Saturday 30 December 2023


I was reading a book almost totally unconnected from wargaming. I know, I know, but it does happen and is encouraged by the Estimable Mrs P., who, for reasons I do not understand, does not wish to talk about the finer details of Alexander’s phalanx, Cromwell’s deployment at Naseby and similar subjects. At least, not all the time.

So, there I was, innocently reading a book about the history of libraries, when I came across a reference to do with the Jesuits creating a college in Poland. This was noted in the book as being geopolitically significant. It just did not say why.

I could think of a few reasons why Poland was geopolitically significant in the late 16th Century. To start off with there were Protestant enclaves around in Poland and the surrounding region – Scandinavia, for example. It was also next door to Muscovy, which probably had some sort of missionary interest for the Jesuits. After all, they were busy getting into China, Japan, and South America at the time.

But still, I was slightly intrigued. Why was a college in northern Poland determined, even a book about the history of libraries, to be deemed geopolitically significant? Anyway, what is geopolitics?

Those who know me will also know that I do not like such questions. A quick search on Google did not satisfy my quest for understanding, and so a book was purchased:

Dodds, K. (2019), Geopolitics: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, OUP).

As the attentive reader of this blog might be aware, I rather like these Very Short Introductions. They do what they say on the tin and are usually quite up to date, or at least give a good launch pad into further literature. This one is reassuringly in its third edition, which means that other people must like it as well.

Geopolitics is not quite what I expected, I confess, at least on Dodds’ account. It is not that far away, admittedly, but when I worked at a university I noticed that geographers were trying not only to colonise the geographical world but also the intellectual world. I once worked with a student whose research, as a geographer, was on madness and not the spatial distribution of mental health problems either. It is probably a good job she never found out I was a wargamer.

Anyway, geopolitics is defined (p. 3) as involving three qualities. These are questions of influence and power over space and territory. Secondly, geographical frames are used to make sense of world affairs. Thirdly, it is future oriented, trying to guess the future activity of states, assuming that their interests are basically unchanging.

All of these are questionable assumptions and positions, of course, and, this being the postmodern academy, they are certainly questioned. There is a strand of thought called ‘critical’ geopolitics which asks questions which most people do not, such as ‘why are most economic migrants male?’ and ‘what were the routes used in extraordinary rendition?’. A section is devoted to these sorts of awkward questions, and they keep coming up. Any quick perusal of a news website today shows the relevance of these questions, even if most media outlets do not wish to ask them, let alone get any answers.

Geopolitics, as future-oriented, is not, on the face of it, terribly helpful to a wargamer. I mean that, given the term is more or less confined to the Twentieth Century as a subject, and that it was for many years after 1945 a sort of academic poison due to perceived links with the politics of Nazi Germany, particularly the idea of lebensraum, it has not been much applied, so far as I can tell, to historical issues. Nevertheless, I think it does have some concepts and ideas which might make us pause to consider our wargaming, especially those of us who create a play campaign games.

For example, have you ever wondered why countries down the centuries have spent so much money on prestige projects? Even in the midst of a crisis, plague, and civil war world leaders have found the time to pose for portraits, and send them to allies or friends (or hoped for allies). Again, states have built large buildings, or thrown parties for visiting dignitaries. Siena, for example, stopped work on updating its defences in the early 1550s to welcome some posh dude who might help in the future. These activities may seem to be vanity or a distraction from the main event, the military, but the argument is that they were worth doing, to show off.

A lot depends on our senses of identity. As an example Dodds uses the Falkland Islands, noting that Argentina still regards them as Argentine in spite of recent history, and that maps of the Islands adorn monuments and school books. In parallel, of course, British maps mark the Falklands differently. Similarly, recent Chinese maps with dotted lines around the South China Sea have upset and worried countries around that area. The point is that objects – maps, books, memorials, buildings – are statements of some sort of identity, whether that identity is present or aspired to.

There are lots of other issues (did I mention that geography seems to aspire to academic hegemony?). Social media, for example, not only allows international terrorists to communicate, but world wide protest movements to take off. The example given is the Occupy movement of 2010, but others could be adduced. After all, without social media would we have heard of Greta Thurnburg?

So there is an awful lot in this little book. Not much, admittedly, is directly applicable to wargaming per se, although for anyone who is running a campaign based around competing nations it might be worth pondering if you should build in some vanity projects to build a nation’s reputation without it having to go to war and win battles and sieges. It would be an interesting exercise, but would not, of course, get toy soldiers on the wargame table.

On the other hand, building a military force in a peaceful world could also be thought be be a vanity project. Like a gun on the table in a play, sooner or later you know it will be used. Now, where is the nearest bunker?


  1. I really enjoyed reading that. I found it both highly amusing and interesting. Amusing as a good wargaming friend of mine was recently telling me of the expansion of university geographers into all facets, far beyond maps and things that we think of when we hear the word 'geography', so I read your quips with great mirth. Interesting to read what is included in the book and your thoughts about it. I was struck by what seems not to be included (except by inference). To me the essence of geopolitics is national self interest. That is a topic that is of great interest to me as a wargamer who comes at the hobby from an interest in history. It is central to a broader understanding of warfare from casus belli to events that follow, alliances and alignments and any eventual peace or capitulation.
    Regards, James

    1. Thank you. It is quite fun t consider the raise of academic subjects - at one point physics was doing the same, and now I suspect AI is moving up the inside.
      Anyway, national self-interest is certainly a part of geopolitics, I think, but the book examines more what lies behind the perceived national self-interest. After all, nations, or their elites, can act against what turns out to be the nation's self-interest - we can think of a number, such as Mussolini entering WW2 as an example, but there are plenty more. But the interesting question, perhaps, is why they thought that. Many leaders (although by no more all) are reasonably intelligent and rational, yet get sucked into generating carnage. A lot to think about.