Critical geopolitics: The social construction of space and place in the practice of statecraft

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




John Agnew


United States, South Africa, Geography, International law, International relations

Subject Categories

International Relations


This dissertation is an attempt to develop a critical intellectual practice devoted to the understanding and refutation of orthodox geopolitics, which is part of a contemporary hegemonic world order of militarism, nuclear terror and pervasive structural violence. It argues that the practices of geography and geopolitics are not disinterested recordings of already legible surfaces. Rather, geography and geopolitics are technologies of earth-writing: they help construct and write a particular world which is projected as being an essential copy of a supposed natural world. It is argued that the very acts of seeing, reading and writing are never natural but mediated by social, historical and geographical contexts. Worlds are social not natural, constructed not given, scripted not immanently meaningful. All human practice can be regarded as engaging in the writing of worlds, or, more specifically, the writing of spaces and places to compose a world (or worlds). Practices such as foreign policy and international relations are participants in the social construction of worlds. The practice of statecraft is innately geopolitical for it involves the political writing of spaces and places in international politics. This geopolitics has two forms: first order or "high" academic and formalized geopolitical reasoning such as that of Mackinder and other supposed "wise men" of geopolitics, and second and third order geopolitical reasoning which is of a more tacit, common-sense type.

The implications of this theoretical argument for the study of foreign policy are explored in two empirically orientated chapters: one on tacit American geopolitics and the second on the geopolitics (formal and tacit) of U.S. foreign policy towards South and southern Africa. It is argued that the study of how geopolitics works is, in part, the study of how hegemony (in the Gramscian sense) in the modern world order functions. American foreign policy is characterized by a self-centered panoptic and U.S. foreign policy in South and southern Africa write that place as both "strategic" and "tragic".


Surface provides description only. Full text is available to ProQuest subscribers. Ask your Librarian for assistance.