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GEOGRAPHY AND FOREIGN POLICY Yves Lacoste An international relations, what we call "geography" is subjected to two contradictory appraisals. The influence offactors considered to be geographic is either greatly exaggerated or nearly overlooked, in spite of obvious territorial imperatives. Let us first examine a number of the arguments that accord considerable importance to "geographic data" in the making of a nation's foreign policy. Napoleon was no theoretician, but a formidable practitioner, a surgeon of international relations. He believed that "the policy of a state lies in its geography." But what is geography, after all? Whatever the answer, it is important first to make clear that Napoleon's expedient and sibylline formula is as unacceptable now as his foreign policy was then. This is true even if we conceive of geography as something more than topographical configurations or contrasts of climate. Napoleon himself, unlike the majority of authors who deal with international relations, had enough strategic experience and political realism to conceive of geography in less restricted and elementary terms. More than anyone, however, he had to realize that a state's foreign policy also derives from the ideas, the aspirations, and even the fantasies, of those who lead it, and particularly the one who leads. It is true that these ideas, these geopolitical projects, draw on geographic images that are to a greater or lesser degree subjective and deformed by ambition. Nevertheless, it is safe to assume Yves Lacoste is director of the Institute of Geography at the University of Paris VIII and editor of the review Hérodote, ajournai of geography and geopolitics published in Paris by Editions Maspero/La Découverte. His publications include Unité et diversité du tiers-monde and La géographie, ça sert, d'abord, à faire la guerre (both published by Maspero), and La géographie du sous-developpement (Presses Universitaires de France). This article was translated by Steven Kennedy. 213 214 SAIS REVIEW that when the Emperor Napoleon, master of most of Europe, plainly and with deliberate simplicity proclaimed his geographic formula (emphasizing both the topographical relief and the boundaries of the territories in his path), his purpose was to impose his geopolitical plan and to present it as if it corresponded to the "nature of things" so as to disqualify inconvenient arguments, such as the diversity of the peoples he sought to bring under his power. Today still, recourse to geographic "evidence" and "imperatives" to justify the foreign policy of a state is a means of deflecting more complicated and less favorable analyses of that state's interests and ambitions. Another, more recent, example of the sort of political argument that appears to be based on geographic "evidence" dates from the turn of the century, when Adm. Alfred Thayer Mahan and the geographer Halford Mackinder (who, unlike Napoleon, were theoreticians) developed the famous theses of the fundamental antagonism between sea power and continental power, an opposition of land and sea that was alleged to date from antiquity. Mackinder and Mahan spared nothing in their long descriptions of England's struggle with Napoleon. At the time they were developed, these theses corresponded to definite strategies. In the aftermath of World War II they have had a considerable following because of the rivalry of the two superpowers, of which the Soviet Union is supposed to be the "continental power" par excellence. Now that the number and tonnage of the Soviet submarine force is greater than the U.S. Navy's, however, and can easily pass under the ice barrier that surrounds Russia's major sea front, this appraisal will have to be revised. The theses of Mahan and Mackinder, to which today's geopoliticians attach too much importance, rest more on historical evocations than on rigorous strategic thinking, based as they are on the grandiose geographic metaphors of the Land and the Sea. Although the theses lack scientific value, their lyrical function is unquestionable. Nevertheless, the rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States is not a matter of metaphysical conflict between Land and Sea but rather a result of the political and military antagonism of two economic, social, and cultural systems. Many theories do not have the global pretensions of Mahan's...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1945-4724
Print ISSN
1945-4716
Pages
pp. 213-227
Launched on MUSE
2012-07-11
Open Access
N
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