I first studied geopolitics during my second year in college as part of my first International Relations (IR) course. The textbook we used, Foundations of International Politics, was written by two geographers, Harold and Margaret Stout, commonly known as “Stout and Stout.” As an IR major at UCLA (a major mysteriously eliminated a decade ago), this course was the centerpiece of my understanding of my discipline. The Stout and Stout book, which I still have and use 45 years later, is very much based on a geopolitical framework. In other words, it focuses on such factors as geography, climate, population, natural resources, science and technology and economics, with a limited treatment of things like the political system, public opinion and cultural factors. It really grew out of an earlier Sprout and Sprout book, Foundations of National Power, so its emphasis was on those factors in national power that impact on a nation’s relative strength in the in the international community. Foundations of International Politics borrowed heavily from 19th Century geopolitical thinkers, including R. Adm. Alfred Thayer Mahan, with his focus on sea power contained in his classic work The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783 (www.gutenberg.org/etext/13529) and other works and Sir Halford Mackinder, with a focus on land power. However, the Stout book did acknowledge that by the 1960s there was a revolution taking place in world politics and an acceleration of many factors, and in all fairness were critical of the anachronistic elements in both geopoliticians' works.
I came to consider the Stout book a somewhat old-fashioned approach to international relations. Newer texts focused more on the inter-relationships among nations and looking at the International System, not just made up of nation-states with differential power but having its own dynamic around which the prospects of war and peace were determined. Also, geopolitics had clearly been identified during WWII as an underlying element to both German (under the influence of Haushoffer and his concept of Lebesnraum) and Japanese international doctrines of supremacy. I later encountered “geopolitical thinking” as having inhabited some of the War Colleges of the Latin American militaries during the Cold War and serving their anti-democratic, authoritarian repressive policies. Unfortunately, this was encouraged by our own country’s relationship with many dictatorial regimes in the region.
In an age of globalization, however, we must return to some of the geopolitical interpretations of our past. As the movement of people, communications and trade has become exponentially faster than 50 years ago, we need to look at the implications of space and time factors on international relations. That term itself can be considered an anachronism. Globalization no means that world affairs no longer can focus only, or even primarily on the relationships among nation-states. Relations between both state and non-state actors as well as intergovernmental, non-governmental and other private groups, movements, corporations and organizations as well as individuals, all make up the soup in which we all are stewing.
Mahan and Teddy Roosevelt, who had been his student at the Naval War College, became friends, with the latter heavily influenced by Mahan's doctrines of naval supremacy and colonialism. Well, today, in an era of Globalization, Mahan is again alive and well. In a world whose politics is no longer dominated by state conflict but rather the threats coming from failed or failing states, many of them former colonies whose transition to nation-statehood has been stunted, it becomes increasingly necessary for the United States and other responsible national and multinational actors to be able to deliver both military and civil power and resources to failed states in need. The recent outbreak of piracy off the coast of Somalia is only one manifestation of the need for sea power in today's rough and tumble world. We rely quite a bit on air power, but air power is not an effective way of moving troops, machinery and supplies, particularly when massive buildups are required and naval firepower when control of the sea lines of communication (SLOCs) is required. Here, Mahan's concept of global "choke points" remains valid. As the Obama Administration looks ahead at military budgets, it will be interested in cutting the defense budget where big savings can be gotten, namely looking at air and sea power. In doing so, however, it should not deprive us of the ability to deploy military force anywhere in the world regardless of whether or not we have land bases nearby. The navy will continue to be a vital element in our defense and Sea Power will continue to have an influence on global affairs. If you wish to learn a lot more about the role of sea power in a Post-9/11 world, I refer you to a major study done by the National Defense University, Globalization and Maritime Power: (http://www.ndu.edu/inss/Books/Books_2002/Globalization_and_Maritime_Power_Dec_02/01_toc.htm
Nothing I have said here means in any way that Mahan has won over Mackinder. Quite the contrary. The importance of dominance over land masses in the 21st Century is as great as it ever was. Sea power is important in keeping SLOCs secure and as a means of providing "sea basing." (See Peter Pham on development of the Navy's "Global Fleet Station" initiative (http://worlddefensereview.com/pham091608.shtml)
However, the potential threats to national security in an era of Globalization come from land-based groups intent on using ungoverned areas as a base against the United States and its allies. While holding the seas, the United States must, working with an international coalition that ideally includes the United Nations must assure that the lands of the earth are under the control of some accountable government or international administration. Only a synthesis of Mahan's and Mackinder's theories can lead to an adequate solution to the conundrum of global security.
But the question is no longer sea power vs. land power or even air power. Today, international relations can only be conducted by the world's only Superpower using "all the elements of national power," what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called "Smart Power" and diplomat Dennis Ross has neatly labeled "statecraft." This means beefing up considerably the other civilian elements of national and multi-national power through a process called "national security reform." More on this soon.