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November 27, 2008

Klaus Dodds's Geopolitics is high on partisan comment but low on historical analysis, argues Jeremy Black: Geopolitics: A Very Short Introduction - Klaus Dodds

Posted by Jeremy Black

Geopolitics: A Very Short Introduction
by Klaus Dodds
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007
Paperback, 7.99

This volume appears in the commercially-successful, but somewhat uneven Very Short Introduction series, launched by OUP in 1995 and intended to "grow to a library of around 200 volumes". Thus, we have volumes on Atheism and Augustine, The European Union and Evolution, and so on. The historical section is distinctly odd, and somewhat modish. There is a volume on African History but none on Chinese, another on the Spanish Civil War, but not one on a host of topics of greater significance but less totemic weight. Some of the writers are very good, for example John Blair on the Anglo-Saxon Age, but others are tired, or at least have nothing new to say.

Geopolitics is the work of the Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway, and it is very much a work of a geographer rather than an historian. As such, the book reflects a more general tendency among much British social science literature to adopt a partisan approach to the present rather than attempting to engage with the complexities of a long-term historical dimension in which their own approach can indeed be contextualised.

Thus, Dodds devotes much attention to American policy under President George W. Bush, and the language is clearly slanted. For example (p. 15):

In November 2004, much to the disappointment of many American voters, presidential candidate John Kerry was not able to deny the George W. Bush administration a second term,
a sentence that scarcely admits that Bush's re-election reflected a democratic mandate. Alarm is expressed about the policies of the Bush administration (see for example p. 55) and Dodds announces that (p. 75):
the Bush Doctrine based on pre-emption and highly selective multilateralism is the single most important danger confronting the current geopolitical architecture.
These are, of course, frequently-repeated assertions, but such repetition does not amount to demonstration. Moreover, leaving aside its tendentious character, there is a terribly "presentist" feel to the argument, and it may seem very dated in five years time, let alone fifty; rather, indeed as 1960s' academics appeared hopelessly dated a decade later. The partisan character of the work is a comment on a lack of editorial rigour in the series, but also on a more general approach in much geographical work, namely a tendency to offer a left-wing discourse approach that relies for evidence on guilt by association rather than a critical evaluation of the various points of view, let alone empirical positivism.

From the historian's perspective, there is another serious criticism of the works. Dodds essentially begins chronologically with Rudolf Kjellen's coining of the term in 1899, and also discusses Mahan and Mackinder as writers of the period. This approach neglects the need to consider geopolitics before the use of the term, a need also seen in the case of strategy. There is a literature on the value of analysing the latter before the modern vocabulary was devised, and this point is relevant for geopolitics. Thus, it would be useful to know about the geographical understanding of power in pre-1900 societies. That indeed is the challenge for the subject, rather than making facile comments about the present day.

This challenge extends to Popular Geopolitics, on which Dodds valuably includes a chapter. Thus, it is reasonable to ask, what Christendom meant as a geographical space to Protestants and Catholics after the Reformation and during the Wars of Religion. Unfortunately, political geographers do not seem interested in such questions.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. He is the author - amongst much else - of The Slave Trade (2007), A Short History of Britain (2007), The Holocaust (2008), The Curse of History (2008), and What If?: Counterfactualism and the Problem of History (2008).

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The VSI series certainly is uneven. The African History volume Jeremy Black mentions is actually one of the more interesting and thought provoking ones. However many are guilty of presentism, not only those on more sociopolitical topics but also those on ostensibly historical periods. For instance the VSI to Eighteenth Century Britain is basically a distilliation of the historiography of the 21st century rather than being very informative on the topic.

Posted by: Seamus Sweeney at December 10, 2008 11:15 PM
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