What is there in geopolitics for us?


With DD Phiri:

What is geopolitics? It is a term coined from geography and politics by Sir Halford Mackinder who was, I believe, a professor at Cambridge University.

Mackinder noted that with no more under-developed countries to annex in future international relations, it is countries large both in geography and population that will exert most influence provided they make proper use of their resources. A large country whose population is just made up of peasants will not have such influence.


A country must be industrialised as a result of science and invention if it is going to have world influence. These are facts of history.

By the first half of the nineteenth century, west European countries had outpaced other continents in science, invention and industrialisation. They went to other parts of the world creating colonies or over-exerting their influence. In Asia, Britain and Portugal colonised India. The other industrialised countries, Germany, France, Russia and Japan compelled the Emperor of China to lease to them zones of influence. These encroachments ignited conflicts, such as the Opium war. Finally, Britain got a trading centre in the name of Hong Kong which it retained until the second half of the 1990s.

Professor Paul Kennedy of Yale University, USA, has written a book on the rise and fall of the great powers during the past 500 years. He has noted that no country becomes rich and powerful enough to dominate another indefinitely. Nations that rose in the past eventually lost their power to others. Those which are in the ascendancy now will also fall some time in the future.


This view is not revolutionary. Professor Arnold Toynbee of Cambridge, in his monumental study of history pointed out in his book titled The Rise and Fall of The Great Powers the inevitability of civilisations to rise and fall. In our time, we have seen the great empires of Britain, France and Portugal disappear and replaced by the hegemonic powers of the United States and the Soviet Union. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US, for a few years, appeared to be the only super power. Not anymore.

How many of us who are interested in politics spare time and thought for the affairs of the world and especially those

which fall under the rubric of geopolitics? To some people, some matters may be remote and irrelevant. They have not taken the trouble to understand what is meant by globalisation. This term reminds us that whatever happens on the other side of the globe can have the same effects on our country.

In two recent issues of The Economist, there are features which will have worldwide influence and will definitely affect us. One is on the emergent rivalry between the US and the European Union (EU) on one hand and China on the other hand.

When Mao Zedong died in 1976, the People’s Republic of China decided to modify its brand of communism and embrace some capitalist or market economics. Capitalist countries welcomed China into the World Trade Organisation, China grew very fast. Nowadays, world magazines variously say it has overtaken the US or will soon do so as the world’s largest economy.

With its new economic and political clout, China no longer hesitates to poise itself on the international scene as seen in its naval base in Djibouti. It is doing what western powers have been doing across the globe for at least a century.

President Donald Trump’s policies to contain the growth of other nuclear powers and the challenge of China are creating anxiety in the minds of those who thought the age of global wars had gone forever. If not handled carefully, the rivalry between the US and China could lead to World War III. A frightful thought but not a fanciful one.

What role can mid-sized nations like Britain, France, Germany and smaller ones play to restrain America and China? They certainly have a contribution to make.

The EU should grow stronger in science, technology and inventiveness. Nato should be strengthened not for the sake of aggression but as a preventive measure. Britain must retrace itself and become an integral part of Europe. Russia, India and Japan should also grow stronger.

With so many super powers, the temptation by the Americans and Chinese to go to war will be resisted because they will not be sure of the lower tier super powers’ role in the Armageddon. China cannot risk India and Japan siding with America neither can America risk Russia joining China.

While geopolitics is on the side of the countries that have biggest areas and populations, wisdom can be found in smaller countries. These countries should be talking to both China and the US and remind them of their responsibility to humanity as more compelling than to their nations. Power belongs to God; the one who abuses it whether as a nation or an individual is going to lose it. These are facts of history.

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