The Return of Geopolitics

The Revenge of the Revisionist Powers

Russian servicemen in historical uniforms take part in a military parade in Moscow's Red Square, November 3, 2011.
Russian servicemen in historical uniforms take part in a military parade in Moscow's Red Square, November 3, 2011. (Denis Sinyakov / Courtesy Reuters)

So far, the year 2014 has been a tumultuous one, as geopolitical rivalries have stormed back to center stage. Whether it is Russian forces seizing Crimea, China making aggressive claims in its coastal waters, Japan responding with an increasingly assertive strategy of its own, or Iran trying to use its alliances with Syria and Hezbollah to dominate the Middle East, old-fashioned power plays are back in international relations.

The United States and the EU, at least, find such trends disturbing. Both would rather move past geopolitical questions of territory and military power and focus instead on ones of world order and global governance: trade liberalization, nuclear nonproliferation, human rights, the rule of law, climate change, and so on. Indeed, since the end of the Cold War, the most important objective of U.S. and EU foreign policy has been to shift international relations away from zero-sum issues toward win-win ones. To be dragged back into old-school contests such as that in Ukraine doesn’t just divert time and energy away from those important questions; it also changes the character of international politics. As the atmosphere turns dark, the task of promoting and maintaining world order grows more daunting.

But Westerners should never have expected old-fashioned geopolitics to go away. They did so only because they fundamentally misread what the collapse of the Soviet Union meant: the ideological triumph of liberal capitalist democracy over communism, not the obsolescence of hard power. China, Iran, and Russia never bought into the geopolitical settlement that followed the Cold War, and they are making increasingly forceful attempts to overturn it. That process will not be peaceful, and whether or not the revisionists succeed, their efforts have already shaken the balance of power and changed the dynamics of international politics.

A FALSE SENSE OF SECURITY

When the Cold War ended, many Americans and Europeans seemed to think that the most vexing geopolitical questions had largely been settled. With the exception of a handful of relatively minor problems, such as the woes of the former Yugoslavia and the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, the biggest issues in world politics, they assumed, would no longer concern boundaries, military bases, national self-determination, or spheres of influence.

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