On the Importance of Understanding Geopolitics

As part of his ongoing lecture series, LKYSPP Dean Kishore Mahbubani discussed the importance of geopolitics in determining the actions of states. To illustrate his point, he explained how the 2008 Georgia-Russia conflict was a result of Georgian political leaders not having a sufficient grasp of contemporary political dynamics.

Besides the normal gathering of MPP, MPA, and PhD students, the audience for this session also included the newly arrived MPAM students from China. In a new twist for an LKYSPP lecture and a reflection of how the student community is evolving, the speech was simultaneously translated into Mandarin.

The lecture began with the Dean’s description of the three ways in which the present geopolitical scene is different than it ever has been before. The first major change is the end of widespread-armed conflict. In the European Union’s example, modern states have learned how to solve their disputes peacefully and avoid the disastrous wars, which had plagued much of human history. Next is the peaceful rise of new great powers. Here, the Dean pointed to the post-World War II rise of Germany and Japan as examples for emerging powers like China and India to emulate. Finally, he explained how the current world is much more interconnected than ever before and all challenges are now global. When the global financial crisis occurred, final system meltdown was barely avoided through cooperation amongst all the major economic powers. This is in strong contrast to previous emergencies, where the attitude was much more like each country for itself.

After explaining how the world was different than ever before, Dean Mahbubani then showed the audience how things had also not changed at all. While the era of large scale armed conflict might be over, nation-states continue to use other proxies to advance their perceived interest. This was illustrated during the 1990s Balkans War, wherein major Western European states funneled support to the various factions they preferred. The “great game” that major powers play also continues unabated into the present day. Currently, while China and the United States are getting along peacefully so far, they are both actively seeking out allies in both South and Southeast Asia to gain the upper hand should a future dispute arise. In the end, the best demonstration that nothing has really changed in geopolitics is the inability of the world’s almost two hundred countries to reach an effective consensus on the most difficult and pressing contemporary problems.

In closing, Dean Mahbubani reminded his audience that understanding both what is new and what is constant in the political arena is the key to allow some states to thrive and others to languish.

— by Reuben Hintz (MPP 09/11)


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