Political Geography: A Basic Guide


Political Geography is the study of the spatial patterns of conflict and cooperation among political actors at all scales. The struggle of states for territory and resources has always been a key theme. Likewise, the impact of national identities in forming states, and the use of landscape and territorial symbols, or iconography provides insights into how geographical phenomena are deployed in struggles for power over earth space, whether terrestrial, oceanic or atmospheric.

  State: defined as a bounded political unit with territory, population, and organized government possessing power and sovereignty (Use the mnemonic device “T-POPS”). This last term denotes supreme authority within the territory of the state, and recognition by other states that this authority is legitimate. The state is the primary unit of analysis in what is often referred to as ‘international relations’ or IR. In political geography, we study how and where states seek to consolidate or expand control over territory, people and natural resources This is done through diplomacy, and various forms of coercion, including trade embargoes, blockades and other military measures up to and including war.

  The state is very old, with many historians and political scientists considering the various Greek, Roman and Chinese models as ancient examples, more than 2000 years ago. Some political geographers, such as Peter Taylor, have called these early states ‘world empires,’ because they dominated the worlds known to their subjects. In its modern form, the state evolved in Europe from about 1500, typically in core areas (eg Paris basin) dominated by a focused and determined monarchy. By about 1900, the state system had been spread through colonialism throughout the world, particularly in Latin America, Africa and Asia, regions that had been host to a wide variety of political arrangements.

  State System: The modern state system is usually dated to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which ended a bloody European religious conflict called the Thirty Years War. From this point forward, the conflicts in Europe were no longer religiously based, but developed through clashes between monarchical governments over balance of power issues and overseas territories. After the French Revolution (1789), anti-monarchical republican forms of government added another element in the long struggle between Great Powers such as Britain and France. Gradually, over the next century and a half, the Ottoman, Russian and Hapsburg empires gave way to various forms of states. This reflected the social and economic changes due to the industrial revolution, which in turn led to the rise of socialism (discussed in theory section below) and nationalism, which is the ideology that privileges national identity over all other forms of human loyalty. Scholars say that nationalism as an ideology demands that individuals put their state or country first, even to the point of the (in)famous saying, ‘My country right or wrong.’

  Nation: defined by sociologist Benedict Anderson as an “imagined community,” a nation is a group of people with a shared heritage who believe that they belong together, and who almost always develop political aspirations for special recognition, and perhaps a territorially-based state. These identities generally develop over long periods of historical time, typically centuries, though elites play a role in creating a sense of nationalism, which can develop within a generation. The Basque region of Spain and the Kurdish populations of Southwest Asia have often been identified as non-state nations, ie people without their own sovereign territorial unit, some of whom aspire to create such an entity. Many can be identified today, and these phenomena are a major factor in conflicts within states that refuse to recognize their claims. 

  Identities (ethnic and national): this concept relates to the deepest aspects of how humans think about and identify themselves, and refers to how individuals and other actors in society self-ascribe. Think of your own situation. Are you a Euro-, African-,Latino- or Asian American? Do you prefer to think of yourself as simply ‘American’? If you are of Arab descent, do you call yourself ‘Arab’? Or perhaps Jordanian or Yemeni? If you are from Taiwan, are you Chinese or Taiwanese? If born in Germany, German or European? If you are a religious person, perhaps your identity as a Christian (Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox), Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist or Jew is of the greatest importance. These decisions by people (whether as individuals, households or groups) have an impact on politics within states, and on transnational issues relating to conflict and cooperation.

  Territory: Every state controls it own piece of terrestrial space, as well as the atmosphere above it, and (if it has a coastline), the waters out to twelve nautical miles, and the resources of its continental shelf (see discussion below). If an ethno-national group aspires to statehood, its political leaders will typically advance a territorial claim, and proceed to struggle toward the realization of a new state. This idea of territoriality ties in with scale. Geographers Guntram Herb and David Kaplan refer to the manner in which scale and territory intermesh in the form of ‘nested identities.’ This means individuals and groups prioritizes a certain scale in self-ascription. The particular situation of the individual or group will impact the way s/he or it self-identifies. While nobody truly has total freedom in these decisions, different persons and groups will identify themselves by prioritizing a certain scale.

Territory is also a part of iconography. This is the use of key landscape symbols in the creation of a national identity. Think of poetry and songs that use the imagery of the physical geography of regions to inspire patriotic fervor (‘America the Beautiful’ is an excellent example).

  Territorial Morphology: The shapes of states can have an impact on the ability of ruling governments to impose law and policy on state territory. While this is not a ‘hard and fast’ rule, states with territorial outliers are sometimes vulnerable to separatist political tendencies. We can use a term from physics to think about the state’s ability to rule its territory effectively. Centripetal forces are those institutions, customs and symbols designed to keep a state together. Centrifugal forces, such as regional inequalities and ethnic division, are those conditions or forces that tend to tear a state apart. Compact states are those with a minimum of variation in distance between the center and peripheral boundaries of the state. An atlas will reveal several good examples: Uruguay in South America, Zimbabwe in Southern Africa, Poland in Europe and Cambodia in Southeast Asia Generally, these states could be easier to rule, but the principle does not always hold if ethnic conflict and corrupt governance are in evidence. Zimbabwe, for example, is very unstable. Nevertheless, these states tend not to experience separatist movements. Elongated states simply have a national territory that is long and narrow. Chile and Vietnam are examples. If the state has only one economic and political core region, as in Chile, then the state institutions will usually be able to impose power over distant regions more easily. If however, two core regions exist, as is the case with Vietnam (in the North around Hanoi, and in the South around Saigon or Ho Chi Minh city), then the state could very well experience political turbulence and division, as actually has occurred in Vietnamese history. Fragmented states are divided into multiple pieces of territory, separated by water bodies or other states. Island states such as Japan and Indonesia are good examples. Here, two states experience very different political outcomes. Japan has become a wealthy core economic state, with a largely homogeneous ethnic population (98-99% Japanese). It has little difficulty in ruling its territory. Indonesia is another matter entirely. This vast archipelago sweeps across the Indian Ocean to the Melanesian portion of the Pacific World, with over 13,000 islands! Inside its territory, many islands include ethnic groups that are hostile to each other, for religious and other reasons. Indonesia recently lost the territory of East Timor, whose population had been fighting for independence since the 1970’s. It became the world’s newest state in 2002. Indonesia is a relatively poor peripheral country in the global economy, and this no doubt contributes to its political difficulties. Prorupt states can also experience political turbulence. Thailand and Burma (Myanmar) provide examples. These states have a relatively compact core region, with a long territorial extension. In both cases, the regions of extension contain ethnic groups that are not well integrated into the state. In Thailand, a overwhelmingly Buddhist society, the provinces in the southern tip of the country, near Malaysia, are inhabited by Muslim peoples who feel little attachment to the state of which they are a part. This region has recently (as of 2004) experienced civil unrest. If ethnically distinct and economically poor people live in these prorupt regions, or any peripheral region in a state, then conditions are favorable for the development of separatism. Perforated states are a rarity; two examples will suffice. The state of Lesotho, landlocked and surrounded by South Africa, forms a perforation in that larger country, and is at the mercy of South Africa for its economic well-being, and political survival. In a previous era, up to 1989, the former German Democratic Republic (or East Germany) was perforated by the city formerly known as West Berlin. That city is now united as the capital of the unified Federal Republic of Germany.

  Boundaries and Frontiers: The boundaries separating states are known as international boundaries, and they establish the territorial limits of the legal authority of states. These boundaries can be physical or cultural. From the standpoint of political geography, all state territories are separated from each other by legally recognized boundaries, though many of these are contested, sometimes leading to military conflict between states.

Physical or Natural boundaries typically entail the use of rivers and mountains. At first glance, these might seem to be useful due to their apparent clarity, visibility and distinctiveness on the earth’s landscapes. But look more closely and we can see that mountains can be divided peak to peak or by ridgelines, which separate the headwaters of rivers. These two features do not always coincide. An example of a border dispute involving mountainous boundaries is that between India and China over two separate subregions in their Himalayan boundary: In the far western edge of their international border, Aksai Chin is between Indian Kashmir and the Chinese province of Xinjiang. To the east, we find another region between India’s far northeastern region of Arunachal Pradesh, and the eastern edge of Tibet, which is ruled by China. These are not minor matters. China and India fought a brief war over these boundary disputes in 1962. Geopolitically, the two states are still antagonists. As for rivers, some of those used for boundaries can change course! An example is the Rio Grande, which forms the boundary between Mexico and the United States. This boundary had to be renegotiated between the two states, which have a history of antagonism and conflict dating back to the wars of Texas independence (1836) and 1846-48. Fortunately, this history of conflict has changed drastically to one of greater cooperation in recent decades.

Artificial boundaries are delimited or imposed through the recognition of historical custom, by treaty or by the will of a stronger power. Antecedent boundaries existed on the cultural landscape prior to the emergence of the formal state system. Subsequent boundaries develop with the ethno-cultural divisions of a regional landscape. These are then adjusted through conflict and negotiation, changing with the relative strengths of the parties involved. Superimposed boundaries were typically drawn by colonial states. The best examples of these types of boundaries are the geometric lines drawn by European powers in Africa during the 19th century. The political consequences of these geographies would prove to be very difficult indeed for newly independent African states in the 20th century. Finally, relict boundaries are no longer politically recognized, but reflect previous political conditions. Examples include the 17th parallel division of Vietnam into northern and southern states, made relict by the collapse of the southern state in 1975. More recently, Germany’s Cold War boundary between eastern and western entities ceased to exist with the collapse of the Communist East German state in 1989-90. These various types of boundaries are also discussed with maps in Map 11 of your Atlas.

Offshore or Maritime boundaries refer to international boundaries over water. The laws and customs of centuries have been encapsulated in the 1982 draft treaty of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The convention delimits territorial boundaries and rights over resources, using a series of four zones, with each successive zone representing diminishing control by a state. A territorial sea ranges up to 12 nautical miles (19 km) or ‘nm’ (a nautical mile is 1.15 statute miles), and within this zone states have sovereign rights, such as exclusive claim to live marine resources. Vessels from other countries have the right of innocent passage. A contiguous zone exists to 24 nm (38 km), in which coastal states can enforce customs, immigration and environmental laws, and enjoy the right of ‘hot pursuit’ of hostile aircraft and vessels. An exclusive economic zone exists up to 200 nm (370 km). Within this EEZ, the state has exclusive rights to explore and exploit all types of natural and marine resources in both waters and on and beneath the seabed. If the continental shelf continues beyond the coast, countries can exploit this up to 350 nm (560 km). Vessels have all rights of innocent passage. The high seas are beyond the EEZ’s of states. They are open to all states, and no state has the right to interfere with others sailing, fishing, flying over or engaging in scientific research. Mineral resources are to be managed for the common benefit of humanity. These provisions of the Law of the Sea became a formal part of international law in 1994.

  Frontiers are politically weak regions or places between two or more states or political units that are often ecologically marginal, but may be ascribed strategic significance. Boundaries are weakly developed, poorly delimited or perhaps nonexistent. Tibet and Afghanistan provide historical examples. During the nineteenth century these arid, highland regions were sites of conflict between the British and Russian Empires. In what was called “The Great Game,” both empires vied for influence with local rulers and peoples as the British sought to prevent Russian expansion toward India, which was the ‘jewel in the Crown’ of the British Empire. Today, Tibet is ruled by China, another powerful state, and Afghanistan is now dominated by the United States, and is struggling to rebuild a sense of nationhood from disparate regions after more than twenty years of civil war and foreign interference.

Geopolitics can be defined as the application of geographical knowledge and insights to problems of power and earth-space. Typically, a geopolitical approach to statecraft entails a strategic approach to a state’s foreign policy that applies this geographical knowledge to maximize the power of a state relative to other states in world politics and the global economy. Even cultural influence, what is currently called ‘soft power,’ can be applied geopolitically. Remember that in interstate relations, power means the ability to coerce or convince other states to behave in a way which accords with one’s own national interests. This also means the ability to set the agenda in intergovernmental organizations such as the United Nations, and to prevent other items or issues from being dealt with or discussed if these are not in accord with the state’s interests.


Some of the most important thinkers in the nineteenth and early twentieth century highlight this kind of classical geopolitics. Friedrich Ratzel (1844-1904), influenced by the social Darwinism of the late nineteenth century, believed that states behave like organisms, and that they must grow in power at the expense of other states, or they will decline and eventually be eclipsed in power by other states. As a German university professor, he wrote in the context of Germany’s rise as an industrial and military power before the First World War (1914-1918). The Swedish academic Rudolf Kjellen (1864-1922) took this argument one step further, insisting that the state is an organism, which must expand or decline. His ideas influenced geopolitics in Nazi Germany (1933-1945), with Hitler’s belief that Germany must expand eastward into the Heartland of Eurasia to seek resources, slave labor and greater lebensraum (living space) for the German people. This concept of a Eurasian World Island and Eastern European Heartland had come from the British politician and geographer Sir Halford Mackinder (1861-1947). Writing as the British Empire was at its height, he believed that land powers such as Russia would soon eclipse maritime powers such as Britain due to the superior resources and population base of the Eurasian Heartland. Thus the saying, “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland: Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island: Who rules the World-Island commands the World.” Geopolitical thinking at the scale of the state continues to influence the most powerful states in the global interstate system, although the specific ideas change with shifts in technology and society.


An excellent case study of geopolitics in action is provided by the Cold War, which began about 1947 and ended with the decline of the Soviet Union from 1989-1991.  This struggle between the post-Second World War superpower, the United States and the Soviet Union, was characterized by the division of world politics into three spheres or ‘worlds’: a capitalist First World, led by the United States, a communist Second World led by the Soviet Union, and a multifaceted Third World of recently decolonized states in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The geographical form of the struggle was the division of Europe between a communist East and capitalist West, and the efforts of the United States and the Soviet Union to gain allies in the Third World. This entailed the use of these countries as proxies, in which the superpowers could indirectly fight each other for power in the global system. For example, Cuba was an important ally of the Soviet Union after the rise to power of Fidel Castro in 1959. For a brief period, China was also an ally of the Soviets, though these two powers eventually split by 1960. Many other states in the Third World were forced to choose sides in this conflict, which often had devastating results for the world’s poorest countries, in which civil wars were intensified by the sale of weapons to rival armies by the US and Soviet Union. Sometimes the two powers intervened directly. The United States attempted to keep Vietnam divided into a non-communist South and communist North, but ultimately failed because many Vietnamese believed the American forces were foreign invaders rather than protectors. In an eerily similar conflict, the Soviet Union sent forces to Afghanistan in December 1979, to prop up a communist government that had taken power in that country. The United States and its Persian Gulf ally Saudi Arabia perceived this to be the prelude to a possible move on the oil-rich Gulf region and decided to support the Muslim mujahadeen rebels fighting to establish an Islamic state in the country. Among these rebels was a young guerilla fighter and financier of Saudi-Yemeni background named Osama bin Laden. While the Soviets eventually withdrew (in 1988) after suffering heavy casualties, Afghanistan became a failed state, with the fundamentalist Taliban regime eventually taking control of most of the country. They in turn provided the bases and logistical support for al-Qaeda.

  The strategies and policies of this period were identified with certain practitioners of geopolitics. In the United States, the most famous were Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State during the Nixon (1969-1974) and Ford (1974-1976) Administrations and Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security Adviser during the Carter Administration (1977-1981). Kissinger and Brzezinski were both convinced of the need to maintain the strategic ‘credibility’ of the US by preventing the Soviet Union from gaining influence in regions deemed strategically vital. This was accomplished through the use of covert military actions, spying, and destabilizing governments that were perceived to be too close to the Soviet Union, or too critical of the US. Both men ultimately pursued a vision of geopolitics that would have been very familiar to Mackinder.

  We can see from these examples that local geographical and socio-economic conditions were often set aside by the superpowers in the name of ideological competition. The resulting proxy wars of this period would prove to have destructive consequences for all concerned, particularly the Third World countries that were victimized by civil conflict, repression and superpower interference. Both superpowers engaged in these activities, though one can debate the relative merits of their respective socio-economic and political systems.

  Globalization refers to the economic, political and cultural processes through which the certain states, regions and cities in the world are being tied together into a global system. These processes have accelerated due to the rapid advancements in information technology or IT during the last two decades or so. For example, computer technology allows for twenty-four hour financial trading in global cities of the Core economic regions. However, it is important to note that the spread of capitalism and its opportunities and instabilities is not uniform over space: most of the benefits accrue to transnational corporations and their shareholders in Core countries. Some of these TNC’s, as they are known, are wealthier and more powerful than states in peripheral regions. In fact, the economic relations of core and periphery established during colonialism have not substantially changed, though some countries have managed to develop economically out of the periphery. Examples include the Four Asian Tiger economies: Korea (South), Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore.

Another key aspect of globalization is the phenomenon of ‘coming together and coming apart.’ Through investment and the spread of different cultural ideas, goods and peoples into many regions of the earth, some peoples and groups have reacted very negatively to the new conditions of multiculturalism and change. Thus, we have the phenomenon described by Canadian political scientist Benjamin Barber in his book, ‘Jihad vs. McWorld’, that various forms of fundamentalism are in struggle with the materialist capitalism of the global economy.  The geographer Jean Gottman, writing in the 1950’s, remarkably anticipated a key aspect of these processes through his analysis of how regions and peoples struggle to preserve their identities through iconography in the face of increasing instability in their lives due to capital flows, migrations and other shifts in economy, society and politics. This idea of iconography versus flows is playing out in various ways in different parts of the world. An example is the reassertion of religious identities such as Christian among political groups and region in the US, Islamic in various societies of North Africa and Southwest Asia, and Hindu within the context of Indian politics. To make matters more complex, transnational communities maintain a sense of identity through maintenance of social institutions in countries or regions where they are a minority. For example, the Chinese and Indian communities in the US and many other societies are noted for a strong sense of ethnic and religious identity in many different geographical settings.

  Transnational issues include environmental degradation, narcotrafficking, terrorism, migration, and the spread of disease. The increasing emphasis on these issues by state elites is indicative of the stress that globalization has exerted on states, and the difficulties that states have in dealing with these issues. The flow of processed coca into the United States, terror attacks and complex issues related to the environment reflect these dilemmas.

  Finally, these issues of geopolitics, and identity highlight the importance of studying peoples and places within a local context. Seeing the world through simplistic eyes leads us to make easy and false generalizations about certain categories of persons, and this can lead to tragic errors in politics and policy. Globalization(s) have led some geographers to a less state-based and more postmodern approach to studying the world. By this we mean taking regions and peoples on their own terms, acknowledging complexity and diversity, and seeking to encourage policies that acknowledge these realities.



NGO’s We will discuss examples of these in class.