94929030 Ratzel the French School and the Birth of Alternative Geopolitics

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  Political Geography 19 (2000) 957–969www.elsevier.com/locate/polgeo Ratzel, the French School and the birth of Alternative Geopolitics Geoffrey Parker The University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham B15 2TT, UK  Abstract Modern French political geography began as a response to Ratzel’s Politische Geographie and then became an attempt to place ratzelian ideas into the context of French geographicalthought. What then emerged was a political geography which was set firmly in opposition toGerman geopolitics. There were some geographers who felt that a more effective responsecould be made by developing an indigenous French geopolitics. This can be seen as being thesrcin of the alternative geopolitics which was favoured by some American geographers duringand after World War II and which subsequently became an important underlying theme in thenew geopolitics which arose in the 1970s. The concept of an alternative geopolitics has oweda great deal to the French school of geography and has it roots in the srcinal response of Vidal de la Blache to Ratzel. © 2000 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved. Keywords: Ratzel; Vidal de la Blache; Ancel; Geopolitics; Alternative geopolitics From the beginnings of modern political geography in France, Friedrich Ratzelwas a looming presence across the Rhine. As was the case elsewhere in Europeand America, his work was a significant benchmark in geographical study. Ratzel’s  Anthropogeographie was reviewed in the first volume of  Annales de Ge´ographie (1892–93) and, following the publication of  Politische Geographie in 1897, this book was also reviewed in Annales , the reviewer on this occasion being none other thanVidal de la Blache himself (Vidal de la Blache, 1898). Vidal was already a majorforce in French geography and this review was in its way as seminal as was PolitischeGeographie since it sought to establish the ground rules for the application of thevidalian methodology to the new field of political geography. In his review, Vidalclearly recognised the significance of the ideas of Ratzel as being what Korinmanwas later to call “an epistemological moment” (Korinman, 1983:128–42). The realsignificance of Ratzel’s work, wrote Vidal, lay in the “grouping and coordination”of phenomena so as to give the new political geography its own “core of ideas” 0962-6298/00/$ - see front matter © 2000 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.PII: S0962-6298(00)00037-8  958 G. Parker / Political Geography 19 (2000) 957–969 (Vidal de la Blache, ibid:98). Ratzel undertook this grouping, wrote Vidal, with aview to distinguishing laws, and in so doing he had aimed to establish a firm foun-dation for the new political geography. While accepting the importance of this, Vidaltook issue both with a number of aspects of the ratzelian approach and with thetreatment of political geography as a separate sub-discipline. He refused to acceptthat the state was, in ratzelian terminology, a “living organism”, and was preparedonly to concede that states “resembled living things”. Likewise he considered it aspremature to attempt to formulate laws at that stage and confined himself to acceptingonly the existence of “certain methodological principles” (ibid:111). More fundamen-tally, he was convinced that it was not possible for political geography to exist insome kind of annexe adjacent to, but separate from, the rest of geography. Accordingto Vidal “It (political geography) is far too deeply rooted in general geography” forsuch an approach to be at all viable (ibid:103–4).Running through this 1898 review of  Politische Geographie is the clear sense thatVidal was uneasy with political geography. He felt it to be “menaced” by politicalideas about the state which emanated from outside and which were “foreign togeography”. Thus from the outset he saw the danger that political geography wouldbecome vulnerable to political pressures and absorb preconceived and fundamentallyungeographical notions about the nature of the state. Geographers must not be boundby some pre-existing model of the state in the ratzelian territorial sense, he warned.They should come to these questions with an open mind and bring geographicalthinking to bear on them. This meant that they had to be prepared to examine alltypes of states including “imperfect, embryonic or rudimentary” forms of the state.While he identified such forms in what he referred to as “local” government, thehigher forms, in Vidal’s estimation, included the nation and the city-state (ibid:107).“The phenomena of political geography are not fixed entities % . Cities and statesrepresent forms which have already evolved to arrive at the point where we nowobserve them and which may still continue to evolve. We must therefore see themas being changing phenomena (les faits en mouvement)” (ibid:108). Such changesmay be brought about by many factors, he concluded, but most significantly theywere likely to be brought about by advances in the methods of transport and com-munication.This vidalian idea of the evolution of state types represented something whichwas in many ways an even more radical concept at the end of the nineteenth centurythan was geopolitical evolution in the the ratzelian sense. Vidal clearly envisagedthe possibility of the development of different types of political entities which were,in the evolutionary terminology of the period, conceived of as being, in many cases,quite different geopolitical species from the contemporary territorial states. Thisthinking was the product of a political geography which was seen as being inextri-cably bound up with geography as a whole and therefore subject to the same basic‘principles’ as was general geography. Since the state was conceived of as beingpart of a wider holistic system, “thus arises the necessity not to study the state asan isolated compartment, some sort of a slice of the earth’s surface. By its srcins,its direction, its stages of development and the provisional nature of its existence it  959 G. Parker / Political Geography 19 (2000) 957–969 is part of a wider group (of phenomena) the life of which interpenetrates its own”(ibid:109).Two decades later, in the wake of World War I, the study of political geographyin France took a great leap forward. A number of French geographers had beenactively involved as advisers at the peace conference and the new political mapwhich emerged out of the Treaty of Versailles incorporated some, at least, of theresults of their thinking on major issues (Parker, 1987:14). Lucien Gallois used thepages of  Annales to urge French geographers to give more of their attention to “thestudy of states and of the new political organisations which are being established”(Gallois, 1919:248). From then on political geography assumed a central role in theunderstanding of the significance of the immense changes which had taken place tothe political map of Europe and of their implications for France in particular. Vidalde la Blache had died prematurely shortly before the end of the war, and it was leftto a new generation of geographers to take up the challenge. Until then Frenchpolitical geography had consisted to a large extent of a kind of extended responseto Ratzel and this had entailed both a critical examination of ratzelian thought andan attempt to apply vidalian principles to those areas judged to be of real importance.By implication, this also necessitated the search for alternatives to ratzelian ideaswhen this was considered necessary. Most significant among those who now soughtsuch alternatives were Albert Demangeon, Jacques Ancel and Yves-Marie Goblet.While all three paid respect to the great contribution made by Ratzel, all were geogra-phers in la tradition vidalienne , and the underlying theme of their work was theconviction that the study of the state could not take place in isolation from the restof the phenomena of human geography. On the contrary, it had to be considered asbeing essentially part of these phenomena and responsive to overall changeswithin them.These geographers saw the relationship of political geography to the totality of geography as being most clearly demonstrated in the nation, and the relationshipwas revealed at its most subtle and sensitive in that carefully balanced structure, thenation-state. In vidalian geography the nation was regarded as being a product of the genre de vie of a people which had developed in a particular geographicalenvironment. The cultural characteristics of such a nation resulted from the creativeinterplay of the general and the local, civilisation and milieu . At its most satisfactorythe state constituted the political expression of this cultural individuality. However,it was fully recognised by the French geographers that the state system at any parti-cular time and place all too rarely accorded absolutely with the genre de vie of itsinhabitants. All too often the reality was that states lacked the responsiveness to genres de vie which constituted, from the geographical perspective, the necessarycondition of their legitimacy. They were the products of wars and dynastic allianceswhich had been forged over long periods of time and they based their legitimacyon claims to legality deriving from the sanction of successive treaties. The extent towhich they could be said to be ‘deeply rooted in general geography’ was very muchopen to question. The old treaties, wrote Goblet, had been considered as being “asimmutable, as intangible, as tablets dictated on some Sinai” (Goblet, 1934:4). Suchpurely juridicial texts were supposedly eternal, he went on, “and could be transfor-  960 G. Parker / Political Geography 19 (2000) 957–969 med or abolished only by force” (ibid:259). As a result, all too often in moderntimes it had been statism, claiming the right to act in response to raisons d’e´ tat  andriding roughshod over the rights and desires of peoples, rather than nationalism basedon those elements which have really been a basis for unity, which has become thenorm. This produced a political map which was frequently discordant with the otherphenomena of human geography. The result of this has been the creation of artificialgeopolitical structures established and maintained by force. Such structures, althoughgiving the appearance of possessing power and permanence, were in reality fragileand transitory. They were “worm-eaten empires” sustained by outmoded treaties andawaiting inevitable dissolution (ibid:8).Two decades after the death of Vidal, Ancel reiterated Vidal’s assertion that theelements of political geography must always be regarded as being changing phenom-ena rather than fixed entities. However, in La Ge´ographie des Frontie`res he reachedthe conclusion that artificial state structures are not so much part of an evolutionaryprocess as positive impediments to it. In this way what he termed the “  Anschluss rhe´nane” by Prussia had resulted in that Musspreussen (forced Prussianisation) whichhad shattered the unity of Rhineland civilisation and stultified its further growth(Ancel, 1938:113). Referring to the Anschluss with Austria, he observed that it wasnow the turn of that country to be subjected to a similar fate. Yet, despite this, Ancelconcluded his book on a general note of optimism. “The walls of these Jerichos”,he wrote, “will fall at the sound of the trumpets awakening the imprisoned andsleeping nations” (ibid:188). For Ancel, the desirable outcome was that flexibilityand responsiveness should replace the iron and inflexible rule. He saw frontiers lessas being some category of “natural” phenomena as rather “political isobars” indicat-ing the pressures of power at any given time and of necessity changing as the balanceof power itself changed . “It is impossible to envisage in civilised Europe”, he con-cluded, “the idea of the frontier which is a watertight bulkhead” (ibid:184).Likewise Demangeon pointed to the existence of deeper geographical realitiesbeneath the artificial barriers. In his book on the Rhine, written jointly with thehistorian Lucien Febvre, he identified “the great axes of movement” as being thereal underlying geographical framework constituting “the transcendent geopoliticalreality” (Demangeon & Febvre, 1935:291). He opposed the negative idea of the riveras “bloody and sterile frontier” with the positive one of the “rich and luminousrouteway”. Demangeon recognised that, given the international situation in his time,this was little more than a vision and he was far from being optimistic that itstranslation into reality would be accomplished either swiftly or easily. As the inter-national storm clouds gathered and the sky darkened in the late 1930s, it was theRhine as ‘watertight bulkhead’ and ‘bloody and sterile frontier’ which had becomethe menacing reality. Nevertheless, despite the divisive power of the riparian states,Demangeon retained the belief that the force of unity which had always emanatedfrom the Rhine would eventually prevail.A mechanism for moving towards the desired unity was proposed by Yves-MarieGoblet in 1934. Goblet considered that it was Sir William Petty, the seventeenthcentury English polymath, rather than Ratzel, who was the real founder of modernpolitical geography. He regarded Petty’s Political Anatomy of Ireland  as having been
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