A Geopolitics of Buhari’s Washington Trip By Adagbo Onoja

Bromide c300In the week that the president of the African country with the largest economy heads for Washington DC, what might be the most fundamental ground by which we the folks can make sense of who says what to him during the trip, where and with what implications? According to Femi Adesina, President Buhari’s information gate keeper, this trip is about unpacking Nigeria’s share of transnational terrorism as well as the economics of trade. Security and trade always constitute the definitive elements in the relationship of the typical African country with the United States. Notwithstanding the outcry of anti-globalists and sundry activists that poverty comes not from trade imbalances but from exploitation, trade is still that item without which this sort of diplomacy is incomplete. It must be such a mysteriously powerful word.

As for terrorism or the larger concept of security, everyone seems to have internalised a police meaning of it that to ask what terrorism/security might mean is to appear stupid. Yet, there is no word whose meaning is as contested today as security or terrorism. This is why a review of the foremost book where the history of contrasting claims on security has been documented might add value to this important inaugural encounter between the hopefully impending new Nigeria and the USG.

Conventional geographers tell us that large bodies of water, mountains, the climate or location in space and similar geographical features determine the politics and foreign policy orientation of a country. Unconventional geographers disagree. Instead, they argue that those geographical features do not exist as facts in relation to the foreign and security orientation of a country. For them, what exists or makes all the difference in terms of the impact of geographical features on statecraft is our opinion of these features and how such opinions transform into the policy orientations that go to shape statecraft. Generally, according to unconventional geographers, these geographical features are imagined and re-imagined from a hegemonic point of view and on the basis of which foreign policy doctrines, categories and practices emerge. Thus we came to have Africa as ‘the heart of darkness’ not because there is no type of light across Africa but because such a hegemonic opinion was needed to justify colonial warfare.

Until the 1990s, conventional and unconventional geographers were locked in this war. Then there was a successful intellectual coup d’état which saw the unconventional geographers overthrowing their conventional brethrens. In the aftermath of the September 2001 attack on the US invasion, the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and the associated emergence of drone warfare, the coupists have consolidated power. They have consolidated power in the sense that the principles upon which the conduct of drone warfare and, in fact, much of contemporary strategic, military and homeland operations, have been based are principles derived from the position of the unconventional geographers. So much so that Gerard O’Tuathail, the Irish Professor whom you can call the father of modern geopolitics if any westerner would accept such a label today has said that drone warfare showed that there is a future for geopolitics. As a foremost critic of drone violence, he spoke for Critical Geopolitics, that being the proper title for those I have been calling unconventional or radical geographers. The conventional geographers are those we can call students of Classical Geopolitics.

The students of Classical Geopolitics were the pioneers who coined the concept and for whom geographical features such as mountains, the climate and so on are deterministic of the fate of a nation state which they see as a living being, in need of nursery, particularly the space for expansion. It is broadly believed that it is their ideas of geopolitics that explains the behaviour of Germany under the Nazis – racial supremacism, territorial aggression and war. I say broadly believed because this is not a settled account in the International Politics of the First and the Second World War. Subsequently, geopolitics as a subject became discredited. Scholars abandoned it in favour of International Relations or Political Geography and the likes until the 1990s when it came back predominantly as Critical Geopolitics covering so wide a terrain.

What the book we are talking about has done is to capture the different but similar phases in the evolution of geopolitics, thereby touching on so many things, including a scenario as Buhari’s current visit to the US.  Before zeroing on that specificity, let’s take a quick tour of this book by the name Geopolitics: An Introductory Reader. It is edited by Jason Dittmer and Joanne Sharp, geopolitics scholars at the University College London and the University of Glasgow in Scotland respectively. Published by Routledge late last year, it is not the first of such efforts but it is the latest, capturing the newest debates and dimensions of the subject.

The book of four distinct sections started with classical geopolitics which we have dealt with already. Except to mention that this is where names such as Alfred Mahan and Halford Mackinder belong. Mahan, an American Naval chief absolutised sea power as the key to national security thereby tightly linking security to space or geography. Halford Mackinder, his European ‘successor’ and Oxford scholar who delivered a paper in 1904 countered Mahan’s privileging of the sea. Instead, he claimed that by then, the European great powers had exhausted sea power and entered the age of what we now call globalisation and it was now the turn of the land power. As far as he saw it, the Central Asian/European, (Russia – Germany) axis was where to watch out for that. Whoever controlled that axis would control everything. Till today, many scholars of geopolitics believe this analysis is the reason why there was the Cold War or why the US struck at Afghanistan in 2001 because what Mackinder called the Heartland or Eurasia is still the ultimate pie in terms of global resources. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s National Security Adviser said so in his book: The Grand Chessboard. Several other authorities concur. Are we beginning to get the feeling of security as opinion?

We move to the second section of the book where Cold War geopolitics is straightforward: the ideas of who, where and then what that informed the security competition between the USA and the defunct USSR such as ‘the long telegram’ – the interpretation/misinterpretation’ of which triggered the entire Cold War wahala, the domino theory down to Gorbachev’s ‘A Common European Home’ thesis. Two things are most inviting here. One is the role of the media in constructing the ‘we here’ versus ‘they there’ binary that sustained the Cold War even when no shots were being fired. In other words, Chapter 22 titled “Publishing American Identity: Popular Geopolitics, Myth and Readers Digest” by Joanne Sharp invites every Nigerian editor or publisher to read and reflect in relation to our own dynastic warfare around the country, some of which we promote, consciously as well as unconsciously, by what we write. The second is the Africa intervention in the Cold War via a piece by Julius Nyerere, late President of Tanzania. Although quite inclusive beyond the Anglo-American world, the next edition of this book can do with Nigeria’s Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart as a classic of popular geopolitics. Same as one of Frantz Fanon’s several books. Or Amilcar Cabral’s. That is if Thabo Mbeki’s “Africa Renaissance” cannot be accommodated.

The third section is ‘Geopolitics After the Cold War’. It can be merged with the fourth and final section in that they both focus on contemporary global challenges although section four contains some new discourses in the field like feminist geopolitics, the environment and emotional geopolitics, etc.

In the context of this review which is the security item on the agenda of President Buhari’s trip to the US, two chapters are most interesting in this section. One is Robert Kaplan’s 1994 essay ‘The Coming Anarchy’ and the second, Thomas Barnett’s ‘The Pentagon’s New Map’ published in 2003, the year of the US invasion of Iraq. Although based on different evidence, both essays talked of global security in terms of a contradiction between a zone of order corresponding to the Western world and a zone of disorder and chaos corresponding to borderlands like Africa where, according to Barnett, for example, globalisation has failed to click and it was up to the US to fix it, even if it means boots on the ground.

Today, it is argued that this manner of conceptualising global security laid the foundation for the current securitisation of Africa in US foreign policy by imagining that Africa is a substantially ungoverned continent, a space that acts as an incentive to anarchy and, therefore, a threat to US national security. And that claim is exemplified by the story of a former commander of US Special Operations Command who introduced the next theatre of battle by inviting his troops to take a good look at ‘The World Map at Night’, one of NASA’s pictures in which there are parts of the world corresponding to the zone of order and the zone of disorder. So, in that story, theory and practice merge. So, what people like Kaplan, Barnett, Huntington, (Clash of Civilisations), Fukuyama (End of History) and the host of scholars of hegemonic power write translates to policy or power, thereby proving unconventional geographers right that it is not geographical features but our opinion of them that matters. Otherwise, what makes the US-Mexico border a governed space but Nigeria-Chad an ungoverned space? Both are simply difficult borders to patrol. Terrorists use them but they did not produce terrorists.

But what might an African president say? His or her option might not be to debate whether Kaplan or Barnett was right or wrong but persuade the US and China to lead a joint response to the Nigerian condition via a strategy of rapid industrialisation. That provides the only guarantee against Nigeria being an ungoverned space. Neither Nigeria nor Africa is in a position to be keen about who wins a US-China rivalry in Africa or globally when, in any case, the two are talking to each other and expanding mutual intelligibility. Let security as spies, boots on ground, drones and electronic surveillance give way to rapid industrialisation. Nigeria as an industrial economy is hundred times more useful to the US, China and more secure for its citizens. Happy Washington trip to Leko!