One hundred and ten years ago next month, British geographer Halford Mackinder presented a paper at the Royal Geographical Society in London entitled “The Geographical Pivot of History,” setting out the basic tenets of what we now call “geopolitics.” Strategic thinking during the Cold War was in part framed by geopolitical ideas such as the struggle over key territory in the “global heartland,” namely, Eurasia. But geopolitics today has evolved. It is no longer primarily a military stuggle to take or hold territory. It is now defined by competition over ideas and institutions in relation to strategic goals. Geopolitics has become normative. Witness Ukraine.
Tens of thousands people are in the streets of Kiev because Ukraine’s political leadership announced two weeks ago that it would not sign an Association Agreement and a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) with the EU at the EU summit in Vilnius at the end of November. Rather, the government announced that Ukraine would join the Moscow-led Eurasian Customs Union. The relationship of foreign policy strategy to norms and laws, of high politics to people in the streets, is the stuff of normative geopolitics.
I had recently written a post about the struggle to define the normative futures of countries in Russia’s “near abroad,” particularly Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia, and Georgia. (And written about these topics at greater length in various articles and essays.) At issue is whether these countries will become more fully integrated into “European” institutions (especially the EU) or reintegrate with revamped “Russian” institutions (such as the Eurasian Customs Union). When a state is on one side or another of a normative border (Lithuania is part of the European normative order, Belarus is in Russia’s), normative boundaries coincide with national boundaries and the situation is relatively clear. But some states, such as Ukraine, are what I have called “systemic borderlands” that contain aspects of two or more normative systems. When normative systems overlap and jostle within a country, the result can be normative friction. This can relate to domestic laws, such as whether a particular conception of property rights or of human rights will be adopted. It can also concern international legal norms, such as to which treaties a state will become a signatory or which international organizations a state may join.
Ukraine is a particularly stark example of a systemic borderland; its electoral map shows the normative division of the country between further integration with the EU or with Russia. The NY Times reported on November 21 that Ukraine’s decision not to sign the Association Agreement:
…largely scuttles what had been the European Union’s most important foreign policy initiative: an ambitious effort to draw in former Soviet republics and lock them on a trajectory of changes based on Western political and economic sensibilities. The project, called the Eastern Partnership program, began more than four years ago.
[This] a victory for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. He had maneuvered forcefully to derail the plans, which he regarded as a serious threat, an economic version of the West’s effort to build military power by expanding NATO eastward. In September, similar pressure by Russia forced Armenia to abandon its talks with the Europeans.
The EU issued a memorandum reiterating its (at least official) view that the signing of DCFTAs and Association Agreements with the EU is not normative competition, but rather normative bridge-building between east and west:
While being aware of the external pressure that Ukraine is experiencing, we believe that short term considerations should not override the long term benefits that this partnership would bring. However the European Union will not force Ukraine, or any other partner, to choose between the European Union or any other regional entity. It is up to Ukraine to freely decide what kind of engagement they seek with the European Union…
We therefore strongly disapprove of the Russian position and actions in this respect. The Association Agreement and a DCFTA are opportunities to accompany our common neighbours towards modern, prosperous and rule-based democracies. Stronger relations with the European Union do not come at the expense of relations between our Eastern partners and their other neighbours, such as Russia. The Eastern Partnership is conceived as a win-win where we all stand to gain.
This attempt at framing increasing integration with the EU as a “win-win” for the EU, Russia, and Ukraine, has not persuaded Vladimir Putin…(Continue Reading)