Greek Business File, April-May 2020, No 125

By Michel Foucher

Map reading: a civic and political necessity

In the globalization era, cartographical disputes go along with territorial ones, as well as geopolitical rivalries. Professor Michel Foucher, in this exclusive article for GBF based on the Athens presentation of the issue at the French Institute, March 2020, redefines and offers a fresh look at the science of Geography.

The Mediterranean French historian, Fernand Braudel, recalled the fact that the geographical framework was a long-term imprisonment. How could we understand it without resorting to cartography, which constitutes a reality check for reading the geographic framework as a book indicating the situations and the interrelations among places and not contemplating it as a silent picture?

After the infamous Japanese attack against the naval basis in Pearl Harbor, the President of the United States, Franklin Roosevelt, invited the Americans who were listening to his radio speech by the fi reside to spread a map of the world out to more clearly understand the challenges of the impending world conflict, which was also evolving in the Pacifi c Ocean. He had his own map of the “big Ocean” – as it was called at the time of La Pérouse and Louis XVI, “the king who loved the sea” – and was commenting on it on the radio on 23 February 1942.

It is rare to see statesmen exploring maps:

– we have seen the photo of Barack Obama pondering over a planisphere, probably his pivot towards Asia;

– that of Vladimir Putin thinking of the immense territory of Russia, deducing that the threats of its strategic encirclement are proportional to its size;

– that of Li Keqiang during his official visit to Greece, pointing his finger at Piraeus, the fulcrum of the Mediterranean component of his silk roads;

– those of the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, from 1947 to 2020, who is saddened by the imminent loss of his shrinking territory of a hypothetical Palestinian State, as cruelly reflected in the book of the patriot cartographer Khalil Tafakji (31° North, 35° East, Geographical Chronicles of the Israeli Settlement).

Cartographical disputes go along with territorial ones, as well as geopolitical rivalries. The case of the “Persian” or “Arabian Gulf” is well known, as opposing the neighboring States. If a map represents Western Sahara, as defined by the United Nations, the audience leaves the room in Morocco. Similarly, the toponyms of “Cisjordan” and “Judea and Samaria”, “occupied” or “administered” territories, depend on whether we are referring to the mental map of the Palestinians or Israelis. What is known by the Vietnamese as the “East Sea” is called the “South China Sea” by the Chinese who are transforming coral reefs into military polders with landing strips and ports in the name of very ancient historical rights related to the fishing zones surrounding inhabitable islets. The Korean and Japanese diplomacy have Historians Ambassadors who gather ancient maps to prove that the contested islands fall within the jurisdiction of the one or the other State.

However, we should look beyond territorial disputes. The French philosopher Marcel Gauchet emphasizes the fact that due to globalisation which has its own limits, as we are discovering in 2020, the axis of all societies has been transferred from history to geography. This means that henceforth we define ourselves by our place in the world, firstly, by disregarding the fact that this location is related to the past. Secondly, however, this oblivion has evolved into a need to redefine ourselves according to the new situation.

Responding to the above civic and political necessity to understand the evolution of the connected world and its progress, as well as the sound and fury, an analysis called “geopolitical” is necessary, as a general culture of the contemporary man and woman. “Geopolitics” has become popular, often ill-defined and presented as equivalent to “international relations”. In effect, the only proof that an issue falls within the scope of geopolitical analysis is that we can map the relevant challenges.

According to my understanding, geopolitics focuses on the analysis and practice of interactions between territory and politics. The real element here is “geo”, which means the territory (relative and absolute location, advantages and resources, history and national narrative). This raises the issue of the relationship between “geography” and “geopolitics”. Geopolitics is not studying the influence of the environment on the political behavior of the States, a concept known as determinism. And for a very long time, we didn’t discuss Geopolitics, but simply Geography in the full sense of the term. There are two examples of the forceful use of the term “geography” which have become famous and are often misunderstood. In the conclusion of a letter addressed to the King of Prussia in 1804 in order not to ally himself with the Emperor of Russia, and keen to intervene in the Concert of Europe, Napoleon has written the following words: “But one day this power might feel that, if it wants to intervene in the European affairs, it has to adopt a reasoned and consistent system, and abandon the principles deriving only from imagination and passion, because the politics of all powers lie in their geography”.

The phrase was used again, paraphrased by Charles de Gaulle in his first book, Towards a Professional Army (1934): “the politics of a State lie in its geography”. This time, he refers to the vulnerability of France to invasions coming from the north east, in the absence of defendable borders. His diagnosis is presented as a real map commentary. To respond, he was advocating not only a fortification line in the Vauban style, the famous Maginot line, but the creation of a modern, motorized, mobile army.

These two phrases were diff used in the war schools; however sometimes they were poorly understood or transformed into a determinist slogan, while a thorough interpretation of spatial reality shows an important practical utility.

We have owed to Henry Kissinger the diffusion of the term “geopolitics” since 1979 in his book-review, The White House Years, after the excesses of the German and Swedish schools of thought of the 1930’s. According to him, the term was synonymous with global balance and permanent national interests in the world balance of powers. The geopolitical approach was for Kissinger a means to combat the American liberal idealistic policies (following Wilson), and present an alternative to conservative policies of an ideological anticommunism. The rapprochement with Mao’s China, since 1972, during the Vietnam war, aiming at playing the weak (China of Mao Zedong) against the strong (the Soviet Union of Leonid Brezhnev) and breaking the Communist bloc, proceeded from there. Besides, Kissinger has also advised the same approach to Donald Trump, this time towards Russia against China.

In a letter written in 1807 to his minister in charge of public education, Napoleon I outlined the framework with regard to the establishment of a special school within the College of France dedicated to the study of history and “necessarily geography, because we cannot think of the one independently of the other”. In France, in September 2019, the introduction of a special course in the sixth form of high schools added geopolitics (on the theme of borders) and political science (on the theme of democracy) to the courses of history and geography. High school students have greatly appreciated the course of geopolitics, as they are concerned about acquiring knowledge of an objective evaluation grid of world affairs.

In conclusion, we reaffirm that the starting point of any geopolitical analysis and practice is geography, in the sense of the description of the world known to us in a way that is objective and subjective, and capable of being illustrated in a map and on a multi-level geographical scale. Considering that geography is subjective due to the role of its representations, mental maps, and shadows of the past (see: The Battle of Maps), and objective due to the description of the advantages and the challenges which can be reflected on a map. Map drawing is an inherent quality to any “geographical” element, as similarly all historical elements can be arranged in chronological order. Finally, the multi-level geographical scale is used for the fundamental game of scales, which constitute the connecting thread running through a complex and interdependent world. Finally, I intend to reuse the French term “géographer”, which has fallen into disuse and means going out of oneself.