During the Cold War, the main geopolitical optic relied upon by policymakers and diplomats was associated with a bipolar structure of hard power. There were supposedly two superpowers with overwhelming military capabilities compared to all other sovereign states, and each controlled an alliance of subordinate states that staked their survival on global crisis management and territorial containment skills of either the United States or the Soviet Union. This framework was an extreme version of the balance of power system that had sustained global order in the West with mixed results during prior centuries. The Cold War nuclear version of the balance of power was frighteningly vulnerable to accident or miscalculation creating a lingering illusion that the current possession of nuclear weaponry on the part of nine sovereign states is a tolerable and stable situation in global affairs. This statist framework, evolving from the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, was partly based on the juridical idea of the equality of sovereign states while being fully responsive to the geopolitical facts of life that placed stress on the gross inequality of states. This dimension of inequality produced an historical succession of hierarchies in the relations among sovereign states, quite often taking the form of regional and globe-girdling empires.

The UN from its outset was a constitutional reflection of the Old Geopolitics, with the General Assembly organized according to the logic of sovereign equality while the Security Council incorporated inequality via the veto power conferred upon its five permanent members, who incidentally achieved this status because they were regarded as the main winners in World War II. These state soon justified their status by passing the new litmus test of hard power—that is, becoming the first five countries to acquire and stockpile nuclear weapons. The Old Geopolitics was built around the institutions practices of warfare: victory on the battlefield, superior weaponry and military capabilities relative to others, levels of industrialization as a prime indicator of war fighting potential.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union a few years later, the bipolar construction of world order no longer provided a summary description of world order in hard power currency. Still, the idea and behavioral patterns of the Old Geopolitics persisted, but the new structure of power was redescribed by security specialists as ‘unipolar’, with the organizing authority in the world now concentrated in the government of ‘the sole surviving superpower,’ which Michael Mandelbaum, a respected international relations scholar, glorified as a virtual and benevolent ‘world government.’  It was a romanticized way of acknowledging that America’s hard power dominance of global scope and its projection of hard power to the far corners of the planet, on and under the oceans, and into space, was truly the first world state of global proportions, but it was not a Westphalian state as its boundaries were geopolitically delimited rather than fixed territorially.

When Iraq invaded and annexed Kuwait in 1990, a collective response successfully was organized by the United States at the UN, and its character reflected the operating procedures of this post-Cold War situation of unipolarity. At the time, this undertaking was rendered feasible by what the American president at the time inappropriately called the ‘New World Order.’ What George H.W. Bush clearly meant by the phrase was the capacity of the UN to act collectively in peace and security situations in accordance with Washington’s wishes, and was no longer gridlocked by the Cold War standoff. But this was not a genuine shift in the direction of collective security, the global rule of law, and an empowered United Nations. It became very clear as the response to the Iraqi aggression unfolded that it was nothing more dramatic than an enactment of a new phase of the Old Geopolitics, that is, interpreting world order priorities and security policy almost exclusively as an expression of the current distribution of hard power capabilities among states. In the 1990s the Old Geopolitics was dominated by the United States, and operationally administered from Washington, continued despite the collapse of colonialism to be West-centric when it comes to the shaping of global security policy. In effect, the Old Geopolitics did not immediately register the momentous historical consequences for world order of the collapse of the colonial order that irreversibly weakened the relative position of the West.

The Emergent New Geopolitics

A number of developments on the global stage are suggesting that a New Geopolitics is indeed struggling to be born, although unable at this stage to challenge seriously the reign of the Old Geopolitics. The New Geopolitics is premised on the primacy of soft power criteria of influence and status, and is more universalistic and less statist in the composition of actors providing global leadership and influencing policy. The prominence accorded to the BRIC countries of Brazil, Russia, India, and China is one expression of a shift in the understanding of a more multi-polar structure of world order. The claims of these states to such an acknowledgement of first tier influence is not based on their military capabilities or the potency of their alliance affiliations, but is primarily associated with their economic rise that consists of their astonishing recent record of growing achievements in GNP, trade, investment, and financial settings. Such a trend is also being institutionally recognized in relation to economic globalization and a network of the industrialized leading states, with notable shifts from a Cold War Group of Seven to an enlarged Group of Eight to accommodate Russia, and finally to the present Group of Twenty to incorporate into the dynamics of global economic policy formation a more globally representative group of states.

Parallel to this evolution in relations among states have been efforts by private sector actors and civil society representatives to establish their own institutional arenas so as to put forward alternative policy agendas, promote interests and values, and indirectly erode the Westphalian notion that states, and only states, can be fully participating members of world order. The Davos World Economic Forum is one influential expression of a private sector initiative to shape global economic policy in a manner responsive to corporate and banking wish lists. In contrast the World Social Forum, held annually in a city somewhere in the global South, asserts people-oriented visions of a post-Westphalian world order and mounts sharp critiques of capital-oriented globalization.

A striking example of New Geopolitics was the ad hoc realignment that took center stage in the closing days of the 2009 Copenhagen UN Conference on Climate Change. It was there that the United States sought to circumvent unwieldy and uncongenial procedures involving 193 states by selecting the participants in a hegemonic coalition that consisted of itself, China, India, Brazil, and South Africa. Its mission was to put before the conference a proposed consensual agreement to deal with the challenge of global warming. There was widespread resistance to this approach at Copenhagen, especially from the states that felt excluded by this maneuver and resented the clumsy effort to circumvent the agreed procedures that had been relied upon to prepare the negotiating documents for the Copenhagen conference. This statist backlash was centered in that part of the Old Geopolitics associated with the idea of the equality of states as the basis of legitimate multilateral lawmaking in the 21st century.

In effect, this wider community of states, essentially the membership of the UN General Assembly, were unwilling to give their assent to such a geopolitical coalition formed without their authorization and behind their back, despite the fact that for once it was not West-centric. Partly of the objection was to a perception of shifty backroom politics that demeaned the hard work of a UN inclusive statist effort to find global common ground on climate change, and partly it was an unwillingness to go along with the proposed shift in climate change policy from the mandatory emission reductions associated with the Kyoto Protocol to the proposed voluntary system of governmental pledges that was contained in the Copenhagen Accord presented to the Copenhagen Conference by the American president. At the same time, the hierarchical side of the Old Geopolitics was strong enough to avoid a direct repudiation of the Copenhagen Accord, which was presented to the assembled delegates at the last minute as a matter of ‘this or nothing.’ Clearly, these governmental representatives preferred to go home with the Accord, however annoyed they were by its process and content, than to return to their capitals empty handed.

There is much graffiti on the walls of the Old Geopolitics, and it signals a gradual and partial loss of historical control. The successful challenge of the colonial order by various movements of liberation throughout Asia and Africa strongly established a trend in conflict resolution in which the West, although the militarily superior side, was being compelled in the end to accept political defeat. This amounted to a radical reversal of the experience of conflict during the colonial era in which hard power realities shaped, usually with minimal effort, the outcomes of political conflict to the advantage of Europe. This enhancement of soft power stature was reinforced up to the present moment by a series of failed wars undertaken by the United States in particular. From the outcome of the Vietnam War in the mid-1970s to the recent winless withdrawals of the United States from Iraq and Afghanistan it is evident that hard power superiority, even total military dominance, is no longer able to reach desired political outcomes in violent conflicts at acceptable costs. In other words, relying on the staple currency of the Old Geopolitics, military power, seems recently to bring frustration and defeat, not victory as of old. These outcomes discredit and infuriate the geopolitical leaders, but rather than adapt to changed circumstances, these governments struggle to find new battlefield tactics and weaponry to satisfy their traditions strategic ambitions and somehow demonstrate anew that military superiority (rather than law or justice) serves the world as the arbiter of international conflicts. The aged architects of the Old Geopolitics for a variety of reasons are unable to learn from failure, and so the cycle of war and frustration goes on and on with disastrous human results.

Reinforcing these developments, and their interpretation, was the earlier impact of nuclear war on the conduct of international relations. Nuclear weaponry, the Omega point in the Old Geopolitics, actually had the paradoxical effect of excluding hard power solutions from political struggles between principal geopolitical rivals, radically modifying the emphasis of grand strategy in the direction of war prevention and deterrence so as to avoid the mutual disaster of nuclear warfare. Even in military conflicts waged in non-Western settings on the geographic periphery of the Old Geopolitics, which constituted the proxy wars between East and West during the Cold War, there was a restraining fear. There were worries that such conflicts as the Korean War and Vietnam War might unintentionally escalate if it was allowed to approach the nuclear threshold. Such concerns interfered with entrenched belligerent habits of the Old Geopolitics that had long been preoccupied with winning wars rather than settling for stalemates and ceasefires.