Geopolitics and Necessity

By George Friedman


I began this series with thoughts on Athens and Jerusalem not only because they were the roots of Christianity and Western civilization but because they both encountered Persia, in different ways and toward different ends. This leads me to the question: What determines the fates of nations and cities? In part, it is the question of why two proximate cities, which both uncover the principle of moral absolutes, approach those absolutes in such different ways. It also raises the fundamental question of geopolitics – that is, what makes various political entities so different, and what leads them to act as they do? These questions are extremely difficult to answer, but it is the last question that is central to geopolitics.

In all human things, there is a distinction between free will and determinism. Free will assumes that our lives are the result of our choices. Determinism assumes that, to an overwhelming degree, life is determined by forces beyond our control. Any theory of political life – or of our own lives for that matter – pivots on this distinction. There are certain things that we choose, but many of those choices are determined by the places where we are born and live. Consider an Eskimo living in the Arctic circle. Consider an Egyptian peasant born in a poor village of the Nile Delta. Consider someone born in Austin, Texas, and attending a fine private school. Each of them has limits imposed on them and opportunities given to them by place. The Austinite may reasonably dream of many things, but he may neither want nor have access to the lives of the other two. The life of the Eskimo excludes many of the Austinite’s options and places those options outside his awareness. But there are other things he may dream of that others can’t conceive. The Egyptian may visit Cairo and imagine many things, but his circumstances likely preclude them.

Free will exists within the framework and limits of the place you inhabit. This is not an absolute; individuals may somehow carve their way out of their matrix. But they are the outliers. When we consider the general condition of humans, their lives are constrained by the place in which they are born. Free will exists, but the menu from which we choose is determined, and, for most of us, there is no ordering outside of the menu.

The notion of free will often assumes we are free of constraints. But the reality is that our lives are lived within constraints, limiting the options we have to make the most of what is possible.

Our lives are shaped by necessity, and it is this necessity, the choices it imposes on us and the vast number of choices it precludes, that determines our lives. It is the concept of necessity that

I am driving at and that I am applying to communities even more than to individuals.

I’m using the term “community” here to describe the wide array of political arrangements in which human beings organize themselves. There are tribes, cities, nations, empires – and within this array of groups, innumerable ways to organize them. But they all have a single characteristic: They have leaders. How leaders are selected, what power they have and how they can use it varies enormously, but in the end, all communities have leaders. The question of our personal free will and necessity leads to the question at the core of geopolitics. To what extent does the nature and will of the leader matter? Put differently, is the leader trapped in the necessity in which the nation finds itself?

Aristotle leads us to the broader point: If humans are political animals, and if, as I argued, humans do not fully rule themselves, then how can political leaders rule their communities?

Are leaders simply agents of a necessity imposed on them by the circumstances of their communities, or are they free to take their communities where their wisdom leads?

Do political leaders matter, and is the political process of a nation so shaped by circumstance that it can do nothing other than what it is doing? To what extent did Solomon craft Israel’s policy, and to what extent did he simply execute a policy imposed on him by the circumstance in which Israel found itself?

Geopolitics is founded on two assumptions. The first is that a community’s location defines the community. Second, the political system, particularly the leader, is trapped within that reality, and the leader’s decisions are shaped by that reality. To state it bluntly, on the most basic level, political leaders don’t count.

Neither Sparta nor Athens could survive under Persian rule. The Spartans’ mode of fighting, imposed by their rugged, landlocked environment, was built on infantry, and the infantry was the heart of the state. The Persians were attacking Sparta through hills and chokepoints. Spartan infantry had to resist the Persians at a chokepoint to buy time. Athens was a maritime city and, as such, a naval power.

Persia was attacking by land but supplying and reinforcing its army by sea. Therefore, Athens had to engage and defeat the Persians at sea. Sparta’s moral code was based on its strategic necessity: an infantry force honed from birth. Athens’ moral code was far subtler and more nuanced, as befits a great port city. And its navy, manned by men of complex values, was a superb instrument of war.

Success was not guaranteed. But the strategy was built into the geography – as were the capabilities of each city and a culture that aligned with their strategy. Leadership may have been needed because political rhetoric takes a community to a necessary war. But there were no strategic decisions to be made. No one who would have chosen a different course could have risen to the leadership of either city. Victory was not certain, but the strategy arose from necessity.

Consider Israel’s national strategy, which has been the same since antiquity and is comprised of four pillars. First, maintain the unity of Israel. Second, defend the Jordan River line against Babylon or Persia. Third, block Egypt by controlling the coastal road and engaging in the Negev Desert when needed. Finally, hold the Sea of Galilee to prevent the forces of Phoenician cities from heading south.

Israel was only occasionally robust enough to pursue all these imperatives. And given the multiple enemies it had has and its long defensive lines, the more ambitious the state, the more widely its forces were dispersed. But for a nation situated where Israel is, this was the strategy it had to pursue. And Israeli culture stemmed from it: It encouraged maximum wealth while maintaining a substantial military reserve. Leaders would have little alternative.

Of course, I am focusing here on military matters, rather than more complex economic and political issues. But when we eliminate those we call “decision-makers,” we find that the choices are few, and the decisions dictated. The obsession with the personality of leaders is natural. Leaders are the totems that comfort or frighten a nation. But rulers are forged through a national culture born of necessity; by the time they lead, they have been trained to understand the necessity, and they are constrained by reality.

This is a radical argument, and it touches on Karl Marx’s argument that the course of history was set, and ideology and leaders were mere “superstructures.” (He derived that idea from Georg Hegel, upon whom I also depend.) But Marx argued that class was the fundamental division in human history. I am arguing that it is the nation that matters today. In the wars of the 20th century, the proletariat and bourgeoisie remained committed to their nations. Marx understood necessity, but not, in my opinion, the nature of community.

And that requires thought on the nature of the nation – a fragment from the heart of geopolitics and political philosophy as well. Is it possible to think of a human being outside the context of a political community?

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