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Critiquing 'A Critique of Critical Geopolitics'

Francis Gonzaga, 13 August 2020

In ‘A Critique of Critical Geopolitics’, Phil Kelly deconstructs critical geopolitics to expose its fundamental flaws. By doing so, Kelly hopes to resurrect classical geopolitics and defend its traditional outlook in a post-modern world. He uses a general comparison between critical and classical geopolitics to disguise his critique of the former and add a great degree of neutrality to his article. Ultimately, Kelly postulates the necessary collaboration between the perceived binary notions for their complementarity. Nevertheless, Kelly remains a strong proponent of classical geopolitics and seeks to augment its value in the international affairs discipline, especially at a time during which critical geopolitics is championed.

State and individual interests are increasingly intertwined

The dichotomy between these two concepts materialise in the first feature of critical geopolitics: levels of analysis. Kelly advocates for the combination of the two structures, uniting a classical macroscopic system-first ideology (Kelly 2006, p.31) with a critical microscopic view focused on decision making (Kelly 2006, p.30). However, a combination in today’s hyper-globalised world would be futile. Firstly, modernism has encouraged pluralism which has inevitably transformed state interests into a composite concept. Accordingly, each person in a leadership position has their own vision of how a country should operate. Even proceeding under the assumption that leaders will always act in their state’s best interests –a core tenant of the classical argument – there will still be policy differences among leaders who observe different realities. For example, while the current Singaporean government believe it is in the state’s best interests to maintain economic and social stability, the opposition party argue it is to eradicate the climate of fear. Moreover, although Australia’s outcry for an investigation into the origins of COVID-19 may have strengthened U.S security ties, it has had austere repercussions on Australia’s economic partnership with Beijing. Evidently, state interests can be construed in multiple ways, which is why Kelly’s support for a combined application of classical and critical geopolitics is limited. Hence, classical ideologies are largely inapplicable to today’s dynamic current affairs.

Figure 1: Liu (2017)

The importance of reality in geopolitics

For the rest of the critical geopolitical features, Kelly explores the prominent themes that contend with classical philosophy. One theme that he accentuates is the nonexistence of reality: a characteristic of the ontological perspective feature of critical geopolitics (Kelly 2006, p.37). Essentially, the distortion of reality allows critical proponents to integrate their cultural and political disposition into power politics (Kelly 2006, p.37). For example, China’s spatialisation pursuit in the South China Sea has challenged objective geographical demarcations (Perlez 2016): a key feature of classical geopolitics. Mark Beeson corroborates this by highlighting how political hegemony can ignite new paradigms of geographical boundaries (Beeson 2009, p.506). Furthermore, the myriad of territorial claims within the South China Sea substantiate the subjectivity of borders. Hence, there can be no objective reality, and without any overarching structure, theories like classical geopolitics that claim to evaluate state politics based on objectivity are rendered somewhat obsolete (Kelly 2006, p.38). Moreover, critical geopolitics can be broken down into formal, practical, popular and structural geopolitics (Tuathail 1999, p.109), all of which are equipped with capabilities to handle these idiosyncratic realities. Accordingly, forcing a collaboration between critical and classical philosophies would again be imprudent in a post-modern world.

Old solutions cannot be used for new problems

Kelly concludes with an evaluation of the binary philosophies, emphasising their complementarity. He underlines how the critical can embellish our understanding of the classical, justifying why we should not attack the latter (Kelly 2006, p.47). However, it is increasingly difficult to apply classical paradigms to the current complex global discourse. Primarily, the proliferation of technology and readily available information have fundamentally shifted cultural paradigms (Tuathail 1999, p.108). Additionally, the Cold-War has had irrevocable effects on regional prosperity. It has created the notion that power is not just exclusive to one’s own geographical boundaries but also to the boundaries of one’s allies. This illuminates the concept that geopolitics is fundamentally power politics (Tuathail 1999, p. 108). As Beeson discusses, the U.S goal of a united East Asia is largely contingent on regional engagement and the sustainment of security relationships (Beeson 2009, p.507). Emerging ideas like these undermine Kelly’s classical take on epistemology, great power hegemony and the timeless dimension to geopolitics.


In conclusion, Kelly’s ‘A Critique of Critical Geopolitics’ represents a significant study for the international affairs discipline. It comprehensively articulates the differences between classical and critical geopolitics. However, instead of welcoming a transition to new-age critical ideology, Kelly has brandished classical paradigms to showcase its value. Yet, through a close study of other sources and real-life events, it becomes evident that a collaboration between classical and critical geopolitics would simply impede the process of ascertaining the significance of respective foreign policies.


Beeson, M 2009, ‘Geopolitics and the Making of Regions: The Fall and Rise of East Asia’, Political Studies, vol. 57, no. 3, pp.498-516, accessed 29 June 2020 from SAGE Premier 2019, ISSN; 00323217, DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9248.2008.00744.x.

Kelly, P 2006, ‘A Critique of Critical Geopolitics’, Geopolitics, vol. 11, no.1, pp. 24-53, accessed 27 June 2020 from CAUL Taylor & Francis Journals, ISSN; 14650045.

Tuathail, G 1999, ‘Understanding critical geopolitics: Geopolitics and risk society’, The Journal of Strategic Studies, vol. 22, pp. 107-124, accessed 29 June 2020 from CAUL Taylor & Francis Journals, ISSN; 01402390, DOI: 10.1080/01402399908437756.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Politik's editorial stance or the views of UNSW. 


Get to know the Author

Francis Gonzaga is a 3rd-year undergraduate student at UNSW, studying a Bachelor of Commerce and a Bachelor of Arts. He is interested in international relationships, specifically how nations reconcile state and international interests. He is also passionate about education reform in developing countries and social entrepreneurship. This is Francis' first contribution to Politik Insights.

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