After last week’s piece on Aristotle’s four virtues, I received one reader response asking that I write on geopolitics rather than philosophy. One is enough to justify a serious reply. Most people equate the term “geopolitics” with international relations, perhaps with a tilt toward armed conflict. When people in the financial sector, for instance, point to “geopolitics” as the reason markets rise or fall, they invariably use the term to mean something foreign, violent and quite unexpected.
We use the term somewhat differently. For us, geopolitics is a methodology for understanding the international system. It’s a methodology that can help predict the evolution of the system over time, by regarding the nation-state – or any human community – as itself an actor, in which the course of the nation is shaped not by political leadership but by the nation itself.
In a nation of millions of people, leaders rise because of internal forces and act according to the constraints and imperatives the nation faces internally and externally. So, when I predicted the U.S. would dial back its international commitments, or that there would be a crisis in Ukraine, or that China would face overwhelming economic problems, I did not know who would be leading these countries, and it didn’t matter. The geopolitical method allowed me to focus on the underlying impersonal forces that were driving those nations.
This is the concept behind geopolitical forecasting – though the reality is far more disorderly. Geopolitics as I use it, as in the tradition dating back to Thucydides, is built on abstracting the nation-state as the key actor and dismisses the notion that political, economic or military leaders have control of vital events. They may control matters of lesser consequence, but in the main course of human events, they are prisoners of history, not the masters.
This was my first cut at geopolitics. Over time, it became obvious to me that the way I formulated geopolitics had some predictive value, but it failed to understand the global system in several ways. Most important, it takes the nation-state and prior incarnations of human community for granted. It fails to address the fundamental question of why they exist and the attendant issue of why human beings are constantly to be found in communities and rarely alone. If the nation-state is today the prime actor of history, what brought that condition into being?
To understand this, we must ask the question of what bonds human beings together. I have already talked about the love of one’s own in other pieces. But I have treated it as necessary. Empirically, it might be true for most of us and powerful enough to shape forces like patriotism. But there are humans, who are not obviously deranged, who choose not to love their own, be it parents, community or nation. Nor, even if they have that love, do they feel obligated to stand between their own and a dangerous world.
This poses a couple of problems for geopolitics. First, if the love of one’s own is a driving force and yet many choose to reject it, then there is choice operating in the system. Everything in my past thinking has sought to make choice an illusion, or so marginal as to be insignificant. But when you look at communities in decline, one of their characteristics is a decline in the love of one’s own. Therefore, the love of one’s own is not an absolute quality in humans. It is overwhelmingly powerful in most nation-states and explains their behavior. But it does not explain everything.
I have tried to subsume everything under necessity. England could not make peace with Germany because, over time, Germany’s control of the Continent would allow it to build a navy larger and newer than Britain’s, take away Britain’s empire and conquer Britain itself. Once France fell, the political system had to reshuffle itself, and what emerged was Winston Churchill, who rejected compromise. But from my model, had Churchill been hit by a car, someone else believing the same thing would have become prime minister. Britain was constrained from making peace because its imperative to control the seas would have been lost.
On the one hand, I have the problem of what to do with those who reject their own. On the other hand, can I say that Churchill’s personality and rhetoric had no influence on the central course of the war? I want to dismiss both types of people but, pushed too far, that falsifies the reality of what humans are, creating a completely mechanistic human condition that is self-evidently insufficient. On the other hand, if I open the door even a crack for volition, the intellectual edifice I have tried to construct begins to crumble. Still, a theory that explains the behavior of nation-states in this way seems to me as essential as those of Adam Smith or Carl von Clausewitz. Smith postulated the invisible hand and Clausewitz the principles of war, based on necessity and being predictive, and they did it without disregarding the importance of thieves or bad generals.
Therefore, I must retain necessity in history without abandoning the idea of human choice. I may not yet know the relationship between choice and necessity, but I know now that I falsify all things if I don’t embrace both. It seems to me that to understand these two things I must go to the point where necessity and sacrifice meet. That place is in violence. There is the sacrifice of a soldier for the sake of his country. There is also the violence of an outlaw to satisfy himself. Neither is rare, but each operates from completely different motives. As in quantum mechanics, this is where the laws of nature seem suspended in favor of something else.
In struggling to explain the variability of humans and violence, I find that I can’t do it alone. I need to look toward philosophy because philosophy as a tradition confronts the nature of good and evil without flinching, and with ample disagreement between a Machiavelli or an Aristotle. I could, alternatively, look to revealed religion – but it is based on books that immerse themselves in violence without reconciling the difference. Joshua, Muhammad, Constantine and their peers elsewhere were all praised for things that revelation would condemn in others. Revelation is true but does not, for me, clarify the problem.
Speaking of the nation-state addresses only an abstraction of humanity. In turning to Aristotle, who spoke of the virtues, or Machiavelli, who turned Aristotle’s virtues on their head, I can begin grappling with the depths of humanity. Geopolitics has some success in predicting the future. But for me that isn’t enough. Reconciling the contradictions that emerge in the depths of the human condition is essential. It may not aid in understanding foreign policy, but it explains the relationship of the instrument of foreign policy, the nation-state, to a man who, as the Greeks said, is homeless and hearthless of choice.
I apologize for this excursion and hope that it is not too impenetrable, but I needed to write this to state my dilemma and explain my occasional departures into the world I first studied and taught, political philosophy. These will be rare excursions, but they are therapeutic and, I believe, necessary. And with this, I’ve gone as deep as I’m going to go and will now return to the surface of the water.