Editorial response: The value of critical Geopolitics & critical security studies

Back in April of this year, our geography department was fortunate to host the RGS-IBG Postgraduate Forum Mid-Term Conference. Early career researchers from across the UK and Europe were in attendance, and, given our own strong nucleus of geopolitical PhD students in the department, it was pleasing to see two whole sessions dedicated to geopolitics.

Papers touched upon cyber security, illicit food trade and energy security, but it was the conversations during the coffee breaks (as is often the case) that led to interesting debates around prominent geopolitical issues of today – in particular, contemporary issues facing Europe at present, but also differing perspectives and approaches to the study of geopolitics itself. “Why do we see things differently?” asked Maciej Hacaga, from War Studies University in Warsaw, who has passionately argued for the continued relevance and “Polish affection for classical geopolitics”.

Contending that Polish national security concerns are largely driven by an existential fear, shaped by a perceived threatening foreign power, Hacaga explores how the history of contemporary Poland can be used as a vehicle for understanding the importance and persistence of geographical determinism in realist geopolitical thought: “Geography locks Poland in geopolitical thinking”.

You can read Maciej’s thoughts here.

The following serves as something of a response to Maciej’s blog, whilst also attempting to open up a much wider dialogue around certain existing geopolitical cultures (Toal, 2017) and how the study of Geopolitics itself might be understood, theorised or projected within different contexts. Do we necessarily see things differently? Does, for example, proximity to, and historical relations with, perceived aggressive foreign powers invoke a particular way of thinking geopolitically? Or might we perhaps begin to view Poland’s own complex geopolitical landscape through that of a more critical lens, moving beyond certain geo-deterministic/one-dimensional thinking often found within classic geopolitical writing? (Dodds, 2014; Toal, 2017)

We do not, however, seek to turn this response into a classical vs. critical geopolitical polemic. After all, classical geopolitics does still inform foreign policy and decision-making to this day, and, as Hacaga suggests, physical and human geographies have played a significant role in Poland’s relationship to its neighbours. We instead argue in favour of a more expansive, constructivist perspective that seeks to interrogate the spatial complexities and Poland’s own role within a wider European (security) picture today. As Merje Kuus (2010) writes, “[t]o underscore the spatiality of world affairs is not to add a token “geographical” perspective to international studies. It is rather to insist that a critical inquiry into the spatiality of world affairs must be central to the study of politics.” In the context of Poland’s current geopolitical outlook (and thus the direction of its academic discourse), more of a critical inquiry might serve as something of a radical departure from such thinking.

In this response, we draw on Gerard Toal’s call for more of a ‘thicker’ account of geopolitics, recognising “the importance of spatial relationships and in-depth knowledge of places and people…grounded in the messy heterogeneity of the world” (2017: 279); whilst also rejecting the often-superficial geographical representations (e.g. democracy vs. authoritarianism, Russia vs. the West) that are embedded in various geopolitical cultures and academic disciplines as found within realist branches of International Relations (IR).

Critical Geopolitics: Not just a Western academic luxury

The crux of Hacaga’s claim – that “Geography locks Poland in geopolitical thinking” – arguably draws from a realist IR, or overly geo-deterministic, perspective. Dominant in the work of commentators such as Robert Kaplan (2012) and geopolitical think-tank such as Stratfor, Hacaga argues that Polish scholars are “locked” in a classical geopolitical framework, citing work that details the current state of IR in Poland (Czaputowicz, 2012; Czaputowicz and Wojciuk, 2017).

But in doing so, we feel that this IR-dominant approach overlooks many other (inter-)disciplinary voices from within the Polish academy; but may also circumvent many other crucial perspectives from scholars working across Central and Eastern European History and Political Geography at present. Furthermore, in arguing that Poland is somehow tied to this geographically deterministic Geopolitics, it could be argued that such a viewpoint becomes insufficiently attentive in dealing with many of the broader concerns Hacaga makes around contemporary security challenges faced across Europe today.

Engagement with a much broader geopolitical literature and approach – not simply, we argue, a western academic luxury – may go some way in combatting this dilemma. Central to the development of critical Geopolitics in recent years has been the idea that Geopolitics is something that occurs beyond the more formal processes of policy-making and strategic thinking, but also as something that is performed or reproduced within the spaces of popular culture and everyday life (Dittmer and Gray, 2010), showing a greater attentiveness to other registers of geopolitical thought, performance and agency, such as affect or more-than-human approaches.

So much so, and in spite of this ‘traditionalist’ geopolitical approach, we were also struck by Hacaga’s assertion that a large proportion of Poland’s geopolitical and security concerns are ultimately “fear-driven”. This clear reference to an affective geopolitics at play in Poland’s current geopolitical discourse is interesting, not least for striking a chord with a growing body of work within political geography that engages with such affective, emotional geopolitical constructs on both a national and everyday level (Pain and Smith, 2008).


Poland’s unsettled geopolitical culture: Vladimir Putin was accused by former Polish Defence Minister, Antoni Macierewicz, of involvement in the 2010 plane crash that killed then Polish President, Lech Kaczynski (source: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/vladimir-putin-polish-president-lech-kaczynski-plane-crash-russia-poland-defence-minister-antoni-a8111831.html)

Revisiting geopolitical memory

What is clear from Hacaga’s argument is the powerful impact of memory – in particular, its role in Poland’s political past, but also in shaping its academic direction in the future. Many critical scholars working in Eastern Europe, including Poland, have utilised critical approaches to better understand the impact of memory, and how they shape the security concerns of today (Tamm, 2013). Indeed, Mälksoo (2015) illustrates the overly emotive potential of memory as a securitising influence, and goes on to highlight how in Eastern Europe conflicting memory is divisive:

“Agonistic mnemonic pluralism, informed by critical historical research, should alleviate understanding about – although not necessarily the mutual acceptance of – different readings of the commonly experienced past.”

Other notable contributions to the (Geo)politics of memory in this region include Drozdzewski’s (2014) study of the Geopolitics of Memory in Krakow; an invaluable intervention which highlights the value of critical Geopolitics in healing wounds of the past, and also how the re-introduction of Polish street names post-1989 represented an everyday expression of geopolitical power and identity by the Polish state. Such studies provide a nuanced understanding of how Geopolitics creeps into everyday life, and how this can provide a sense of ontological security for citizens. Indeed, Solarz (2014) enthuses how Poland’s newfound security – as a democratic, self-governing nation, embedded within both the European Union and NATO – has provided the freedom for Polish academics to embrace more diverse approaches to the study of Geopolitics. Whilst emphasising the need for a diverse approach, he pointedly cites Roman Kuzniar, who argued:

“geopolitics as a political strategy whose foundation is geographical determinism is bad politics and leads nowhere.”

Reaching beyond the trappings of classical geopolitics allows us to critically examine approaches that once built the foundations of colonial and expansionist mind-sets in Europe – that today seem to resurge in the policies of authoritarian and populist governments both within and beyond the European Union. Yet, the historically and geographically derived insights that Hacaga utilises in his argumentation can help to acknowledge and understand how a legacy of occupation, conflict and oppression in Eastern Europe continues to characterise current ontological security concerns, particularly vis à vis relations with Russia.

Critical approaches can help understand memory in a way which does not seek to perpetuate conflicts of a recent past. As Hacaga rightfully points out, Poland has historically been caught between two expansionist powers – Germany and Russia. This, of course, inspired Snyder to coin the swathe of Eastern Europe (of which Poland partially inhabits) as ‘bloodlands’ (Snyder, 2011). Equally, however, we are also troubled by the way in which Snyder has also labelled Putin’s Russia as ‘fascistic’ (e.g. Snyder, 2014). Understanding contemporary Russia means attending to its self-identification as a continental/civilizational power, but also being mindful of how that country also negotiates complex geographies and histories ranging from World War II to the post-Soviet era. As we know, Putin described the collapse of the Soviet Union as a ‘tragedy’ and he is not alone in feeling resentment towards NATO’s eastern expansion. Inferences to Nazi Germany does not make it easier to make sense of contemporary Russia. Indeed, such comparisons are highly offensive to ordinary Russians, whose own national identity is tied up in its own historical memories and struggles (Leichtova, 2014). It is, of course, widely considered distasteful to conflate contemporary Germany with the crimes of Nazism, yet emotional responses often conflate contemporary Russia with Stalinist purges, and the worst crimes of the Soviet era. Thus, whilst we concur that the memory of modern European conflict and oppressive governance must never be forgotten, we instead urge engaging with alternative and more nuanced approaches, such as that of Maria Mälksoo (2015), who exhorts:

“A radically democratic, agonistic politics of memory is called for that would avoid the knee-jerk reactive treatment of identity, memory and history as problems of security.”

This acknowledges the individual and situated experiences of different groups and stands in stark contrast to an adherence to classical Geopolitics, which has historically been adopted as raison d’être for the expansionism which Poland has fallen victim of – thus no longer making it the best resource to make sense of a current and future European geopolitical landscape.

Different Types of European Securities: Soft Power and Institutionalism

Poland is today an active member of various forums of international cooperation, most notably the EU and NATO. In order to address the “deteriorating state of security in Europe”, as suggested by Hacaga, it is crucial to note that such institutions have been providing a relatively high degree of (military) security for its member states. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty (1949) is the frequently recited textbook example in this context and has together with Enhanced Forward Presence been a certain source of reassurance against the “existential fears” of Poland and other Central and Eastern European states. Recent remarks by US President Trump have, however, raised the question of whether such commitments under International Law would actually be honoured, and may have thereby subverted the above-mentioned reassuring element of international cooperation.


The Polish-led Anakonda Military Exercise for NATO members in June 2016 (source: https://www.voanews.com/a/poland-nato-members-hold-large-scale-military-exercises/3363927.html)

Yet, modern security risks that might undermine a state’s sovereignty emerge nowadays in ever more versatile forms, including for instance cyber- and economic warfare. With their lack of visibility and high level of complexity, these security risks may evoke a sense or feeling of anxiety, which, other than the abovementioned fear, include a stronger element of uncertainty (Zevnik, 2017). This uncertainty, as well as the trans-national nature of this modern political reality, underlines the continuous importance of a common European security solution, that includes elements of both hard and soft power as it needs to answer not only to the risks themselves but also to the population’s perception thereof – a solution that, in recent years, has fallen into dire straits under the growing shadow of nationalism across Europe, posing an additional, if not more fundamental, security risk undermining European liberal democracies.

The elements behind the “deteriorating state of security” thus do not always and exclusively stem from the external powers we know from our history books. Today, they rather tend to grow in our living rooms or our everyday use of social media, spaces that lie under the radar of classical geopolitics. These practices continuously create, perform and embody affect and political narratives across different sites of political influence, both virtual and physical, involving an array of actors of human and non-human agency (Dittmer & Gray, 2010). While Poland had long been the model student in the European classroom post-Cold War, recent political trends have jeopardized this standing, but also the quest to find security reassurance by focusing on the advancement of national interests rather than universal values.

In sum, we suggest that critical approaches can be a fruitful way to explore an increasingly complex security environment and to continue an active dialogue that aims to understand the respective narratives of affect to develop the necessary common solutions. By contrast, it appears that classical geopolitical preoccupations might underestimate the increasingly important effect of messy, multi-scalar relationships within and beyond nation-states.


To briefly conclude, we agree with Hacaga’s argument that Polish geopolitical culture is strongly informed by its geographical position and historical context. However, adding to this, we wish to highlight that nations’ historical narratives are not only shaped by geographical determinism, but by the many different social, cultural, everyday geopolitical experiences of which critical geopolitical approaches seek to highlight. Further, in addressing the “deteriorating state of security” across Europe, we feel a continuous and constructive engagement with other European particularities – other voices, perspectives, approaches – can go some way to counteract the (in)securities contemporary Europe faces at present. As three scholars facing similar dilemmas within their own work, we have found that moving beyond the trappings and segregating lines of classical geopolitics has allowed for engagement with a wider variety of current debates and critical approaches to geopolitics, touching upon security and psychoanalytic studies, to feminist and more-than-human approaches that are ever-expanding across the discipline.

By way of returning to the crux of Hacaga’s argument, do we necessarily ‘see’ things differently? Our two responses may suggest a somewhat disparate approach to the study of Geopolitics – with Hacaga appearing to mainly draw upon work that caters for the outlook of realist International Relations scholars in contemporary Poland. But in this response we also wanted to draw attention to some of the crucial work within Polish political geography that might allow us to open up a much wider dialogue on where critical geopolitics may presently sit within the Polish academy (Drozdzewski, 2014; Solarz, 2014).

If nothing else, this conversation has served as an incredibly rewarding process for four postgraduate scholars, allowing us to open up an important dialogue beyond our very own narrow sub-disciplines and research contexts. We implore other students to do the same as they invariably navigate the coffee breaks of conferences in the future.

Alex Hardy is a Royal Leverhulme funded PhD Research Student at Royal Holloway. Alex’s research is interdisciplinary, based in both the Geopolitics and Information Security departments. He is interested in everyday cyber securities, and how social, cultural and (geo)political differences shape public cyber security concerns and narratives. His project is a comparison of the UK and Estonia, chosen for the latters embrace of e-governance and perceived excellence in cyber security. He is a member of the editorial team here on the RHUL Geopolitics and Security blog.

Nick Robinson is a current PhD student in the CDT for Cyber Security at Royal Holloway, completing his MSc in Geopolitics and Security in 2015. Nick’s research is primarily grounded in Estonia, focusing on the multitude of digital technologies its government have started to employ since the regaining of independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Exploring initiatives such as Estonian e-Residency, the government’s use of blockchain technology, and now the utilisation of ‘data embassies’, Nick’s work aims to develop a greater understanding of the impact these technologies have on our traditional conceptualisations of the nation-state, border and embassy. He is a member of the editorial team here on the RHUL Geopolitics and Security blog.

Nicola Wendt is a second-year PhD student and part of the interdisciplinary Magna Carta Doctoral Centre for Individual Freedom, funded by the Leverhulme Trust. Having a strong interest in Indigenous Rights and Arctic Geopolitics, her PhD project focuses on political identity formation in the digital public sphere of Greenland. Using Community Based Participatory Action Research Methods, Nicola’s research investigates the intersection of the digital and the social, looking at how technology-induced transitions are negotiated against a backdrop of historic and contemporary inequalities. She is a member of the editorial team here on the RHUL Geopolitics and Security blog.


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