Our world today is undergoing political developments and changes of unprecedented proportions. While on one end, there is an ongoing debate regarding the shift of global politics from unipolar to multipolar, there is also an emerging discourse on the evolution of geopolitics from the substratum of geostrategy to geo-economics. To explain different trends in global politics, the variables range from geographical dimensions of power politics to military power, diplomatic prowess, and more recently economic potential and resilience.
While geopolitics as an explanatory model for global political developments emphasizes the strong correlation of geography and politics while identifying the former as the decisive factor in terms of foreign policy behaviors of a nation-state, geo-strategy is ensconced on the identification of a certain territory for domination and use thereof, as a means for enhancing global influence. Geoeconomics, on the other hand, brings in the role of economy and investments as decisive factors in global politics.
The emerging global developments around, one cannot avoid noticing that these models are no more capable of explaining the tectonic shifts occurring on the geopolitical landscape.
There are examples galore to illustrate the inefficacy of geostrategy and geoeconomics to explain prominent global developments today and therefore this deficiency necessitates an alternative explanation for these global changes that are occurring around us.
One can begin with, for instance, the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war where not only Russia employed its military strength to invade Ukraine in February 2022, despite certain political predictions to the contrary, but rather continues with that policy unabated despite recent military reversals. Although, on the face of it, the above conflict appears to be a typical case of coveting and occupying the territory of a smaller state by some bigger state or hegemon through military means, a deeper critical appraisal of this conflict’s causal factors and Russia’s continued policy of brinkmanship, despite military reversals and economic sanctions, clearly demonstrates that it is neither solely a strategic decision nor singularly an economic imperative. On the contrary, this conflict appears to be a unique example of Russia’s perception of its territoriality encompassing not only the peculiar conceptualization of territory but an entire psychological and ideational space of Ukraine that Russia believes and perceives to be it’s own.
Ukraine does not represent a territory per se but a psychological paradigm that is part of the Russian perception of its sphere of influence.
Unlike territory, the concept of territoriality is essentially a social construct and identifies what a state feels or believes that belongs to it. Furthermore, the notion of territoriality is also linked to the specific role or characterization that a nation-state assumes for itself. Russia has historically associated with itself the role of a major power in the Eurasian space with its sphere of influence spread around this region. Accordingly, owing to these perceptions of territoriality, Russia continues with its operation against Ukraine despite multiple strategic challenges and reversals.
Let us move on to China for a moment and examine its Belt and Road Initiative which was launched in 2013 and includes around 136 beneficiary countries. There are various extensions or parts of this Initiative. One of these includes, for instance, China’s BRI investments worth US$ 32 billion in the western Balkans region with such a futuristic project as China–Europe Land–Sea Express Route. Are these far-flung economic projects in eastern Europe that are surrounded by frozen zones of conflict only meant for economic leverage or strategic assets of some sort? The answer to this question is again not as simple as it may appear. It is the Chinese concept of territoriality premised on the “all under heaven” (Tianxia) notion with China as the Middle Kingdom or the center and its peripheries serving as China’s tributaries, that forms the centerpiece of the thought process behind the above investment initiatives. This is also guided by China’s self-imagery of having suffered a century of humiliation and its commitment to regain its lost status of the Middle Kingdom.
Neither geo-strategy nor geo-economics explains China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) or other strategic economic moves sufficiently, but the Chinese Government’s ideational paradigm helps expound their overall BRI agenda.
Similarly, if we examine China-India relations, especially the recent border skirmishes, the entire premise of the China-India conflict is based on Chinese and Indian perceptions of their border areas as well as ideals of what should belong to them.
Let us now move on to European Union and attempt to understand what is causing the “enlargement fatigue” of the Union when it comes to the western Balkans region including Bosnia & Herzegovina, Kosovo, Serbia, Albania, Montenegro, and North Macedonia, although this region may act as a political void in near future that could be filled by Russia and China if EU does not integrate the countries of this region through EU’s membership. Again, it is pivotal to understand how historical perceptions regarding this region have shaped the EU’s current approach towards this region. Historically, the western Balkans region has remained dominated by Ottoman Empire. Europe, therefore, always considered this region to be part of the Orient and linked up to the Muslim Turks. Similarly, over a significant timeframe, certain parts of the western Balkans remained under the influence of Orthodox Christianity later supported by the Russian Empire. Even though certain countries of the Balkans such as Croatia and Slovenia now forming part of the EU remained under the tutelage of the Austro-Hungarian Empire for some parts of their history, the net result of the above perceptions regarding the Oriental past under the influence of Muslim Ottoman Empire or Orthodox Christian connection under the patronage of Russian Empire of the region was so dominant that while EU integrated the countries (Croatia and Slovenia) which historically once remained part of the then catholic Austro-Hungarian Empire, through the Union’s membership, remaining countries of the region still appear to have been practically “otherized” by the EU owing to their Muslim or Orthodox Christian characterization. In certain cases, the notion of territoriality of the region’s neighboring EU countries owing to their historical national perceptions has been so rigid that they refuse to recognize the national status of some regional countries, owing to the peculiar mass population transfers and territorial redistribution that occurred across the region in the wake of first and second Balkan wars. It is for the above reasons that countries such as Bosnia & Herzegovina which though itself remained annexed to Austro-Hungarian Empire from 1878-1914 are still far away from getting EU membership, essentially owing to its Muslim majority status. Similarly, North Macedonia has since long been disputed as a nation by Bulgaria and Greece questions North Macedonia’s state ideology and name as irredentist in character. Accordingly, at best, the EU approaches the western Balkans region as a colonial power. From these examples, we note that it is essentially the above-mentioned perception of “self” and “others” coupled with the peculiar notions of territoriality that Muslim-majority countries such as Bosnia & Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Albania are for all practical purposes not to be assimilated with the EU unless they do away with their Muslim identity and countries such as North Macedonia are forced to rename itself and therefore reinvent itself to keep EU and NATO bid alive. It is therefore evident that the EU approaches the western Balkans with a great degree of skepticism and hesitation.
The harsh conditionalities remain in place for the EU membership of the countries of this region that could even cost these western Balkan countries their identities as notions of territoriality and nationhood.
Keeping focused on the western Balkans region, one cannot remain oblivious to the role of Muslim countries especially Gulf countries and Pakistan, especially in respect of Kosovo and Bosnia & Herzegovina. Neither the geographic location nor the economic situation of these two countries can explain the proactive moral and diplomatic support provided by Gulf countries and Pakistan to Bosnia & Herzegovina as well as Kosovo. It is essentially the perception of their “self”, premised on Muslim nationalism and the social construct of the Muslim world that defines the above phenomenon.
Lastly, let us observe the role and approach of India towards its South Asian neighbors. Historically, India’s notion of territoriality has been defined by Hindutva ideals where areas starting from central, south, and south-east Asia are considered part of some mythical Hindu culture. While under the once-ruling Indian National Congress, this mythical ideal was camouflaged as a cultural phenomenon, under Indian Prime Minister Modi, this goal has assumed far more sinister proportions while coveting extreme right-wing Hindu fundamentalism. India’s perception and role assumption of ‘self’ as the pivot of South Asia is premised on the above conceptualization as well.
This role assumption by India is not only geographical in sense but exists in terms of that country’s social construct of the “self”. Similarly, the otherization of Muslims within India is also based on the same exclusionary ideological and ideational premise of Hindutva.
From the above instances, we can distinguish some important observations. To begin with, it is the perceptions of ‘self’ and ‘others’ as well as ideas, ideals, beliefs, and norms that have been defining the foreign policy approaches of countries around the world towards each other. Alliances are being formed today among countries, not on economic or security threats and possible advantages per se but the perceptions of what constitutes an advantageous situation for their peculiar notions of territoriality and their flourishment. Security, be it strategic or economic, and achievement thereof are therefore social constructs and more of ideational notions today connected with the preservation of perceived notions of territoriality, beliefs, ideals, and norms of nation-states while denial of the same to their perceived adversaries or ‘others’. In essence, the sense of security or otherwise along with its geostrategic or geoeconomic dimensions is pivoted on perceptions and ideas as well as ideals, beliefs, and notions, coupled with a sense of who is a friend or foe. For instance, Pakistan and India’s deterrence postures against each other are guided by threat perceptions that they hold vis-à-vis each other. The military and diplomatic approaches of Pakistan, China, and India are also framed by their perceptions of territoriality as well as ideas of friends and foes.
As mentioned earlier, the ideals for ‘self’ and ‘others’ are also the key pivots on which foreign and security policies of nation-states revolve. For instance, in the case of Pakistan, it is Muslim nationalism, for India, it is Hindutva and “Akhand Bharat”, and for Albania as well as Kosovo, it is the emphasis on Albanian identity, as a subset of Europeanness that serves as the causal factors for the contouring of the foreign and security policies of these countries.
We can therefore deduce from the above discussion that it is essentially what we may call Geoperceptions i.e., psychological social construct and perception of ‘self’ and ‘others’; one’s role within a certain system; the sense of territory and territoriality, beliefs, norms, and value system that explains their actual foreign and security policy manifestations and maneuvers. In essence, what the world is today witnessing is indeed an age of Geoperceptions that guides the stream of geo-political events across the world. Geo-strategic and Geoeconomic actions today are indeed guided by perceptions of ‘self’ and ‘others’ as well as a conglomerate of role assumptions and conceptualization of territoriality in respect of ‘self’ and ‘others’ as well.
The solutions to global challenges are therefore as easy to achieve as they appear insurmountable. As it is the perceptions, ideas, and ideals that define foreign and security policy approaches of states towards each other, the nation-states can turn the conflict situations to their advantage by either modulating the perceptions of their adversaries towards themselves and others.
This theoretical approach of Geoperceptions, therefore, caters to and explains why certain conflicts remain frozen while others get heated up or ultimately resolved. Similarly, this approach explains why a perceptive miscalculation may often result in intended or unintended consequences for the political leadership of a country and thus end up in an anarchical state of affairs.
Dr. Iffat Naheed is a “Visiting Researcher” at the Balkan Studies Centre, International University of Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina. She holds a Ph.D. degree in Political Science from the National University of Political Studies and Public Administration, Bucharest, Romania.