency. Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, may become the first capital in the modern world to functionally run out of water, possibly as soon as 2025.

Inter alia, The Nile is the world’s longest river and it is no surprise that there is too conflict brewing over its water. For millennia, Egypt has been synonymous with the Nile. Since times of antiquity, Egypt has been dependent on the Nile for water, transport and food. Look at a map of the country and see how nearly the entire population hugs the river whereas the rest of the country is largely desert. But ever since Ethiopia built the first Renaissance dam – Egypt has been pressuring its southern neighbor to ensure that it does not take more than its fair share of water.

The danger is that the more water Ethiopia, Sudan and South Sudan use for themselves, the less will reach upstream for the Egyptians to use. The countries are in talks to resolve water usage peacefully. However, if these discussions fail, then a water war is a possibility.

Briefly, other countries which may put their feet in the battle ground for occupying blue gold (water) include Iran, Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Nigeria, and Somalia. Even more worrisome, global heavyweights such as China, India, and even the United States face uncomfortable futures given mismatches between forecasted demand for water and squeezed sources of supply.

To cap it all, realizing the gravity of situation, we being responsible inhabitants of this planet should give up our clinical attitude towards this most grave issue and devise an effective strategy to cope with this emerging source of global conflict for we could live without oil (black gold) but without blue gold (water), we are doomed to extinction. Further, those countries which are at daggers drawn on this very issue must resolve their matters by resorting to hydro-diplomacy for “water, as remarked by Antonio Gueterres in his recent press talk in Pakistan, should be an instrument of peace not war…

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The Neo-Compellence: Is the Diplomacy of Violence a new Reality for International Relations?

Orazio Maria Gnerre

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Authors: Orazio Maria Gnerre  and Maxim Sigachev*

From the beginning of the Syrian crisis, one of the most frequent comparisons used for the present situation is the Vietnam War. This is both by Arab government supporters, as a reminder of the most remarkable drubbing in recent history, as well as by US policymakers[i]. The similarities range from the risk of third parties being involved in the conflict to the risk of public support (or dissent). A 2015 Guardian article alerted the American public of how “Syria [would have been] the next Vietnam-style war if Obama [had not] learned from history”. The writers pointed out in the same piece how “Vietnam has shown the failure of an initial limited intervention to create political pressure for more aggressive action” and draws the conclusion that “US military power cannot compel democracy in foreign lands, neither can it force change among foreign populations[ii]”.

In addition to reflecting a primarily isolationist position[iii], typical of a continental political unity like the US with an oscillating international vocation[iv], the profound message of the Guardian article was clearly more evocative to the American reader. The constraint to democracy of which they wrote (literally: compel [to] democracy), as well as the aforementioned limited intervention were a clear reference to the military strategy used by the US during the Cold War and put in place to counter the communist domino effect[v].

The Concept of Compellence

This military strategy, developed as a continuation of the American aviation doctrine of strategic bombing[vi], took the name of compellence[vii]. As Alexey Fenenko mentions, American experts used the term compellence to describe the transition from the old model of purely defensive deterrence to the new concept of offensive deterrence. Also defined as a way to conduct negotiations with arms, the military strategy of compellence is “understood as the art of employing military force in limited doses and in controlled forms in order to mold, through the effectively inflicted and especially the threatened costs, the conduct […] of the other party[viii]”. Like deterrence[ix], compellence represents the strategic key-concept to understand the Cold War, more specifically understood as the bipolar phase of the balance of world powers. Practically, the US military doctrine appealed to these absolutely complementary concepts, practicing them in the world challenge to the Soviet bloc and in pursuing specific regional goals. According to Sergey Minasyan, coercive policy consists of two basic forms: defensive (deterrence) and offensive (compellence)[x].

If deterrence existed in consideration of the universally recognized principle of mutual assured destruction[xi], it expressed itself in the conflictual relationship at very low intensity between the two superpowers. This, as in the case of atoms with a lower state of thermal agitation, produced the cooling of conflict. The deterrence was, and still is, a valid principle in relation to the permanence of the nuclear threat, “characterized by an emphasis on rational decision making by top national leaders who are entrusted with the management of national security in a very dangerous world[xii]”. The only alternative to the rationality of the decision-making processes of the White House and the Soviet Politburo would have been the irrationality of the war fought with the complete mass destruction weaponry. Alexey Arbatov points out that the strategic situation radically changed after 1960, when the Soviet Union achieved parity with the US. In 1967, after this change, Washington officially accepted the idea that any forecasts of a nuclear war should include unprecedented damage and devastation on American soil.

And yet, as we all know, the period of a bipolar world order was one of relative peace and enhanced development. The same goes for the current situation, as well as the Vietnam War, during which the strategy of compellence was developed. This type of strategy, as we have already said, applied to military aviation, provided for progressive dosage of bombardments on carefully selected enemy targets, so as to force them to bend their political will[xiii]. This type of action, however, was possible against those opposing forces which, in the context of the Cold War, were indeed representatives of the Eastern bloc, but not part of the Warsaw Pact. If, as put by Hegel, the world of ideas and doctrines always finds the technical means to develop and vice versa, these two parallel strategies (which in a sense made up the only American military doctrine during the Cold War) existed only as a function of the atomic weapon, which made its real use impracticable, and the greater precision of the bombers, which really permitted the destruction of the objectives necessary to put pressure on the enemy. This is an in the case of the modern concept of war of annihilation and the discovery of the war ends of gunpowder[xiv]. Nuclear deterrence during Cold War historically was closely related to the idea of strategic stability. Alexander Savelyev notes that this principle became the basis for the Treaty between the USA and the USSR on the elimination of their intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles of 1987, as well as the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty of 1991[xv].

Anyway, this approach was soon surpassed both by the strong defeat in Indochina, after which the US visibly retreated to their home garden, and which led them to a rediscovery of the terricolous conceptions of the Clausewitzian polemological theories, making it lose sight of the independence of the aerial weapon, both by the implosion of the Soviet Union and the loss of the other great challenger of bipolarism, with the consequent transition to Western unipolarism (more or less perfect[xvi]). After the end of Cold War, the main threat to the survival of mankind, represented by an opportunity of the global nuclear war between the USSR and the USA, was practically overcome.

A New Era of US Domination

With this transition, the face of the war changed completely, and the new American strategies revolved more or less around the realization that the US had become an actor without real adversaries. We have been able to observe it in the two conflicts against Iraq. And although the game in Afghanistan remains open, the rediscovery of the invincibility of the partisans of the Earth[xvii] is not accompanied by their concrete possibility of victory. The military doctrine of unipolarism is therefore that that of the Overwhelming Force[xviii] (which in the name already seems to be an awareness of the world role of the US nowadays), where the extensive deployment of means is no longer a real problem.

Yet the events following the Ukrainian crisis have reintroduced an already creeping question in public debate about the reemergence of a bipolar conflict, like a second or never-ending Cold War[xix]. Although, for example, Feodor Voitolovsky suggests that the term New Cold War is a figure of speech and a significant exaggeration, since the current confrontation is a ‘vegetarian form’ of the original Cold War. If it is true that, apart from the unipolarity set by the US, the emerging players of the world economy and new political and strategic platforms are trying to ferry the world towards a multipolar structure, effectively exploiting a growing polycentricity also due to greater capital mobility and to the post-colonial phase of world history, it is also true that a strategic challenge between Russia-China (understood jointly within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization) and the United States is still in place[xx], easily readable under the spectrum of a new kind of bipolarity. According to the global forecast, published by Russian International Affairs Council in 2019, there is an opportunity for both scenarios of new multipolarity or new bipolarity. Multipolar scenario implies more independent role of Russia and China, as well as the growing independence of the European Union and the autonomy of India. Whereas neo-bipolar scenario implies intensification of China-US contradictions.

It is this kind of international scenario that can explain to us today the events of the last years on the Syrian chessboard of what is already, before everyone’s eyes, a new way of setting the competition between states and political entities. If a multi-dimensional war is waged in Syria, what this means in concrete terms should be understood for good. More specifically, on the remains of the Arab country, in addition to (and above) different types of political and national interests and regional and ideological forces, these two major world forces are confronting, and this is demonstrated already by the joint Russian-Chinese involvement[xxi] in support of the Ba’athist government. While the Russian newscasts were preparing people for the possibility of a nuclear conflict[xxii], the world has radically changed the way war is waged. If the Syrian conflict was born as the most typical moment of the continuum of the fourth generation war[xxiii], with all its most evident elements, including the use of proxies and precisely multidimensionality[xxiv], the events of the night between 13th and 14th of April 2018 created a dialectical synthesis of the bipolar thesis and the unipolar antithesis of waging war, laying the foundations for a military doctrine not yet codified that we could call neo-compellence. According to Andrey Kokoshin, military strikes of the US and their allies against Syria on the 14th of April 2018 led to the conclusion that continuation of such actions would destabilize international relations. Negotiations on arms control, which previously were intensive, came to an end. This situation jeopardized the INF Treaty. It also made very unclear the perspectives of a prolongation of the New START Treaty after 2021[xxv].The bombings of US-led Western countries on alleged Syrian strategic objectives, carried out after an unnerving tug of war with the real competitor, i.e. the Russian Federation, and unexpectedly continued in the following days, without hitting the Russian armed forces, can be considered the manifesto of this new type of war, which precedes the eventual multi-polar transition. By and large, the Russian scientific community agrees with the thesis that the world order is in process of transformation from unipolar moment to the post-unipolar condition, but the terms to describe this new condition can be used different. For example, Alexander Dynkin prefers the discourse of polycentric world rather than multi-polar as more precise[xxvi].

Of the strategy of compellence one can say that the “strategic code […] is the anxiety for a feared damage, but which can still be avoided, as well as the temptation to escape from it when it is still possible to do so, the true ‘solvent’ of moral and political determination of the adversary to insist in his conduct[xxvii]”. A sequence of punctual, targeted, painful but not in itself decisive damages are those that, under the umbrella of nuclear danger, can be inflicted on the small ally of the major nuclear opponent. And the attacks on Syria, defined by Trump as a “mission accomplished“, are exactly that. Of course, this change preserves the technological and substantial advancement in the military field of the unipolar era, including high precision weapons (which can lead to a higher application level of this type of strategy), but the basic approach has changed. What we have followed with apprehension in those days is the putting into practice of the contemporary diplomacy of violence[xxviii] exposed by the theorists of compellence. Those who had thought that a world challenge through proxy wars and the use of non-military means of war could have lasted forever did not realistically consider the instinct of self-preservation of the great political agglomerations. When the giants descend on the battlefields, and moreover they do so with the arsenals of mass destruction forged in the catastrophe of the Second World War, this means that we have gone too far. So long as the Western actor does not withdraw from his ambitions of international supremacy, or the Eastern one does not lay down his will to subsist (which is almost impossible given the aforementioned basic organic but also civilizational instinct of self-preservation), this is the conflictual model that we will see developing.

*Maxim Sigachev, Ph.D. of Political Science, Junior Research Fellow, IMEMO RAS

[i] As in the case of the statement of the former Air Force Colonel and CNN military analyst C. Leighton, according to whom the Syrian conflict exceeds exponentially the one in Vietnam, evidently placing the two military crises on the same scale of intensity.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] It was the epoch (on the rhetorical level, but today on the implementation level, USA willy-nilly) of America in retreat [cf. B. Stephens, America in Retreat. The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder, Sentinel Books, 2014].

[iv] The geopolitical duplicity of the US according to Carlo Santoro [cfr. C. M. Santoro, La perla e l’ostrica. Alle fonti della politica globale degli Stati Uniti, Franco Angeli, 1986].

[v] Theory set out in 1954 by President Eisenhower [cf. E. E. Moise, The Domino Theory, in Encyclopedia of America Foreign Policy, Scribner’s, 2002].

[vi] That modality of the Douhettian independent aerial strategy developed later by the school of thought of the US aviation and applied specifically in the Second World War [cfr. B. Liddell Hart, A History of the Second World War, Cassel and Co. Ltd., 1970]. The strategy, devised with the intent to limit the damage of the war, culminated however, coherently with the application premises, in the two atomic bombings on Japan.

[vii] T. Schelling, Arms and Influence, Yale University Press, 1966.

[viii] C. Stefanachi, ‘Guerra Indolore’. Dottrine, illusioni e retoriche della guerra limitata, Vita & Pensiero, 2016, p. 163 (translated).

[ix] T. Schelling, op. cit.

[x] Минасян Сергей, «Силовая политика» в Карабахском конфликте: дихотомия сдерживания и принуждения // 21-й ВЕК, № 3 (23), 2012. С. 28.

[xi] But there were also those who, on the basis of the scientific studies in this regard, as Castro in his interventions for CubaDebate, stressed that in a nuclear conflict the assured destruction would not only be mutual, but absolute, planetary, of the species [cfr. Fidel Castro Ruz, L’inverno nucleare. Riflessioni sui rischi di una guerra atomica, Nemesis Edizioni, 2012].

[xii] R. Kolkowicz [edited by], Dilemmas of Nuclear Strategy, Frank Cass, 1987.

[xiii] R. A. Pape, Bombing to Win. Air Power and Coercion in War, Cornell University Press, 1996.

[xiv] Affirmation that shocked Popper so much [K. Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, Princeton University Press, 2013].

[xv] Савельев А.Г., Стратегическая стабильность и ядерное сдерживание: уроки истории // Вестн. Моск. ун-та. Сер. 25: Международные отношения и мировая политика. 2015. № 3. С. 58.

[xvi] Cf. Kenneth Waltz’s theories.

[xvii] To put it with Carl Schmitt [cf. C. Schmitt, Theory of the Partisan. Immediate Commentary on the Concept of the Political, Telos Press Pub., 2007].

[xviii] L. Middup, The Powell Doctrine and US Foreign Policy, Military Strategy and Operational Art, 2015.

[xix] Just google “new cold war” to get a general idea of the spread of this concept.

[xx] Z. Brzezinski, The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and its Geostrategic Imperatives, Basic Books, 1997.

[xxi] In the case of China, its involvement was already evident in the role of obstruction to the Western intervention in the UN Security Council during the first accusations against President Assad, but it evidently materialized in the threatening movements of its naval units in April towards the theater of conflict and the public declaration of military support to Russia, already present in the territory, boot on the ground.

[xxii] I refer to the famous viral news of those days relaunched by all the agencies with the video of the TV show of Russian television that explained to citizens what food to bring in anti-atomic shelters in case of nuclear apocalypse.

[xxiii] L. Quiao and X. Wang, Guerra senza limiti. L’arte della guerra asimmetrica tra terrorismo e globalizzazione, Libreria Editrice Goriziana, 2016.

[xxiv] Which is more a broader perception of the phenomenon due to the more powerful means of information than a true result of post-modernity.

[xxv] Кокошин А.А., Стратегическая стабильность в условиях критического обострения международной обстановки // Полис. Политические исследования. 2018. № 4. С. 9.

[xxvi] Russia in Polycentric World (перевод с русск.) Eds. A.A. Dynkin and N.I. Ivanova. M., Ves Mir Publishers, 2012.

[xxvii] C. Stefanachi, op. cit., p. 164 (translation).

[xxviii] T. Schelling, op. cit.

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Geopolitical Theory of Water

Orazio Maria Gnerre

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Geopolitics, as an autonomous discipline, has a very particular cultural genesis, and it is not possible to ignore the deepening of the era in which it developed. His great forefathers can be considered the first geographers who in the nineteenth century began to think of the world as a relationship between human groups and territorial spaces. This relationship, of course, produced organizational differences and particularities, and in turn was produced by contextual differences and particularities, in a two-way relationship. This is the concept that will later be called localization [1]. This is how geography, according to its first systematizers, could be nothing more than “anthropic geography”.

Two great initiators of this type of discourse can be considered Karl Ritter and Friedrich Ratzel:

«Karl Ritter (1789–1859), German geographer, explores the relationship between the social and historical phenomena of man and the physical factors of the geographical environment. It is considered among the founders of modern geography. Over the years [he came] to an organicistic vision of the earth, where all its physical elements (rivers, mountains, glaciers, etc.) are seen as integral parts of a living organism, in relation with the other beings that inhabit it. Within this conception, man is in close correspondence with the elements of his habitat: his history, the forms of his social organization are therefore conditioned by it.

[…] Friedrich Ratzel (1844-1904), German geographer and ethnologist, [was] the founder of anthropic geography, also called human geography and anthropogeography, based on the study of the distribution and manifestation of human phenomena on earth. It aims in particular to study how human societies adapt to the environment in which they live and how they interact.» [2]

These two authors have vastly influenced the development of geopolitics in different aspects, starting from the German school of Karl Haushofer. A certain type of approach focused on the almost inextricable link between man and the environment will find greater expansion in the ideas on the noosphere of Vladimir Vernadskij or on the passionarity of Lev Gumilëv, sometimes giving rise to deterministic extremes in the strict sense.

Although some interpreters of these authors still have a certain deterministic accent, it must be said, however, that the critique of determinism is precisely the heart of geopolitical doctrine, which introjects on this type of studies a whole other series of elements of analysis:

«Geopolitics is the synthesis of the world geographic landscape […] and it is […] the synthesis of the geographical, historical-political-social causes of the spatial dynamics of society. As such it goes beyond the sphere of political geography, that is more than political geography […] in short, it is the supreme ratio of geographical events. It is not a branch of geography […] but a synthesis of the dynamic branches of geographical science.» [3]

Thus was specified in the Italian magazine Geopolitica, the one that dealt with the matter first in Italy, in the first half of the twentieth century [4], and on the basis of this added:

«[It] cannot adhere to a determinism that considers man and society incapable of overcoming environmental phenomena.» [5]

Long before this, a criticism had already begun by those who, studying Ratzel, had learned its fundamental lesson on the relationship between man and territory, but had understood that there was something further to understand the world with respect to its geodeterminism [6]. Think, for example, of the famous criticism of this type of one-dimensional approach by Franz Boas.

«[The deterministic approach was] applied by Boas to his first research work on the Eskimos (Inuit) of the island of Baffin in 1883. Initially driven by this expedition from his geographical interests, Boas intends to deepen the connections that are established between the physical and geographical scenario in which the Inuit live and their knowledge and practices in that same context. In other words, inspired by Ritter’s theories of environmental determinism and the so-called anthropogeographic school of Ratzel, Boas is convinced of the decisive influence of the environment on culture. Instead, it is precisely the ethnographic study of these populations that, far from confirming this perspective, convinces him of the contrary, that is, men tend to develop survival strategies and practices that go far beyond the possibilities directly suggested by the surrounding environment.

[…] Like Durkheim in France, in those same years Boas began to argue that these facts should be understood in their own terms, without calling into question monocausal determinations, such as those relating to the environment. The latter, in fact, certainly exerts conditioning, but not to the point of no longer being able to conceive or explain social and cultural facts autonomous from nature.» [7]

Haushofer himself, together with Mackinder, one of the founding fathers of the geopolitical discipline, with his political theory of pan-ideas overcame the fundamentally ethnic conception of Ratzel’s lebensraum (among other things, this and his idea of collaboration with the Soviet Union earned him internment in Dachau). Indeed, Haushofer wrote:

«Geopolitics is and should be the geographical conscience of the state. [Its subject matter is] to study the major vital correlations of modern man within modern space and its aim is to coordinate phenomena that link to state with space.» [8]

The elements of statehood, including the possible awareness or otherwise that the state may have of the potential of its geographical position, the “modernity” of man and the spaces of which Haushofer spoke, the means of locomotion and the technique, are all elements that they helped to create not only a dimension of multiplication of factor analysis levels, but to revolutionize the deterministic attitude of the previous century.

As we know, territory and its morphology assume a main importance in geopolitics. The geographical element that conditions political relations is one of the factors of this discipline. As Mackinder will understand, at the dawn of geopolitical reasoning, if the earth is the space on which we live and on which we mainly do politics, the sea as an element of delimitation and as a real technical tool, is a very important factor [9]. Carlo Jean writes:

«Water can be used as a defense or attack tool; in fact, not only the seas and oceans, but also rivers and lakes can constitute both ways of communication and strategic penetration, and protective obstacles.

[…] Water is a determining element in geopolitics, since most of the borders between states develop along rivers, lakes and ridge lines, which separate different water basins. Often, a river or a ridge line is considered the natural frontier of a community, and as such they take on symbolic value and determine geopolitical perceptions and rivalries.» [10]

Water, be it a sea, a lake or a river, first cuts out the habitable spaces and resizes the environments of conflict and politics. It has, if we want, a perimeter value. One of its uses is to facilitate division, which is a genetic moment in the organization of social groups. Furthermore, the fact that it constitutes a means of communication guarantees its usability as an instrument of conjunction or friction between the groups themselves. In short, it has a great instrumental potential. It is a constituent element of our aggregate life.

Water, like earth, has also been interpreted as a completely determining factor, or not. The first great anthropic geographer to be interested in the role of water in the constitution of different civilizations was Ernst Kapp. In the nineteenth century he developed a theory, the echo of which still finds its place in contemporary historiography, concerning the relationship of peoples with water [11]. In Kapp’s thought a whole series of deterministic conceptions flowed into a single historical process, a great drama, as will be defined later [12]. For Kapp, who was also a philosopher of history and science, the evolution of civilization and technology, the development of social ethics and man’s relationship with the environment were all parts of a single great process.

This process was divided into three stages of civilization: the first was that of potamic civilization, the ancient civilizations which, like Egypt or Mesopotamia, created their social and productive organization around large rivers (this type of definition is still widely used for these societies); the second was that of the talactic society, and referred to those civilizations that proliferated around the inland seas, with particular attention to the classical and medieval civilization of the Mediterranean; finally there would have been the oceanic civilization, whose birth was already outlined in the maritime power of Great Britain, and which would have constituted the last level of social evolution [13].

Dialectically, these principles were also picked up by another thinker, and at the same time criticized in their deterministic aspect: this is the reception that this idea of the different relationship that man has with the sea in Carl Schmitt, the famous German thinker, jurist and political philosopher.

It is famous how Carl Schmitt elaborated in a famous text, Land and Sea [14], a profile of contrast between the telluric and the maritime way of life. According to its definition, continental civilizations, telluric ones, had a different way of understanding life, economy and administration than maritime ones, which instead focused on colonial predation, mercantilism and war modes other than interstate ones. However, a third factor is added to these two models, which is precisely that of the talactic societies. They behave like telluric ones but have a different relationship with bodies of water and a better predisposition to trade [15].

The difference that we cannot fail to notice between Ernst Kapp’s and Carl Schmitt’s thoughts is this: as these civilizations constitute a series of three evolutionary stages for the former, so for the latter there is no historical determinant that necessarily transforms the relationship of man with water. Moreover, these models often end up living together synchronously, although clearly there are stages of technical development that allow, at a certain point in human history, to take better possession of ocean waters.

The imperial domination of Rome, for Schmitt, was the manifestation of the way of life of the talactic society which was opposed to Carthage, which had many aspects already of the oceanic society [16], as well as later the Crown of Spain, fighting for the colonies with the England will represent the last bulwark of the telluric conception before the end of common European law and Eurocentrism, although it often fought in the open sea and not in the inland seas [17].

In this regard, therefore, it becomes fundamental to understand the transition that England undergoes at any moment, which at a certain point of its existence, according to Schmitt, understands that its insular position can allow it to take off and finally become a fish [18].

«Obviously, England is an island. But with the ascertainment of this geographical fact, not much is said. There are many islands whose political destinies are very different. Sicily is also an island, even Ireland, Cuba, Madagascar and Japan. How many different and contrasting historical-world developments undoubtedly bind to these few names that all mark an island! In a sense, even the largest continents are all just islands and the whole inhabited earth is, as the Greeks already knew, surrounded by the ocean.» [19]

This means that culture, ideology, state of the technique, economic organization, are all aspects that contribute to options that are however allowed or not by existing structural factors: not an iron determination, but a set of possibilities guaranteed or not by geographic morphology. And what determination is basically greater than that of the sea, the limit par excellence of the mainland?

Thinking about geopolitics through water allows us to understand the limit point of the telluric foundation, to imagine the spaces as they are cut out from the geographical data even before the human one, to understand how much the sea flow can condition and have conditioned the mechanics of relations between peoples.

To date, perhaps the domination of water has reduced its importance following the extensive use of air but still remains primary. Moreover, as is known, «the scarcity of water or its reduced quality, due to pollution, produce emigrations, famines, internal disorders, pandemics and wars [20]», and to date these problems are increasing. Together with the growing limitations to access water of some populations, we also see the redefinition of the coasts due to climate change.

All these factors cannot fail to induce us to think about the world through water. To do this we cannot ignore the authors who anticipated the issues of geopolitical discipline, while admitting the need for some methodological corrections. After all, what Ernst Kapp teaches us is that

«The necessary condition of all true historical knowledge is the philosophical knowledge of the Earth which can be considered as a preparatory school for politics: each place is in its becoming an observatory of its history; every act of the human will is potentially limited to a space delimited and inscribed in geography.» [21]

Only such a concrete realization can take us out of the deterministic aphasia that seems to have re-proposed itself in our day.

From our partner RIAC

1. Carl Schmitt, Il nomos della terra nel diritto internazionale dello «Jus publicum europaeum», Adelphi, 1991.

2. Sandro Piermattei, Antropologia ambientale e paesaggio agrario, Morlacchi Editore, 2007, p. 68 (translated).

3. Inquadrature, in Geopolitica, anno II numero 8-9, agosto-settembre 1940 (translated).

4. Giulio Sinibaldi, La geopolitica in Italia (1939-1942), Edizioni Webster Srl, 2010.

5. Inquadrature, in Geopolitica, anno II numero 8-9, agosto-settembre 1940 (translated).

6. Which, however, is partly questioned today: cfr. Alexandros Stogiannos, The Genesis of Geopolitics and Friedrich Ratzel. Dismissing the Myth of the Ratzelian Geodeterminism, Springer, 2019.

7. Sandro Piermattei, Antropologia ambientale e paesaggio agrario, Morlacchi Editore, 2007, pp. 68-69 (translated).

8. Quoted in Alexandros Stogiannos, The Genesis of Geopolitics and Friedrich Ratzel. Dismissing the Myth of the Ratzelian Geodeterminism, Springer, 2019.

9. Halford Mackinder, Democratic Ideals and Reality – The Geografical Pivot of History, Origami Books, 2019.

10. Carlo Jean, Geopolitica del mondo contemporaneo, Editori Laterza, 2012 (translated).

11. Ernst Kapp, Philosophische oder vergleichende allgemeine Erdkunde als wissenschaftliche Darstellung der Erdverhältnisse und des Menschenlebens, Braunschweig, 1845.

12. Carl Schmitt, Terra e mare. Una riflessione sulla storia del mondo, Adelphi, 2002.

13. Ernst Kapp, Philosophische oder vergleichende allgemeine Erdkunde als wissenschaftliche Darstellung der Erdverhältnisse und des Menschenlebens, Braunschweig, 1845.

14. Carl Schmitt, Terra e mare. Una riflessione sulla storia del mondo, Adelphi, 2002.

15. Ibidem.

16. Ibidem.

17. Carl Schmitt, Il nomos della terra nel diritto internazionale dello «Jus publicum europaeum», Adelphi, 1991.

18. Carl Schmitt, Terra e mare. Una riflessione sulla storia del mondo, Adelphi, 2002.

19. Ibidem.

20. Carlo Jean, Geopolitica del mondo contemporaneo, Editori Laterza, 2012.

21. Claude Raffestin, La sfida della geografia tra poteri e mutamenti globali, in Documenti Geografici, n. 1 anno 2012, p. 57.

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