Map of railroads in northern Europe.

The associative and divisive force of political regional blocs

A recently published report by the Russian think tank, the Valdai Discussion Club, underscores the importance of visualising and analysing the infrastructural relations between countries and regions in order to grasp the geopolitical possibilities and limitations of international relations.

This short document, in its classical approach to geopolitical study, contrasts the importance of a nation state’s geographic location (normally understood by way of a simple map), with that of a more refined and more dynamic socially articulated map of infrastructure connectivity of regions and the world as a whole.

For example, take the country of India. Its topographic surroundings, its access to natural resources, its proximity to other countries are important in any geopolitical analysis. The northern mountains are a natural barrier and a defence. The surrounding seas provide access to distant markets. Its proximity to Sri Lanka, Nepal, China, etc., make it so that those countries have a special importance to Indian politics.

However, if this simple geographic map is superimposed with a map of connectivity and infrastructure development, we realise that the political possibilities and relations are greatly impacted by these. For instance, a proposed joint project between Iran and India to develop a new shipping port in Iran with connecting highways into Afghanistan and perhaps further all the way to Russia could transform the geopolitical reality of India being stuck in a corner and cut off from Central Asia because of the intervening presence of Pakistan, which would otherwise block Indian access as long as they continue to have poor relations.

Altitude map of South Asia.
Altitude map of South Asia. / Image: CC0 license.

The report, Infrastructure Development and Political Stability in Eurasia, is not a new understanding or approach to geopolitics, it’s simply a reminder of the importance of maintaining a detailed map of infrastructure and social connectivity. The significance of regional connectivity is evident in such things as the development of the European Union as well as in China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

The author, Yauheni Preiherman, identifies some key elements of such connectivity:

  • Physical infrastructure that enhances the movement of people and things across space. (I’d add that it also compresses time taken).
  • Institutional-contractual connectivity is another factor. (For example, visa free travel areas, or economic agreements zones where commodities can be loaded onto cargo trains and pass through multiple countries without having to be regularly stopped for customs checks).
  • Socio-political circumstances weigh in heavily. For example, the European Union relates member countries in some common political bodies, facilitating the process of connectivity. Conversely, India and Pakistan are at odds with each other, making it far more difficult for establish connections, and making it so that countries on the other side of each of those parties are effectively more distant and less accessible than they would otherwise be.

Normally, the discipline of geopolitics focuses on relations between countries. However, the same conditions hold true within countries. Afghanistan is currently divided internally between marketplaces that have relatively limited access to each other and are better connected to the markets of neighbouring countries. A province of western Afghanistan, Herat, is poorly connected to the country’s south-east, however it has better connections with Iran’s eastern region and it therefore has consequential interconnectivity with that country even if it is politically embedded in Afghanistan’s state structure.

The historian, Fernand Braudel, has done an excellent job of detailing the development of nation state integration in Europe in his three volume masterpiece books, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. There, he reviews the conscious and enforced development of national markets over those of town and regional markets as a means to centralising the state and cohering the nation state. The same holds true for the construction of roads, harmonisation of laws, the development of standard measures, integration of languages or dialects, common forms of education, the legal freedom of labour movement within nation state boundaries, standardisation of taxation, and so on.

Connectivity is too often represented as merely a bonding force, as always leading to ‘stability’. However, the bond is also a way of forging new differences. A newly connected area can be turned into a more or less interrelated region that stands in contrast to those that are not members of the similarly established physical, legal, contractual, political, or social bodies. This is one manner in which ‘spheres of influence’ are established, political blocs are formed, and alliances reinforced.

This is important to note because we see these tensions playing out today. The European Union (EU) and the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) are forging group ties that rub against each other and can help to distance their respective members from the opposing body’s component states. This is because they’ll have laws, infrastructural standards, and contracts that have varying degrees of incompatibility from one another, coupled with the competing political interests of their respective organisations. Taken in this light, the collective of connectivities can form regional political economic blocs that differentiate themselves from that of others, cohering members within a particular camp that can then impact the possibilities or limitations of relations and connectivity to external blocs. (As a side note, this can also be a purpose served by so-called free trade agreements).

The enhancement of geopolitical connectivity, therefore, does not automatically lead to improved or to deteriorated cross-continental relations. It’s a complex and regularly porous development that adheres certain norms, facilitates relations, and accentuates differences.

Depending on the political and historical situation, the quest for these forms of connectivity can lead to improved cooperation or be a part of competition over territory, markets, and resources. The prospect of competition can be increased when a particular region’s integration is desired by multiple blocs, such as in the case of strain in Eastern Europe resulting from a contest between the EU, EAEU, and China’s Belt and Road Initiative. These border regions between political economic blocs can simultaneously play the role of theatres of competition and places of cooperation between groupings. So, there is no clear cut answer to whether regional blocs serve to stabalise international relation or no. Internal coherence can be joined to external differentiation and inter-regional cooperation.

Preiherman’s report takes a special interest in the evolution of relations between major powers in respect to Eastern Europe. He mentions that there has previously been a binary tension there, between the West on one hand, and Russia on the other. He notes that China has entered the scene with its Belt and Road Initiative.

I’d like to mention that the composition of the Western camp is recently made more complex with an internal tug-of-war over leadership within that group. The US, with its Anglo-Saxon alliance that includes the UK as an important interlocutor within the European Union is being challenged by previously subject continental European powers, most notably Germany and France. Germany and France seek greater independence from the US and leadership over the EU coupled with higher seniority within the Western Transatlantic alliance in this period of shifting balance of forces. The UK’s role in the EU and influence within it is called into question and it may leave that body entirely. This diminishes the US capacity to influence matters in the EU via its UK subordinate. Simultaneously, the period in which the US was a sole superpower is over, limiting its ability to act unilaterally. Additionally, the US economy is struggling to keep its globally dominant position. This has created the possibility of a redistribution of power within the West at the same time as the ruling elites of that bloc attempt to maintain a common body that affords it particular advantages.

That said, the entry of China into Eastern Europe is itself a catalyst for change. According to Preiherman, this can serve as momentum for Russia to try and dilute the oppositional binary condition between them and the West. This does not mean that there will inevitably be growing harmonisation between the various major blocs, but that the balance of power is shifting and that the entry of a third party may provide Russia with new possibilities for cooperation with any and all parties as well as for it to reduce sole exposure to conflict since tensions can also rise between the West and China (as well as within the Transatlantic alliance itself).

I want to mention something here, that currently the various blocs are a form of enclosure of space that direct and distribute the production of value as well as enforce diplomatic or military ties. This is taking place at a period in human history when the capitalist circulation and production of value is preeminent. However, the blocs can, and in the past have, also been bounded spaces for alternative political economies and ideologies to enact their own political economies. The most recent example is that between the West and the now defunct Soviet Union aligned countries in their different value regimes.

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