The Third Law of Geopolitical Thought

6 November 2011


Third in a Series

In two previous posts in this series on theoretical geopolitics I have identified the following two principles:

The Fundamental Theorem of Geopolitical Thought: Human agency is constrained by geography.

The Second Law of Geopolitical Thought: The scope of human agency defines a center, beyond which lies a periphery in which human agency is marginal.

These first two principles of geopolitical thought as I have formulated them together yield centers of human agency (i.e., centers of power) at each level of metaphysical ecology. These forces have decomposed the world into geographical regions and ultimately yielded the geographically defined nation-state of the present age. The territories of hunter-gatherer bands, the city-states and empires of antiquity, the kingdoms of the middle ages, and the nation-states of today are all expressions of the geographical constraint of human agency.

The next step beyond geography is something I have already discussed at some length in The Second Law of Geopolitical Thought, and which I will now make explicit a in third principle:

The Third Law of Geopolitical Thought: Human agency is essentially a temporal agency.

If the fundamental theorem of geopolitical thought tells us that geography matters, then the third law of geopolitical thought tells us that history matters.

As I noted above, I have already discussed the temporality of human agency in the context of ecological temporality in The Second Law of Geopolitical Thought, though when I formulated the second law I was primarily thinking in geo-spatial terms formulated in metaphysical ecology rather than in historico-temporal terms formulated in ecological temporality.

Human agency has both geographical (spatial) and historical (temporal) aspects, so that it would be sufficient simply to understand human agency in its full dimensions to appreciate this, but since the first principle of theoretical geopolitics, that human agency is constrained by geography, explicitly reminds us of the geographical dimension of human agency, it is appropriate that we should be similarly explicitly reminded of the historical dimension of human agency in a principle reserved for that purpose.

As I have observed on several occasions, I consider metaphysical ecology and metaphysical history to be alternative formulations of the same state of affairs, so that in the same spirit the third law of geopolitical thought is to be regarded as an alternative formulation of the Fundamental Theorem of Geopolitical Thought. I can make this alternative formulation more explicit by rephrasing the third principle as human agency is constrained by history. In this form the third principle of theoretical geopolitics closely approximates a famous line from Marx that I have quoted (with approval) many times:

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, first paragraph

Human agency is constrained both by geography and history, and these geographical and historical constraints define the scope of human agency, as invoked in the second principle of theoretical geopolitics, viz. The scope of human agency defines a center, beyond which lies a periphery in which human agency is marginal.

We can even substitute, salva veritate, the explicit invocation of geographical and historical constraints for the formulation in terms of human agency, so that the second principle of theoretical geopolitics reads like this: human agency constrained by geography and history defines a center, beyond which lies a periphery in which human agency is marginal (or non-existent).

The virtue of this latter formulation lies in the immediacy with which we can see that there are both geographical and historical centers and peripheries. In the simplest model of geopolitics, there would be only one center and one periphery. This center would be both a geographical and historical center, and all that lies outside that center would constitute the geographical and historical periphery.

The simplest model of center and periphery.

One way to imagine this simplest model would be through a thought experiment: suppose that Western history consisted only of classical antiquity, and that the history of the ancient world was followed by no further achievements of Western civilization. In this case, the high point of the development of the Roman Empire would constitute both the geographical and historical center of Western history, and we could refine the geographical center to be the city of Rome, and the historical center to be, say, 180 AD, at which point Gibbon commenced his history. Outside these centers, all else is peripheral, and the farther from the center one moves, the more peripheral events become.

We don’t even have to do that thought experiment as a counter-factual exercise if we only confine our scope to classical antiquity. In other words, we can simply say that Rome in 180 AD was the geographical and historical center of classical antiquity. Non-Westerners reading this can perform similar thought experiments by substituting for Rome, say, the Persian Empire or the Chinese Empire or the Mogul Empire (though I suspect that many from India would not regard the Muslim Moguls as constituting the center of Indian history). Muslims might like to consider the Abbasid Dynasty as the historical and geographical center of pre-modern Islamic civilization. All of these identifications are obviously problematic, but all of them also, I think, have something to teach us in this context.

A more realistic model of multiple centers and overlapping peripheries. Beyond this spatial model, one ought also to imagine multiple centers and overlapping peripheries in time.

In a more complex and subtle model of geopolitics, we need to recognize that there are multiple centers and multiple peripheries and overlap and intersect (like Wittgensteinian family resemblances). We also need to recognize that geographical and historical centers can be offset, that is to say, the “center” of a people’s history may be distinct from the “center” of a people’s geography.

Our own history once again can supply us with examples of a more subtle account of theoretical geopolitics. Classical antiquity had numerous centers both in terms of history and geography: besides Rome there is of course Athens under Pericles, and on the far periphery of Rome there was Parthia under the Arsacids, on another periphery there were the Germans under Arminius, and also the later kingdoms of Egypt.

There is something a little artificial about making a separation between historical and geographical centers, because human agency is also spatio-temporal: that is to say, it consists of actions that take place in both space and time, and because human action is spatio-temporal centers of geography and history are usually aligned, even if they may be offset in some cases.

This is especially true of non-settled peoples. What was the center of Viking history? Viking voyages. The Vikings had their settlements in Norway and Iceland, and their trading outposts and even places they returned to time and again to rain and loot (like the British Isles), but the center of Viking civilization was in the act of voyaging, and voyaging is in equal parts spatial and temporal, geographical and historical. If we consider the nomadic Sami people of the far north of the Scandinavian peninsula, the center of their world is the annual migration of the reindeer. This is a recurring event, and so the historical center is very different from peoples who have abandoned this ancient hunter-gatherer modus vivendi. This suggests the possibility of recurring geographical and historical centers. This is an interesting idea that I will perhaps take up at another time.

Although human agency is constrained by both space and time, and integrates the two in spatio-temporal action, because of the particular properties of space and time, human agency is differently constrained by space than it is by time and vice versa. Time involves far more stringent constraints because we cannot move freely in time in the way that we can (ideally) move freely in space. Of course, we cannot even move absolutely freely in space, which is the whole point of geopolitics. We are even more tightly constrained by time.

Given that ideal freedom of movement in space is constrained by topography and the limitations of human agency, so that actual freedom of movement in a geographical context is far less than the ideal spatial freedom of geography, this is a lesson to us in regard to historical constraints. The “ideal” freedom of movement in time is nearly non-existent. We can, to a very limited extent distribute our activities in time, and we can chose when to begin and end certain activities, but most of time is beyond our control even if we were to appeal to Newton’s “Absolute, true and mathematical time,” which, “of itself, and from its own nature flows equably without regard to anything external, and by another name is called duration.”

If the parallelism of space and time holds so far that there exists a parallelism also between the relations of pure space to actual space and pure time to actual time, then the recognition that real world spatial constraints are far more limiting than ideal spatial constraints suggests that real world temporal constraints are far more limiting that ideal temporal constraints. In this case, if the parallelism holds, history would be a far more rigorous constraint upon human agency than geography, in which case we ought to be thinking in terms of temporal politics instead of geopolitics.

This is an interesting idea that requires separate consideration. Perhaps it needs to be a separate theorem of theoretical geopolitics. I will have to think about this a little more. So, for the time being, I will let it rest there.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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2 Responses to “The Third Law of Geopolitical Thought”

  1. sykik said

    Hi. I found your ideas very interesting and will definitely read the post over. I especially found interesting your application of the centre-periphery model to history.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Sykik,

      I’m happy to hear that you found this to be of interest. I was myself rather pleased when I initially formulated the idea and I hope that, in the fullness of time, I can give an exposition in greater depth and detail.

      Best wishes,


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