The concept of geopolitics comes from German and Russian attempts to explain defeat and reverse loss of influence.
Today everyone talks geopolitics. The idea is infectious. It appears to come from nowhere. Twenty years ago, the term was exotic, and the meaning behind it quaint. The world was different then. In 2002, America Unrivaled – a book edited by my Princeton colleague, G John Ikenberry, the foremost exponent of the idea of liberal internationalism – asked why there was so little resistance from other countries to American power projection. That was when the momentum in the United States for an attack on Iraq was building up. The contributors argued that there was no balancing against the unipolar moment that had been created with the disintegration of the Soviet Union: in short, no geopolitics. That changed in the course of the 2000s, and the word ‘geopolitics’ began its road to a dominance of political discourse.
There are simple numerical indicators (see Figure 1 below). A compilation of all newspaper uses of ‘geopolitics’ in English-language publications shows a remarkable increase, in two surges, one after the 2007-08 global financial crisis, and the second after 2014-15, in the aftermath of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the European refugee crisis that followed the Syrian war.
We often associate the beginning of the modern turn to geopolitics with two men, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. Putin defined his historic mission in terms of geopolitics. The collapse of the Soviet Union, he declared, had been the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. The explosion of geopolitical thinking already took place in 1990s Russia (see Figure 2 below). Putin’s speech at the Munich Conference on Security Policy in 2007 was a turning point, which he began with a denunciation of the concept of unipolarity:
One state and, of course, first and foremost the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way. This is visible in the economic, political, cultural and educational policies it imposes on other nations. Well, who likes this? Who is happy about this?