Jakub Potulski: Postmodern geopolitics

geopoliticsprof. Jakub Potulski

The world that we have been witnessing is undergoing radical change, directly connected with the information revolution and transition from modern to the so-called postindustrial/postmodern society. The pace of these changes increases more and more, and influences every aspect of everyday life, including the functioning of every individual. It is thought that the mega-trends that our civilization is currently under the influence of lead to creation of a new reality, called the postmodern society. These phenomena are so specific that it is widely considered that humanity is step-by-step approaching a major turning point in its history, the result of which will be an entirely new quality of civilization. It will greatly affect both lives of ordinary people, communities as well as the existence of the whole of humanity[1].

The changeabilty and diversity that accompanies the modern man can also be traced in the sphere of politics. Evolution of the social environment has become a factor that gave the sphere of international relations new dynamism. Recently, it has undergone fundamental changes: 1) strenghtening of political and economic position of international state communities (with a simultaneous weakening of the recently dominating role of nation states)  together with intensification of economic, political, scientific, ecologic and informational bonds among the countries of the world; 2) a rapid increase of influence of private international actors (actors of international economy and global society) which entailed an increase of significance of these actors; 3) formation of structures of international order basing the dominating position of Western countries, with a leading role of the USA in resolving global problems.

The modern international order reveals new factors, and the previously-existent phenomena become intensified or undergo changes. These changes, to a great extent, invalidate the modernistic vision of the world, as well as its key concepts and the theories of society, state, independence, legitimization and power. In the present state of international relations important elements that create the system and influence its efficiency are corelation, globalization and absence of borders. New types of international connections are being formed, mega-capitalism is being created, with global trade, currency and world economy that very often function „behind backs of the heads of states”. Civilizational threats are also becoming phenomena of a global character. Among them are: devastation of the natural environment, depletion of natural resources, international terrorism or mass migrations[2].

The frames of international actors' activity are set by: ongoing globalization that is spreading the free market rules; omnipresent technological development resulting in information revolution that is rapidly changing the social life; the third wave of democratization and emergence of more than 100 new states owing to the collapse of the colonial system, spread of liberal democracy values and fall of socialism; market globalization that proves the existence of a growing social and economic gulf between different parts of the world; scientific development that enabled to develop new lethal weapons that never before existed[3]; and, finally, multiculturalism that creates the conditions for a new, global identity of a multicultural character, which at the same time generates conflicts.

The ongoing transformations of the modern world have impact on  science as man's social activity used for gathering and synthesizing knowledge about the surrounding world, as well as recognizing its rules. Changes that affect the social life of a modern human being also afflict the way that modern the social sciences approach the examined reality. The reason for this is that scientific research should be related to the main developmental tendencies of contemporary communities. Therefore, since the modern world is undergoing changes connected with formation of postmodern order, the social sciences should apply a „postmodern” view of the environment, economy, society, culture or politics, and make it a dominant approach. The world we are living in is of a global and transnational character to an extent no earlier models of research in international politics had ever anticipated. Current political, economic or social barriers that set boundaries of  the modern world have decayed, thus creating an entirely new international space.

It is a major challenge for the science of the turn of 20th and 21st centuries to search for new ways of presenting problems of the postmodern, global society that has currently been forming. It requires a new approach and interpretation of the analyzed reality and require assuming unprecedented methods of analysis. It is a great challenge and, at the same time, a chance for reconstruction of the social sciences. Emergence of the social sciences is very often pointed out as having connection with a set of phenomena referred to as modernity. However, since what we know as modernity is gradually becoming history, current paradigms of the social sciences need to be questioned. Immanuel Wallerstein pointed to the fact that the end of the world as we know it requires a complete reconstruction of social sciences[4]. Alain Touraine, a French sociologist, pointed that since current means of describing and analyzing  the world lost their ability to aptly describe reality, modern social sciences are in need of an entirely new research paradigm[5].

Social sciences value the fundamental changes that are taking place in the social reality. It is one of the reasons for which the objects of their interests and subject of analysis are the postcapitalistic and post-economic society, post-historical man, post-material system of values, postmodernism, post-traditional and postindustrial community. Global transformation of the international system, known as the „third wave” or postmodernity, also requires a new outlook on the international environment, new geopolitical actors and interchanging relations among them. The modern theory of international relations witnessed emergence of a new term  of the late-Westphalian stage of international relations, which is conditioned by qualitative changes in the international environment. These changes are caused by the globalization processes, since it is these processes that have major influence on the structure and functioning of the international environment, thus creating new conditions for functioning of international actors. It is widely affirmed that these new qualities of the postmodern/late-Westphalian environment that are created by the globalization processes „co-exist” with the ones that were characteristic of the modern/Westphalian system of international relations[6].

The demand to seek a new field of studies and new research paradigms is greatly connected with such branch of science as geopolitics. The return of interest in geopolitics in the last decades of the 20th century was connected with undermining of the current international order. A need arised for a specific „geopolitical vision” that could be used in describing the ongoing changes and analyzing the emerging new political order. At the same time, however it has been pointed out that reconstruction and renewal of geopolitics is crucial for it to become a practical tool for anaylizing the postwesphalian international environment. The need of change in research approaches  has been even more obvious in the light of the fact that the traditional geopolitical thought was tightly connected with the intellectual and political changes of the 18th – and 19th-century Europe. The „classical” geopolitics was born in the period of European countries' domination of the world, had clearly Europocentric character and was developed in the interests of European powers. Its another specification was that it had been based upon the Westphalian infrastructure in the international environment. This infrastructure had alsob been created and functioned within the „European” world[7].

The rebirth of interest in geopolitics is accompanied by arguments on character of the fundamental changes that occur in the international space at the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries. Since the Cold War ended, the civilizational mega-trends such as transition from industrial to information society, hierarchy to networking, national economies to world economy, a new North-South system, growing correlation, globalization, and internationality totally altered the balance of power within the sphere of international politics. The end of the Cold War, scientific development, economic and demographic imbalance, together with an increase in number of actors, both national and private, on the international stage profoundly changed the earlier system. Globalization and correlation of many sectors – financial, technological, etc. – and new centers of international power, controlled by the states, „leakiness” of borders has all had influence on an absolutely new quality of the international environment[8]. All this will lead to developing new, international „game rules” and one should be aware of the increased complexity, interdependence and stratification of geopolitical entities. This very often renders the existing cognitive categories, which were created in the world of a modern nation-state primacy, efficient borders, clear territorial sovereignty and identity inadequate for understanding of the postmodern order. What is more, their use does not allow to explain the occurring phenomena.

Changes in the international space provoke questions relating to the subject of geopolitical research and approach to its analysis, because geopolitics should change its character with the changes occurring in the global space. Contemporary geopolitics began to shape in a situation where traditional geopolitical categories such as space, location, boundaries gradually lost its importance, mainly due to information and communication revolutions, the increasing integrative trends and globalization of the world. Transformation that the world has undergone requires modifications in research priorities, methods, measures, concepts and categories. Application of research methods and approaches to analysis of international relations in accordance with classical geopolitics does not allow meaningful analysis of the contemporary global order. The analyses of the contemporary international environment require not only  the traditional 'geopolitical imagination' that enables  'studying the spatial political structure on the grounds of physical geographical structures', as geopolitics is defined by the authors attached to the classical geopolitical theories. They also require a “postmodern” geopolitical imagination that would be the ability to think in terms of space in a world where borders and distance lose their meaning. This is the world that we live in and that was defined by Marshall McLuhan in the “global village”.

Processes characteristic of the late twentieth and twenty-first century, especially globalization, are changing the very essence of  historical cycles. History of the globalization era has a different course, different causative agents, mechanisms of becoming and new directions in which it aims. A national or regional scale does not allow to grasp all relevant aspects. It is essential to adapt a global scale, taking into account the broadest possible context-determination, and focus on the processes that exceed the traditional approach to the choice of the subject of analysis (countries or regions)[9].

Due to the changes, a revision of geopolitical thinking is being suggested that could enable analysis of the phenomena related to the so-called postmodernity or late modernity. It is for this reason that a  concept of postmodern geopolitics appeared in the circle of interests of the contemporary political geographers. The term “postmodern geopolitics” is a problematic concept that arouses much controversy (to both their ardent supporters and opponents). Geopolitics is, moreover, only part of a larger discussion in the social sciences concerning the condition of the contemporary world. The term “postmodernity” is one of those that produce both enthusiasm and strong criticism. It is an ambiguous concept meaning of which differs in art, literature, philosophy, sociology and political science. This fact does not facilitate discussions about the problem of postmodernity. However, it is a term that is commonly used to describe the condition of the contemporary world. The times that we are living in follow different standards, and identification of this specificity is reflected in the way of practicing the social sciences.

There is no consensus among geopoliticians  as to the meaning and understanding of the term "postmodern geopolitics". However, several characteristic trends can be noticed through which political geographers, analysts of the international environment, as well as other social scientists are trying to characterize the condition of postmodern world. These are such elements as: 1) emergence of a society of risk connected with the fact that modern life takes place within a complex network of highly technicized structures, 2) the development of cultural conflicts between communities that replace the existing territorial conflicts, 3) the development of ICT, 4) globalization of the world with its deterritorialization.[10]

Moreover, it is pointed that postmodernity is not a radical turn and does not mean building an entirely new social order but, rather it is the result of adaptation of cultures, states and individuals to globalization of the world and turbocapitalism that fused the creation of a completely commercialized lifestyle. This causes the modern society to be focused on manufacturing and distribution of goods that give satisfaction from the achieved material status. For geopolitical discussions it is also important that the postmodern vision  assumes that in the postmodern world all borders and barriers (including spatial) are blurred and unclear, and the sovereignty and constraints amorphous, so the entire spatial organization is increasingly formless (you cannot present its clear borders).

The emergence of the concept of postmodern geopolitics  in academic discourse stems from the fact that the era of globalization means need to create a new type of discursive interpretations and application of new approaches to the present, which would create its possible explanation or understanding.Existing forms of the socio-cultural reality which are the subject of traditional cognitive reflection have become eroded and with it our knowledge of the world, which has lost its validity and importance, becoming a source of doubt and uncertainty. Humanity enters an entirely new phase, which means partially suspending the current experience, insights and ways of life. Everything calls to be reviewed, and it also requires rejection of the image of the human world as a set of autonomous, monadic beings and nations, regions within nations or nationally or regionally identified and demarcated cultures and the corresponding space. Today civilizations move and mingle, distant peoples and tribes meet and intersect, and their views live side by side to form a kind of collage of values, meanings, traditions, customs and institutions. It is a process that enriches experience of every culture, but also arouses fears and defensive reactions, often referring to violence[11].

Therefore, we do not so much face the Huntingtonian vision of a clash of civilizations, with their defined borders and exact localization, but rather the phenomenon of “mixing” of civilizations, where conflicts occur “sidewise” the existing divisions and national borders and are difficult to locate in geographic space. The main assumption of the Huntingtonian clash of civilizations theory, which says that it is culture and cultural identity, being a broad concept of civilization identity, shape the patterns of cohesion, disintegration and conflict in the world from after the Cold War[12] can be considered true.

However, the world map that he once had outlined with its nine civilizations, in the world which spatial mobility and migration produce continuous flows of groups of people from one place to another and the key identities and identifications only partially revolve around the reality and images of places, strikes with its simplicity and lack of relevance to the social reality in which the most important aspects of the postmodern order, the “flexibility” principle and freedom of movement, have made the world a mosaic of communities scattered around the world. Social groups do not form spatially closely situated isolated or culturally homogeneous entities. Thus the construction of maps, characteristic of the “classical” geopolitics may not be an entirely idle occupation, but one that does not reflect the full complexity of the modern world. Just as other social scientists, political geographers and other scholars analyzing the international environment agree to the fact that the geopolitical conditions of world have undergone profound changes. Both representatives of the neo-classical and critical geopolitics are consistent as to the fact that civilization and political changes that took place in the final decades of the twentieth century are forcing scientists to re-examine international problems, because the current research themes and basic concepts lost their validity. Zbigniew Brzezinski, in his book Out of Control: Global Turmoil on the Eve of the 21st Century, dedicated to the problems of post-Cold War geopolitics, wrote that we live now in an entirely different world than we used to live, and we must face the new reality, which is drastically different from that of the past. Gearoid O'Tuathail wrote that we live incomplex and times in which our lifespace is cut by global flow (of goods, information, images, ideas, currency, etc.) and transformed by the intensity and speed of information technologies. In the face of changes, our conventional ways and visions of “how the world works” undergo erosion. This also happens with the conventional perception of the international environment and the world map, in terms of national states, political blocs, territorial rivalry. These concept no longer offer adequate opportunities to describe the world in which space can be traversed with a "single step" and physical distance loses its  significance, territoriality is less important than ratings, which the current human identity begins to waver under the influence of belonging to various groups and networks[13].

Francis Sempa wrote that as a result of the information revolution the traditional elements of national power – geographical position, military power, the nature of power, population, industry and economic strength – are gradually replaced in the post-Cold War world  by the trade relations, regional cooperation and global information networks. Interdependent, globalized world is less vulnerable to military and political conflicts (their nature changes) and international relations will no longer be dominated by the “competition for territory”[14]. In the light of changes geopolitics can no longer remain in the patterns and paradigms developed within the framework of classical geopolitical thinking, such as Heartland, Rimland, shatterbelts. It is necessary to develop new research ideas and a "postmodern" geopolitical imagination, taking into account globalization, deterritorialization, the emergence of social networks and the world of global flows. These processes cause the the need to move from modern geopolitics to gpostmodern geopolitics that takes into account new challenges and changes that have occurred in the global space[15].

Transformation of geopolitics is the key to further development of a discipline that should focus on analysis of the nature and consequences of changes in the realm of politics in the era of globalization[16]. The work of authors such as Thimothy Luke, Geraroid O'Tuathail, John Agnew, or the development of the so-called feminist geopolitics show that awareness of the need to develop a new research approach is becoming increasingly popular among researchers who handle  geopolitical issues. At the same time, however, many authors that analyze the geopolitical condition of contemporary  world refer to the classical  geopolitical theories that were formed in the reality of the late 19th–  and early 20th century-world and the Westphalian / modern model of the international environment. Thinking and analyzing the postmodern world in terms and categories developed in the early 20th century does not allow an adequate description of reality (moreover, this is not only a concern of geopolitics but also other disciplines that examine issues of political reality). Along with globalization deterritorialization of the world, current key geopolitical factors such as territory or borders gradually lose their meaning. This requires defining new key elements for the power struggle in the international space. In order to meet the challenges facing the discipline, geopolitics should focus on less visible and less "tangible" factors connected with the flow of power in the international area such as images, spatial images or international networks that are not associated with any particular territory. As Alain Touraine wrote, the new paradigm in studying the social reality is a cultural approach and replaces the previously dominant political and socio-economic approaches[17]. Social sciences in recent decades have witnessed an apparent retreat from structural or environmental determinism, in favor of taking into account the role of individual and collective actors, as well as reducing the interest in "tough" issues of institutions, social organization or structure in favor of the “soft” issues of cultural origin: systems values, meanings, norms and rules, collective mentality, etc.[18]

To a large extent, the concept of postmodern geopolitics is used in opposition to previous theories based primarily on the system of international relations built around nation-states and is to show the fleeting importance of nation states.

Renaissance of geopolitics as an academic discipline in the 1980s , the research occured mainly due to rejection or revision of existing paradigms and approaches, which allowed the formation of “new” geopolitics and critical trends inspired by the work of the French geographer, Yves Lacoste. Changes in the international community at the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries created a demand for geopolitical imagination that could be used to re-describe the post-Cold War world maps.Geopolitics, experiencing its renaissance, must adapt to the changing international environment to remain a valuable field of research. Transformation that the world has undergone requires a change in research priorities, methods, measures, concepts and categories. A need still remains for  a new analysis of the international environment development that would take into account the globalization of the world, information technology revolutions, and other civilization megatrends. What distinguishes the postmodern geopolitics is not so much the use of new procedures but, rather, a new subject of research related to the changes occurring in the human and social environment that are connected with the IT revolution, globalization and its political, cultural, social and economic consequences. What is important is that the international environment has been radically transformed, which resulted in an increasing reliability on the ideas of postmodern geopolitics for guiding the development of the discipline in new directions. The idea of postmodern geopolitics, together with critical or popular geopolitics is an important part of the debate about the subject, which helps to determine what are the challenges for the changes in the real world and what are their implications for its development.


Source: J.Potulski, Postmodern geopolitics, in: L.Sykulski (ed.), Geopolitics: Grounded in the Past, geared toward the future, Polish Geopolitical Society, Częstochowa 2013, s. 9-18.


[1] J. Muszyński, Megatrendy a polityka, Wrocław 2001, p. 19.

[2] T. Łoś-Nowak, Stosunki międzynarodowe. Teorie, systemy, uczestnicy, Wrocław 2000, p.106.

[3] J. Kleer, Globalizacja a państwo narodowe i usługi publiczne, Warszawa 2006, pp.15-16.

[4] See: I. Wallerstain, Koniec świata jaki znamy, Warszawa 2004, pp. 192-203, 262-307.

[5] Compare: A. Touraine, A New paradigm for understanding today’s world, Cambridge-Malden, 2007, p.1.

[6] M. Pietraś, Istota i ewolucja międzynarodowych stosunków politycznych, in: Międzynarodowe stosunki polityczne, ed. M. Pietraś, Lublin 2006, p. 33.

[7] See: K.S. Gadżijew, Wwiedienije w geopolitiku, Moskwa 2003, pp. 3-4.

[8] C. Jean, Geopolityka, Wrocław 2003, p. 56.

[9] P. Sztompka, Socjologia, Kraków 2002, p. 568.

[10] T.W. Luke, Postmodern geopolitics. The case of the 9.11 terrorist attacks, [in:] A companion to Political geography, ed. J. Agnew, K. Mitchell, G. Toal, Nowy Jork 2008, p. 219.

[11] Z. Pucek, Arjun Appadurai i antropologia bez granic, [in:] A. Appadurai,, Nowoczesność bez granic, Kraków 2005, pp. X-XI.

[12] See: S. Huntington, Zderzenie cywilizacji, Warszawa 2003, p. 15.

[13] G. O’Tuathail, Postmodern geopolitics? The modern geopolitical imagination and beyond, (w:) Rethinking geopolitics, ed. G. O’Tuathail, S. Dalby, Londyn 1998, p. 16.

[14] F.P. Sempa, Geopolitics. From the Cold War to the 21st century, Londyn 2007, p. 112.

[15] C. Flint, The geopolitics of laughter and forgetting: a world-system interpretation of the post-modern geopolitical conditions, “Geopolitics”, vol. 6, no. 3, 2001, p. 2.

[16] Compare: I. Watson, Rethinking strategy and geopolitics: critical responses to globalisation, “Geopolitics”, vol. 6, no. 3, 2001, p. 87, G. O’Tuathail, S. Dalby, Introduction: rethinking geopolitics, [in:] Rethinking geopolitics, ed. G. O’Tuathail, S. Dalby, Londyn1998, p. 1.

[17] A. Touraine, op. cit., p. 1.

[18] Compare: Nauka w Polsce w perspektywie XXI w. Materiały z konferencji naukowej Komitetu Prognoz „Polska w XXI wieku”, Warszawa 1996, p. 306.