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Throughout recent history, it has been relatively easy to identify the world’s superpowers. During its colonial reign, Britain maintained a politically privileged global position. Throughout the Cold War it was the USA and the Soviet Union that jostled for supremacy. But today, the geopolitical landscape is changing.

With the rise of new political players – such as the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China) – and the advent of new communications technology, the distribution of global power is beginning to take on new forms. To make sense of these changes we turned to Alasdair Pinkerton, a Lecturer in Geography and Geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Among other things, Alasdair’s research explores the international media, global (and social) communications technologies, and production of geopolitical knowledge. He is also interested in Public Diplomacy and has undertaken research in India, Canada, Latin America and the Falkland Islands, where he has examined the role of the BBC World Service.

What type of Geographer are you? 

At the broadest level, I am a geographer who is interested in the way that politics is negotiated spatially and the way there are imbalances and imperfections in the distribution of global power. But I am also interested in the role of the media—both traditional media like radio, new social media like twitter, and people like journalists—and their role in facilitating or disrupting international relations. So, I guess on the broadest level I am a Human Geographer, but I would also be regarded as a Political Geographer. Or even a Historical Geographer, as much of my research has focused on the Cold War.

Within Political Geography there is a sub-discipline called Geopolitics, which is one of the areas in which my work is most rooted. Geopolitics has a long and troubled tradition – it is not a term that you should take lightly or use unknowingly. It is a word that you have to treat with some caution, although I cannot  help notice that it is a term that it is  becoming increasingly common in newspapers and television news. We hear about “the United States Geopolitical priorities”, or about “the Geopolitics of oil”, but historically geopolitics was linked to , and used to justify, certain kinds of Empire-based expansion.

Tell me more about this troubled tradition

Let me start with an example. The ideas of Lebensraum – creating 'living space' for particular kinds of communities – was developed by one of the earliest Geopolitical thinkers called Friedrich Ratzel. That idea was picked up during the Nazi era and German geographers influenced the development of Hitler’s thinking. It was all about survival of the fittest at its most basic level, about creating new kinds of resources and acquisition of new lands and living space so that one particular population could survive. Inevitably, other populations were going to suffer.

You had this incredible situation where Geopolitical thinkers began to think about how power played out on the surface of the Earth – how it could be won, how it could be achieved. One of the most famous names in Anglophone Geopolitics was Halford MacKinder. His idea of Russia being geographically privileged, because of its continental position, became highly influential during the Cold War. His argument was that the country that occupied the geographical “heartland” of central Asia (in this case, Russia) could not be invaded from the sea and was, therefore, more territorially secure – but could also project itself internationally.   

Do these ideas still exist today?

There is no shortage of people ready to pedal their own personal theories about how the world works, about how power is distributed, about which places are threatening and which places are threatened. These are often the same people who try and predict what is going to happen in the future. They often use maps (not dissimilar to the ones produced by Mackinder) to visually demonstrate their theories. These are often published, or spoken about, with catchy titles like ‘non-integrating gap’ or, even, ‘Axis of Evil’.

As modern Geopolitical scholars, we are not really interested in promoting mechanisms for countries to expand, as our forebears were. We now try to be much more critical in unpacking the rhetoric that governments and so called “intellectuals of statecraft” often come out with.

But very recently, there has been a suggestion that terms like 'Geopolitics' might need to be recovered from those for whom it has become, simply, shorthand for 'world politics'. People are talking about putting the 'Geo' (the Greek word for 'Earth') back into Geopolitics. Quite often we focus on the processes that happen on the surface of the Earth, but what about the things beneath the Earth – like minerals and sub-surface resources — and how these affect inter-state relations?

So what research are you personally doing at the moment?

I have got a long-standing interest in popular culture and geography. One of my main areas of research is in international radio broadcasting and thinking about how some countries have been really powerful in projecting themselves overseas. Britain, USA, Russia and a number of other countries had vast radio networks to project their voices overseas during the Cold War.

Britain still has the BBC World Service – incredibly powerful. At some estimates, it has 200 million weekly listeners worldwide, although it is difficult to predict the effect of recent funding cuts from the UK government.  You may not be aware that BBC World Service is currently funded by a Parliamentary grant-in-aid, administered by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) of the British government, rather than the licence fee.  Although as the BBC identifies “The FCO, in close consultation with World Service, is involved in the process of deciding which languages are broadcast, but editorial control of the programmes rests entirely with the BBC.”

And has social media had a similar political impact to more established technologies?

Well, alongside my interest in traditional media like radio, I am also interested in new social media and the way they are emerging as a mechanism through which alternative Geopolitical visions can be spread. One of my current projects is looking at the ongoing dispute over the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands (a UK overseas territory located in the South Atlantic) and the ways in which technologies like Youtube, Twitter and Facebook are being used by the Argentines and Falkland Islanders to make creative claims to the disputed territory.

The interesting thing about Argentina this year is that they have said that they are not in a position to launch a military campaign to recover the Islands, having invaded the Islands in 1982 which initiated the Falklands Conflict . Instead of using hard power (for example, military hardware), they are turning to soft power (eg. media) and using “creativity” to promote their claim to the Islands (which they call the Malvinas) on a global stage. It is sometimes difficult, however, to tell the difference between moments of 'creativity' and rather undiplomatic 'stunts' – such as the video of an Argentinian hockey player training on the Islands which was filmed prior to the 2012 London Olympic Games.

Should we take this idea of 'Twitter diplomacy' seriously?

The idea of 'Twitter diplomacy' may seem  slightly unusual and unfamiliar, but I think it has to be taken seriously. This sort of technology, and the kind of transnational connections it can create between people within/between countries, unsettles traditional ideas about diplomacy. By using social networking you can contact millions of users. This is a way of building broader political, religious and social movements.

Barack Obama tweets. UK Foreign Secretary William Hague is a prolific tweeter. So there is an increasing blurring between politicians and journalists. We are getting information directly from politicians and diplomats in a way that we never have before. Journalists, on the other hand, are increasingly becoming policy-makers or, at least, policy “influencers”. Journalist-activists are now trying to encourage particular foreign policy outcomes. 

The Olympics is one of the biggest media events in the world. Is this an important space for 'soft power' to be exercised between nations?

Thinking back to the Cold War, the Olympic Games was much more than just a sporting event. It was one of the only arenas in which the big global powers played out their collective frustrations upon one another. Every four years, the United States and Soviet Union would have their clash. In 1980 (Moscow) and 1984 (Los Angeles) boycotts played out on the lines of Cold War allegiances, although it is worth noting that the British Olympic Association attended the 1980 games (a decision which was met with ‘serious regrets’ by the then British Government), although the British team did not attend the 1980  opening ceremony. More recently, the Olympic Games have become an opportunity for the ‘rising powers’ to announce their arrival on the world stage. Beijing hosted the summer games in 2008 and Rio de Janeiro will be hosting in 2016. It is also worth noting that New Delhi hosted the Commonwealth Games in 2010 and Russia will host the 2014 winter Olympic Games in Sochi.

Politics infuses sport and it has infused the Olympic movement. But I do not think you can draw any direct correlation between sporting prowess and global power. Although I do think we need a more nuanced understanding of what a superpower really is.

What makes a superpower, then?

We are living in an age where our idea of being a superpower is certainly being challenged. So you might argue that Jamaica is, per capita, a sporting superpower. Likewise, you might argue that Vatican City is a religious superpower. You might even argue that Apple computer is an economic superpower – after all this single company has more cash reserves than the United States’ government.

So I think we have to be more careful in understanding how power plays out and who possesses that power.  Another phenomenon that we should also be aware of involves the use of celebrities as faces of Geopolitical campaigns. We are very used to the likes of George Clooney and Angelina Jolie being the faces of various United Nations initiatives, but how do we feel about Morrissey or Sean Penn becoming the celebrity faces of Argentina’s claims to the Falkland Islands? Does this kind of celebrity power make any real difference?

Why do some places in the world not seem to matter? Why do countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, tend to be overlooked by superpowers?

The first thing to say is that this is very much a matter of perspective. If you are in the DRC, or are one of its near-neighbours, then it very much matters. Of course, what you’re pointing to is the relative absence of some countries from the mainstream media. Part of this might be related to a 'spheres of influence' argument. Britain still tends to get very animated when it comes to countries like Zimbabwe because it has a long colonial tie with them, and because we have a vocal and organized diaspora population within the UK. You might say the same about Britain’s relationship with India. We still often get quite animated about our former colonies and perceived injustices there.

But what I would say is that China is an increasing power when it comes to many central African states. When you look at a map of Africa in terms of Foreign Direct Investment, in terms of military expenditure and in terms of ownership of land, China is clearly now positioning itself as a major economic player in Africa. You’ve got to wonder how this is all going to play out.

Do you think that social media and 'soft power' can make these places matter so that the superpowers take notice of them?

You certainly have to say that the Kony 2012 campaign drew attention to Uganda in a way that the Ugandan government, diplomats, charities and non-government organisations (NGOs) had, up to that point, failed to do. So I think that social media unquestionably does have the power to raise Geopolitical matters to the kind of global audience that was hitherto unimagined.

But I also think there are incredible dangers when one organisation creates a video as an activist campaigning statement. The danger is that these videos have the ability to create all kinds of new Geopolitical representations which then go unchallenged. But, actually, this provides us with a really good example of what academic Geopolitics can reveal. It is about looking at a medley of images, sounds and sights (the things that make up our knowledge of the world around us), and saying we need to be much more clever and critical in the way that we consume this stuff.

Alasdair was interviewed in October 2012