How maps still explain the world

Peter Freudenstein - «As Napoleon said, to know a nation’s geography is to know its foreign policy», Robert D.  Kaplan writes in his book The Revenge of Geography. In spite of the advent of new technologies and novel threads, the recent oil tanker attacks in the Strait of Hormuz have been a powerful reminder that geopolitics, specifically the extent to which geography affects international politics and power relations, remain highly relevant. We are quick to forget that mountain ranges, ocean access, or energy resources continue to play a major role in international affairs. 

The Strait of Hormuz lies between Oman and Iran. 34 kilometers wide at its narrowest point, oil tankers pass each other in two lanes no wider than 3 kilometers each. Since almost a fifth of global oil exports and substantial amounts of liquified natural gas (LNG) are shipped through it, this natural chokepoint grants a major strategic advantage to whoever controls it. Leading OPEC countries, Qatar, as well as large energy importers such as the USA, China, and India depend on safe passage through the Strait. Any interruption in oil exports from the Middle East will have major implications for global energy markets, usually marked by spikes in oil prices. The enormous damages to the global economy following the 1973 oil crisis have been proof enough. Considering this, Iran has the option to use the threat to blockade energy exports of US allies such as Saudi Arabia or the UAE amid its quarrels with the USA. Apart from the nuclear issue, this geographic leverage and the mere threat of interruption explain in part why the US has so far been cautious in engaging Iran directly. Hit hard by sanctions, Iran still maintains formidable power vis-à-vis the United States. 

A similar situation can be observed further east. While China initially fueled its economic miracle with domestic coal, oil and natural gas imports have since replaced it. Main source: The Middle East. Before reaching Chinese shores, however, these imports must pass the Strait of Malacca, which connects the Indian Ocean and the geopolitical hot spot that is the South China Sea. It is vital for stilling China’s thirst for energy. Accordingly, China has reason to feel uneasy about it being flanked by Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, three US allies. China would depend on the generosity of others for the safe transport of its energy imports. The signing of a $400-billion gas supply deal with Russia in 2014, and the construction of the Power of Siberia gas pipeline connecting Russia’s far east with China’s north, must be seen in the context of a Chinese attempt to physically hedge energy import routes. At first, it would appear that Russia has gained in power because of its favorable resource endowments. However, given Russia’s dire need for new export revenue streams due to quasi-plateaued gas demand in Europe and Western sanctions, China need not worry that Russia will attempt to hold China hostage using energy supplies. The balance of power is skewed towards China.

This leads to the final case, Ukraine. The illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014 was arguably less about nationalism than geopolitics, even if Putin would reject such a conclusion. Though the largest country in the world, fate and history would have it that Russia lacks a true warm water port and as such, is at a strategic disadvantage. Warm water ports do not freeze in winter, thus granting all-year access to the oceans, the global economy, and greater power projection in form of a blue-water navy. Russia’s foreign policy has always been driven by its efforts to establish strategic naval bases, such as the port in Sevastopol. Sevastopol, Ukrainian property, sits on the Crimean Peninsula in the Black Sea and possesses favorable coastal features to host a large navy. Since 1991, Russia had been renting the port from Ukraine, an agreement that was renewed in 2010 in exchange for a 30% discount on Russian natural gas. In addition, a pro-Russian - or at least quasi-neutral Ukraine - also acted as a physical buffer zone for Russia towards the West. But recent Ukrainian overtures to the EU (possibly as preparation for NATO membership) caused concerns in the Kremlin. Most troubling from Russia’s perspective, however, was the February 2014 government takeover of factions critical of Russia. By extension, this could have meant that Sevastopol, Russia’s only real warm water access, would soon host NATO ships instead of Russia’s Black Sea fleet. This was a red line for Russia that couldn’t be crossed. Ergo, while nationalist fervor certainly played a role, the decision by Russia to annex Crimea can chiefly be explained by a geographic imperative and the need to bring Sevastopol under Russian control once and for all. 

Although selective, these examples illustrate that geography continues to drive international affairs, even in an increasingly interconnected and virtual world. A brief glance at a map will often explain why and how. 

Image: Unsplash

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Peter Freudenstein

Peter Freudenstein studiert im Doppelmasterstudium an der Universität St. Gallen und der Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Boston und ist Co-Redaktor des foraus Blogs.

peter.freudenstein@sipo.gess.ethz.ch