Critical geopolitics in international relations: starting points and foundations

Critical geopolitics represents a paradigm within political geography and international relations scholarship that deconstructs traditional power-centered geopolitical discourses and practices. It analyses how representations of space, territory and geography are bound up with the exercise of power in global politics.

This article provides an in-depth examination of critical geopolitics, surveying its conceptual foundations, key thinkers and theories, methodological orientations, and relationships with broader critical social science traditions. It traces critical geopolitics’ origins as a critique of mainstream geopolitics, its expansion into diverse traditions, and contemporary issues like environmental geopolitics. The analysis outlines critical geopolitics’ indispensable contributions to elucidating the cultural, identity and representational dimensions of world politics.

The Foundations of Critical Geopolitics

Critical geopolitics coalesced as a self-conscious scholarly movement in the 1990s, but builds on longstanding interrogations of geopolitical reasoning within political geography and international relations [1]. Its origins lie in reflections on geography’s imbrications with power from Marxist intellectuals like Henri Lefebvre [2].

In reacting against the determinism and state-centrism of classical geopolitics, critical geopolitics foregrounds the cultural politics behind spatial imaginations in global affairs [3]. It views space and place as socially produced through discursive practices rather than inert containers [4]. The main threads feeding into critical geopolitical thought are:

  • Marxist theories on capitalist spatial production [5]
  • Poststructuralist approaches to geography as a cultural discourse [6]
  • Postcolonial perspectives on Western imaginative geographies [7]
  • Social constructivist IR scholarship on the intersubjective construction of world politics [8]
  • Frankfurt School philosophies on ideology, power and representation [9]

These influences provide conceptual resources and sensibilities for interrogating how geographical ideas shape global order. Next we survey key thinkers constituting the canon.

Foundational Thinkers

The Polish-American scholar Yves Lacoste is considered an early progenitor of critical geopolitics [10]. In the 1970s, he challenged a naïve separation between supposedly neutral geopolitical knowledge and strategy, arguing geography inherently served state power.

During the 1980s, dissident Soviet geographer Anatol Lieven critiqued the geographical imaginations underpinning Cold War nuclear strategies [11]. He revealed the cultural-ideological processes determining how space was conceived and controlled.

Other pivotal scholars include British researcher Peter Taylor, who examined how media map-making projected particular worldviews [12], and Swedish academic Gunnar Olsson, who deconstructed the politics of cartography [13]. In the 1990s, dissident analyses coalesced into a coherent critical geopolitics program.

Gearóid Ó Tuathail

The Irish political geographer Gearóid Ó Tuathail is considered the founder of critical geopolitics [14]. Expanding on geostrategic critique, he incorporated poststructuralist theory, arguing US geopolitical discourse helped produce global space, order and identities. Works like Critical Geopolitics (1996) articulated the subfield’s parameters [15].

Simon Dalby

The Canadian scholar Simon Dalby also made major contributions, connecting critical geopolitics to environmental issues [16]. He analyzed how environmental challenges like climate change are represented through ideological geopolitical lenses. Dalby expanded the framework’s scope while retaining its constructivist orientation.

John Agnew

The American geographer John Agnew enriched critical geopolitics by theorizing the politics of place [17]. Moving beyond solely dissecting geopolitical texts, he examined spatial practices and local experiences. Agnew insisted relating broad discourses to grounded contexts. His integrative approach added empirical depth.

Klaus Dodds

Finally, the British international relations scholar Klaus Dodds synthesized various strands into a cohesive analytical model [18]. Examining popular culture, foreign policy and identity narratives, he highlighted everyday geopolitics and marginalized voices excluded from dominant discourses. This expanded critical lenses.

These thinkers provided conceptual cornerstones for scrutinizing geopolitics’ cultural politics. In synthesizing their insights, critical geopolitics emerged as a distinct approach. Next we survey its core concepts and methodologies.

Key Concepts and Methodological Orientations

Critical geopolitics interrogates central organizing geopolitical concepts like territory, borders and scale. It analyzes the constructed nature of such categories and their ideological functions [19]. Key concepts include:

  • Representation – studying how geographical ideas shape perceptions and politics discursively [20].
  • Identity – examining how spatial imaginations help constitute communal identities and state subjects [21].
  • Discourse – analysing the cultural politics and power effects of geopolitical language [22].
  • Ideology – revealing how geographical imaginations naturalize hegemonic worldviews [23].
  • Performativity – considering how geopolitical representations shape material realities [24].
  • Spatialization of power – decoding how power relations become entrenched in space [25].

Methodologically, critical geopolitics applies discourse analysis and textual deconstruction to reveal latent biases and simplifications in maps, statements, media, policy doctrines and elite narratives [26]. Cultural artifacts become texts elucidating tacit assumptions [27]. Critical geopolitics excavates their political implications.

Some strands supplement discourse analysis with ethnography and participatory methods to relate texts to everyday geographical experiences [17]. Integrating various approaches provides multidimensional analytic leverage [28]. Critical geopolitics furnishes diverse theoretical and empirical tools for probing the spatial workings of power.

Relationship with Critical IR Theories and Traditions

In its questioning of objectivist geopolitics, critical geopolitics parallels deeper engagements between political geography and critical international relations theories [29]. It overlaps with scholarship interrogating cartography, exploration and imperialism from colonial/postcolonial perspectives [30].

Feminist geopolitics also enriches critical analysis of spatial power relations [31]. Critical geopolitics further intersects with Frankfurt School philosophies of intersubjective knowledge and ideology [9]. Spatial metaphors pervade many critical IR concepts like territory, boundaries, positioning, marginalization and exclusion [32].

But critical geopolitics retains a distinct identity, integrating poststructuralism and Marxism to focus specifically on geographical discourse and imagination [14]. It inhabits a unique scholarly niche revealing spatiality’s cultural politics in world affairs. The multidisciplinary lineage provides rich conceptual resources that critical geopolitics channels towards spatiality.

Expansion Into Diverse Traditions

Since its 1990s formation, critical geopolitics has flourished into a heterogeneous literature with diverse emphases [1]:

  • Popular geopolitics focuses on non-elite media and culture [18].
  • Feminist geopolitics examines gender dynamics of spatial power [31].
  • Postcolonial geopolitics interrogates Western geographical imaginations of the ‘Orient’ [7].
  • Anti-geopolitics explores everyday social movements resisting state spatialization [33].
  • Environmental geopolitics analyzes geopolitical framings of ecological issues [16].
  • Urban geopolitics studies spatialization of urban governance and control [34].

This intellectual broadening maintains constructivism while expanding subjects. However, tracing unifying foundations remains vital given the diversity [28]. Critical geopolitics provides a shared platform for interrogating space, power and discourse across varied domains.

We now turn to concrete instances of applying critical geopolitics across salient international issues.

Critical Geopolitics in Practice: Key Issues and Examples

Critical geopolitical perspectives generate insightful analyses across many policy domains by unearthing the geographical ideas underpinning policy. Here we survey some major areas of application.

Critical Geopolitics of Foreign Policy

A core focus involves revealing the geographical imaginations guiding foreign policy discourses and actions [35]. For instance, critical analysts illuminated how Cold War policymakers spatialized the globe through orientalist constructions of ‘First’ and ‘Third’ worlds [36]. Critical lenses also expose geographical tropes like ‘crossroads’ or ‘heartlands’ used to represent states’ strategic significance [37].

Foreign policy research utilizes critical geopolitics to elucidate cultural contexts shaping state agency. Discourses reveal encoded spatial worldviews. Critical perspectives foreground the power effects of policy imagery and metaphors based on particular geographical assumptions.

Critical Geopolitics of Resources and Energy

Critical researchers also reveal how energy resources and transportation routes are framed in geopolitical terms to serve state interests [38]. For example, ideas of resource ‘dependence’ construe accessing oil from other states as threats to national power rather than mutual exchange [39]. Energy transit ‘corridors’ similarly project state territoriality and influence onto pipelines and railways [40].

Critically excavating the geographical imaginations guiding resource policy highlights the interests and agendas that specific geographical representations mobilize. It surfaces taken-for-granted assumptions behind policy debates. Energy geopolitics is structured by complex spatial discourses.

Critical Geopolitics of Conflict

Geographical ideas and histories are invariably enlisted to legitimize military action and delegitimize opponents [41]. Constructed spatial identities of ‘Europe’ or the ‘Muslim world’ are stereotypically invoked to essentialize conflicts and interests [42]. Disputed borders and territories are imbued with emotive nationalist significance.

Critically analyzing the geographical dimensions of conflicts unpacks how spatial constructs rationalize state violence. For example, Iraqi invasion discourses portrayed Kuwait’s ‘annexation’ as rupturing a natural territorial order requiring restoration by force [43]. Geopolitical language masks subjective state interests in such cases.

Critical Geopolitics of Empire and Imperialism

Geographical discourse also underpins imperial projects of expansion and domination by framing territories and peoples in ways legitimizing control [7]. Colonial mapping practices advanced imperial interests by classifying, ordering and containing colonized landscapes and societies [44]. Postcolonial critical geopolitics elucidates this cultural-ideological exercise of imperial power through space.

Similarly, discourses of ‘spheres of influence’, ‘backyards’, ‘vacuums’, and ‘containment’ buttress contemporary informal imperialism [45]. Critical perspectives reveal enduring geographical cultures of imperialism across eras. Spatial assertions of control sustain global inequities.

Critical Geopolitics of Development

Visions of progress and development also rely on particular geographical framings differentiating ‘advanced’ and ‘backward’ regions based on ideologically-inflected models [46]. Development discourse constructs imagined geographies of prosperous, modernized landscapes and their impoverished peripheries requiring intervention [47].

Critiques reveal how this spatializes global inequality through ideas like tropicality, with postcolonial regions pigeonholed as naturally passive and stagnant [48]. Problematizing the geopolitical assumptions behind conventional development narratives opens space for alternative imaginaries. Critical perspectives expose geopolitical interests shaping developmentalism’s spatial logic.

Critical Geopolitics of the Environment and Resources

Environmental issues are also increasingly analyzed through a critical geopolitical lens [16]. Representations of natural environments as ‘wilderness’, ‘frontiers’ or ‘wastelands’ reflect ideological visions shaping policy [49]. Geopolitical metaphors like heartland and rimland project state power onto natural topographies [50].

Critical scholarship questions such deterministic, state-centric environmental geopolitics [51]. It reveals how imagined manipulation of nature serves state interests rather than intrinsic environmental realities [52]. These constructivist perspectives are vital as climate change and resource challenges proliferate amidst contending state agendas. Critical insights clarify how environmental futures depend on contested geopolitical imaginations.

Everyday/Popular Geopolitics

Finally, analyses of banal nationalism, media mapping and pop culture provide critical insights into quotidian geographical discourse [18]. For instance, video games like Call of Duty spatialize a violent ‘War on Terror’ worldview through their virtual geographies [53]. Films similarly project implicit spatial imaginaries of fear and danger [54].

This everyday geopolitics crucially shapes public understandings of global space. Critical perspectives reveal its tacit teachings about places and peoples. Expanding analysis beyond elite discourses illustrates geopolitics’ cultural depth across media, education, and literature. Geopolitics permeates everyday spatial consciousness.

In sum, critical geopolitics generates invaluable deconstructions of geographical assumptions across varied policy domains and cultural texts. It elucidates spatial imaginations’ power implications. Critical interrogation of geopolitics’ cultural politics remains essential for reflective scholarship and policymaking.

Contemporary Issues, Debates and Controversies

Despite its rich insights, critical geopolitics continues encountering debates and limitations that spur reflection on possible new directions [55]:


Some argue certain strands still privilege states as key actors and miss multidirectional spatial power circulating through everyday spaces or transnational networks [33]. But others maintain states deserve analytical priority due to their unique authorities overterritory and resources [56]. Recalibrating state-society focuses remains an open debate.

Policy relevance

Questions persist on whether highly deconstructive poststructuralist approaches undermine critical geopolitics’ political and policy impacts [57]. But proponents argue indirect influence comes through consciousness-raising on spatial politics among policy communities over time [58]. Balancing critical reflexivity with practical engagement is contested.

Environmental futures

Intellectual tensions exist between posthumanist theories problematizing anthropocentric analysis that reifies divides between society and nature, and more materialist eco-Marxist perspectives [59]. But both point towards inclusive environmental geopolitics. Integrating critical social and biophysical insights remains imperative as ecological crises mount [51].

Everyday agency

Recently scholars advocated greater focus on how marginalized groups and social movements contest and reappropriate dominant geopolitical narratives about places from below [33]. But more work is required on everyday spatial agency and resistance. Critical geopolitics constantly reassesses its conceptual priorities.


Emerging debates center on how digital connectivity and surveillance algorithms reconfigure spatial power dynamics [60]. Critical lenses interrogate how technologies embed contested spatial assumptions and reshape geographic discourse. Updating critical geopolitics for new tech contexts remains vital [61].

These issues signal generative self-reflection within an intellectually plural project. Critical geopolitics must continue expanding its interdisciplinary dialogue and empirical scope. Dynamic theoretical engagement sustains its critical edge on evolving spatial politics.

Conclusion: Critical Geopolitics as an Indispensable Project

In conclusion, critical geopolitics provides indispensable perspectives for revealing and questioning the geographical ideas structuring global politics. It unpacks spatial discourses, metaphors, representations and constructions that naturalize particular worldviews and power relations. Critical insights elucidate contested imaginations of place, territory, landscape and ecology underpinning policy and identity.

This constructivist orientation enriches international relations analysis beyond materialist lenses alone, uncovering the cultural-subjective dimensions of space. Critical geopolitics forms part of a wider interrogative intellectual project revealing how representations of world politics are bound up with power. Its grounded studies of actual texts, practices and cultural artifacts provide concrete embodiments of critical IR theory.

Looking forward, sustaining critical geopolitics’ dynamic, self-reflexive and multidisciplinary spirit is essential amidst evolving contexts. Spatial politics and imagination remain central to world affairs. Criticality towards their naturalization must continue given ever-present risks of spatial discourse being harnessed towards domination, exclusion and inequality. Critical geopolitics forms a vital platform for exposing and contesting spatial power relations. Its analytical ethos remains as indispensable as ever in advancing reflective scholarship and policy.


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SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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