Classical Geopolitics
A New Analytical Model
Phil Kelly



Despite its usage in the press and occasionally in academic writings, the term “geopolitics” has stayed blurred in definition and misused in application, in part, because of its past associations with disreputable and discredited theories and ideologies. Only recently has the term experienced more visibility, although this has come largely in the media, where the label connects to international disruptions harmful to international tranquility and to stock market profits. It has not been available in a positive sense for extending the insights one might see in its potential yet hidden contribution. Accordingly, the goal of this book is to convince the reader that geopolitics should deserve a higher respectability and utility within the realm of international-relations theory and policy.

As a contemporary label, one can trace two paths of origin,1 both arising around the beginning of the twentieth century. The first, the organic, reflected a Germanic concern with “scientific laws” that contributed to states’ survival in an increasingly unstable world, its two spokespersons, Friedrich Ratzel and Rudolf Kjellén. The second, the geostrategic of British and North American interest, depicted geographic placement of states and regions as conditioning foreign affairs actions, with Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, Halford Mackinder, and Nicholas Spykman its standard bearers. Both versions enjoyed respect and consideration by foreign policy makers and scholars.

But following World War I, these classical sectors suffered, almost to their demise, from their alleged ties to General Karl Haushofer and his Munich school of geopolitics and to the aggressions of Adolf Hitler, both sources seen as linked in their promotion of war and racism. The tradition largely disappeared from the extant IR literature for the following decades, only later to be raised to a limited visibility in the statements and writings of Henry Kissinger.2 Gradually, the term found increased notice from a variety of new places, certain of these being: the postmodernist “critical geopolitics” movement beginning during the 1980s; the numerous South American authors writing about their local territorial disputes and national developments during the period; the realist approach for North American academia that merged geopolitics within its focus of national power; and new generations of scholars and policy makers who have taken on its aura. A further instance of the new respect may be seen in the recent publication by the noted realist author Harvey Starr,3 showing a title indicating also some academic resurrection of our concept.

Geopolitics has experienced of late at least two confusing and faulty meanings that have seriously diminished its legitimacy: (1) a “power politics” and realpolitik description of manipulation alleged to the larger nations, probably derived from the misperception that geopolitics resides within the realist international-relations model that emphasizes “power.” Rather, the focus of geopolitics, away from realism, should rest upon states’ geographic positions reflective of the term’s spatial heritage; and (2) once more, an image of catastrophe and crisis—wars and threats of wars and other economic and political news depressing world financial markets—often heard in reference to Wall Street reporting. Neither of these versions receives any sort of definition; both are negative and reference a world at fault. Until these negative images are corrected and deflected from classical geopolitics, our study of spatial impacts upon policy—that is, geopoliticswill not see a full contribution. To repeat, that correction represents the goal of this book, the restoring of acceptance to classical geopolitics.

The traditional term offers an objective and neutral tool for students and statespersons to enlist as an insightful guide toward description and analysis within the milieu of foreign affairs, the assumption being that geographic placement of countries can impact upon their actions. This spatial linkage derives from pure common sense! Such a reliance upon a geographic location conditioning international events has been in evidence for millennia, perhaps being the earliest of military and foreign affairs models. This continued widespread practice of geopolitics as a policy and action guide in itself should lend some credibility as a usable IR model.

The author will structure this book according to these three objectives:

1. Purpose: to construct a classical geopolitical model.

2. Aim: with such a construction, to demonstrate the utility and the legitimacy of classical geopolitics as an important IR model.

3. Approach: three ways (below) that will show the benefit of classical geopolitics:

A first way will mark out a standard definition of the traditional version, a not-too-difficult task since it appears that most classical depictions tend closely to parallel, their emphases resting upon the geographic placement of states affecting their foreign affairs behaviors.

A second way will be to locate relevant theories that will enter the geopolitical model, a model being merely a container for theories that will fit the definition of “geopolitics.” This author has located more than sixty generalizations that relate to the positional-geographic dimensions of geopolitics; all will be described and some applied later on in this book. This second way of locating relevant theories likewise will help to legitimize the traditional model.

Thirdly, and with more difficulty than the first two ways, any series of theories that attach themselves to a particular model should each be useful to shedding good insights into foreign affairs policies, actions, and events. In a later chapter, four methods for such theory-application will be suggested, followed by an assortment of contemporary and historical case studies as testing places for the gathered theories in the hope that these instances will further the author’s goal of demonstrating the utility of geopolitics as an acceptable and useful international-relations model.

Classical geopolitics is the study of the impact or influence of certain geographic features—these being positions and locations of regions, states, and resources plus topography, climate, distance, immigration, states’ sizes and shapes, demography, and the like—upon states’ foreign policies and actions as an aid to statecraft. Accordingly, this study lends itself to a description and analysis both of theory and of policy.

The classical label is raised here to separate traditional geopolitics from postmodern “critical geopolitics,” the latter differing quite extensively from the former.4 The traditional emphasizes the gathering and applying of objective and interpretive theory; the critical focuses upon deconstructing alleged exploitation, blaming geopolitics itself for assisting in the exploitation, with theory largely ignored. This book is about the classical.

A model denotes a listing place for theories that correspond to the definition of a particular international-relations approach—in the current case, to geopolitics. One approach of this book lies with the collection of relevant theories, heartlands, shatterbelts, checkerboards, sea-land power, buffer states, distance and location, among many that are assembled within that model. Appropriate theories can be taken from the model when these might shed some light on a particular international incident.

The approach in this text, enlisting theories attached to models, differs from other international-relations models. Yet the author believes that his stance may contribute to the literature and particularly to a revitalized classical geopolitical perspective. The following example shows the confusion frequently seen in the contrasting of “models” with “theories,” for the two labels differ.

The realist theorist Michael Mastanduno wrote the following description about his focus:

It is critical to stress at the outset that there is no single “theory of realism” and that realism per se cannot be tested, confirmed, or refuted. Realism is a research program that contains a core set of assumptions from which a variety of theories and explanations can be developed.5

One may see both some confusion and some relevance in his description. Why mention a single theory of realism? This reference puzzles because realism contains a large array of theories that would pertain to that model’s definition. Why would such a point need to be singled out? To attempt to clarify, an improved stance might be to insist that only one realist model and only one geopolitical model exist, but fitting into those structures or models will come respectively a variety of related theories that will fit each model’s definition. Hence, in our case, one may visualize one geopolitical model but many theories that will assemble within that model. And to distinguish between the two, we might tend not to refer to a “geopolitical theory” but instead to a “heartland theory,” this theory being a part of a “geopolitical model.” A “geopolitical theory” does not exist.

Again to differ with Mastanduno, why cannot these theories be tested, confirmed, or refuted? If they cannot, why utilize their essence? Theories need to be applied to interpreting situations, or indeed, why have theories? Again, this book’s approach differs in that the author wants to apply certain relevant theories, these corresponding to a set definition of a model, as a better way to understand international affairs. Nonetheless, the author agrees with Mastanduno’s argument that realism, and geopolitics, represent research programs and that their study relies upon a core set of assumptions from which a variety of theories and explanations can be developed.

To summarize and to emphasize, “theory” and “model” differ, the first, theory, being a part of the second, model. One should, accordingly, insert “model” in place of “theory” in Mastanduno’s description above, for a single model of realism contains a “variety of theories and explanations” that will correspond to the model’s definition. In the second place, no problem would then arise in attempting to test, confirm, or refute a collection of theories, be they realist or geopolitical or other, the process being objective and appropriate to application.

In addition, Mastanduno and this book’s approach would agree that, in both realism and geopolitics as “research programs,” each will rely upon “a variety of theories and explanations.” Yet one would add “applications” as well as “explanations” for this book’s technique. For geopolitics, this author has located sixty theories that now reside within our geopolitical model, and these may be utilized for interpreting actions and policies within the realm of international relations and foreign policies.

Saul Cohen, a well-recognized classical geopolitics scholar, has authored articles and books in which, in constructing his model, he combined an assortment of elements that should impress the reader, at least at first.6 He enlisted both systems and developmental models to show some dynamism within his geopolitics in addition to adding a variety of theories that provide a medium for comparing his “geostrategic realms,” “geopolitical regions,” and other transitional lands of interest. As within this book, his geopolitical model possesses an extensive display of spatial theories and connections that correspond to his classical definition. Nonetheless, unless one has misinterpreted, he completely failed to apply the theories of his model toward explaining their impact upon international relations. His text thus fails to fulfill the full requirement of testing his model by neglecting totally the final theory-application phase as promoted within the present treatise.

Nonetheless, another author, Jakub Grygiel,7 makes just this application of theories, and admirably so. Grygiel defined his geopolitics as having three pertinent variables: (1) location of important natural and economic resources; (2) lines-of-communication linking these resources to nations’ power; and (3) stability of associated frontiers. When these three factors became favorable to a governing system (he chose to study the rise and falls of Venice, the Ottoman Empire, and Ming China as Great Powers), the well-positioned empires rose to regional preponderance. Once the effects of the variables diminished, so also the empires declined.

This book’s approach resembles that of Grygiel, the variance being that the present author will assemble sixty variables or theories compared with his three, and he will attempt applying that assembly of theories to a wider variety of contemporary and historical case-study examples.

In sum, Chapters 1 and 2 will describe geopolitical traditions and models and theories as this book will portray them. Chapter 3 contrasts the classical perspective with several depictions of distortions within the geopolitics of the past. Certain geopolitical assumptions are suggested in Chapter 4, as it is believed assumptions should form a part of a geopolitical model. Chapters 5 and 6 hold the most importance to the international-relations field, for in these sections the many classical theories that fit the geopolitical definition are introduced and then tested via application for their interpretive value to selected historical scenarios. In the final chapter, a call comes for a broadening of this book’s initial stance, pointing out suggestions for continuing the contributions that should be the potential of classical geopolitics.

Perhaps this book’s approach may appear to the reader to be rather simplistic—refining a definition, then placing appropriate theories into a container called a model, and later attempting to apply theories to interpreting international-relations happenings. No arrows linking inputs, outputs, and feedback and no complex mathematical parameters. Simplistic though this approach will be—but one quite practical and open to application—this author truly cannot imagine a better path to follow in the descriptions about classical geopolitics that lie ahead.

Finally, the author asserts adherence to an objective methodology. This objective approach will follow a modernist or positivist path, one devoid as much as possible of the author’s personal bias and experience. Here, facts will rule over opinion, rationality over doctrine, and any claims to insight must welcome replication by others. Foreign affairs “realities” should be as easily observable by the reader as by the author before they render into generalizations and into applications. And such theories can be formulated by objective methods of research (observations of maps and history, statistics, experts’ and scholars’ experiences, and common sense and rationality). Indeed, objectivity spells the core of this text: (1) designing a standard classical geopolitical definition; (2) locating and clarifying appropriate theories; and (3) applying such generalizations with ease and understanding toward a more profound interpretation of international-relations events and policies. Objective methodology structures the primary aim of this book—to raise the visibility and utility of the classical geopolitical approach.


1. Glassner, Martin Ira, and Harm de Blij, Systematic Political Geography, 4th ed. (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1989), 223–28.

2. Kissinger, Henry, The White House Years (Boston: Little Brown, 1979).

3. Starr, Harvey, On Geopolitics: Space, Place, and International Relations (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2013).

4. Kelly, Phil, “A Critique of Critical Geopolitics,” Geopolitics 11 (2006), 24–53.

5. Mastanduno, Michael, “Preserving the Unipolar Moment: Realist Theories and U.S. Grand Strategy after the Cold War,” International Security 21/4 (1997), 50.

6. Cohen, Saul, Geopolitics: The Geography of International Relations, 2nd ed. (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009).

7. Grygiel, Jakub, Great Powers and Geopolitical Change (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006).