Geographic Frontiers

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In Geographic Frontiers, I write about geography and how it impacts our world.  More than anytime in history, geography is integral to our daily lives.  Geographic Frontiers covers concepts, applications, technology, industry developments and government activity that provide understanding of where we—and our things—are located.

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j.lewis@geographic-frontiers-com


The Russian Invasion of Ukraine Reminds Us that We Are Not Living in a “Post-Geographic” World.

Maybe it’s just me, but weren’t we living in a post-geographic world? Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine is a reminder that geopolitics will not be swept away any time soon.

Globalization was supposed to supplant geopolitics. If a country’s boundaries or access to resources weren’t quite right, it didn’t matter. The map was no longer the territory. The boundary lines of countries were still on the map, but what mattered more were the massive interconnections that formed complex networks between and through those countries.
Global technology, mobility and economic connections would gloss over boundaries. Globalization or “flattening” sees a world of shared ideas, greater opportunity, increased wealth (even if disproportionate, all see some benefit), and even abundance.

This was the central premise of Thomas L. Friedman’s 2006 book, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. (To his credit, Friedman did include as section on “geopolitics and the flat world” in which he provided some perspectives on why the world may not be as flat as we might think or want.)

Then along came the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It appears Putin’s motivation is “old-fashioned” geopolitics—the desire to have a subservient territorial buffer that expands Russian influence further into Europe. In Putin’s view, land still matters.

In the lead-up to the May 2022 World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting in Davos, Switzerland, WEF Founder Klaus Schwab wrote, “Our first thoughts are with the war in Ukraine. Russia's aggression on the country will be seen in future history books as the breakdown of the post-World War Two and post-Cold War order.” As much as globalist such as Schwab would like to think the world is flattening, it still has many rough spots.

In his book, Introduction to Geopolitics, Colin Flint, a professor of political geography at Utah State University defines geopolitics as “the struggle over the control of geographical entities with an international and global dimension, and the use of such geographical entities for political advantage.” I think his short definition, “getting what you want in the world,” is a bit broad. I prefer “getting what you want in your neighborhood.” I believe countries consider their interests first in a regional context and only secondly in a global perspective. Still, “neighborhood” is sufficiently ambiguous. The United States looks across the oceans on either side of it and sees both Europe and Asia as being in its neighborhood.
Geopolitics was the great evil associated with world war in the last century. Germany’s concept of Lebensraum—living space—saw conquest beyond its borders as necessary to provide it with resources and security at the expense of those whom viewed as less deserving neighboring nations and ethnic groups. Unfortunately, those same tendencies continue into the 21st century. We have seen—and continue to see—countries wanting more influence and control in their neighborhood. In all the cases listed below, cultural identities that don’t align with national boundaries energize these regional conflicts.

    • The Peoples Republic of China sees Taiwan as rightfully being a part of their country and makes expanded territorial claims in the nearby South China Sea.
    • Both counties on the divided Korean Peninsula coexist uncomfortably knowing that unity means one taking over the other.
    • Russia’s current invasion of Ukraine is the most recent effort of Russia seeking to advance its regional influence as evidenced by its 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula or wresting South Ossetia from Georgian control in 2008.
    • India and Pakistan perpetuate their decades old conflict over the Kashmir region that is complicated by Chinese claims in the region.
    • In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Rwanda, Uganda, and later Angola teamed up against what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaire) to put in place a government more inclined to prevent the rebel incursions into Rwanda and Uganda from a weak and corrupt Zaire. (These ten plus years of conflict with five to six million deaths—most resulting from disease and starvation--are assessed to be the deadliest since WWII.)

Psychologists have coined the acronym WEIRD -- Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic – which could be indicative of a geographic bias. The WEIRD are more likely to be globalists. What we WEIRD people fail to realize is most people on planet earth are not as WEIRD as we are. Others may view their globalism as nothing more than a geopolitical strategy to increase WEIRD’s influence on their global neighbors.

In the 2008 book, The Power of Place: Geography, Destiny and Globalization’s Rough Landscape--principally written as a geographer’s response to Friedman’s book as well as those of a similar ilk--Harm de Blij makes two key points about the perception of globalization:

    • “The confines of place continue to impose severe limits on human thought and action”. He points out that the “overwhelming majority” will die very near the place they were born.

    • The world is only “flattening” for a minority. Try as they might, they will have on limited influence over this overwhelming majority who are very much tied to place.

In other words, geography still matters. Depending on one’s perspective, geography is either vestigial inertia slowing down the benefits of globalization or it provides people with a stable, locational identity—a place to call home. Taking an “either or” approach doesn’t do justice to either point of view.

Geography, and specifically geopolitics, will remain a force in the world for the foreseeable future. But so will flattening. We shouldn’t consider the two as opposing forces where one will “win” and the other will “lose out.” Both are and will be at work.

Thanks in part too Friedman, we tend to think of flattening as a 21st century phenomenon. From a western civilization perspective, it has been going on for centuries. With a little bit of irony, we could change the title of Friedman’s book to “The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Fifteenth Century”. The invention of the printing press around 1436 revolutionized the sharing of information. Material that had only been available from laboriously copied manuscripts in a limited number of locations could now be disseminated and dissected by a broader audience. The emerging age of exploration was pointing to regions where resources could be either acquired or grown and transported back to an increasingly wealthy and powerful Europe. A mobile minority of European explorers, conquerors and settlers began colliding with indigenous populations. The exclamation point at the end of the century was Columbus’s discovery—not that the world wasn’t flat—but that it was big enough to hold two continents in the ocean between Europe and Asia.

Any number of trends have been identified as pointing toward flattening. I’ll focus on just three: networked communications, mobility and trade. Each had its analog in the 15th century. It is very apparent that technology is facilitating flattening at a faster rate and causing it to impact more people than their 15th century corollaries. The internet is way faster and more pervasive than the printing press when it comes to sharing ideas. Modern transportation and communication networks are faster than sailing ships and horse-drawn wagons when it comes to moving people and goods.

NETWORKED COMMUNICATIONS

In terms of access to a global network, the numbers are astounding. 6.5 billion of the world’s 8 billion people have smart phones. That’s 80% of the world’s population. Over 4.5 billion have access to the internet. Meta (Facebook) has close to 3 billion users. Upstart TikTok has 1 billion. One would think all that connectivity would lead to a greater understanding of other cultures and development of shared, altruistic human values—but it doesn’t seem to work that way. A funny thing happened on the way to globalization. Instead of shared ideas creating some harmonious symphony of mankind, our connectivity perpetuates cacophonies.

We carry our sometimes geographically related biases into the global discussion. It’s not a given that an open global discussion can or in some cases should overcome them.

Our notions are often shaped by where we are from. Networked communications serve as an amplifier of confrontational views and misperceptions more often than providing a venue for reasoned debate and objective observations.

Government propaganda restrictions and censorship can aggravate this phenomenon. Some political entities are adept at controlling the narrative. They use their clout to bombard the network with information—or misinformation—that matches their political goals. In some cases, they control the technology and restrict the type of information that can be shared and with whom it can be shared. In other words, networked communications can be coopted by governments to reinforce and justify their geopolitical objectives.

We tend to favor narratives centered on our particular geographic region and its related culture. (Remember WEIRD?) Things like the Internet, the World Wide Web, Google, Facebook, TikTok and Instagram do influence flattening and contribute to greater access to a wide range of ideas both “good” and “bad.” However, geopolitical entities—countries and regions—still have formidable influence on which ideas are accepted. This isn’t always due to the power and influence of the government. Ethnic, cultural and historical imperatives tied to the geographic country or region also play a role. The United States and Western Europe find Putin’s pronouncements on Ukraine hard to believe. However, there may be sufficient sentiment among the Russian rank and file to accept that Ukraine is a fault and needs to be brought into the fold of a greater Russia. The assumption of the West is that flattening will prevail and the political norms of a flat world—democracy, open societies and non-violence—carry the day. The geopolitical tenor of a country and its people must be factored into the equation to better evaluate potential outcomes. One cannot assume they will accept what some consider a prevailing global view even when the power of government control is removed.

MOBILITY

I referred earlier to geographer Harm De Bilj’s claim that the overwhelming majority will die very near to the place they were born.

Here is the data that backs up his statement. A mere 3.5% of the world’s population can be considered migrants; that is, they live in a country other than the one in which they were born. Said another way, 96.5% of the world’s population lives in the country of their birth. Perhaps because migrants are relatively rare, they get most of the attention. Like the noticeable waves on the ocean, this surface level of movement of people across regions and across the globe covers over a vast subsurface of people who stay anchored in place.

We should not be surprised then, that most people on this planet develop and retain a strong geographical identity. Russians have an affinity for their motherland as do Ukrainians. In the border areas where they meet, friction can occur even as the world’s globalist minority have difficulty understanding what all the fuss is about.

Those of us in the United States may have a warped perspective since there are more migrants by far living in this country than any other. It’s estimated there are 45 million foreign born people living in the United States legally and another 11 million here illegally. This means 20% of the world’s 287 million migrants live in the United States. These migrants make up about 14-17% of the United States population. (There are some countries with smaller overall populations—United Arab Emirates for example—that have a higher proportion of migrants living in their country.) In terms of a global presence within its borders, the United States is the exception rather than the rule. The United States continues to be a nation of immigrants just as it has been throughout its history. (Even within the United States, most people stay close to home. We think of ourselves as having a very mobile society, but only 1-2% of the population moves from one state to another each year. Although news organizations report on some states losing population and others gaining, most Americans stay put—or simply move to a better situation in the same general area in which they currently live.)

Networked communications allow people to share ideas and experiences without leaving home—a phenomenon that the recent pandemic amplified. As the pandemic subsides, travel to between countries for business trips or vacations will increase. Such temporal mobility—either physical or virtual--doesn’t overcome geographic affinities. Most will still see the world through the lens of their geographic home base. Only after a generation or two in the new region does the previous geographic identity wane and the new region is seen as “home” by the descendants of the original migrants.


TRADE

While we tend not to relocate, we are always on the look-out for goods that improve our lives regardless of where they might come from.

In the fifteen century, Columbus’s motivation for “flattening” the world by sailing west was to find a more efficient route for obtaining goods from Asia. Trade grew at a relatively steady pace until a first wave began in the late 19th century followed by a second, more substantial wave after WWII—a wave that has yet to subside.

Today, about one fourth of global production is exported. Global trade has driven up global prosperity (although by no means can we say that this prosperity been distributed evenly both between and within countries.)

One of the drivers for the post WWII trade increase has been more efficient—and therefore less costly—transportation. However, a geographic component remains. Qualitative studies have shown that the level of trade is affected by geographic distance. The closer two entities are, the greater the likelihood that will be strong trading partners. The two main trading partners of the United States are Canada and Mexico. (China is third.) Prior to the Russian attack on Ukraine, the United States received only 3% of its crude oil from Russia while Europe relies on Russia for 25% of its crude oil.

Globalists are correct in pointing to world trade as a force in reducing in conflict. Unfortunately, we still see instances—as is the case with Russia and Ukraine—of geographically entwined political or ethnic identities overriding economic concerns in leading to war.
The causes of wars have always been a complex mix of geographic identities—whether religious, political or ethnic—and a need for territory and the resources that went with it.
Perhaps the 20th century saw the end of “resource” wars. The primary WWII antagonists—Japan and Germany—were certainly driven by ethnic and ideological world views. However, each saw possession of territory and the resources those territories contained as critical to the perpetuation of their power.

Another interesting by-product of the increase of global trade is a tendency to use economic sanctions as the initial weapon—or initial punishment—when conflicts arise. As important as international trade has become, economic sanctions don’t seem to produce much in the way of desired effect. Countries like North Korea, Iran, and Cuba have endured economic sanctions for decades with no changes in the philosophy of their governments. Lack of success on the battlefield likely has had a greater impact on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine rather than the international sanctions levied on Russia.

Sanctions can have unintended consequences. In response to Japanese expansion in Indochina prior to the formal start of WWII, the United State imposed an oil embargo on Japan. Japan realized it would have to look elsewhere for oil. Seeing the U.S. Navy as a threat to Japan’s efforts to gain territory and oil resources in the Dutch East Indies, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. More recently, sanctions on Russian oil and gas have driven up fuel prices in the countries enforcing the sanctions.

As important as trade has become to a country’s economic well-being, countries seem willing to accept the consequences of trade sanctions to further geo-political objectives.

BACK TO THE FUTURE

Globalization trends have been beneficial to mankind. Increased trade has increased prosperity. Migration provides opportunities for the extreme minority of the population that decides to embark. Though sometimes hesitant to admit it, the gaining countries and regions benefit from the inbound talent and labor. We’re exposed to a variety of ideas and values even if we don’t fit the preconceived notion of globalists by accepting their values. On the other hand, our geographic identities are like the root system of a forest. They hold things in place and nourish our values. As much as some globalist may desire it, I’m not sure we’re ready for a rootless world.

We need to be realistic about the geographic influences—more specifically geopolitical influences—that remain strong despite increasing globalization. In many cases, they will override the pull of globalization. Globalization is not some unstoppable trend with occasional setbacks such as pandemics or regional conflicts. Our geographic identities have evolved over centuries. They still survive and will continue to do so. We must be neither surprised or disillusioned when the rough edges of these identities rub against each other and cause conflict. We will be better served by understanding the geographically related ethnic, cultural and perspectives that abound in the world.

So, whatever you do, don’t throw out your geography textbook.




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Author: Jon Lewis

j.lewis@geographic-frontiers-com

719-330-8030