Diplomacy and Its Practice VII. International Relations, Geopolitics and Diplomacy

by Dr. Luis Ritto*

“To know a nation’s geography is to know its foreign policy” – Napoleon Bonaparte (Emperor of France from 1804 to 1814).

“Geography is an earthly subject, but a heavenly science” – Edmund Burke (Irish statesman, 1729-1797).

This article is mainly about geopolitics and two related subfields of it: political geography and geostrategy. And how they influence and impact on international relations and diplomacy. In fact, at a time when the world is seeing the rise of new world and regional powers (China, India, Brazil, Iran…), globalisation is making progress and instability is growing in many parts of the world leading to some countries having seen their borders being changed by force (the annexation of Crimea by Russia, for example), the study of geography and geopolitics is fundamental for experts and politicians to understand the motivation of countries and regions in the world stage and how strategies need to be built to address and confront them.

Both geography and geopolitics are important because the world in which we live is limited by space and resources. The survival of countries and their behaviour in the international arena is therefore influenced by both of them. This is particularly true in the era of high technology and instant communication in which we live today. In the same way as facts like history, sociology, economy and anthropology cannot be ignored when studying world matters, one need to take also into account geography because it is an important factor which clearly allows for a better understanding of international politics.

According to Professor Jakub Grygiel of Johns Hopkins University in the United States, geography is a combination of two factors: immutable geological factors (such as the patterns of lands, seas, rivers, mountains, mineral resources and climate zones) and the human capacity to adapt to them through changes in production and communication technology. The outcome of this combination of geography and human activities has three variables: the layout of trade routes, the location of resources and the nature of state borders. All of which are instrumental for the study of international relations and diplomatic strategies. This has lead Grygiel to say that geography is a geopolitical reality to which states respond by formulating and pursuing their geostrategies (1).

Besides that, Prof. Grygiel has argued that nations can only maintain and even increase their position of power by pursuing strategies based on the control of resources and lines of communication. For this purpose and to strengthen his point of view, Grygiel gives as examples the cases of Venice, the Ottoman Empire and China in the 15th century AD; all great powers that faced a dramatic change in geopolitics when new sea routes and continents were discovered in that epoch, especially by countries like Portugal and Spain. The location of resources, the new trade routes and the instability of state boundaries played a large role in the failure of those three powers. Grygiel asserts therefore that, though many other aspects of foreign policy have changed throughout history, strategic response to geographical features remains one of the most salient factors in establishing and maintaining power in the international arena. It is consequently something that cannot be ignored in current times (2).

In this sense, geostrategy is clearly a subfield of geopolitics, it is a type of foreign policy guided mainly by geographical factors as they inform and affect the political and military planning of nations. As with all strategies, geostrategy is concerned with matching means and ends, that is, in this case by adapting the resources of a country with its political objectives. Gray and Sloan state that “geography is the mother of strategy” (3).

Going back to Jakub Grygiel, he says that geostrategy is the geographic direction of a state’s foreign policy. More precisely, geostrategy describes where a country concentrates its external policies, its diplomatic activity and projects its economic and military power (4). While geopolitics is essentially neutral, geostrategy involves comprehensive planning and the assigning of means for the achievement of national goals as well as securing political and military assets. Also, it is about crafting a political presence in international system.

Besides what is written above, we would like to mention too that geostrategic experts pay great attention to the following four factors in the study and design of foreign policies: demography, the future geopolitics of energy, technology and culture. In fact, they all make an ensemble that allows us to see in which direction the world is moving.

We start by demography. Demography is (simply put) the study of human numbers: population size and composition and the trends in population change. August Comte, the 19th century French mathematician and sociologist once wrote that “demography is destiny”. And it is destiny because demographic forces and changes, that is the shifts in human numbers, ages and locations, affects the long term supply of human capital, thus influencing everything from labour and pension costs to the availability of skilled workers (which in turn affect productivity and the wealth of nations).

Because of their impact on economic and social strategies, demographic experts are following closely the fact that in many parts of the world populations are fast declining and getting old (as it is the case in the Western part of the world), whereas in other parts of the world the population is growing in huge numbers (as it is mainly the case of Asia and Africa). Experts from the UN Population Division expect the human population to grow to 9.15 billion people by 2050 (from the current number of 7.125 billion people) and then to start declining. This growth will be uneven with concentrations of old people in both the rich and poor countries. Besides, more people will be urban, with all that means in terms of the need to feed them provide them with clean water and to supply them with energy. Strategists therefore need to look at the link between rising populations, food and energy consumption and consider what arable land, water and energy resources are available to satisfy the needs of the future world population.

Of particular concern in this area is the availability of drinking water for a population of more than 9 billion people. Experts predict that there will not be enough fresh water in the world for such a large number of people and that the wars of the future will certainly be fought around this lack of clean, drinking water!

According to UN-Water, an inter-agency of the United Nations, 97 percent of the earth’s water is salt water and only 3 percent is fresh water. All major human activities (agriculture, industry, household, environmental…) require fresh water. To be able to feed and support the world’s growing population, the global economy needs also to grow. But the supply of fresh water is decreasing which can impact negatively in the future world economic output, including in particular in the production of food. In fact, water for irrigation and food production constitutes one of the greatest pressures on fresh water resources. Agriculture accounts for around 70 percent of fresh water use in the world and in some cases (like for example in fast growing economies) it can attain 90 percent of sweet water withdrawals. These issues, which are interconnected, cannot be neglected in all future strategies: increased agricultural output will substantially increase both water and energy consumption, leading to increased competition for fresh water between water-using countries. Therefore, a grim perspective!

Another area of attention for geostrategists is the one of energy, in particular oil and gas. Crude oil and liquid hydrocarbons are the lifeblood of the modern world, but they are not infinite. One day, may be sooner than later, they will come to an end! UN experts estimate that at present rates of consumption the oil and gas reserves of the world will certainly last another 40 to 50 years and then they will gradually start to come to an end. And that at a time when the world’s population will be much larger than today and more of it industrialised, and therefore more oil dependent.

The result of this depletion of energy reserves will certainly be the rising costs of fuel oil affecting manufacturing and transport (shipping, aviation and road travel). Also oil price increases will have a negative impact in the agricultural field because they will affect the commodity cost of producing stable food stuffs such as wheat, rice, maize, rye and root vegetables such as potatoes, yams, taro and cassava. No wonder therefore that the wars of the past decades have been mainly fought around energy matters, which leads us to think that they might take place again in the future. And it is no surprise also that the main strategies of all countries of the world are built around their future energy needs, including the safety of routes to transport oil and gas to their countries. This is therefore a matter of survival that no country can neglect!

In what concerns technology and culture, they are also taken into account by experts when designing foreign strategies for their countries. Countries are generally attracted to the ones which have similar cultural values and traditions to theirs; that is they are drawn by the ideas, beliefs, values and knowledge which constitute the bases of their social action. In the West for example, arts, languages, customs and values like democracy, human rights, good governance and free trade have for several decades now been a foreign priority strategy of Western countries in their relations to other nations.

The same can be said of technology and science. The technological development of countries and thetechnology possibility of scientific exchanges are always taken into account by geostrategists in the design of foreign policies. And this because accelerated technological development is generally linked to power and in many cases to military strength. This can greatly affect the relations between countries and their so-called balance of power. In fact, technology is often used to further foreign policy ends and to promote scientific development and technological innovation.

Important too for the study of geography in international relations is political geography, another subfield of geopolitics. Political geography is about geography and its relationship with politics. Whereas political geography is geography as it is affected by politics (i.e. the functioning of states), geopolitics is politics as they are affected by geography. In short, we can say that political geography is a discipline that is concerned both with politics and geography and studies things such as the borders of states, the political structure of states and the relationship between states (including their bilateral treaties, trade and economic agreements, military alliances, etc.). And geopolitics studies political systems, with particular focus on the ensemble of relations between the interests of international political actors as well as interests focused to an area, space and geographical element and ways.

From what is mentioned in the previous paragraph, we need not to forget to talk also about power and state borders for both are fundamental to allow us to have a better understanding of world politics and how foreign policies are designed. Borders, political scientists say, as the political and territorial limits of states are socio-territorial constructs, which shape the character of nations and are closely linked to sovereignty and identity. They must be respected, not transgressed! Their position in space and geography together with the resources that are within their borders are always taken into account by geostrategists in the design of foreign policies.

In what concerns power, it is central to international relations, diplomacy and world politics. Academics generally use the term “power” to denote a country’s military capability and the amount of influence it wields in the international system. But, it is also understood as control over resources, capabilities and outcomes. And this is so because for many scholars all politics involves power; this is not to say that international politics is only about power. With the result that the main aim of all states is to obtain and increase power. And since all states seek to maximize their power, international politics is conceived as a struggle between independent nations seeking to dominate others and placing high value on maintaining their independence and security.

As mentioned in previous papers of mine, power can be hard (mainly military), soft (diplomacy and cooperation) and a mixture of the two (smart power). Traditionally therefore, strategists look at the power of foreign countries (political, military, economic…) and compare them with their sizes, population, wealth, resources and geographic location in order to draw the strategies that can best support their foreign strategies.


“Geography, not the clash of civilisations, is the basic reason for the world conflicts” – Robert Kaplan in the “Revenge of Geography” (2013).

We hope that what has been written in the previous chapters show clearly the importance of geography and geopolitics to international relations and diplomacy. In fact, they are at the core of foreign policy making and are instrumental in the design of international strategies.

International relations demand a better understanding of geography. Geography has been throughout history, one of the most powerful drivers of world events and will certainly continue being a driver of international events in the future. According to Robert D. Kaplan, an American thinker and journalist, in order to understand today’s current problems: religious conflict, war and political instability, one need look no further than a map! For him, when the political ground shifts under one’s feet, it is the map that provides the most important information towards discerning an historical logic about what might come next in world affairs (5).

For quite a long time, politicians believed that globalisation would dilute the differences caused by geography. The reality however has shown that globalisation has reinforced the significance of geography and that in particular political geography has become influential for the work of geostrategists.

No work in the field of international relations is complete without the support of history and geography. As they are indeed the key to a better understanding of world events.

*About the author:

Dr. Luis Ritto is the former EU Ambassador to the Holy See and the Order of Malta and former EU Permanent Representative to the United Nations Organisations, ISPD Emeritus Professor and expert on diplomacy, diplomatic protocol and world affairs.


(1). In: Great Powers and Geopolitical Change by Jakub J. Grygiel (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011).

(2). Ibidem.

(3). In: Geopolitics, Geography and Strategy by Colin S. Gray and Sloan Geoffrey (Frank Class, London and Portland, 1999).

(4). In: Great Powers and Geopolitical Change by Jakub J. Grygiel (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011).

(5). In: The Revenge of Geography by Robert D. Kaplan (Radom House, New York, September 2013).