Introducing Bastiaan van Apeldoorn

Bastiaan van ApeldoornBastiaan van Apeldoorn is currently Reader in International Relations at the VU University Amsterdam.

He was born in 1970 in Groningen in The Netherlands and studied Political Science at the University of Amsterdam where he obtained his Master’s degree in 1994. After having received his PhD in social and political sciences from the European University Institute in Florence in 1999, dr van Apeldoorn became a postdoctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies before joining VU University.

Whereas his research in the past focused in particular on the political economy of European governance and socio-economic regulation within a global and transnational context, more recently his research agenda has come to include the relationship between geopolitics and global capitalism, with an empirical focus on the evolution of US geopolitical strategy since the end of the Cold War.

Geopolitical Passport

Your relationship with geopolitics

At what age did you discover geopolitics and what attracted you to it?

Hard to say. I was interested in politics and in world politics from an early age but I don’t think the term ‘geopolitics’ had much meaning for me.

As my doctoral research, as well as my research in the years after, came to focus on the transnational political economy of European integration, in particular the formation of a transnational capitalist class and its shaping of a neoliberal regional order, geopolitics was also not on the foreground of my interests (even if this topic arguably did have important geopolitical dimensions, maybe more than I realised back then).

My ‘geopolitical turn’ came relatively late, that is, in the early years of the new millennium. It was then that I came to recognise more clearly that my previous focus on processes of globalization and the creation of a transnational space for capitalist class rule were not so much wrong as one-sided, at least inasmuch as one should not forget that processes of transnationalisation in no way mean that the transcendence of geopolitical unevenness and of geopolitical rivalry.

Not that that was my position before but I was just less aware – being focused on Europe where arguably such rivalries have been transcended to a considerable extent (even if not completely either) – of the latter dimension. So I was less aware of the dialectic involved so to say.

This awareness grew when I came to be more interested in US imperialism under the younger Bush in the wake of 9/11. My interest was first mainly political but then US geopolitical strategy after the end of the Cold War also became my new major research project.

I guess the development that I have gone through is also a clearly a reflection of the times, that is, we have moved from the 1990s as the heyday of neoliberal globalisation – and the emphasis on the deterritorial logic of capitalism – to the 2000s in which indeed the contradictions of neoliberal globalisation became much more manifest.

While the transnationalisation was not so much reversed it was increasingly accompanied by not only an apparent ‘imperial turn’ of US foreign policy but also, with the rise of a more multipolar world also, the possibility of new, rival, imperialisms emerging.

My own ‘geopolitical turn’ thus reflected the ‘geopolitical’ turn in the global political economy.

Which geopolitical topics have your focus and why did you choose especially these?

Well, as I just indicated, my own focus is on US geopolitical strategy or what more conventionally literature is called ‘grand strategy’.

The main research project, which I conduct together with Naná de Graaff, seeks to analyse and explain both the continuities and changes in this strategy in the post-Cold War era by examining in particular the social (corporate elite) networks in which the geopolitical strategy-makers of the administrations of Clinton, Bush and Obama have been embedded. As such we look at what we see as the underlying state-capital nexus of US geopolitics.

I am also interested, and we also to some extent take this on board, in the longer history of this and our argument is that American imperialism can be understood as an ‘Open Door’ strategy in which the American state has played the role of opening up foreign markets to US capital and generally enabling the latter’s expansion. As such US imperialism is characterized by an incessant drive towards expansion, leading to successive rounds in which US capital’s geographical reach was widened and its operative logic deepened. More specifically we see this non-territorial US expansionism as having taken place in consecutive waves, at the end of the 19th century, from the end of the 1930s, and again from the end of the 1970s onwards, in response to crises of overaccumulation.

As such it each time took the form of, and here we borrow David Harvey’s terminology, a sustained spatial fix, enabling the absorption of the surplus goods and capital in a way that directly served the interest of the internationally and transnationally oriented fractions of American capital. We argue that is still at the heart of American imperial grand strategy today under Obama.

Since this is interview is about geopolitics it is maybe important to emphasize that although we speak of a non-territorial imperialism this does not mean the transcendence of territoriality wholesale. It means that the US imperium – after its earlier ‘continental’ Westward territorial expansion – did not involve (with a few notable exceptions such as the Philippines or Hawaii) the conquest or acquisition of new territories.

Paradoxically, however, creating this non-territorial empire did constantly involve, and still involves today, the application of the power of the US state – a territorial unit – to try to create, maintain or restore (informal) control over actual places and territories, even while holding on to the notion (at times fiction) of national sovereignty.

Other topics I am interested in generally, and which serve as a broader context, for the above research project, are the current power shift within the global political economy with the rise of rival centres of accumulation. This concerns in particular China’s emergence and the geopolitical implications of this. In other words, the question of how to theorise the dialectical relation between global capitalism on the one hand and the persistence of the states system, and hence the political, territorial fragmentation of a globalised economy, on the other.

Given these inherent contradictions, and within the context of this power shift, it is also that we can currently observe not just a crisis of neoliberal globalisation but also of American empire, with the Open Door reaching its apparent limits. So that is another related topic.

What do you consider your most important contribution to geopolitics?

Well I see myself as relatively new to this field and don’t want to pretend I have made many important contributions. I do think that some of my work at least has relevance for certain important ‘geopolitical questions’.

My earliest published reflection on what I above I identified as the internal, dialectical, relation between global capitalism and the state system – which I think is key to understating of ‘capitalist geopolitics’ – is from 2004 in an article in which I tried to ‘theorise the transnational’ from a historical materialist perspective. In this article I make a number of points that I would think are still relevant for understanding the current conjuncture, even though my thinking has also evolved since then.

I hope furthermore that Naná de Graaff and I with our project on US geopolitical strategy and corporate elites – on which we have now published several journal articles but that we at some point also hope to turn into a book – will make some contribution to an understanding of the current geopolitical configuration of world order and especially of the determinants and implications of the role played by US strategy in that.

Within the rapidly changing world order – with a crisis of neoliberal accumulation, the rise of China/Asia and so on – the US, despite renewed signs of hegemonic decline, remains key. The geopolitical strategy that it pursues will not only reflect the changing structural context but also continue to shape its future. So in that sense we hope to make a contribution.

Another contribution I am hoping to make concerns the theorisation of foreign policy or geopolitical strategy formation from a critical political economy perspective, both within the context of the project of the US strategy as well as more generally.

Your geopolitical preferences

What is your favourite definition of geopolitics?

I do not think I know that many definitions of geopolitics let alone that I would have a favourite.

On the website I read Simon Dalby’s answer to that question, which was that geopolitics refers to how space and power are linked. I think that makes a lot of sense but from a historical materialist perspective I would add production, so geopolitics would be about the interaction between power, production and space.

Beyond that my own definition of geopolitics is fairly loose. For me geopolitics somehow relates to or emanates from the fact that politics is organised in/takes place in geographically differentiated and uneven ways. But I would add that power, production and space and their relations within modernity – within which we still live – are inextricably bound up with the twin realities of global capitalism on the one hand and the states system and persistent territoriality on the other.

Though the states system has preceded capitalism we can only understand the current states system as well as the dynamics of capitalism though how they are internally related. The contradictions and rivalries both between and across states that emanate out of that dialectical whole, are all part of what I would call geopolitics.

So I am not sure that should be part of the definition but I would say it is an essential aspect of what geopolitics means in capitalist modernity.

Which geopolitical scientist do you admire the most?

Another tough one. I am not sure what a geopolitical scientist actually is but maybe if I have to single out one writer that has shaped by thinking on geopolitics in recent years then I would chose David Harvey.

Of course he has not done much empirical work on geopolitics and I also have to say that I find his theorisation – from the New Imperialism – of what he sees as the dialectic of a capitalist and a territorial logic highly problematic (actually because he does not do what he claims to do, that is emphasising the internal relation between the two as he rather seems to posit these as two autonomous and opposing logics, which I think is unhelpful in understanding geopolitical strategies of capitalist states).

But notwithstanding this critique I think it has been Harvey’s work more than that of any other that has made me aware of the spatial and geographical dimensions of capitalist and capital accumulation, the geographical unevenness which is both the outcome and to some extent also the medium of accumulation on a world scale.

And more particularly, Harvey is important to understand the inherent expansionism of capital and how the subsequent spatial fix only temporarily solves the problem of overaccumulation as the contradictions are in the end only reproduced at a larger geographical scale. The current rise of China as a (potentially) rival centre of accumulation, which can be seen as a kind of dialectical and unintended consequence of neoliberal globalisation as promoted by the US, is I think a case in point.

I would also like to add Kees van der Pijl here, whose work has also influenced my own work enormously, shaping my intellectual socialisation in my formative years.

I have to add though that even though the geopolitical dimensions of his work were always there I became more fully aware of them only later and I was more a student of transnationalisation processes within what Van der Pijl calls the Lockean Heartland than of the remaining rivalries within it and the deeper rivalries between the Heartland and contender states.

But especially his most recent books (starting from “Global Rivalries” and then onto “Nomads, Empires and States”) are I think very important contributions to geopolitical scholarship.

What is your favourite geopolitical book?

I guess I am not really into ‘favourite lists’ but I am going to mention two books from someone who cannot be really considered as a ‘geopolitical scientist’ but who is currently a major source of inspiration for my current work on US geopolitical strategy.

The author, Walter LaFeber, is a revisionist historian of the so-called Wisconsin school and the two books are “The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansion 1860-1898” and “The American Search for Opportunity, 1865-1913”. From what I have read LaFeber is really the best historian on US foreign policy and in particular its early phase of economic expansionism.

These books certainly have been key to my understanding of the drivers of US imperialism in this regard and they show brilliantly how US expansion (the ‘Open Door’) was a response to both the social problems – almost revolutionary unrest – and the economic problems – what we could interpret as overaccumulation though ( LaFeber does not use the term) – associated with the American (‘second’) industrial revolution of the second half of the 19th century.

It also shows how in its search for markets, while on the one hand desiring order, it often fuelled revolutions abroad that while sometimes serving its interests also often turned against the US. In a way it describes the contradictions within US imperialism, and more broadly within the politically fragmented global capitalist economy, of on the one hand seeking to transcend statist territoriality but on the other hand not being able to escape from it.

What is your favourite geopolitical website?

Well, Exploring Geopolitics, of course.

The geopolitical future

In what direction(s) will geopolitical science be heading the coming decades?

Another big question. I do not know whether there is such a thing as geopolitical science although I could imagine that there is such a thing as geopolitics or geopolitical studies which is a an amalgam of different (sub-)disciplines within the social sciences.

I am not sure whether we have such a post-disciplinary geopolitical studies yet. I think there is an awareness of the importance of space and territory in relation to power among some people in some of these disciplines and maybe some kind of emerging community – thanks to websites like these – across disciplinary divides but at least from my own limited perspective all of this is still not that developed.

As my own discipline – by formal training – is political science and as I am active – institutionally – in the discipline of International Relations, which is often taken as belonging to political science, I think that I can say that within these realms such awareness of the geopolitical can and should certainly grow.

IR in particular has for too long been hampered by a neo-Realism that emptied world politics from most historical, social content. Although geopolitics is easily associated with the state, Realism’s central focus, the Realist abstraction of ‘anarchy’ has also been emptied of any spatiality.

Of course these notions have been challenged since long by all kinds of critical scholars, especially in political economy. I would hope, but also see signs of this, that this critique can now be taken further through more IR scholars really learning from ‘geopolitical scientists’.

Of course the development of ‘geopolitical science’ will also depend on ‘real world’ developments and events. For now it looks like the rise of China is going to be a major development here. Even if this is rise is not without its own contractions, I think the overall power shift within the global political economy towards the East is a secular trend; even if China’s development would break down in the longer run this will turn out to be a world historical transformation that is not easily reversed.

From a geopolitical perspective these developments highlight the importance of geographically uneven development of global capitalism. I would therefore expect this theme and the perspectives that go with it, to become more important within ‘geopolitical science’ in the years to come.

Which geopolitical subject has been too little in the spotlight and needs further research?

I think we still understand too little with regard to what I talked about before, which is the dialectical relationship between geopolitics – as defined in part by the organization of politics into territorial, sovereign states – on the one hand and global capitalism on the other. I am not sure whether that is a topic.

I obviously think my own topic, US imperialism and US geopolitical strategy, is pretty important. But I am also surprised, how little, relatively – that is, relative to the centrality of the US and its strategy within world order – this topic is analysed from a critical geopolitical and critical political economy perspective.

Most studies outside the mainstream are heavy on theory and light on empirics or are far too idealist for my taste. In a recent paper that I wrote (which I hope will come out next year) I observed for example that there is in fact hardly something like what we could call a historical materialist foreign policy analysis in which the triad of production, power and space come together in a critical analysis of the formation of geopolitical strategies.

What will be the largest geopolitical challenge for the world in the 21st century?

Maybe one should first ask: challenge to whom or what?

But I would go back to the earlier mentioned power shift away from the West and add that the relative decline and possible fall of US hegemony can arguably be seen as the largest geopolitical challenge as a declining US is likely to resort to even more rather than less violence.

In general, not many empires or hegemons have gone down without a lot of bloodshed. We can only hope that it will be different this time around.

But apart from the possible irreversibly decline of the US and the rise of China/Asia, climate change, which of course also tie into the former, might be the biggest challenge of all, though not just geopolitical.

Bastiaan van Apeldoorn: US imperialism, neoliberal globalisation, capitalism