Rather than starting with an examination of the debate over geopolitics and its relationship with geography and international relations (a point we will eventually come to), I believe that it would be more useful to begin by describing the foundations, so often misunderstood, of the essential discipline of geography—particularly as they are the same as those of the discipline known in France a “geopolitics,” by which is meant any power struggle over a given territory. We are talking therefore not only about the influence of natural givens on balances of power (what Anglo-American experts on international relations sometimes call “geopolitics”) but also about the territorial aspects of rivalries and the localization of forces present in a broad international context. Geographers (teachers of geography, at least) have very different ideas about their discipline and its raison d’être. In fact, the relationship between geography and geopolitics begs the fundamental question of their historical origins and history.
Just as philosophers refer back to Plato and Aristotle as the founders of European thought over 25 centuries, I am making the claim that Herodotus’ Inquiries—which also go back 25 centuries—mark the beginning of geographical reasoning as a method for analyzing power rivalries over territory. That is why, almost 40 years ago, I placed what would eventually become the French school of geopolitics under the aegis of Herodotus.
Most geographers are not familiar with Herodotus or have only heard of him as a historian. Herodotus (484–420 BCE) was an Ionian Greek from the city of Halicarnassus (modern-day Bodrum, in Turkey) on the West coast of Asia Minor. In his youth, he and his family lived through the final years of what we call the Greco-Persian Wars, or Persian Wars. In 500 BC, with support from Athens, the Ionian cities rebelled against the Persians. The First Persian War began soon after with the Persian invasion of the Greek peninsula. The Persians were pushed back at Marathon and launched the Second Persian War (Battle of Thermopylae) but failed once again (Battle of Salamis) in 480 BC. The Greeks lavishly celebrated these victories in a number of literary works. However, because Herodotus believed that the Persians would eventually attack a third time, he carried out (perhaps at Pericles’ suggestion) detailed geographical investigations of the Persian Empire over many years in order to describe its political and military organization and the lands it ruled. He also went back over the events of the Persian Wars, since various cities had effectively rallied to the Persian side. Perhaps they would do the same in a future conflict?
Because Herodotus was very precise in his analysis of these alliances (something that led to a great deal of hard feeling against him), he has been viewed mainly as a historian. However, he was also the first great geographer. This is particularly marked in his geographical description of Egypt, which was also under Persian rule and which the Greeks might encourage to revolt in any future conflict. It was Herodotus who created the world “delta” (from the triangular shape of the fourth letter of the Greek alphabet) to describe the layout of the two branches of the Nile in relation to the shoreline before maps existed. He also coined the phrase “Egypt is a gift of the Nile,” and it was he who demonstrated the importance of the Pharaohs. It was also Herodotus who expressed surprise that the Nile was at its highest levels in summer whereas all the rivers in neighboring countries were dry. In response, he came up with the hypothesis (which would not be formulated again until the seventeenth century) that the source of this great river was in a faraway land, where it rained in summer.
In his time, the word “geography” did not yet exist. The word istoréo, which Herodotus used to describe his Inquiries and the work they required, did not mean “writing history” but observing, reporting, telling what had been seen or what had happened, what had been reported. Thucydides, a contemporary of Herodotus, was essentially a historian, and the range of his geographical observation was fairly limited since he studied mainly Greece, where the Peloponnesian War (431–404) between Sparta and Athens had taken place. Thucydides is rightly considered the founder of objective historical reasoning.
Geography as an Effective Tool for Leaders over the Centuries
Within any governing body and its administrative structure, geographical observation and historical narrative are indispensable for considering a strategic situation and preparing either a political or a military operation. Over the centuries, this has been one of the major functions of geography. This applies to the study of Alexander the Great’s campaigns (Alexander probably read Herodotus a great deal), the Geography of Strabo, also a Greek from the last century BC, who drew a detailed political picture of the Roman Empire at the time of Augustus, or the maps, from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean drawn (by Ptolemy, it was said) following Alexander’s conquests. Ptolemy’s maps cost a great deal and were kept secret for a long time, as were most other maps drawn before the seventeenth century. The Geography of Muhammad al-Idrisi, a Moroccan born in Ceuta, was established by order of the Norman king Roger of Sicily, who dreamed of conquering Byzantium. In the fourteenth century, another Moroccan from Tangiers, Ibn Battuta, wrote a highly geographical account of his travels from Sudan to India and China.
When at about the same time, gold from Sudan stopped reaching the Maghreb (at Ceuta), although it was still reaching Cairo in abundance, the Cresques family, the Jewish geographers who were living in the Balearic Islands, came up with the theory that the gold route was being diverted toward the Nile valley whereas until then it had passed through the Western Sahara. At the beginning of the fifteenth century, this hypothesis (which was kept secret) led the Portuguese prince Henry the Navigator to launch a series of naval expeditions further and further south along the African coast to find these routes. This led Portuguese explorers to sail beyond the Cape of Good Hope and into the Indian Ocean and persuaded Christopher Columbus to reach the Indies by sailing westward.
After these “great discoveries,” which were in a way the result of the Cresques’ theory, the gradual establishment of world maps was clearly linked to the prospect of new conquests. It would therefore be illusory to make a distinction between conquerors and geographers. When Cortés, after leaving Cuba, discovered a new coast (the far south of Mexico), he was extremely lucky—through the dual intermediary of a hostage princess and a priest who had survived a shipwreck—to have immediately explained to him what could without exaggeration be called the geopolitics of the Aztec Empire—i.e., a fierce system of oppression of various peoples. Cortés urged these people to revolt and, at their head, conquered Mexico.
All colonial conquests were first geographical undertakings not only through the drawing of maps of the topography for reconnaissance purposes but also of the territorial and historical disputes between different ethnic groups. European conquerors depended on some of these ethnic groups, especially after the international ban on the slave trade (in 1815), which affected trafficking organizations. All the large European trading companies and geographical societies had their own geographers, who for the most part were what we call “explorers.” Geography classes began to be taught to princes, senior officers, and ambassadors. However, until the early nineteenth century, the word “geographer” was never used to describe academics who trained school teachers.
Late Arrival of the Geography in Pedagogy
It was in Germany, or more specifically in Prussia, that geography became an academic discipline at the beginning of the nineteenth century. It was established at the University of Berlin to carry out scientific research for doctoral theses and especially to train schoolteachers. In fact, it was in Germany that for the first time anywhere, geography was taught not only to the sons of large traders and staff officers but also to elementary and high school students. Like elementary schoolteachers, Prussian high school teachers were charged with contributing to the Prussian-led movement to unify Germany that followed the Napoleonic wars. The first geography textbooks handed out to all students and future citizens spread the idea (which was in fact already a geopolitical idea) that “Germany exists and therefore should be unified politically. . .” However, this Prussian celebration of German unity was not initially carried out in the name of a particular linguistic community (since Imperial Austria would also have profited from this movement) but in the name of a community of landscapes (such as ancient small mountain ranges and coal fields), which implicitly excluded Alpine Austria.
The teaching of geography in France would only begin some 60 years later in 1871 following the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian war and the tragic crisis of the Paris Commune. The first university chair in geography was created in 1873 in Nancy (not at the Sorbonne, as is often believed) with Vidal de La Blache as the first appointee—in some way to counter the chair created by the Prussians in Strasbourg, in Alsace, which had then become part of Germany. Until World War I, the most numerous and the most famous geographers were to be found in Germany. One of these was Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859), who through his expeditions to South America was responsible for significant advances in general world geography, both in terms of climate analysis and biogeography. His work, Cosmos (in 4 volumes, 1848–1859), the philosophical import of which is undeniable, was the first “world physical geography.”
French geographers owe a great deal of their knowledge on general world geography to the German school of geography, as before colonial expansion started, the Germans were great explorers, especially in Africa. The French school of geography is also indebted to Germany for a conception of geography that is closely linked to history, following the principles of Immanuel Kant himself, who was in fact a geography teacher and for whom Time and Space were two primary categories indistinguishable from Knowledge. For geographers, reference to time is not only fundamental in terms of geology and geomorphology (since geological time is extremely long) but also in terms of questions of power rivalries over territory, the history of a particular border, or a particular people’s claims to a territory.
For reasons of geopolitics and patriotism, the German and French schools of geography were supposed to educate large numbers of students and therefore large numbers of teachers and academics, who each had to carry out research in order to obtain doctoral degrees. However, this did not happen in English-speaking countries, where for ideological and geographical reasons, the civic education of future citizens was left to the social sciences, not to geography or history. In England and the United States therefore, there was no need for a large number of geography teachers. Instead, geographical information for the general public was spread through powerful magazines.
There were therefore many similarities between the German and French schools of geography. It was only after World War I that the differences between them grew significant.
The Rise of Geopolitik after 1918, when the French School of Geography Suddenly Refused to Include the Political Dimension
The powerful geographer Friedrich Ratzel (1844–1904), who for a time was president of the Pan-German League, published his great Anthropogeographie in 1899 shortly after his Politische Geographie of 1897. Before turning to geography, Ratzel had been a naturalist. He was profoundly influenced by Darwin’s theories of the origin of species, which was published in 1859, its full title being On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. With his concept of Lebensraum (“living space”), Ratzel believed that races or peoples had unequal territorial capacities and that Germans, who were “manifestly destined” to have access to large spaces, did not have enough territory, in contrast, for example, to the old nation-state of France. In 1905, Rudolf Kjellen, a Swedish law professor, coined the term geopolitik (initially as an abbreviation of Ratzel’s Politische Geographie) as one of the many headings he promoted, including demo-politik, socio-politik, eco(nomie)-politik, and geopolitik, a list to which people failed to respond to any significant degree.
The German defeat in 1918 was a geopolitical surprise, all the greater for the fact that the Reich’s victory had seemed imminent once Lenin had signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918, which meant that the German army could concentrate all its forces against France. But the Communist-Spartacist revolt in factories and among soldiers and sailors forced the Reich to capitulate. The Emperor abdicated and took refuge in the Netherlands, leaving behind the Weimar Republic hounded by the Spartacist insurrection. The helpless Germans had to wait almost a year before knowing the victors’ decisions, when they finally imposed the Treaty of Versailles on them in June 1919.
It was at that time that geography teachers issued small practical workbooks entitled “geopolitics” in schools, intended for students and their parents. They showed the territories Germany was in danger of losing, particularly Eastern Prussia, the cradle of the German Nation, and therefore absolutely essential and to be defended at all costs. These high school teachers, some of whom had returned from the front, were helped by a recently appointed academic, Karl Haushofer, a soldier and able geographer and an expert on Japan, who had become an army general. Haushofer was appointed professor at Munich University. In 1924, he started Zeitschrift für Geopolitik (“Journal of Geopolitics”), which in the interwar period became the most important geopolitics journal available for geographers from many countries (including the USSR), and whose editors effectively voiced explicit demands for a review of the Treaty of Versailles. Through the intermediary of his war colleague Rudolf Hess, Haushofer would soon be in contact with the Nazis, who proclaimed Geopolitik to be a “German science” par excellence. In fact, almost all German academic geographers, including experts on physical geography, would turn their hand to geopolitics in order to provide a “scientific” context for the Third Reich’s claims. These were the same claims made by the Pan-German League over European territories, where German minorities of various sizes were living, for example in a number of Slavic countries where Germans had been invited to settle to open mines and build towns since the Middle Ages.
So what were French academic geographers doing while the German school of geography was concentrating on geopolitics? Before they even had time to realize where German geopolitics was headed, French geographers made a radical turn away from taking account of political events, yet without explicitly acknowledging this. In my view, it has long been clear that this was an ancient tradition in the French school of geography. However, the publication of an interesting book by Olivier Lowczyk
Lowczyk, Olivier. 2010. La Fabrique de la Paix: Du... in 2010 on the Study Committee at the Peace Conference showed that the work of French academic geographers played an important role in the conference from 1917 to the end of 1918. Their leader was undoubtedly Emmanuel de Martonne, a professor at the Sorbonne and son-in-law of Vidal de La Blache, “the father of the French school of geography.” However, other geographers, especially Albert Demangeon, Georges Chabot, and Augustin Bernard, were part of this committee, which wrote 59 reports, or 1,500 pages. It was created by two Prime Ministers, Aristide Briand and then Georges Clemenceau, both of whom gave de Martonne a major role in the preparation of the Treaty of Versailles as well as the Treaties of Saint-Germain, Trianon, and Sèvres with the other countries that had been Germany’s allies. In this, de Martonne had the support of US geographers close to President Wilson. He knew Central Europe (especially Romania, where he had done his PhD) and the Balkans well, and he had become a great expert in physical geography (his famous Traité de géographie physique, which has been republished many times, dates from 1908). It was de Martonne who decided Romania’s new borders at the expense of Hungary, and it was he who drew the famous “Danzig Corridor” in Poland.
Yet, despite his prestigious role, de Martonne was not only to lose interest in the matter of borders but also soon to argue against geographers taking an interest in the topic, a piece of information revealed to me unexpectedly by Fernand Braudel. As we were discussing the relationship between “different times in history” and my concept of different levels of spatial analysis, which Braudel himself also makes implicit use of (I was at that point congratulating him on that point), he revealed that he had in fact wanted to be a geographer. After graduating in history and geography in 1923, he had gone to see de Martonne with a suggestion for a PhD topic and asked him to be his supervisor. “What is the topic, young man?” de Martonne asked. “The borders of Lorraine,” Braudel replied (a complex question that remained topical in the early twentieth century—moreover, Braudel himself came from the area). In his reply, de Martonne was cutting: “That is not geography! Good day, sir.” After this rebuff, a disconcerted Braudel decided on a history PhD.
Not only did de Martonne use his influence to dissuade his colleagues and future followers from doing research on the question of borders and from teaching it, I believe that he played an important role in having the geographical establishment spirit away Vidal de La Blache’s final book, La France de l’Est (Lorraine-Alsace), published in 1917, a year before his death. Like many others, I was unaware of this work for many years, and no mention was made of it in works on Vidal despite his being “the father of the French school of geography.” Even the card for the book was not in the card index in the library of the Paris Institute of Geography. It was only in 1980 that I discovered the book (scrapped, along with others, in the Institute’s basement) thanks to a reference by a US geographer, who referred to Vidal de La Blache as “a great expert in political geography.” This book, which leaders of the geographical establishment had decided to ignore, is in my view an extremely interesting and modern analysis of the political geography and geopolitics of the disputed territory between Germany and France.
I believe that Vidal intended this book for President Wilson, who thought that in the event of an Allied victory, there should be a referendum in Alsace and Lorraine in order to elicit the views of their mainly German-speaking populations. Vidal explained that in fact, they (or at least their ancestors) had played an important role in the French Revolution in defense of the French nation. In fact, although I was able to have the book republished at La Découverte in 1994 (along with a preface), the academic geographical establishment did not pay it much attention, its great indifference to political questions having endured since de Martonne’s edict.
Why in fact did de Martonne issue this edict after having played such an important role in preparing the Peace Conference? Lowczyk suggests that while at Versailles, de Martonne did not handle the haughtiness of the gentlemen of the “Quai” [Quai d’Orsay, the French Foreign Ministry] well, nor the fact that a number of the borders recommended by the Study Committee with French diplomatic interests in mind were challenged by the Allies. Yet, thanks to Braudel’s testimony fifty years later, we can say that de Martonne challenged (though not in writing) the scientific (or at least the academic) legitimacy of studies in political geography (or today’s geopolitics). Above all, this implicitly disqualified Vidal de La Blache’s book, the topic of which (at least as regards Lorraine) the young Braudel wished to study more deeply. Was it not said at the time that the problem of “Eastern France” was now out of date since the Treaty of Versailles had restored Alsace and Lorraine to France?
French geographers therefore turned their attention away from questions of this kind. In Germany, however, even before Hitler’s rise to power and the call for the review of the Treaty of Versailles, claims over Alsace were being renewed. Only Jacques Ancel, in a book published in 1936 under the excessively sober title of Géopolitique, took a stand against the “pretenses of German science, [which] is providing weapons for Hitlerism” and “the Geopolitik of German teachers, whose reason and ‘vocabulary’ has been appropriated by Pan-German Hitlerism.” Yet, Ancel’s arguments were not very effective. In 1938, he wrote a Géographie des frontières, but his work met with no following, no doubt also because of anti-Semitism in academic circles.
In Germany meanwhile, Geopolitik was in full swing. Hungarian, Austrian, and Soviet geographers were all interested in the subject, and a revisionist campaign was beginning. In fact, Karl Haushofer used Mackinder as a reference in suggesting an alliance between the Reich and the Soviet Union. In fact, Haushofer is considered the instigator of the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of 1939. When he protested against the June 1941 attack against the Soviet Union, he was arrested and publication of Zeitschrift für Geopolitik stopped. He committed suicide in 1946, long after a US investigation had exonerated him of being a Nazi leader.
In the territories they invaded in the name of Geopolitik and Darwinism, the Nazis not only exterminated Jews but also a large number of Slavs in order to purify lands where German peoples had previously lived. As a result, not only did the word “geopolitics” become anathema, but the denazification measures implemented by the Allies also reduced the role of geography and history in secondary education and in universities to a minimum because these disciplines had promoted Nazism. The great German school of geography was dismantled.
The Singular Importance of the Geopolitical Idea in France since the 1980s
In France after World War II, the term “geopolitics” became taboo (as it did in other European countries), even though geographers and historians had not used it much before. Geography was in good health. In junior high and high schools, because of the increase in student numbers, the number of teachers of both disciplines combined was on the rise (with a preponderance for history because of its obvious political role). Following 1968, the sudden rise in the number of students led to an increase in the number of academics, especially geographers, who were needed to educate secondary school teachers. As a result, the French school of geography saw a net rise in the number of teaching researchers and scientific publications, especially in geomorphology and human geography. Under the influence of Pierre George, researchers finally started to study cities, various industries, and social structures, which in the first half of the twentieth century had been deemed unworthy of academic or scientific interest. It so happens that I was one of the first (if not the first) geographer—followed by a few others—to concern himself with the issue of “under-developed” countries. However, there was still no mention of geopolitics. Even though there was at the time strong Marxist influence in many areas in the human sciences, this was not the case in the field of geography, despite the number of Communist geographers (most of them unaware that human geography had been prohibited in the USSR and other socialist countries since 1941 because of its ties to German Geopolitik, which earlier had interested Stalin). French academic geographers, including those on the Left, avoided political questions and persisted in ignoring the extensive work of Élisée Reclus (1830–1905) under the pretext that he was not an academic, and more especially that he was an anarchist and had opposed Marx in the Second International.
However, for reasons I shall go into briefly, for the last 20 years, the term geopolitics has been increasingly used in France in public opinion, whether Right or Left, the media, and publishing. Today, no equivalent trend is discernible elsewhere in Europe or in North America. On a scientific and academic level, after several decades of gestation in the journal of geography and geopolitics Hérodote (created in 1976 and still apparently unique in the world), a French school of geopolitics originally created by geographers highly critical of German Geopolitik is now growing rapidly. The French Institute of Geopolitics, created in 2002 by Béatrice Giblin, is a center for training and research and has supported about one hundred PhD dissertations over the last ten years, each one making a specific examination of a geopolitical case, that is, a territory or region of some importance where there has been rivalry between powers either through violence or war.
How can we explain this surge in geopolitical reflection in France? First, we should discard the idea that France as a nation still has important territorial claims to make. Of course, the country lived through an extremely serious situation after World War II, namely the Algerian War (1954–1962), but this could not reasonably be called a geopolitical problem. Moreover, the term was still not being used at the time and today, the adjective “geopolitical” is still not used much to describe a conflict that almost started a civil war among the French.
My view is that to explain the growing success of geopolitics in France over the last 30 years, we should first take account of the academic consequences of the events of May 1968 and the students’ revolt, which took place mainly in Paris. Students, whose numbers had suddenly increased threefold as a result of the post-war baby boom now crowded into universities, vociferously challenging their education for having remained traditional, and protesting society’s values. In the fall of 1968, an experimental university was hastily created in the Bois de Vincennes close to Paris. It soon became famous, even infamous, but it had a significant influence on intellectual life for several decades.
In its first years, a large number of protesting students gathered there. Volunteer teachers were appointed. Among these were several philosophers who would become famous, including Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, and François Châtelet, among others. I was one of the geographers. In my first classes, students were mainly historians, who were forced to take geography courses to become teachers of history and geography combined. Some of them announced that they no longer wanted to study geography since it was a “reactionary” discipline (the adjective “reactionary” being then much in vogue).
I conceded that they were not completely wrong in that traditionally, geography courses tended to ignore political problems whereas history made a great deal of them. Yet, I also immediately pointed out that the greatest French geographer, Élisée Reclus, gave great importance to political problems in his monumental work (especially the nineteen extensive volumes of his Géographie universelle). I explained how, because he was an anarchist and a friend of Bakunin and Kropotkin, he had looked at them from an even more interesting and original perspective. He had been sentenced to death following the Paris Commune but pardoned as a result of a petition signed by scientists from abroad but sent into exile, where he completed a work that became a publishing success in France (the volumes of his Géographie universelle were sold in short sections, which the publisher then bound). Later, however, academic geographers ignored Reclus’ work, which was discredited by Vidal de La Blache and his successors, initially because he was not an academic but especially because he had dealt with political questions.
My eulogy of Reclus and of real geography impressed the students more than I had anticipated. Indeed, in 1970, some of those who had already studied history turned to geography, notably Béatrice Giblin. Four or five years later, several of them wrote research papers and some even became accredited geographers. In 1976, our small group became the kernel of Hérodote, which the well-known left-wing publisher François Maspero agreed to publish, with the subtitle “Strategies-Geographies-Ideologies,” the work of Herodotus having served as the original proof that geographical reasoning had a strategic role to play. That same year, I published, also with Maspero, a short book entitled La géographie, ça sert, d’abord, à faire la guerre (“The Purpose of Geography is Primarily to Make War”). Although the book scandalized academic geographers, teachers of history and geography showed some interest, as did the general public despite—or perhaps because of—their recollections of being bored in geography classes. All this spiked the interest of journalists, who seemed to agree that this sort of geography was a better way of understanding the conflicts in the field they were supposed to report on for their newspapers.
Yet, I did not use the term “geopolitics” in La géographie, ça sert, d’abord, à faire la guerre, nor was it found in the first issues of Hérodote. This was not done out of caution but because we did not yet have an effective critical argument in its defense. The word first appeared in the journal in 1982. In France, the term had reappeared—fortuitously it seemed—in 1979 in the context of a surprising international event.
At the end of 1978, public opinion, which had for years followed the Vietnam War in the press, was suddenly surprised by a new conflict. Vietnam and Cambodia, two neighboring Communist states, were in conflict over territory. For 15 years, they had been allies against US imperialism, and it was thought to be a general rule in international relations that two Communist states would not go to war against each other, even less over an old contested border. However, immediately after their victory in 1975, the Khmer Rouge exacerbated the situation. What was at stake, it seemed, was the great Mekong Delta, populated by both Khmer and Vietnamese people. As the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia, the editor of Le Monde, André Fontaine, born in 1921 and the author of several respected works on the Cold War, wrote of his outrage in a shocked editorial that concluded with: “This is geopolitics!” (The implication being that this was similar to the Nazis’ actions).
Young journalists, who were unaware of the history of the term “geopolitics,” used it innocently without being called to order to describe other unexpected events. Soon afterwards, in 1979, four spectacular events were described as “geopolitical” in the French press. The Vietnam-Cambodia war was the first, followed in the spring with the war between Communist China, allied to the Khmer Rouge, and Vietnam, allied to the USSR, a conflict that was over quickly despite fears for the worst. Then in May, the Iranian Revolution under Khomeini led to the sudden US withdrawal from the country, and finally came the Soviet Union invasion of Afghanistan. We could add to the list the start of the war between Iraq and Iran in September 1980, a war that would last eight years.
This new form of discussion can explain the interest of readers of articles in French national newspapers referring to geopolitics. Journalists made use of information gathered from geographers, such as natural data on disputed territory (like the Mekong Delta) or on ancient borders.
In 1982, Hérodote adopted as its subtitle “A Journal of Geography and Geopolitics.” From the 1990s, the use of “geopolitics” (most commonly as an adjective—as in “a geopolitical problem” or a “geopolitical question”) increased in broadsheet newspapers, which were read by the more educated, especially those interested in history. Politicians were more timid, no doubt for fear of being accused of taking up a term that brought Nazism to mind, a connection that in fact remains largely unknown. The popularity of geopolitics, even a kind of geopolitical fashion (which was condemned by some), led to several media initiatives that had no connection with Hérodote. The year 1991 saw the creation of the Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS) by an enterprising political scientist. However, French experts on international relations from the Center for the Study of International Relations (CERI), created in 1952 at Sciences Po, and from the French Institute for International Relations (IFRI), created in 1973 at the initiative of the Quai d’Orsay, still hold on to memories of boring geography classes and continued to ignore geopolitics. This also brings them into line with Anglo-American circles, where geopolitics is still completely ignored and where analysts prefer to speak of “international relations,” thus reducing the role of geography to the mundane.
Over the last twenty years, the number of people in France describing themselves as “geopolitical theorists” or “geopoliticians” has been on the rise. In my view, these terms evoke the image of politicians, who can be shady, or of astrologers, who used to be consulted by kings before going to war. I am—and proudly remain—a geographer who specializes in geopolitics. It is true that since the 1980s and 1990s in France, educated circles and those who concern themselves with what is going on in the rest of the world have shown growing interest in the concept of geopolitics. Yet the small group at Hérodote has for years, and despite hostility from the academic geographical establishment, conducted the important work of training young researchers and of reflecting on developments in geography, especially in relation to history.
Geographical Reasoning Tools
Most geographers, and especially those who try to be most modern, if not post-modern, continue to neglect questions over what geography and its purpose might be. In Les Mots de la géographie (1992), Roger Brunet defined “geography” by writing that “its purpose is knowledge about human activity producing and organizing space.” Such a definition seems to dismiss physical geography altogether. One may then wonder whether, contrary to what the sociologist Henri Lefebvre argued, human beings can truly create space (excluding of course high-rises in cities). In their Dictionnaire de la géographie, published in 2003, Jacques Lévy and Michel Lussault reject natural data even more squarely when they write that geography is “a science for the study of space in societies, the spatial aspect of the social.”
My view is that geography effectively combines various ways of looking at things. It includes a range of tools that helps the consideration of the complexities of terrestrial space at different levels of spatial analysis and in interaction, from local to national and to the planetary and back, taking account of specific cartographic configurations and intersections of several spatial sets of differing sizes, whether they be hydrographic data (fresh water has become scarce), geological (which should be ignored less and less, if only to locate oil and gas deposits), climatic phenomena, ecological entities (such as major epidemics), sets of different populations or economic and social structures, political sets spatially defined by ancient borders, whether or not they are nation-states or have other historical traditions, and especially, religious and linguistic sets.
My definition of geopolitics is shorter and takes the term “geopolitics” in its strictest sense. In the press, increasingly often, the term “geopolitics” is used to describe the relationship between political forces (whether legal or illegal) in a specific location, bloody struggles between ethnic groups or religious factions, wars between nations, a people’s struggle for independence, or threats of conflicts between great States. When I use the term “geopolitical” in its fundamental sense, I mean power struggles over specific territory, whether large or small, including territory within urban areas. In fact, geographic territory is essential in geopolitics. However, this refers not only to territory as such, with its surface area, topography, and resources, but also the men and women who live there and the authorities they accept and those they fight against because of the historical narratives they rightly or wrongly tell themselves and the fears and representations they have of their distant or recent past and their distant or near future.
It is useful to be specific about some of the terms that are important in geographical reasoning, hence the dictionary of geography I published in 2003 with Armand Colin, entitled De la géopolitique aux paysages (From Geopolitics To Landscapes).
Spatial Sets and Intersections of Spatial Sets
I conceived this particular way of looking at things from “set theory,” which is used in mathematics. Yet, in contrast to mathematicians, who represent intersecting sets of elements with schematic “balls” delineated by ellipses of different colors to help understanding, geographers must look at the size and specific cartographic contours of each spatial set (including the archipelago type). What in fact is a spatial set? Obviously, there are many different kinds, each categorized differently.
First, there are various geographical objects, such as the large and small continental islands we can now see from photographs and satellite images. Then, we have national territories, outlined by borders that over the centuries have been represented on maps ever more accurately. These are all well-known spatial sets. The contours of each set are drawn, with its coastlines and borders, before we can examine its size in relation to other sets. Hydrographic, road, and rail networks should also be considered sets.
In addition, there are also large numbers of less obvious spatial sets. These have been mapped according to developments in various scientific disciplines. Thus, on their maps, geologists have over time drawn large numbers of spatial sets relating to the age of the strata surfacing at particular locations on the earth, including climatologists who map contours of climatic sets such as areas of high rainfall or areas subject to typhoons. For their part, demographers map areas (that is, sets) of greater or lesser population density, and linguists show approximate borders for particular linguistic sets. There are therefore as many categories of spatial sets as there are sciences that use maps to represent them. Each discipline defines its sets and various levels of sub-sets in order to map their borders once statistical calculations and meticulous observations on the ground have been completed.
However, a spatial set is not necessarily a single unit, and archipelago-type sets do exist. In fact, an archipelago is a set, and its constituent islands are obviously sub-sets. Objects scattered over the earth’s surface can be grouped intellectually into spatial sets because they have a recognizable common characteristic. Thus, volcanoes that extend into the great “Ring of Fire” around the Pacific Ocean are a set, while the countries and islands where French is spoken are another example of the archipelago-type set.
Because they concern themselves with climate and geology as much as with population, borders, and languages, geographers take all of these maps, whether geological, climatic, demographic, or linguistic, into consideration. Each map represents an entire series of sets (and sub-sets).
Sets with vaguer, even incorrect, contours are also mapped where we do not have enough specific information or even in order to misinform public opinion. For fun or to deceive people, we can also invent imaginary sets, with illusory or absurd spatial representations. Even though they may not be scientific, these can sometimes be stimulating.
Spatial Sets of Very Different Sizes with Intersecting and Superimposed Configurations
Evidently therefore, the contours of different spatial sets do not match and vary greatly in size. Geological sets do not correspond to climatic sets or linguistic sets. This does not bother geologists, or climatologists, or linguists, who each refer to a specific category of sets. Although geographers should see this as a fundamental problem, they have mostly ignored it out of pedagogic convenience (when dealing with an area, it is much easier to keep its delineation simple), thus largely unconsciously avoiding what is in reality the raison d’être and the central problem of geographical reasoning. In fact, for any one country or any one area on the globe, the cartographic contours of most spatial sets (whether geological, hydrographic, climatic, political, economic, demographic, or medical) are very different from one another. Yet, all of these sets become entangled. To echo the mathematical description, they form a series of intersections representing the complexity of interactions between the various phenomena they portray. Nature, at least in the way it is manifested on the earth’s surface, is not simple. It does not belong to the same unique order since large geological sets and large climatic sets intersect. As for humanity, it is even more complicated, with economic, religious, political, and linguistic sets forming numerous intersections on the map of the world, even on the map of a single country. Geography combines knowledge from several increasingly specialized sciences, each of which produces its own maps. From an epistemological sense therefore, geography is not a science in itself but, in the sense given to the term by Michel Foucault, a scientific discipline that combines knowledge produced by other sciences and other disciplines (such as history).
Yet, this fundamental characteristic of geography—namely the intersection of spatial sets—was spirited away by the geographical establishment, perhaps out of pedagogical convenience since most geographers are teachers or educators of teachers. Instead, geographers focused their attention on relatively small islands, countries, and regions—in other words, on places where configurations of various spatial sets coincide, something that is in fact quite rare.
It is, however, relatively simple and stimulating to show—even to young students or to a casual audience—such a well-known example as the large set of mountains going from north to south following the Western edge of the American continent (from Alaska to the Andes), intersecting four or five climatic zones going from west to east, from the vicinity of the poles to the equator depending on latitude and providing very different landscapes and living conditions.
Once we start discussing action and movement, it is essential to take account of the complexity of the earth’s surface and even more of its human societies. To achieve this, we must focus our attention (or risk making serious mistakes) on the intersection of spatial sets since each set provides an account of a specific constituent element of reality. Although an intersection does not only depend on sets of different scientific categories (which are all in a sense qualitative, be they geological, climatic, demographic, cultural, or linguistic), the very different dimensions of these spatial sets also need to be taken into account since some are planetary in range while others are much smaller, even if these can be extremely important at local level.
The Classification of Spatial Sets by Order of Magnitude
Sets can be classified according to different orders of magnitude (from tens of thousands of kilometers to a few hundred meters or even one). Moreover, to each order of magnitude, there is a corresponding level of spatial analysis, that is, a level of observation of what we call “reality.”
It is at each of these levels that the various spatial sets of the same order of magnitude and their intersections must be examined. However, particularly because of increasing globalization, we must also take account of interactions that are increasing in number and in speed between local situations and changes at the planetary level.
Thus a representation of the world can be constructed as if it were scaled, where different scales, each with a number of intersecting spatial sets and with each level corresponding to a level of analysis, are superimposed by order of magnitude.
The superimposition of different scales can be called “diatopic,” with each scale represented in cavalier perspective so that it can be easily seen. The scale at the bottom enables the accurate depiction of a local situation of a relatively small order of magnitude, while the scale at the top, which provides a continental or even planetary perspective, shows intersections of sets of extremely large dimensions even though they remain linked to the local situation shown in the lower scale. Between the top and bottom of the diatope, there are intermediate scales. The problem for geographical reasoning is how to articulate these different levels. Articulation can take place from top to bottom as well as from bottom to top depending on the information that needs to be conveyed. Clearly, the bottom scale should not be ignored since action takes place at that level, with relationships between forces taking place in the field. However, it is on the intermediate scales that the easiest or least dangerous path can be chosen. This can be compared to the view fighter pilots have when they reach what the military calls the “theater of operations.” When they fly in, initially at high altitude and over a great expanse, they see (although fairly imprecisely) an area’s relatively large sets—large rivers, large forests, and very large cities. As they reach their objective, they dive down and see every detail, hitting their target with precision. They then quickly climb back up again to avoid being hit by enemy fire, “zooming” up, so to speak. Initially, this term, which came into use in the 1950s, was onomatopoeic, imitating the noise an engine makes when revving up as fast as possible in order to make a steep climb. Nowadays, the concept is associated with the cinematographic method of moving in and out of planes with lenses of variable focus.
The different levels of spatial analysis can be clearly defined by explicit reference to the different orders of magnitude of the many spatial sets geographers take into account.
The first level, which refers to the first order of magnitude, is the one where the configurations in a set, which are measured in tens of thousands of kilometers, can be observed (the planetary level). The second level is where intersections of sets measured in thousands of kilometers, or the second order of magnitude, are observed. The third level is the one where intersections of sets measured in hundreds of kilometers, or the third order of magnitude, are observed. Sets measured in tens of kilometers are in the fourth order of magnitude, and so on. Meanwhile, those measured in only hundreds of meters are in the sixth order of magnitude.
At each level, only certain phenomena can be observed, whereas others cannot be clearly examined at all, either because they are too large for their entire configuration to be seen clearly or too small to be observed accurately. Those phenomena belong to other levels of analysis. Therefore, different levels of spatial analysis must be combined or connected. Although any observation of a geographical situation implies reference principally to one level of spatial analysis (for example, the description of the Mediterranean belongs mainly in the second order of magnitude), it is important to take account of what can be seen—what is going on—at each of the other levels.
This is what some geographers call “multiscale” reasoning, or reasoning on different scales. However, they rarely implement this approach in analyzing reality. In fact, the concept of scale is extremely relative, and there is endless confusion between large and small scales, in particular because the concept does not take account of very large differences in the actual size of sets.
Connecting different levels of analysis is an approach that is increasingly used because of changes in globalization phenomena. Based on the distinction between orders of magnitude at different levels, each with its own intersections of spatial sets, we can examine how phenomena on a planetary scale (the first order of magnitude) have repercussions at the local level (the fourth order of magnitude) on a particular continent or in a particular country. Conversely, we can also examine how highly localized events can have long-lasting repercussions at the planetary level (for example, the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York).
Looking at maps of different scales is a way of understanding a territory better. Looking at a map of a larger scale (covering therefore a small amount of territory) than the map with which an observation began makes it possible to discover potentially extremely important details. Then by taking a map with a much smaller scale, we can place a territory in relation to everything that surrounds it. When we change scale, we do not see the same thing and we do not perceive reality in the same way. Changing scale is the same process as taking different levels of spatial analysis into account. In effect, a map is a representation constructed from one section of reality.
Considering Contradictory Representations: A Major Tool in Geographical Reasoning
Any geographical reasoning is based implicitly or explicitly on representations (though it is rarely explicit since most geographers are convinced that they are accounting for “reality”). We know that the word “geography” means “to draw the earth” (graphein in Greek meaning “to etch,” hence “to etch characters,” to write, but also to draw). A map is a drawn representation, using observation and calculation, of a section of the earth (large or small). The word “geologian,” which is much more recent (dating back to the eighteenth century), refers to “discourse about the earth” (logos) and its history (initially, Genesis, the Flood, etc.). This history became increasingly accurate thanks to advances in paleontology after Darwin’s discoveries about the evolution of species and to the emergence of fossils enabling the dating of sedimentary soils and the mapping of outcrops, which helped in finding deep deposits (first of coal, then of oil and gas).
Representations are the major tools of the natural and human sciences (as in statistical population maps) as they are of geopolitical reasoning. In fact, power struggles over territory occur between actors who orchestrate and direct political forces, each claiming a particular territory based on a representation of the historical rights each claims to have over a particular section of territory. The “nation” and the “people” are thus political representations imbued with powerful value, and they constitute principally geopolitical representations since they refer to territory, for there is no nation and no people without territory.
These representations, which contradict each other to varying degrees, did not come out of the blue. They were created and fine-tuned (sometimes even invented) at a given time by what we can broadly call “intellectuals” with ties to political leaders. Although it is particularly useful to retrace the origins of these contradictory representations and the circumstances in which they appeared, the intellectuals and leaders who champion them do not like this kind of intelligence work since it risks removing the potency of their representation by revealing historical inaccuracies and the special or vested interests that led to their creation. In fact, it could be argued that in order to be objective and effective, the geopolitical history of a people or nation should be created by researchers who are outside of it since outsiders would be better able to consider all the variously misleading and adversarial representations.
Considering these representations marks the difference (and complementarity) between geographical and geopolitical reasoning. The French school of geopolitics regards these contradictory representations as extremely important, and this is in fact what geographers and historians reproach it for, the latter arguing that as scientists, they should not take account of inaccurate reasoning or indeed reasoning that outrageously contravenes “human rights.”
The French school of geopolitics believes that taking account of contradictory geopolitical representations, inaccurate though they may be, is even more necessary because the evil process of German Geopolitik only took account of supposedly “scientific” arguments and ignored “unscientific” ones because they were inaccurate or contradictory. This was notably the case with arguments made by various Slavic peoples, whose interests were contradictory and who at the time had few historians whereas the Germans had had them for a long time.
Implementing geographical reasoning is all the more useful in the major geopolitical debates that base themselves on history and attack the rights of rival peoples over the same territory. To demonstrate this, I have chosen the example of what was initially termed the “Israeli-Arab conflict” and is now called, since the situation has changed, the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” This is the oldest and best-known conflict at the global level, and one that remains “hot” and ever dangerous. The geopolitical conflicts of the twentieth century, especially those of the Cold War, such as Cuba and the Vietnam War, are apparently over, while the conflicts in Iraq, Iran, or Afghanistan are much more recent.
Israel-Palestine: Geographical and Geopolitical Reasoning
I chose this example to demonstrate how taking account of natural geographical facts, which are usually ignored, can greatly alter the contradictory narratives protagonists have of their own history. I chose it not because the 60th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel was celebrated—just as it was deplored—in 2008, but mainly because it concerns two very small territories. Israel is 400 kilometers from north to south and only about 20 kilometers at its narrowest section, while the West Bank is 150 kilometers from north to south and 50 kilometers from east to west. I also chose it because in view of current developments in international power relations, the Israeli-Palestinian issue needs to be considered at different levels of spatial analysis.
Initially, and however much it may have been done previously, the analysis should focus on the significant historical phenomenon, which started in the nineteenth century, of the emigration of Jews from Central and Eastern Europe. This was mainly a result of ongoing persecution. A spatial set can be drawn localizing these European Jews, mainly in Poland, the Baltic countries, especially in Lithuania, to the west of the Russian Empire (from Lithuania to Ukraine), and in Austria, Hungary, and Germany. About half of the world’s Jews were located within this set (the other half being in the Arab world and Turkey). From the nineteenth century, to escape from increasingly frequent pogroms as well as from rabbinic rule, a large proportion of European Jews left for France and the United States (the implantation of Jews in the United States, especially New York, can be mapped). Others refused to leave and became politicians and workers in their home countries within the culture they shared. This is how the revolutionary Bund organization started. However, a small section of Jews, who called themselves “Zionists” and consisted mainly of intellectuals and left-wing free thinkers and thus disliked by the rabbis, decided to leave for the land that had been home to the Hebrews before the Jews had been driven out in 70 AD and thereby became a diaspora. Although this historical Zionist movement is clearly at the root of the current Israeli-Palestinian problem, it still requires that we attend to the geographical localization of the beginning of Zionist immigration.
The Origins of the Geopolitical Conflict: Some Forgotten Geographical Information
To try and see more this clearly, we can start by describing the terrain and its topography. This is quite distinct because of the juxtaposition of three long north-south spatial sets. A narrow, long, and deep rift valley, at the bottom of which are the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea, cuts from north to south across a group of plateaus about 1,000 meters high, which, to the east, reach into the Syrian desert and Arabia. All of this has been well known throughout biblical and sacred history.
Usually, however, less attention is paid to the connection between these plateaus and the Mediterranean. This connection is a narrow coastal plain, which in ancient times belonged not to the Hebrews but to their adversaries, the Philistines, hence the name “Palestine.” Although it would appear that Herodotus was the first to use the word, the name was not used in the Arab Empire or later in the Ottoman Empire, the whole region being ruled by the Governors of Damascus.
This coastal plain, which is crossed from east to west by several small streams flowing down from the plateaus, becomes increasingly marshy and malarial, like many other Mediterranean coastal plains that could not be densely populated. In the nineteenth century therefore, because of malaria, this Palestinian plain was sparsely populated except for a few ancient cities on the coastal hills (such as Jaffa and Haifa at the foot of Mount Carmel), where mosquitoes were driven off by the winds from the sea. Most of the Arab population, whether Muslim or Christian, lived mainly on the plateaus. Cities were also found there, such as Jerusalem, located on the west-east arteries (between the coast, the Syrian Desert, and Mesopotamia), as were a number of villages surrounded by olive groves. The plain was used as pasture for livestock on the plateaus, especially in winter, when the mosquitoes were least aggressive. This entire natural and historical geography would later have important geopolitical consequences. In fact, had the coastal plain not been relatively empty at the end of the nineteenth century, Jews would not have been able to settle there because the first wave of immigrants would not have found land to buy.
To use another level of analysis, when in the second half of the nineteenth century, Jews from Central Europe and far from the Mediterranean who had been won over by the geopolitical ideology of Zionism left to resettle in Palestine (unlike many others who went to the United States or France), they did this with the permission of the Ottoman Empire. They were able to purchase unoccupied land in the coastal plains and the corridors within the plain leading to Lake Tiberias because malaria was endemic there. Initially, they suffered heavy losses because quinine (which was not isolated until 1820) only became commonly used toward the end of the nineteenth century. Clearly, this later development made the plain attractive to the Arabs. By then, however, much of the land had already been sold by town dignitaries and village chieftains to Jewish settlers.
The term “settler” was applied to these new arrivals in the etymological sense of the word (in Latin, colere means “to cultivate,” hence “colonize”) since they were proud of being able to clear and cultivate fields with their own hands (recall that for a long time Jews had not been allowed to own land in Europe). Driven by a socialist ideal, they created cooperative villages, or kibbutzim. These Jewish settlements were therefore very different from most other colonial settlements because these first Jewish immigrants were not under any political rule, nor were they supported by a state.
Today, the situation is completely different. Since the 1970s, Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank have been created by force on Arab farmers’ lands by groups of so-called “settlers” supported by the army and the Israeli state apparatus. This constitutes genuine colonial conquest and oppression. We shall return to this.
Intersections of Spatial Sets Resulting Mainly from Geopolitical Rivalries
We know that following the end of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 after its defeat in World War I, most of the Middle East fell under British control. British troops had disembarked in Mesopotamia in 1914 and had initially suffered severe setbacks. The British then drew a large number of new borders in the Middle East after discussion with the French, who claimed a slice of the cake. These borders intersected the main north-south arteries of raised ground in the general direction of the coast between Turkey and Egypt because the French and the British initially wanted to divide these “Ports of the Levant” among themselves. The British based themselves in Jerusalem and assigned the name “Palestine” (in memory of Herodotus) to the lands west of the Jordan Valley, leaving the plateaus to the east to Jordan, which was then mainly the realm of nomadic tribes. In the north, Palestine was bordered by Lebanon and Syria, which came under French rule. In the south, Palestine as delineated by the British did not include Gaza because for centuries since Antiquity, Gaza had been part of Egypt and a fortress against invasions from the north.
Today, Gaza has become increasingly interesting because after the Israelis left in 2005, the Hamas Islamist Palestinians (a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood based in Egypt) have been in conflict with the Palestinian Authority, which is seeking an arrangement with Israel and is attempting to maintain some kind of secular tradition.
In fact, the very ancient presence of Gaza and of an ancient people fairly densely concentrated there (or the Philistines to the south of the coastal plain) complicates our initial description of three north-south spatial sets. In fact, they are crossed by a west-east climatic border, the larger part of Palestine receiving over 500–600 mm of rainfall per year (except in the Jordan Rift), hence the fact that the coastal plain used to consist of marshes. By contrast, the Gaza area only gets 400 mm of rain per year, which explains why the surrounding plain is relatively dry and therefore not marshy and less malarial. The desert begins further south.
It should be noted that Gaza remained under Egyptian control until 1967 and then came under Israeli occupation. In the 1979 peace treaty, President Sadat chose not to reclaim Gaza along with the Sinai. In fact, many Palestinians refugees who moved into what became the well-known Gaza Strip in 1948 were against the treaty.
However, other geopolitical phenomena should be included in these intersecting sets, one of which is the precarious situation, especially as refugees, of today’s Palestinians, who for a long time were only known as Arabs from Palestine. These refugees live across six different states, in Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, and especially Jordan (where they represent over half of the country’s population), but also in Israel and the territory under the control of the Palestinian Authority (the West Bank and Gaza), which, although it was internationally recognized in 1993 under the Oslo Agreement, is not a real state since its territory is occupied by the Israeli army. Obviously, all of this is a consequence of Israeli conquests during the Israel-Arab wars of 1948 and 1967. However, for a geographer interested in geopolitics if not for a historian, it is useful to remember that the outcome could have been very different.
Figure 1 - Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Diatope
Different levels of analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
Logically, the Israelis Should Have Lost the First War
At the end of the 1930s, there was already great tension in the coastal plain, not only between Jews and Arabs, whose numbers were growing from immigration and population growth but also between Jews and the British authorities, who were increasingly opposed to new Jewish settlements. Palestinian Arabs claimed lands in the plain, especially since malaria had disappeared following sanitation work by the kibbutzim, which had begun to fortify their positions and to organize militarily, especially after the great Palestinian revolt against the British and the Jews in 1936–37. Arab claims for independence were led by the Gaza-based Muslim Brotherhood, which in collusion with Nazi agents, condemned Zionism.
Following World War II, the territories under French and British rule became independent, and the problem of Jewish settlements became even greater because the Jews who had survived the Holocaust looked to go there in increasing numbers despite the strictly enforced British blockade. In those days, the area counted only 380,000 Jewish residents. Soon after it was created, the United Nations (UN) proposed a rather complicated plan for sharing Palestine, which the Arab States of the Middle East turned down. Before the official end of British rule in Palestine in May 1948, the armies of Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Egypt attacked the kibbutzim as well as some fortified Israeli positions, which resisted with difficulty. The disproportion in numbers and equipment was such that an Israeli defeat seemed inevitable.
In June 1948, the UN-imposed ceasefire enabled Israel, now free from the British blockade, to purchase light arms from abroad and to call in numerous volunteers for support. In July 1948, after Egypt violated the ceasefire, the Israeli army launched a major counter offensive, taking advantage of the lack of coordination between Arab armies and the inexperience of most of them. These armies were made up of former colonial troops that had never fought a war against an army and that had not really replaced their former European officers (except for the Arab Legion in Jordan). They had no concerted strategy, they did not know the terrain, and they were confident that they would defeat “those Jews,” who everyone at the time said did not know how to fight.
In contrast, the Jews, who had the advantage of a small theater of operations, were in a sense elite fighters, all volunteers, including women, who knew their leaders (who had been preparing for battle for a long time) and the terrain extremely well. They had cleared the land and cultivated it with their own hands. Yet, circumstances would be completely different in Israel’s future victories. On April 9, 1948, some Jewish special units made up of extremists who opposed President Ben Gurion committed tragic massacres (especially in Deir Yassine, five kilometers west of Jerusalem), designed to drive away the population, they said, but mainly to start a real war. Equally, Arab groups massacred the residents of several kibbutzim after the civil war started in October 1947.
Even for Jews, Israel’s Official Borders are Paradoxical
In their counter-attack in 1948–1949 and despite their efforts and under enemy fire, Israeli forces were not able to scale the ledge of the plateaus above the coastal plain, nor despite heavy losses, could they move forward into the Valley of Soreq beyond the western suburbs of Jerusalem (or an advance of just 900 meters) because of intense fire from the Arab Legion, which held the heights at Latrun. However, in the north, in Galilee, where the plateaus were lower and separated from one another by wide corridors in the once-marshy plain, the Israelis from the kibbutzim were able to take Lake Tiberias, a strategic location since it is the only large fresh water reservoir in this part of the Middle East. To the south, Jewish fighters launched a motorized raid from the coastal plain to the Gulf of Aqaba through the Negev desert, where there were few people to oppose them.
At the end of hostilities in 1949, the front line corresponded for the most part with the ledge of the West Bank plateaus on one side, which the Israeli soldiers had not managed to scale under enemy fire, and with the western suburbs of Jerusalem on the other. Today still, this is the border of the State of Israel as recognized by the UN. The Palestinian Arabs left the coastal plain or were driven out in battle. Some of them, mainly Christians, remained in the north in the hills of Galilee. Today, their descendants number more than one million, or approximately one sixth of Israel’s population. Although they are Israeli citizens, they have a different status from Jewish citizens and they do not do military service, nor can they join the army. The paradox is that Israel’s borders, which are the only ones recognized internationally and those the Israeli government itself recognized in 1948, do not correspond with the ancient territory of Israel but rather with the territory of the Philistines, the Jews’ historical adversaries.
The brief Six-Day War (June 5–11, 1967) instigated by Egypt and Syria and secondarily by Jordan and triumphantly won by the Israeli Army (or “Tzahal”) thanks to air power and weaponry quickly provided by the US army has had, as we know, significant consequences. Jerusalem was conquered, and the West Bank and Gaza, where there had been a number of refugee camps since 1948, were occupied, as were the large Sinai Peninsula and the East Bank of the Suez Canal. After heavy fighting against the Syrians, the Israelis took the Golan Heights, a large basalt mass 2,814 meters high dominating the plain over Damascus but more importantly the upper valley of the Jordan, from which comes a large part of the water that feeds Lake Tiberias.
Following such a victory, the Israeli government, in compliance with a UN resolution, committed itself to returning the territories occupied by its army (except for Jerusalem) in return for peace treaties recognizing the legitimacy of the State of Israel. This was signed in 1979 with Egypt (despite its sudden attack in the 1973 Yom Kippur War), to whom the Sinai Peninsula was restored. A peace treaty was also signed in 1994 with the Kingdom of Jordan, which did not demand the West Bank back so that it could eventually go to a future Palestinian state. However, Israel annexed the Golan Heights, whose restitution Syria still claims.
Whittling and Parceling of the “Occupied Territories”
One of the most important geopolitical consequences of the Six-Day War was the great change it brought about in how religious Jews had until then (and all over the world) regarded the State of Israel. They had seen its creation as being largely against God’s will since only the coming of the Messiah could re-establish the Kingdom of Israel. Zionists were considered unholy, atheists, or free thinkers (which many of them were).
Religious Jews were shaken by the spectacular 1967 victory and agreed that the State of Israel had been victorious with God’s help. From then on in their eyes, it was their duty to bring this triumph to completion and reconquer the true territory of Israel, or Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel), described in precise terms in the Bible as the “Promised Land,” that is, mainly the plateaus of Judea and Samaria. This project attracted a number of immigrants who came from France and the United States especially, many of whom became religious.
After concerted electoral blackmail and despite being in the minority (or 17 percent of the population), religious movements managed to obtain authorization (official or otherwise) from successive Israeli governments to create settlements in the occupied West Bank under army protection. Large settlements keep being built around East Jerusalem, which is still populated by Arabs, cutting it off completely from the West Bank, where real Jewish towns are now being developed. For a geographer, it is interesting to see on a map that locations listed in the Bible are where most religious settlements are being established. These are usually strategic locations, passages between two sets of high ground, water points, or observation points, all of which are listed in the Bible, which in effect is a great battle narrative. Some ultra-religious groups believe that the Messiah will return once all of these holy sites have been recaptured by the Jews, and many US evangelical Christians actively share this notion.
A real strategy of gradual conquest is being implemented through the whittling away of Palestinian village homelands, hundreds of meters at a time and through the most varied methods and excuses. Furthermore, villages are cut off from one another as well as from towns by the Israeli authorities, which draw up new routes reserved by the army for Israeli settlers, most of whom go to work in Israel every day.
All this makes a peace treaty that would restore any territory to a Palestinian state increasingly illusory. This is what Islamists, who lead Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, quite reasonably argue, even if the worst-case-scenario policies they implement against Israel play into the hands of all of the forces opposed to a negotiated solution with Israel.
Since 2001, to prevent “kamikaze” terrorists from entering Israel to commit attacks, the Israeli authorities have been building a security barrier, which consists of a high concrete wall that surrounds Jerusalem. In principle, the wall should follow the line of the official border between Israel and the occupied West Bank. On maps, this is the “green line” of the 1948 ceasefire. In reality, the security barrier diverges from it to the east by a few hundred meters to several kilometers, winding its way over 700 kilometers to include a number of Jewish settlements. The oldest of these, which were created immediately following 1967 and which were not religious settlements, were designed to occupy the edge of the West Bank plateaus since the official border, the cease-fire line, was further below, half-way down the slope. Old settlements to the east of Jerusalem were also included inside the wall. Yet, despite its contortions, the security barrier only includes part of the settlements, the number of which grows from week to week and now reaches several hundred.
We may wonder what spatial strategy will be implemented if and when the Israeli government has to eventually decide to evacuate these settlements. Perhaps a large number of their residents (who are not all religious but include Russian immigrants who bought cheap housing on credit) will prefer to leave quickly ahead of the rising tide of danger they never really wished to face.
Israel and the Changes in the Power Relationships in the Middle East
Since, as we just saw, geographical reasoning usefully explains geopolitical strategies implemented little by little, segment by segment, we might say, and over small areas, it is even more useful for territories of quite a different order of magnitude, which are measured in hundreds or even thousands of kilometers. These fundamental geographical data result in the main from geological forces not only in terms of the configuration of land, sea, mountains, and rivers but also for that long strip that includes very large deposits of hydrocarbons and stretches from Mesopotamia to the Persian Gulf. Over a wide arid strip where water resources are inadequate stretching from North Africa to Central Asia (or 6,000 kilometers), there are three ancient and heavily settled centers. These are Turkey, Egypt, and Iran, which will soon have 100 million residents each, most of them Muslim. Between these three centers are a dozen states, also Muslim, much less settled and with state instruments that have only been in place for a few decades.
One of the smallest of these states and clearly the most singular since it is not primarily Muslim but instead mainly peopled by immigrant Jews is clearly the State of Israel and its conflict-ridden relations with other countries. Obviously, the influence of the United States must be taken into account if we are to understand the situation in this part of the world. US influence was established after World War II to oppose that of the Soviet Union by supporting Turkey and the Shah of Iran, whom Stalin had threatened, and to support the king of Saudi Arabia against a Pan-Arab socialist-leaning revolution. Since 1949, the US Sixth Fleet has been a permanent presence in the Mediterranean.
In the early days, Israel was in fact supported less by the United States than by France, which provided it with its first Mirage aircraft and its first technology for nuclear research. In 1967, during the Six-Day War, the United States flew in sophisticated weaponry destined for the Israeli army, and this happened again in 1973 during the Yom Kippur War, when the Israelis found themselves in a critical situation. Financial aid from the United States to Israel is well known, and US diplomacy was the main architect of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.
The Jewish State is often considered an essential element in US arrangements in the Middle East, which allows, so it is said, US companies to control the world oil market. However, this is becoming increasingly less true. Moreover, Israel is not always an obedient protégé, and it capitalizes on the support of US public opinion (coming nowadays more from evangelical churches than from the Jewish lobby). Israel has its own nuclear weapons, which can threaten the Aswan dam (among other things) should the Muslim Brotherhood, now in power in Egypt, use the pretext of the Gaza blockade to call all Muslims in the Middle East to a great jihad against Israel.
Having lost its way in Iraq, the United States repatriated its troops at the end of 2011. This provided an unexpected opportunity for Iranian Shiite Islamists. Iranian President Ahmadinejad can now hurl threats of genocide against the Jews and provide the Lebanese Shiites of Hezbollah with the means to launch another attack against Israel, as occurred in July 2006 and which for the first time the Israeli army did not win. Israel is now calling for US military intervention against Iran to destroy its nuclear installations, even though this could lead to a new and long-lasting conflict that would reach into predominantly Shiite Iraq and especially Syria, whose governments have been an ally of Iran for decades. Since 2011, a civil war has been taking place in Syria involving a majority supported by Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood. All around Israel, power relationships broaden out to the entire Middle East, just as the US president is up for re-election at the end of 2012 and when it is difficult for him to quickly pull US forces out of Afghanistan, where the Taliban are making increasingly significant gains. This new disaster in US policy risks leading to a relatively isolationist change in US policy vis-à-vis the Middle East as the United States turns its attention instead to Chinese expansion in the Pacific. This would leave Israel quite alone to face the international consequences of its geopolitics over the tiny territory it controls militarily but which is charged with adversarial values so that it can pursue its insidious deportation of the Palestinian population.