The influence of International Politics and Geography on Foreign Policy

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One has to recognise geographical realities for the unequal growth of nations is the cause, directly or indirectly, of the great wars of history and is in large measure the result of the uneven distribution of fertility and strategical opportunity upon the face of our globe—Sir Halford Mackinder.

Geography consists of largely the answers to the question ‘where is it?’ whether in reference to a state or to any other part of the earth’s surface. Christopher Hill (2003) contends that while refusing to accept the validity of this inadequate view, geographers will admit that the locational factor in the study of a state is of great importance but will also agree that the value of position alters with changing conditions in many ways. Hill maintains that the location of a state does indeed affect its political geography in an intimate way (Hill, 2003).

In Europe which contains more independent states than any other area of comparable size, the strategic aspect of location receives a great deal of attention. No one who is familiar with Germany during the inter-war years will deny the effects on the country’s internal affairs of fears which were centred on the dangers of encirclement. Carlton Synder (1962) points out that closely allied with the locational factor as a geographical element in the internal affairs of the state, are considerations of size and shape. Every state has grown to its present size from relatively small beginnings in the form of a nuclear area from which expansion has taken place and which generally remains a dominant position in the internal organization. Upon closer examination one would notice that France grew out of L’Ile de France, U.S.A grew out of the original thirteen colonies on the Atlantic seaboard, the U.S.S.R out of Muscovy and, to show that the workings of this principle are not confined to modern times; the Roman Empire grew out of a small nucleus in Latium. As a result, one could conclude that size or space inevitably plays a major role in the organisation of a state if for no other reason than the fact that its relationship with its nuclear areas must be facilitated and organised. Failure to tie together the outlying parts with the centre will inevitably leave the former open to the threat of acquisition by rival states.

Roy Macridis and Robert Art (1992) affirms that “the foreign policy of a state is usually dominated by one or more aspects of its relations with other states”. The Soviet Union, for example, back then, appeared to be obsessed with the desire for military security, behind which it had hoped to achieve economic and social reconstruction in line with its particular theories. Again, the foreign relations of France as well as its internal affairs were largely dominated by fear of possible German aggression. On the other hand, the countries of the Far East, including India, China and Indonesia were still concerned with furthering their independence from the political and economic dominance of non-Asian powers and with a pronounced growth of nationalist tendencies and their external relationships, were accordingly biased by these considerations. Macridis maintain that one can scarcely hope to understand the foreign policies and interactions of states without the use of maps (Macridis and Art, 1992). For though maps like all models are indispensable they can be tricky tools when used with knowledge of their properties and limitations, as maps can illuminate almost every international problem.

Harold Sprout and Margaret Sprout (1960) comes close to arguing that the non-human environment of the Soviet Union presented permanently disabling obstacles to successful Soviet competition with Western Europe and the United States. They wrote “Geography has imposed permanent limitations on the development of the Soviet Union. Man can do much but the restrictions of great distances, remoteness from the ocean, terrain, short growing seasons, inadequate and variable rainfall and in addition continentality will always remain…the geographic potentials are very large, but the geographical limitations are formidable” (Sprout and Sprout, 1960).

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Michi Ebata (1996) argued that Premier Stalin gave his country the task to overtake the capitalist world. From the standpoint of geography this does not appear possible. Limitations of location, climate, scattered resources and continentiality combine to create landscapes which no amount of planning can fully surmount. Whatever its government, it would seem that Russia can never become a truly great world power. Geographical space between the state’s boundaries and its vital centers of population and economic production was likewise regarded as a strategic asset. Where space was deemed inadequate, a buffer zone of protected states (we call them satellites today) might be created to absorb the shock of invasion. Charles Hermann et. al., (1987) contends that it is not enough to just describe relationships between actors. We have to understand the basis of relations, the different goals being pursued by different actors, as well as the motivations behind actions.

(Hermann et al., 1987) points out that there are two fundamental questions underlying much of foreign policy scholarship, do states act the way they act in the world because of who they are? Or is it because of where they sit in the world as defined by their relationships with other states in the international system? In realist system-level accounts, the focus is on how a state’s position in the international system is related to its foreign policy. Sometimes the suggested relationship is causal (a country’s position is said to determine its foreign policy) but, most typically, the suggested relationship is a matter of explaining which options are open to states in certain positions and what those states must and/or will do to preserve or enhance their status. One cannot deny that a state’s size and location determines its ability to stabilize or disrupt the international economic system.

Geography, then, is quite important in terms of location and renewability of resources, as it still affects political action through the position, size and boundaries of states. The random ways in which frontiers are superimposed on the world means that states vary enormously in size, mineral, wealth, access to the sea, vulnerability and cohesiveness. Some states come under great pressure through being in difficult circumstances, such as Bangladesh. Others, like the United States seem to possess every card in the pack. Bangladesh is in the situation it is in, the first instance at least, because of the artificiality of the divide Pakistan created on independence in 1947, and because of the dangerous international consequences which would have followed any attempt to absorb East Pakistan into India in 1971. States therefore has to work with the political geography they have however unjust. They cannot be indifferent to it, and they can only change it at the margin. Their physical characteristics have important implications for all areas of public, not least foreign policy. Even distance, which many would think had been rendered insignificant by technology, must still be factored in.

In agreement with (Hermann et al., 1987) one must realise that geography frequently influences political decision-making just as political power influences geographical space. Iraq’s oil reserves for example, coupled with pivotal location in the oil-rich Middle East, bounded by six neighbors (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Iran and Kuwait) and locked in a sectarian civil war, make it a likely candidate for geographical assessment. Here people struggle for control of territorial space with a vengeance, and that struggle affects foreign policy decision making and the lives of many other people outside Iraq. By extension as Snyder (1962) maintains, political geography plays a huge role in who gets what, when and how in the game of world politics. Take for example the costs and benefits of the US’s occupation of Iraq. That invasion led to the loss of an average of two million barrels a day of Iraqi oil from world markets. This affected economies around the globe, most notably in higher oil prices.

James Rosenau (1964) was among one of the many literatures which led to the point, that apart from Geography, International Law tends to be the other element in the international arena that influences foreign policy. Rosenau (1964) points out that International law began to develop with the rise of territorial states. In the 20th century international law grew rapidly owing to the need for rules and regulation to manage complex issues associated with security, trade, finance, travel and communication, stemming from spreading interdependence (Rosenau, 1964). Sources of international law include common practice and custom, international treaties, general practice of law as recognized by states (represented by the International Court of Justice) and international law that emanates from the many U.N. declarations and resolutions. A closer look at this argument led to the realisation that the Law of the Sea supports this point. It stems from a U.N. treaty governing the oceans from Admiralty Law. The U.N treaty on the Law of the Seas, among other things provide for legal controls to manage marine natural resources, pollution control, navigational rights and jurisdiction over coastal waters. The U.N Law of the Sea Treaty (1994) codified territorial waters of twelve nautical miles (13.8 miles) and an exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles (230 miles). Rosenau (1964) maintains that in addition with concern to International Air law, each state has exclusive sovereignty over the air space above its territory, including its territorial sea. An Outer Space Treaty (1967) represents International Space Laws that bar parties to the treaty from placing nuclear weapons or any weapons of mass destruction in orbit of the earth. While international law by no means always work smoothly, countries has to take its requirements into consideration whenever embarking on foreign policy decisions.

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The influence of International Politics and Geography on Foreign Policy. (2022, September 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 13, 2024, from
“The influence of International Politics and Geography on Foreign Policy.” Edubirdie, 15 Sept. 2022,
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