The Geopolitics of Peace Operations: A Research Agenda
Since the end of the Cold War, the academic study of peace operations has under-gone remarkable growth. What was a relatively secluded sub-specialty of political science ﬁfteen years ago has since matured into a burgeoning ﬁeld that cuts across traditional disciplinary divides. The result is a theoretically diverse and empirically rich body of scholarship that ranges from ‘critical’ to ‘problem-solving’ types of analyses, and encompasses both qualitative and quantitative approaches. This diversity is not only a source of creative tension for scholars of peace operations. It is also an indication of the ﬁeld’s dynamism and intellectual health. One recent (and welcome) trend in this literature has been its increased attention to the local dimensions of peace efforts, including the micro-dynamics of conﬂict processes and peacebuilding in towns and rural areas, the interaction of indigenous governance practices and the institutional models that international actors import into the host society, and the ‘hybrid’ political forms that sometimes result from such interactions. These investigations provide important counterpoints to macro-level analyses of peace operations, which have typically focused on the interveners’ mandates and the national politics of the country in question.
However, the closer one gets to the local speciﬁcities of individual peace operations, the easier it may be to lose sight of the broader patterns of these missions, including how they ﬁt into – and are reﬂections of – international politics writ large. Although studies of the micro-dynamics of peace operations are essential, the ﬁeld also needs to continue examining these operations as products and instruments of the international system. Macro analyses are especially important during a period of systemic change, such as the one we appear to be living through now: Power seems to be diffusing away from the United States and the Western ‘core’ of the international system, towards rising states in the ‘periphery’ and non-state actors. If, as I explain below, peace operations have always reﬂected the pre-vailing material and ideational conditions of international politics, and if we are now witnessing a shift in these conditions – including the rise of actors who have different strategic interests and ideas about what types of international interventions and domestic governance structures are legitimate or desirable – what, then, are the implications of these structural changes for the conception and execution of peace operations?
There are many ways to explore this question, but in this article I argue that the concept of geopolitics offers a promising point of entry. I organize this discussion around three different connotations of the term, each of which provides an interesting lens to examine the changing character of peace missions. First, geopolitics may refer to competition among major powers or aspiring major powers ‘for control over territory, resources and important geographical positions’. Second, it may describe the constitutive norms of global politics, or the assumptions and beliefs that serve to ‘generate agents, endow them with certain capabilities and powers, and determine their underlying identities, interests, and preferences’. Finally, it may denote the relationship between political structures and physical geography, or the role of territory (and ideas about territory) in the organization of politics. Research into the relationship between geopolitics and peace operations along all three of these dimensions has the potential to shed light on these missions and their interaction with the macro level of international politics. A further side-beneﬁt of this research agenda is that it can accommodate a wide variety of analytical styles, thus mirroring – and strengthening – the ﬁeld’s theoretical and methodological diversity.