17 décembre 2008

The New French School of Geopolitics

My purpose here is to give you some elements on the “New French School of geopolitics” and of the International Academy of Geopolitics, the think tank which is an emanation of this School.

“New”? Well, I must temper this adjective because in fact, it is not so “new”, as the first steps had been fulfilled almost eleven years ago by a Professor at the Collège Inter-Armée de Défense – the French Military Defense’s College, a school for senior Officers, both French and foreign; to draw a comparison with Indonesia, it is a kind of French SesKoAD – and this French Professor, I’m talking about, is François Thual.


The study of International Relations in French universities is often a chronological history of international relations. Facts are underline to the detriment of analysis. In short, it is more often the knowledge of events - with so many details - than the intelligibility of facts.

Moreover, ideological determinants prevail on historical and geographical determinants. Political ideas and ideologies stifle geographical constants and historical representations.

The New French School of Geopolitics upholds another approach of international relations. This approach gives the primacy to the comprehension of phenomenon over their detailed description.

The understanding of international relations goes through the understanding of power dynamics. What we note, within States, between States or above States, is nothing but the will of power from a multiplicity of actors.

So, the point is to understand those power dynamics.

Geopolitics is the study of political relations between three kind of power: state power, intrastate power (secessionists movements, rebellions, etc.), and finally transtate power (criminal or terrorists webs, multinational companies, etc.) and this, through geographical criteria.

Underlining the weight of geographical criteria (physical geography, identitarian geography, geography of resources), Geopolitics - without claiming it as a complete international relations analysis - underline strong continuities.

Geopolitics highlight constants – which is called by a French historian, Jean-Baptiste Duroselle (1917-1994), as « the deep forces of History ».

One of the characteristics of the New French School of Geopolitics, is to take into account the multiplicity of determinant factors and to organize them.

In order to reach that point, we will use three criteria.

First, we will take into account physical geography. The geographical position, insularity or being enclave for instance, or the weight of relief, a desert or mountain for example.

Surely, technical development had modified the relation between man and space, but human still remain determined by space.

That’s the reason why it is fundamental not to do disregard the environment’s constraints, including climatic constraints, within contemporary geopolitical analysis.

Second, we will take into account identity geography.

Maps of States, ethnic groups, people, and nations don’t necessarily fit each other.

Many identity groups don’t agree with their State they belong to, and many States are shacked by separatist claims, by internal tensions between different ethnics groups. This could be confirmed from Africa to Central Asia, from western to central Europe, and of course in Southeast Asia.

Communal tensions are also religious. The map of religions should be added and superimposed to the map of States and people, however without exactly fitting together.

Today many conflicts all over the world have their origins in the inadequacy between these three maps: map of States, map of ethnic groups, and map of religions.

Identities are moving through History; and the demographic variable, which Geopolitics take into account, express this move of History.

Doing geopolitics without carrying about demography would lead to a static and creationist view of History; on the contrary we must precisely get a dynamic view and understand the motion of History.

For instance, the fact that the peopling density of Russia is ten times lesser than China indicates immediately the direction of migration flows tomorrow. Russia will more and more be afraid of China.

Third, we should use another geographic criterion, and add another map, the map of resources, from water to oil, as well as gold or diamonds…

So, here identities maps added to those of yearning, those of appetite for resources; and God knows that some men are hungry and greedy…

The analysis that the International Academy of Geopolitics elaborates is thus multifactor.

We try to approach each study situation with a “systemic vision”; understanding a given system of forces, from geographical structures.

Our goals are to learn and expand the results of this learning, which consist in modelizing situations, putting down clearly all factors at stake, aiming at showing its articulation, and its hierarchy in action.


Let’s take some examples, if you agree.

If we want to understand the geopolitics of a given area, we should start to locate strength, or power centers (States, intra-state powers, attendance or not of trans-states kind of powers).

So, we underline main power centers and on the contrary, peripherals powers, and we oppose transmitter center in one hand, periphery receiver – accepting or denying the power – in the other hand.

For example if we look at Indonesia, the case is obvious: in one hand, Java island is the center, or what a French indonesianist (Denys Lombard) called “a crossroad”, and in the other hand, you have islands at the periphery (Sumatra, Sunda Islands, Sulawesi, Maluku, etc.). We observe a centrifugal tendency with some secessionist willings through history (Aceh, Papua), this from Majapahit era to modern days and still to Reformasi.

After that, we should consider the part of the given geographical position. Do we have to deal with an enclave zone or on the opposite, with an island or an insular area?

If we take a look at the Southeast Asian area, what we “see” immediately is the importance of some straits; not only their importance regarding the world trade evolution but also the geostrategic importance of countries to which those straits belong to (Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia).

If we get a closer look, the southern part of the Malacca Strait is a nodal point, and as Singaporean, you know what I’m talking about. Indonesia should, for example, really keep tabs on Riau islands because they are strategic. Not only because these islands close the Strait, because they are close to three States, being a kind of bridge, a point of move, but because they are set on a “fertile” ground: a sea bed full of oil and gas. So, Jakarta should monitor closely what happens there, today and in the future. It could be thinkable, that some foreign actors (a State, or some big Companies, either local or far from the area) may see an “Independant State of Riau” fitting their interests and play this independence card, facilitating it, in a manner or in another.

The map of relief comes after. If there are places with difficult or remote access - mountains, scrub, bog areas, thick forests - these take a part when the State in case must confront to a rebellion movement.

As a matter of fact, Papua could be a good example for many reasons. First, it is quite difficult for Indonesian security forces to track and neutralize OPM members; they do this since almost thirty years now… Second, even for Papuan, the relief is also an inconvenient, because their movement is not so united as it could be at the first sight; take the name of their movement: Organisasi Papua Merdeka; it is expressed in bahasa Indonesia and not in some Papuan language or dialect.

They need to use paradoxically the language of what they call the “oppressor” to express the name of their movement. In this case, bahasa Indonesia, is used like a bridge, over mountains and valleys, as it is a bridge over Papuan linguistic fence.

And after this, you have identities map, a sort of map that we should set up and compare to the states map. We should also take a look at demographic statistics to comprehend pushes directions.

The good example could be Southern Thailand; there, the ethnic map does not fit exactly to the States map. It’s an area where Thai-Muslim people with Malay origins are encapsulated in a Thai-Buddhist majority State. The agreement of 1902, between the Siamese State and the British Empire, had delimited today’s borders, with three Thai provinces (Narathiwat, Pattani, and Yala) getting a Thai-Muslim majority not integrated or assimilated into the whole Thai population. And you know the scale of problems which happen there, since the drawing of this border and especially since 2004.

In a further way, we should also take care of resources maps, resources which underline appetites. You could have for example one case of separatism or turmoil around an oil zone.

What happens in the Timor Sea is a relevant example. Without the oil and gas, which lay in large proportions inside the Timor Sea area, I don’t think, really, that any political problems may once occur there. Australian attitude could be then apprehended at the ell of its huge hydrocarbon resources. See the difference between Australian recognition of Indonesian operation Sapu Jagad in 1979 (remember that only two countries in the world recognize Indonesian action in East Timor: Australia and the USA) and Canberra’s attitude in 1999.

Also, what took place last year, off the Borneo’s oriental cost, around one small islet, Ambalat, could not be understood only as a territorial confrontation; to perceive this “Ambalat affair” in its total and real dimension, we should not forget that this area is full of oil, and that beside two States (Malaysia and Indonesia) some companies like Unocal, ENI and Shell are part of the game…

Finally, we should underline the interference of non-geographical factors which take a great part. Let’s imagine for example that, in the area we study, lay a nuclear State. Then, relationship with other States change.

To illustrate this point, we may say that the nuclear weapon had made Indian-Pakistanese confrontations, which start in 1947, decrease in intensity. These two States had become more “mature”; they had normalized further their relationship, only with one new element: they both got a nuclear arsenal. It is not the only reason, you may tell me, and you’d be right, but it is an important one.

Also, even if, in the near future Iran gets his own nuclear weapon, I do not think this will change anything and lead to a war, really. Ahmadinejad's attempt to acquire nuclear capability is defensive in nature, and "any other regime in Tehran would have taken similar steps; indeed, it was America's friend, the shah, who initiated Iran's nuclear arms program.

Anyway, what legitimate arguments could forbid Iran to become a nuclear power? If so, political decisions will be more heft and thought, by all actors involve in the region, Iran at the first rank of course; that’s all.


To summarize, this is what we want to bring at the Académie Internationale de Géopolitique : this “methodic mind”:

1) The ability to comprehend any situation, with a multifactor analysis grid, flexible and adaptable.
2) The belief that truth is not mono causal.
3) That nothing could ever be explained by only one factor. Nothing is strictly ethnic, nothing is strictly religious, nothing is strictly socio-economic; social classes’ fractures, as it is said, do not explain everything; far from that…

This rejection of mono causal simplism is a key point, because today it tends to reduce international relations to a clash of religions, or to a clash between Good and Evil, or to a clash between capitalism and exploited people…

This is all of these kinds of simplifications – on the opposite of the scientific sense, of the spirit of Reason – that we reject.

We are all united around the placid analysis of a global truth, which may be complex, but at the same time always intelligible.

1) Those who think that all is religious will discover the influence of so many other factors.

2) Those who think that ethnic groups, peoples are fictions, will be convinced, in the end, that denying History, it could come back, like a slap in the face, with much more violence.

3) Those who believe that everything is economical will be finally shocked by the weight of cultural geography and the power of history.

They will realize that peoples could confront each other for the possession of a tiny portion of territory without any peculiar economical resource, only because land still remains sacred.

4) Those who think that peace, love and freedom between people could impose themselves only in few years, and from outside, will become shocked by the weight of long hates, of political cultures as well…

Factor’s diversity and the richness of geopolitical analysis contribute to that atmosphere of serenity, at the “Académie Internationale de Geopolitique”. This, because, at any time, an analysis should be reduced to a caricature, owing to complexity; then, at any time, one nation, one culture, should and could be reduced to a mono-dimensional entity.

Finally, we propose a systematic and adaptable method of analysis, as well as a basic geopolitical knowledge on large zone and fundamentals themes on international relations.

Geopolitics, as it is introduce here, is a discipline still uncommon in France; let me tell you. The road is long and hard.

We can see that, however, what we would call a “neo realist stream” in the US, is now emerging. A school of Geopolitics de-marxi-sized, with not any psychological obsessive feelings (décomplexée), in front of realities, which it comprehend plainly, but at the same time, a school which is still sticked by the scientific goal of analysis.

In the United States, neo-realists’ analyses serve power/political goals by clear manners: we just have to look at what is done inside many US think tanks… Rand Corporation, Heritage Foundation, Brookings Institution, to quote only few of them: all of them are working closely with the executive; in short, they are all inside power circles, either republican or democrat.

French neo-realists are not at this level, let me tell you! In fact they stand far from any power goals. Their goal remains scientific and only scientific. What they want, what we want, is that reality could be analyzed as it is genuinely, and not as we wanted it to be. In other words, a de-ideologized reality.

To conclude, Ladies and Gentlemen, I would say that Geopolitics is only a method, a tool; a tool and a method to understand the world, and to approach international relations. And it should remain so.

Of course, we are not naive, and we all know that this tool is utilized by some Governments, often in order to justify their moves/acts.

When soldiers came to arrest Archimedes, he was drawing circles on the ground. He just said to them: “Do what you have to do, but don’t erase my circles”. So, let’s focus on drawing our circles the best as we can, for the beauty of the gesture, that’s all.

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