The geopolitics of space
Classical geopolitical analysis has examined the three-dimensional spatial structure of international political relations, encompassing land, sea and air space. Since the last third of the twentieth century, however, the dominant concept of geopolitical thinking has been the coordinates of five-dimensional space.
The geopolitics of space

The geopolitics of space

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24/01/2024 11:46

Classical geopolitical analysis has examined the three-dimensional spatial structure of international political relations, encompassing land, sea and air space. Since the last third of the twentieth century, however, the dominant concept of geopolitical thinking has been the coordinates of five-dimensional space.

The traditional threefold approach has been extended to include the phenomenon of cyberspace, which is part of the Aerospace and the broader Infosphere. As a result of technological and technical progress on a vast and unimaginable scale, space has become an integral part not only of our daily lives but also of the contest for power between the actors in the international relations system. Space, as astropolitics, is therefore a subject of geopolitical research in its own right. Everett Dolman, who is considered an inescapable author on the subject, sees himself as a modern-day exponent of political realism and the intellectual heir to the legacy of classical geopolitical thinkers, notably Alfred Thayer Mahan, Sir Halford John Mackinder and Nicholas Spykman. He has therefore subtitled his book Astropolitics, Classical Geopolitics in the Space Age. Applying Mackinder's phrase about heartland, which has become a scientific catchphrase, to our own time, and referring to the importance of space, he emphasises: “Who controls Low-Earth Orbit controls Near-Earth Space. Who controls Near-Earth Space dominates Terra. Who dominates Terra determines the destiny of humankind.”

 Similar problems and questions are addressed in Toward a Theory of Spacepower - Selected Essays, published in Washington in 2013, and in CiberElcano, a monthly journal published by the Elcano Institute in Madrid.

   Everett Dolman's starting point is the idea that the power contest in space is as much a contest for power - at present still primarily between states - as it is in three-dimensional space. However, space also has its own specific characteristics, which necessitate an adaptation of the conceptual framework of classical theory and the introduction of a new system of categories.                           

 Like other systems, space, which has become a terrain for power struggles, is made up of different spatial elements that are in integral contact with each other.  These spatial elements have characteristics that make them suitable for hosting and operating space assets for military, civil, scientific, medical, meteorological, etc. purposes, and for outlining alternative future options and solutions and power strategies for the survival of humanity. Orbital space is defined by its altitude and eccentricity, its outward expansion and dilation. The orbital plane is where the various spacecraft, satellites and space vehicles orbit. The orbital plane is characterised by a constant and variable altitude. The maximum distance from the Earth, or apogee, gives us a comprehensive picture of our planet. The near-Earth or lower altitude (perigee) is used to map the details. Spacecraft orbit in the elliptical orbit of orbital space. Deviations from this are quantified in relation to latitude north and latitude south. The equatorial plane is the highest point of 90o from the Earth's poles. The inclination indicates the deviation from the elliptical orbit, and the ascending node indicates the point of transition to a higher trajectory.

In the case of Earth orbit, spacecraft can be distinguished according to their orbital distance from a low-altitude trajectory of 150 to 800 kilometres, a medium-altitude trajectory of 800 to 35 000 kilometres, and a high-altitude trajectory of more than 35 000 kilometres. The geostationary orbital trajectory, which rotates with the Earth at a distance of 36 000 kilometres from the Earth's surface, orbiting in the equatorial plane for 24 hours

From these trajectories and orbital systems, space can be divided into four geopolitical regions by adapting the Mackinder classification according to geopolitical scales and levels. One of these is the Earth, which is the general habitat of humanity. This sphere, as interpreted by Everett Dolman, corresponds to East-Central Europe according to the Mackinder formula. The geostationary zone covers the Earth's space up to a distance of 36 000 kilometres. It is the theatre of space weaponry and long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles. Moving further away from the Earth's centre, we arrive at the lunar space. Finally, by adapting the Mackinder concept, we come to what is known as the core space of the Sun, or the solar system.

Dolman also borrows from Mahan's theory of control and collision points for sea lanes. On this basis, he identifies five specific points in space over which, by gaining control, the gravitational forces of the Earth and the Moon can cancel each other out. This will allow the opposing powers in aerospace to destroy the space assets of the unfriendly party. For the rational definition and deployment of control and impact points in space, Dolman also pays attention to the Van Allen radiation zones. Their significance for the theory of geopolitics is that they indicate the limits and possibilities for the deployment of space objects for different purposes. An inner belt of 400 to 10 000 kilometres still protects the astronaut and the space object from damage and hazards. As far as we know today, the outer belt can no longer provide this.                            

The change in the traditional conception of space, the conquest of space and the birth of space programmes are linked to four major technical discoveries and innovations developed in war. The British radar, the German ballistic missile, the American electronic computer and the atomic bomb fundamentally changed the way space, its extent and dimensions, and the geopolitical analysis of international relations were viewed up to the 1940s. At the same time, it must be said that the practical application and further development of these innovations suffered a delay as the urgency of winning and ending the war passed.

The accelerated pace and widespread exploitation of these technological innovations in the international relations of the Cold War, which had become in some ways bipolar, came to the fore when the Soviet Union produced the hydrogen bomb in 1949, launched the first Sputnik in 1957 and shot down the US U-2 spy plane over Sverdlovsk in 1960. From that moment on, the life-and-death competition between the two superpowers to expand their spheres of influence intensified. In this rivalry, the geopolitical space, now five-dimensional, played an increasingly important role.

The struggle between states and other players in the system of international relations and international society for the possession of airspace and, more recently, aerospace, has begun. The occupation and use of space, which in international law, like Antarctica, can be understood as res nullius (no man's land, no man's territory) or res communis (a space for the benefit of all, for the use of all), and not only for the long term and not only for peaceful purposes, still raises a number of questions that need to be resolved. The difference between res nullius and res communis, in theory and in principle, is enormous.  If a thing belongs to no one and is the property of no one, the traditional interpretation of international law is that the first person to take possession of it acquires ownership or the right to dispose of it. This typically colonialist view is untenable in our time. Space is the common treasure and heritage of humanity. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that the great powers and the economically, politically and militarily leading states have acquired a privileged position in air and space. Satellites in orbit around the Earth are not only used for economic, scientific, meteorological and commercial purposes.

Information from space is essential for gaining and maintaining air superiority and for winning wars. Airspace and space are not two separate media. In fact, there is no rigid dividing line between the two categories; in fact, they constitute a single and indivisible space of operational operations. Outer space can be seen as a natural and logical extension of airspace; the domination of space can be understood as a cumulative result of the ever-increasing development of airspace. More precisely, we live in the space age, our operations take place in the “space age”. In other words, the integration of airspace and outer space is a natural and logical step in the development of air power.        

And this, together with Cyberspace, the fifth dimension of the changing geopolitical perception of space, has fundamentally changed the relationship between space, time, politics and political power. An era of simultaneity and identity of space and time has dawned. In the world of chronopolitics, the notion of space as a specific physical reality is disappearing and becoming increasingly marginalised. The “traditional” spaces are being replaced by “spacelesness”, a space without a concrete form, a physically imperceptible “spacelessness”. The space that appears in this way can be called anti-geography, or space against geography.

All these factors also have an impact on the world of politics linked to territoriality and the territorial principle, on the behaviour of one of its most important representatives, the state, on the role of the state, on the functions of the state and on the content of sovereignty. It is not simply a question of the integrationist tendencies that go hand in hand with globalisation. The changes are much more cardinal, radical and far-reaching. The process of moving politics into the virtual world has begun. In the era of chronopolitics, politics is becoming detached and independent from the real world. In the twenty-first century, post-Cold War geopolitical thinking has had to locate and explore the laws of motion of the power contest in the different arenas of the international system in an unprecedented spatial context.

It is these questions, tasks and relations that are the subject of this issue of Eurasia magazine.

The author is a Doctor of the MTA (Hungarian Academy of Sciences), retired University Professor

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