Sunday, December 4, 2011

Grand geo-economic and geopolitical characterizations of the last 500 years

One obvious take away from our discussion of future forecasting over the last two weeks is that the future has not, does not, and will not occur in a vacuum. Change occurs in a complicated world populated by myriad contexts. But how do we explain these contexts effectively, especially if, in our view, the fundamental structures of the international system are currently undergoing comprehensive, paradigm-shifting change? What constructs or frameworks have maximum explanatory power, not only when it comes to characterizing all this change properly, but also in helping vector our responses well?

Geopolitics, as an explanatory construct and how-to guide for harried foreign policy establishments, has historically taken pride of place here. Indeed, the vocabulary of international relations is saturated with long-familiar geopolitical terms. But, and it’s an important “but” here, are the conceptual baggage and analytic vocabulary first bequeathed to us by Friedrich Ratzel and Halford Mackinder as applicable today as they once were? And what about the actual manifestations of this conceptual baggage – e.g., the traditional geopolitical arrangements, contours and rules of the road that have served us so well in the modern era? Are they now being irretrievably stressed, strained and changed by circumstances around them or are they managing “to hold the line”? Needless to say, members of the geopolitical school feel that any declarations of their theoretical and actual demise are flat out absurd. There are Great Games occurring all around us, they argue. The Arab Autumn, the testy and varied actors vying for influence around Pakistan-Afghanistan, the complex resource politics of Africa, the territorial rush to claim the melting Arctic by self-described Nordic states – what are these phenomena if not 21st century examples of the Great Game?

Indeed, they are real examples of this time-honored political phenomenon and we will look at all of them next week in some detail. However, these confirmations of the continued relevancy of geopolitical thinking and geopolitics itself do not mean that that the geopolitical school of international relations is not divided over just what geopolitics means and represents. Is classical geopolitical thought just as applicable today as ever? Is geopolitics just another word for Western political hegemony? To break free from this hegemony, must we develop genuinely non-Western geopolitical forms? Are such forms actually possible? And will they account for the structural changes occurring in the international system in more accurate and user-friendly ways? There are several schools of thought on all these geopolitical issues, which is what we will focus on this week.

Thus far this week we have examined the beliefs and assumptions associated with classical and critical geopolitics. To round out our general discussion this week, let’s look at a third approach to geopolitics – the world-systems model developed by Immanuel Wallerstein.

By International Relations and Security Network (ISN)

Thus far this week we have examined the beliefs and assumptions associated with classical and critical geopolitics. To round out our general discussion this week, let’s look at a third approach to geopolitics – the world-systems model developed by Immanuel Wallerstein. Unlike its classical or critical cousins, however, one could argue that Wallerstein’s work is not explicitly geopolitical and that his The Modern World-System is best understood as a contribution to either macro-sociology or international history in the Annales tradition of Fernand Braudel. The argument has weight, but so does the one that claims world-systems theory is a vision of world politics grounded in spatial and geographical distinctions. What Wallerstein does, however, is link these distinctions to a global system of economic exploitation. In doing so, Wallerstein divides the international system into three geoeconomic areas: the core, the periphery and the semi-periphery. Regardless of whether we agree or disagree with it, it is a scheme of geographical representation that has received wide sympathy and adherence in those parts of the world he labels ‘peripheral’.

Since the most complete statement of Wallerstein’s world-systems theory occurs in the final chapter of The Modern World-System: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century, let’s review its main arguments and then then examine Wallerstein’s application of world systems analysis at a recent lecture he gave at the L’Internationale Conference in Vienna.

Core, periphery, and semi-periphery

At the core of world-systems analysis is the observation that most of the social systems we have used as units of analysis in history and the social sciences – such as tribes, communities, or nation-states -- are not total systems. If cut off from external forces, they would not function in the same way. Given this truth, the most appropriate units of analysis are total systems, which can be studied in methodological isolation. They include “relatively small, highly autonomous subsistence economies” and/or “world-systems.”

The latter fall into two categories: world-empires, in which a single political system controls most of the geographical areas in question, and world-economies, which are fed by multiple political systems. However, because the plural political structure of world-economies tends to link cultures with spatial locations, they exhibit distinct features. In particular, geographical distinctions emerge between the core, periphery and semi-periphery of world- economies. Advantaged core areas tend to exhibit “a strong state machinery coupled with a national culture” that combine to protect and justify existing material disparities. In disadvantaged peripheral areas, by contrast, states are weak and national cultures less firmly established. Finally, between the two is the semi-periphery, which exhibits characteristics of both areas and serves the critical purpose of deflecting political antipathies that peripheral areas might otherwise direct towards core states.

Historically, whereas most world-economies “tended either to be converted into empires or to disintegrate,” the modern world-economy is unique – it has resisted either fate for more than five hundred years. The secret of this endurance, Wallerstein argues, is the weaker political side of capitalism. Here’s the problem – in a world-economy organized on capitalist lines, “economic factors operate within an arena [that is] larger than that which any political entity can totally control.” What this means for capitalists is that they have breathing room. They have a freedom of maneuver that is structurally based. If there is economic loss to be had, it’s the political entities that have to absorb it. If however there is economic gain to be had, it goes into private hands. This convenient unfairness doesn’t stop here, though. Because accumulated capital is rewarded at a higher rate than labor power, the geographic maldistribution of capital-intensive activity – towards core states and away from peripheral areas -- involves a strong trend towards self-maintenance. And there’s nothing to stop it. The absence of an equally comprehensive central political mechanism makes this geo-economic arrangement very difficult to change.

If you embrace Wallerstein’s argument, as just explained, then you certainly have a problem with imperialism. But it’s not imperialism as many know it – e.g. the temporary hegemony or preeminence of one core state over others. No, in this case it means the domination by the core over the periphery. In world-economies, Wallerstein continues, political-economic struggles among classes (over the modes of production and the terms of exchange) are of greater significance than military-political struggles among the machineries of states (which are merely struggles for control over the proceeds of production and exchange). So, the most salient world-historical feature of our times is the struggle either to curtail or expand the advantages enjoyed by the rich North-Atlantic core over the disorganized and disadvantaged Global South (e.g., the largely South American, South-East Asian and sub-Saharan periphery). It is a struggle between geo-economic exploitation and “the refusal to accept exploitation as either inevitable or just.”

For Wallerstein, this binary opposition between core and periphery is a much more powerful geographical explanation of contemporary world politics than other alternatives. Classical geopolitics, for example, is blind to exploitation, either willfully or not. It gives center stage to the petty struggles in the core for the greatest share of the economic spoils on offer. It does not focus on the true problem – justice-serving political mechanisms that are not comprehensive enough to match and regulate a capitalist world-economy.

Global history since 1945

If we then turn to Wallerstein’s lecture at the L’Internationale Conference in Vienna, we see world-systems theory used to explain the ‘logic’ of global history from 1945 to the present. Conventional geopolitical narratives, he argues, systematically misrepresent and misunderstand this period of world history. Whereas the four-and-a-half decades following the defeat of Nazi Germany are typically regarded as a period of indirect hostilities between the United States and the Soviet Union, Wallerstein seeks to demonstrate that the Cold War was actually an unequal “collusive partnership”. The Soviet Union merely ratified the global hegemony of the United States in exchange for greater control over its near abroad. The terms of this collusion, which Wallerstein refers to as the “Yalta agreement,” were 1) the division of the world into a small, economically insulated Soviet sphere of influence and a much larger American one; and 2) mutual participation in “a very loud rhetorical war known as the ‘Cold War,’” in order to exploit the periphery and control the semi-periphery.

By 1956, however, the semi-peripheries began to recognize this Faustian pact for what it was and tried to assert their autonomy (the Hungarian and Polish uprisings immediately come to mind, as does Egypt’s attempt to nationalize the Suez Canal). On both sides of the Iron Curtain, these initial stirrings led into a cycle of repression and fracturing that culminated in the ‘world revolution’ of 1968. Just as the Soviet Union was again intervening forcibly in Eastern Europe, this time to put down the Prague Spring, the “American version of the Brezhnev doctrine” came into play with the Colonel’s coup in Greece, like-minded coups in Brazil and Chile, and the ramping up of the war in Vietnam. For Wallerstein, 1968 was a world revolution because it occurred simultaneously in each of the world’s three geopolitical arenas – “the pan-European world, the so-called socialist bloc, and the so-called Third World.” In each location, this generalized revolution denounced two things: 1) the hegemonic misdeeds of the U.S. together with the Soviet Union’s collusion in those misdeeds, and 2) the hierarchical structure of the “traditional anti-systemic movements” that had inspired and framed popular struggles for at least half a century. For Wallerstein, this revolution largely exposed American-Soviet collusion for what it was and called for more democratic (e.g., ‘horizontal’) alternatives to it.

Crucially, 1967-73 also marked the end of post-war expansion in the world-economy, and began a cycle of stagnation that persists to this day. In this new economic context, the exploitation of the periphery by the core acquired a new modus operandi. One of the enduring truths of capitalist business cycles is that profits from productive enterprises are much harder to come by in stagnation cycles than in expansion cycles. The solution for this problem is that in periods of stagnation capital accumulation tends to be driven by financial speculation. So, just as the years 1945 -1970 saw the biggest expansion of productive enterprise in history, the years 1970-2000 saw the biggest expansion of financialization in history. While the United States eventually adapted to an exploitation system based on financialization rather than production, the Soviet Union – without a functioning bond market or private sector to speak of – proved fatally less agile. When it eventually proved unable to repay the debt that it had accumulated, it suddenly and dramatically collapsed.

Meanwhile, in the American sphere, exploitation was re-constituted by a program known as ‘neo-liberalism,’ which advocated rolling back advances in social welfare. Neo-liberalism also rejected the previously unquestioned principle of ‘developmentalism,’ or the idea that the periphery was entitled or destined to attain the standards of living and welfare enjoyed by the core. By 1980, neo-liberalism was firmly ensconced in power in the United States and Great Britain. The answer to developmentalism, it argued, was globalization, which meant “embracing the opening of frontiers to the free movement of capital and merchandise, but not labor.” This new freedom of maneuver for the capitalist classes temporarily restored the levels of prosperity that the core had experienced in the initial decades of American hegemony.

The collapse of the Soviet Union, however, was ultimately a disaster for the United States that neo-liberalism proved (and is proving) unable to compensate for, as the post-2008 global financial crisis is demonstrating. Without its trusty imperial sidekick, the reasoning goes, the U.S. cannot stop core areas such as Western Europe and Japan from pushing for greater autonomy, and in the former Soviet sphere ‘rogue states’ have emerged that pursue their own agendas. Moreover, resistance to the financialized exploitation of the periphery cannot be as effectively suppressed without the rhetoric of a common enemy. In the 1990s, “alter-globalization” movements began to coalesce against the core, culminating in the creation of the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2001.

Hegemonic powers, however, rarely go quietly into the night. In that same year, a group of foreign policy intellectuals came to power in the U.S. with a desperate plan to reverse its decline. That plan, the invasion of Iraq, was supposed to scare the rest of the world into submission and inaugurate a 21st century ‘Pax Americana’, or so Wallerstein argues. Specifically, the idea was to scare Western Europe back into old-style conformity, nudge North Korea and Iran into giving up their nuclear weapons programs, and pressure the Arab world into settling the Palestinian-Israeli conflict on Israeli terms. Instead, it reaped almost exactly the opposite effects and confirmed the “precipitate and definitive” decline of the US as a hegemonic power.


But hegemony is not the central story here. It is not synonymous with core-periphery-based imperialism, which is much more comprehensive in scope. The replacement of the current hegemonic power (a waning U.S.) by another one would require adjustments for elites in America, China and Europe, but it would not by itself mean a fundamental change in the logic of international politics and history as it has operated for the last five hundred years. Today, as ever, that logic revolves around the spatial division of the world into peripheral and semi-peripheral areas and their continued exploitation by the states of the core. The deeper world-geographical economic reality still exists, regardless of whether the power enjoying the greatest share of the spoils shifts to another part of the core.

One can of course agree or disagree with Wallerstein’s grand geo-economic and geopolitical characterizations of the last 500 years, but he deserves respect for doing something that isn’t common in this era of hyper-specialization populated by more of Isaiah Berlin’s foxes rather than hedgehogs. We have few Toynbees or Spenglers among us now and maybe that’s all to the good. On the other hand, the boldness and scope of Wallerstein’s thesis amply illustrates that geopolitics, be it classical, critical, or world-systems in its orientation, still has explanatory power for students of international relations today. In the case of Wallerstein, we are reminded that we may be witnessing a great ‘re-convergence’ of standards of living across the world, or what many of us are now calling the “rise of the rest.” For the moment, the extent and direction of this economically troubled phenomenon is unclear, but it just might be heralding a structural change to the international system that we haven’t seen in 500 years. That would be structural change indeed.


Moving into a Post-Western World in The Washington Quarterly; Simon Serfaty, 2011

The Border Between Core and Periphery in Tijdschrift voor Economische en Sociale Geografie; Alberto Vanolo, 2010

East-West Integration and the Economic Geography of Europe ; Center for Social and Economic Research (Poland), 2009

What’s at Stake in the American Empire Debate in American Political Science Review; Daniel Nexon and Thomas Wright, 2007

Disputing the Geopolitics of the States System and Global Capitalism in Cambridge Review of International Affairs; Adam Morton, 2007

The Geopolitics of Laughter and Forgetting: A World-Systems Interpretation of the Post-Modern Geopolitical Condition in Geopolitics; Colin Flint, 2007

US Hegemony and Globalization ; Geneva Center for Security Policy, 2006

Geopolitical Realities and United States Foreign Policy in Political Geography; S.B Cohen, 2003

Globalisation and Industrial Location: The Impact of Trade Policy when Geography Matters ; Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, 2000

The Geopolitical Imagination and the Enframing of Development Theory in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers; David Slater, 1993

World Systems Analysis: An Introduction; Immanuel Wallerstein, 2004

The Modern World System: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World Economy in the Sixteenth Century volume 1; Immanuel Wallerstein, 2011


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