The Fundamental Theorem of Geopolitical Thought

2 November 2011


The fundamental theorem of geopolitical thought can be formulated clearly and simply. I would put it like this:

Human agency is constrained by geography.

If that’s the theorem, what’s the proof of the theorem? In the context of the social sciences — and geopolitics is a social science — we cannot provide rigorous proofs, but we can proceed in the spirit of Aristotle’s dictum expressed in his Nicomachaen Ethics (inter alia):

“Our discussion will be adequate if it has as much clearness as the subject-matter admits of, for precision is not to be sought for alike in all discussions, any more than in all the products of the crafts. Now fine and just actions, which political science investigates, admit of much variety and fluctuation of opinion, so that they may be thought to exist only by convention, and not by nature. And goods also give rise to a similar fluctuation because they bring harm to many people; for before now men have been undone by reason of their wealth, and others by reason of their courage. We must be content, then, in speaking of such subjects and with such premisses to indicate the truth roughly and in outline, and in speaking about things which are only for the most part true and with premisses of the same kind to reach conclusions that are no better. In the same spirit, therefore, should each type of statement be received; for it is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs.”

Aristotle, Ethics, Book I, section 3

We cannot expect mathematical precision in any proof of the fundamental theorem of geopolitics, but we can precisify our thought to the extent possible in the context of the social sciences. Thus our attempt at clarification of the fundamental theorem of geopolitical thought must take a narrative form.

How exactly does geography constrain human agency? The actions were are able to initiate are limited by that which is present within our scope of action. The scope of human action is limited by human finitude, although it has been a feature not only of specifically human history, but of all hominid history, to continually extend the scope of human action through the use of technology.

To state the precise scope of human action is to make the concept of humanity precise, since the scope of human action is also the limit of human action, and “A precise concept is a precisely delimited concept.” The delimitation of human action (and therefore also of human being) is now defined by the intersection of technology and human effort. While technology can be finitely characterized, human effort is not to easy to quantify.

It was this intersection of technology and motivation that made possible the initial globalization of the species. The toolkit of our paleolithic forebears — flint knives, spears, spear throwers, bow and arrow, needle and thread — was sufficient to make a living hunting and gathering in almost any ecosystem on the planet, though to do so required specialized knowledge and skills that were refined over long periods of time. Human globalization was slow compared to the lifetime of an individual, but astonishingly rapid by geological and climatological standards. Because of this rapid globalization, the ecosystems into which human beings penetrated have remained mostly stable throughout human natural history, notwithstanding an alternation between ice ages of interglacials.

The walking-pace spread of humanity across the globe was fast enough to cover the earth with human beings from pole to pole (with the exception of Antarctica) in a few thousand years. It was also slow enough for our forebears to learn about local ecosystems as they gradually moved from one biome to another. If you were to take any human being alive today, or any of our anatomically modern ancestors, and suddenly move them from, say, a tropical rainforest to arctic tundra, they would not be able to survive in most cases. But if you made the journey on foot, and flora and fauna would slowly change from week to week, month to month, and year to year, gradually enough that you would learn about the environment into which you had penetrated, and you would incrementally adapt until you had made the transition from tropical rainforest to arctic tundra.

One person could walk this in a lifetime, and today, with the infrastructure of civilization to support them, many people embark on amazing journeys of walking or bicycling or canoeing that are the proof of concept of human globalization. For most of our ancestors, the journey from one side of the world to another was made over several generations, but I would guess that throughout human history, from the paleolithic to the present, that there have always been adventurous individuals who set out into the unknown and went farther than anyone else — probably alone, and therefore not leaving descendants.

With this walking-speed distribution of human beings throughout every ecosystem on the Earth, peoples learned how to live in each ecosystem, what to hunt, what to gather, how to shelter and clothe themselves, and how, in short, to make a living off the land in which they found themselves (or put themselves). Except in rare exceptions as noted above in regard to adventurous individuals, most people stayed within the geographical region in which their knowledge and skills made it possible for them to live. While they would have known of their immediate neighbors in adjacent ecosystems, living slightly different lives according to slightly different customs derived from the specialized knowledge and skills, they would not have known of the world beyond their immediate neighbors except through song and story.

This is essentially the spatial analogue of the temporal separation of generations, that has been nicely told in a story. In his book Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans, Brian Fagan relates a good thought experiment, as follows:

“Imagine a dinner table set for a thousand guests, in which each man is sitting between his own father and his own son. At one end of the table might be a French Nobel laureate in a white tie and tails, and with the Legion of Honor on his breast, and at the other end a Cro-Magnon man dress in animal skins and with a necklace of cave-bear teeth. Yet each one would be able to converse with his neighbors on his left and right, who would either be his father or his son. So the distance from then to now is not really great.”

Brian Fagan, Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans, Chapter 5, “The Ten Thousandth Grandmother”

Fagan attributes this idea to Björn Kurtén, and it appears in Kurtén’s book The Innocent Assassins: Biological Essays on Life in the Present and Distant Past, where Kurtén in turn attributes the thought experiment to Axel Klinckowstrom. Whoever came up with the idea, it gives a wonderful sense of the continuity of the human condition over time.

What Fagan, Kurtén, and Klinckowstrom here formulate in terms of time (and with an emphasis upon language) can also be formulated, mutatis mutandis, in terms of space (and with an emphasis on trade). The dialectic of continuity and separation of the human condition in space is revealed in the fact that each people knows its neighbors and likely trades with them, though they do not know the neighbors of their neighbors. However, trade goods circulated far and wide in the paleolithic world even when humanity did not know itself as a whole. The continuity was there, but it was hidden from us by our limited knowledge.

And then new forms of technology emerged, making global transportation and communication possible. Even before the world was industrialized, ships were trading around the globe, although only a small minority (sailors, to be specific) actually experienced the continuity of the human condition. When industrialization mechanized the technologies of transportation, distances were largely obliterated and world culture was transformed by the knowledge of human continuity and unity. (This is what I called a Stage I civilization when I spoke at the 100YSS symposium last month. I also developed this idea, partly inspired by the comments of my sister, in The Space Age and Addendum on the Space Age.)

Even today, with our propeller-driven ships and jet airliners and road and rail networks, it still requires time, effort, and energy to get from one place to another. It requires much less time now, and a great deal of mechanized energy, to travel beyond the scope of one’s immediate agency, but the point is that it still requires the expenditure of energy — both figuratively and literally — to overcome distance. Thus the calculus of technology and human effort has changed the values of its variables, but the calculus remains true nonetheless. The calculus has been changed by our knowledge of human continuity and unity, but acting on that continuity and unity is subject to the calculus of technology and effort.

And not all socio-technological developments have favored the overcoming of distance. The emergence of settled civilization simultaneously with agriculturalism and urbanization meant that a strong social incentive attached to remaining within a single ecosystem, perhaps within a single ecological niche, throughout one’s entire life. The decline of nomadism meant an abridgement of the scope of human agency, even while other technological developments extended human agency.

The infrastructure of trade and travel created incrementally by settled civilization facilitated global trade, but also perpetuated the regionalism of peoples who were enabled by trade to remain in a single geographical location. The infrastructure of trade and transportation channeled intercourse between peoples, but also indirectly limited contacts — largely, as noted above, to superstitious sailors.

Geography has limited, currently limits, and will continue to limit human interaction. Peoples continue to live in settled societies in which only a minority travel extensively. Trade is similarly carried on by a small minority of the population — it is, in demographic terms, as marginal as agriculture is at present. Nearly instantaneous communications have rendered much travel unnecessary, so that the emergence of global telephony and the internet channels and therefore limits interaction, enabling localism and regionalism to become entrenched in a settled society.

Thus even as technology has relentlessly extended and expanded the scope of human action, suggesting that human action is less constrained by geography than in the past, counter-veiling forces have emerged that have channeled, circumscribed, and therefore limited the scope of human agency, and therefore entrenched the fundamental theorem of geopolitical thought in contemporary institutions no less than in the institutions of our ancestors.

The great globe itself, Yea, all which it inherit, continues to constrain human agency.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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One Response to “The Fundamental Theorem of Geopolitical Thought”

  1. xcalibur said

    Interesting thoughts as always.

    I don’t know if you’ve ever played the Civilization games (gaming was my main hobby growing up) but I liked how they portrayed the effect of geography on a civilization’s growth. The presence of resources, rivers, land bridges, and shorelines directly impact the strategy for playing the game and winning (either conquering the world or sending a spaceship to alpha centauri). Civ2 was my favorite.

    More to the point – I think that space colonization will play an important geopolitical role. Space goes beyond the geo- prefix, but it will challenge and alter societies in new ways. It will also enforce distance between people and increase differentiation, especially when we go to the stars, since light speed is the hard speed limit of the universe (unless we figure out folding space etc. but that’s purely hypothetical)

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