Nathalène Reynolds: Gender studies, eurocentric approach, communism in India

Introducing Nathalène Reynolds

foto ReynoldsDr Nathalène Reynolds obtained a doctorate in the History of International Relations (Panthéon-Sorbonne, Université of Paris I), after finishing her masters in International Relations (Paris I) and Political Science (Paris II). She currently works as Research Associate at the Centre for Asian Studies in Geneva. Furthermore, Ms Reynolds works as Visiting Fellow at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute in Islamabad.

Geopolitical Passport

My relationship with geopolitics

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

A historian by training, I discovered geopolitics during my time at university, while I was following Jean-Christophe Victor’s lectures that were part of the course for my masters in international relations. Given the few hours available, it was only a modest beginning. It was around that time that Victor started broadcasting his ‘Le Dessous des Cartes’ (which one might loosely translate as: ‘The Reality behind the Map’) on French channel Sept – not widely accessible at that time, but the programmes were later repeated on Arte.

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

The growth in my interest in geopolitics has been gradual. I lived for four years in India (New Delhi), while doing my doctoral research. My thesis was on ‘Foreign Influences on the Political Strategy of the Indian Communist Movement (1936-64)’. It was in this way that gradually I acquired a sound knowledge of the history of the subcontinent from the end of the Nineteenth Century onwards. I was then ready to look at modern India within South Asia and on the wider international scene: I started to see through geopolitical spectacles. My approach was somehow complemented by a very special field experience, that of visiting persons deprived of freedom in Indian Jammu and Kashmir as an interpreter for the International Committee of the Red Cross.

After working for a long time on the broad area of international relations, I began recently to look at a theme that has become ‘fashionable’: gender studies. I started dealing with the issue of citizenship and the ambiguous status Pakistan has throughout its history granted to women. The Islamic Republic of Pakistan chose to gradually reinforce the dominance of patriarchal structures over society. Various other dimensions contributed to ‘clog up’ socio-economic structures. The geopolitical ambitions, harboured by the state, led it to avoid addressing its principle challenge – defining its national identity, of which Islam, according to the wishes of its founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, would be but one part. Pakistan thus used its geographical position in a region destabilised by the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in December 1979 not only to try and establish itself as a regional power by giving itself ‘strategic depth’ against its Indian opponent, but also to deal with the ‘Pashto question’ (the restless dominant ethnic group on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border).

What do you consider your most important contribution to geopolitics?

While working on a book on Kashmir (Cachemire dans le conflict indo-pakistanais (1947-2004), Harmattan, Paris, 2005), I addressed an issue that many have noted in passing, but that to my mind is essential to any fresh understanding of the geopolitical and geostrategic confrontation opposing India and Pakistan since the division of this former princely state at the end of 1947: that of the process of re-writing of history to which Jammu and Kashmir was subjected, as India and Pakistan sought to put down the foundations of nationalism, guarantor, in a sense, of their permanence.

My geopolitical preferences

What is your favourite definition of geopolitics?

Here are two definitions that caught my attention, from Answers.com:

In the abstract, geopolitics traditionally indicates the links and causal relationships between political power and geographic space; in concrete terms it is often seen as a body of thought assaying specific strategic prescriptions based on the relative importance of land power and sea power in world history… The geopolitical tradition had some consistent concerns, like the geopolitical correlates of power in world politics, the identification of international core areas, and the relationships between naval and terrestrial capabilities. (Oyvind Osterud, The Uses and Abuses of Geopolitics, Journal of Peace Research, no. 2, 1988, p. 191.)

Geopolitics is studying geopolitical systems. The geopolitical system is, in my opinion, the ensemble of relations between the interests of international political actors, interests focused to an area, space, geographical element or ways. (Vladimir Toncea, Geopolitical evolution of borders in Danube Basin, PhD 2006).

Which geopolitical scientist do you admire the most?

I would mention Aymeric Chauprade, whose works have taken up where François Thual left off. The new French school of geopolitics promotes a realpolitik freed from any ideological constraints – a challenge, in my opinion, all the more dramatic since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

What is your favourite geopolitical book?

Having mentioned Chauprade in my answer to the previous question, it is logical that I refer to his works. I will cite two, the first of which would no doubt help newcomers to the subject to more easily tackle the second one, the title of which is itself revealing:

  • “Dictionnaire de Géopolitique “, in cooperation with François Thual, 1999
  • “Geopolitique, constantes et changements dans l’histoire”, 2003.

What is your favourite geopolitical website?

The growth in the number of websites that are devoted to, or deal in part with, geopolitics gives both the researcher and the curious amateur every possibility to address the questions of his or her interest.

Our geopolitical future

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

In many respects quite a recent discipline (which, it should be remembered, promotes an inter-disciplinary approach), geopolitics is now firmly established among the subjects grouped together in the French university as the ‘human sciences’. It is always difficult to make predictions. Since the ‘primacy of ideology’ over ‘geographical determinism’ (to use terms employed in “Geopolitique, constantes et changements dans l’histoire”) has come to end, it is essential to avoid the clichés of a broadly Western-centric approach that followed in the footsteps of an earlier Euro-centric approach that had prided itself on the achievements of the colonial period. At a time when globalisation is the spirit of the age, why reject the development of ‘uncertain identities’ (to borrow an expression from the late Edward Said)?

Faced with the unfortunate ‘dividends’ of the ‘global war on terrorism’, one may hope for an enlarged role for geopolitics and a more mediatised opposition on the part of students of geopolitics to the manipulation of information served up to citizens of all states. In the meantime, geopolitics already has the task of gauging the space that will be left to the ‘West’, as the centre of power gradually but inexorably moves eastwards towards Asia. A further issue at stake is the struggle for resources, energy certainly, but perhaps also food, and the political and economic strategies that the ‘islands of prosperity’ will pursue to secure them.

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

For me, it is important that gender studies be integrated within international relations and, indeed, geopolitics, thus challenging the instrumentalisation of a rhetoric about women employed increasingly since the American-led intervention in Afghanisation at the end of 2001 by both the partisans of the ‘war on terrorism’ and those promotors of a ‘narrow’ vision of Islam who refuse to accept the accommodating positions of their co-religionists.

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

Apart from the subjects that already concern us (various resources, such as energy and water, the environment, etc.), there is one important issue: to preserve the concept of ‘democracy’. It has been particularly instrumentalised of late, and moreover is often linked to the generally negative resurgence of the politics of identity around the world.

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