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The Post-Cold War Hybridization of Geopolitical Concepts

The Post-Cold War Hybridization of Geopolitical Concepts

The fall of the Berlin Wall, the implosion of the USSR and the end of the Cold War 

On November 9, 1989, humanity registered an event whose concrete, yet symbolic value continues to echo to the present day: the wall that had split not only Berlin, but Europe and the whole world as well, started to crumble… Was the Cold War ending? Did the bipolar world not exist anymore? Were the spheres of influence disintegrating? What was going to happen to the US and USSR, the two superpowers? These questions were waiting for an answer. Scenarios such as The End of History (Fukuyama, 1992) and The Clash of Civilizations (Huntington, 1996) were trying to predict what the world would look like after the fall of the Berlin Wall while new phrases were starting to materialize gradually, first in the media, then, timidly in the academic circles, both as discourse and in university courses, after half a century of geopolitical “prohibition”. However, the great international events were not waiting. The start of a new geopolitical world and international order were foreshadowed.

While events were approaching the USSR border (the domino of the revolutions of Eastern Europe), the complications grew, which resulted in Valentin Naumescu’s use of the term “varying geometry of the periphery”. The power games on the periphery had considerable influence on what was happening inside the geopolitical structures.

The periphery were not represented through a political and administrative border (a simple line on a map), but through a larger space, a true geopolitical border, which acted as a buffer zone, or a grey zone, meaning either an inactive geopolitical space (politically indecisive, belonging to none of the geopolitical structures), or the opposite, a highly active one (where both the interests of the West and the USSR manifested simultaneously).

A great part of what the post-Cold War geopolitics meant was influenced by the dynamic of the geopolitical border between the West and the Russia, which had initially been travelling constantly to the East (the former ideological East) – “Europe’s march to the sunrise” (Serebrian, 2009) – and was then stopped as Russia refined its geopolitical and geostrategic instruments, ending up stuck on the Pontus-Baltic isthmus (Neacșu, 2020).

Three decades after the events, the Pontus-Baltic isthmus is just as popular through an authentic annexation war, brought to Ukraine by Vladimir Putin on the 24th of February, 2022. 

The “hidden” terminology of the Cold War 

During the Cold War (1945-1989/1991), the global geopolitical system was divided between two poles of power, creating the bipolar world (two comparable military, nuclear and space superpowers), respectively the USA and the USSR, each representing their own ideology and economic system (democracy vs. communism, liberalism vs socialism, market economy vs. command economy), utilizing slightly similar instruments (NATO vs. Treaty of Warsaw for military; EEC vs. COMECON, etc.).

Despite the discourse prohibition, there were at least three relevant phrases regarding geopolitical concepts: spheres of influence, hard power and ideology, the last one showcasing the bipolar system, geographically summarized by the phrases the Western World and the Eastern World. There was a Third World (economically underdeveloped states), which was not ideologically affiliated, but all of the other regional geopolitical systems were losing relevance in the face of the binary one enforcing itself at a global and local level.

The application of the three concepts was somewhat in tandem: every pole of power in every ideological bloc reserves the right – paraphrasing Helmuth Sonnenfeldt (US Secretary of State Adviser Henry Kissinger) – “to ensure the loyalty of states” (1975). Its own sphere of influence, in which it could have intervened militarily (manifestation of brute power). In reality, only the USSR moved the Red Army into its own sphere of influence for disciplinary action (Budapest 1956, Prague 1968 and we could add Lithuania in January 1991, but the disintegration of the USSR had already begun).

As for the favourite geopolitical actors of the Cold War, they were represented almost exclusively by states, the only repositories of power, which would send us epistemologically to classical or traditional geopolitics, springing from the great schools of geopolitical thought of interwar period. The two global players – the United States and the USSR – dominated the entire international system of states.

The power games were part of maintaining the nuclear balance (or the balance of terror, as it was also called), the competition for power symmetry being within the limits of zero-sum play (my gain is the opponent’s loss and vice versa). 

The ideological thaw. Cold Peace. The scripts 

After the fall of the “Iron Curtain” (Winston Churchill, 1946) between the two worlds, between the two ideological blocs, a series of scenarios were elaborated that tried to capture a possible evolution of the post-Cold War world.

A first idea, also explored by Francis Fukuyama in The End of History and the Last Man, was that the world would enter into a universal peace, a kind of pax liberalis as liberalism and democracy would conquer the planet (there was no such strong opposing ideology), geopolitics giving way to the economy or at most geoeconomics (military competition no longer making sense in a world where all states or all actors were interested in peace, forming a global economic system in which all were interdependent). This universal peace of Fukuyama, the “end of history” meaning the end of a history of military conflicts, wars, as it had been throughout the entire history of mankind, received a single condition related to the possibility of Russia (former ideological adversary) to return to the big stage, thus proving right the phrase of Cold Peace.

Just as (according to Mircea Malița) the Cold War was not exactly a war, the Cold Peace was not exactly a “peace”, especially warm, friendly, but a tense peace, with an eye on the deceased ideological foe, now represented by the Russian Federation. In addition, this “peace” was severely disturbed by the self-priming of the “Balkans of history” – both in Europe (the already classic Balkan conflicts, 1992-1995 and the continuation of Kosovo, which resulted in the break-up of Yugoslavia) and in Asia, more specifically from the European edge of Asia, respectively the Caucasian space (the Chechen war, to mention the most representative conflict). It is no coincidence that the phrase “barrel of gunpowder” referred to the Balkans.

On the other hand, the bipolar world specific to the Cold War had become unipolar, and the balance of power had given way to US hegemony (Pax Americana), the survivor of the Cold War as a superpower. In addition, a review of a few papers published in the first two decades after the end of the Cold War, with the exception of the two antithetical scenarios already presented (Fukuyama’s liberal peace and Huntington’s intercultural conflict), illustrates the way in which the world metamorphosed, from a geopolitical point of view, after the end of the Cold War: The Geopolitics of Chaos (Ramonet, 1998), The Great Chessboard (Brzezinski, 2000), The Retreat of the State (Strange, 2002), Games on the World Stage (Malița, 2007), The Revenge of Geography (Kaplan, 2014), Prisoners of Geography (Marshall, 2018), etc.

It shows how “chaos” seems to gives way to an organized world, strategies are developed, power games have rules, geopolitical actors multiply (it’s not just the state anymore like during the Cold War), the economy/geoeconomics seem to be preeminent over geopolitics, the latter mentioned works marking the inevitable return to geopolitics and to the manifestation of power explained by geography and conditioned by it. 

Conceptual mutations 

Post-Cold War developments were leading to a multiplicity of the global geopolitical system: Russia had returned to the “big chessboard”, China’s rise to the position of the world’s leading economic superpower was evident, and more regional powers were manifesting. In fact, moving the center of economic (and not just economic) gravity from the North Atlantic to the North Pacific has made it easier for the United States to withdraw from Europe.

If during the Cold War the established geopolitical actor was the state, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, non-state actors multiplied, which can generate geopolitical effects (pseudo-geopolitical actors): transnational companies (MNCs), international terrorist organizations (the case of ISIS/Daesh), global financial institutions (some of them empires unto themselves), NGOs (with global lobbying capacity), etc. To all this are added the supranational regional blocs: military (NATO), economic (EU, USMCA/the former NAFTA, etc.), groups (G7, G20, etc.), BRICS/N11 (Next eleven), etc.

All this multitude of actors warmed the geopolitical atmosphere, so that the Cold Peace was no longer a phrase that corresponded to reality. At the conceptual level, the shift from geopolitics (apparently a revolution in post-Cold War evolution) to geoeconomics seemed complete. Military competition had been replaced by economic competition, and manifestations of power were no longer explained and justified by geography, but by access to resources and markets. The economic instrument now prevails in power games. The ideological binomial WEST – EAST had given way to an economic one, respectively NORTH – SOUTH (Northern World – Southern World or more developed countries/MDCs – less developed countries/LDCs, the latter being congratulated with another phrase, emerging economies.

Thus, the spheres of influence during the Cold War (which supposed a territorial continuity, the two ideological blocs being relatively compact from this point of view) metamorphosed in the form of geopolitical, geostrategic and geoeconomic axes. The logic is different. Unlike unilateral membership in spheres of influence and classical military alliances (are you with me or against me, in one ideological bloc or the other), the geopolitical axis allowed for multiple memberships, at least at the level of manifestation (I am with you and with… others, at different levels, depending on interests): the example of Turkey is relevant, which, although a NATO member state and “candidate for EU accession”, has acquired Russian military technology, has various partnerships with Russia, is aggressive towards an EU member state (Greece), etc. Or, another example, Romania, an EU member state, has a strategic partnership with the USA, with which it is has closer ties than to the “Franco-German engine”. Other recent examples can be cited, such as the position of Hungary (or Poland) inside the European Union or Germany’s relationship with Russia, thanks to which the German position was quite ambiguous in the case of the conflict in Ukraine, etc.

And the concept of power itself has changed: from hard power specific to the Cold War to soft power, that of economic and cultural diplomacy, of attraction (not imposition by force as in the case of hard power) or mixes, such as smart power, a combination of the first two forms or sharp power, which manifests itself through deterrence and persuasion, with the influence of social, economic, political behaviour. The zero-sum game that dominated the Cold War had given way to the win-win game (in which all the actors have something to gain). 

The hybridization of concepts 

Recent events – the ongoing war in Ukraine (2022); the brief “revolution” in Kazakhstan, a case of cryptogeopolitics (cryptocurrency mining, an energy-consuming process, triggered, by influencing the price of energy, the manifestation of a geopolitical risk – see Neacșu et al., 2022); the use of refugees and migrants as a geopolitical tool on the border between Belarus and Poland (2021), etc. – showed that it was not a simplistic replacement of old concepts with new ones, but something more than that: old concepts were enriched and metamorphosed by adding new meanings. That is a fusion, a hybridization of them took place, as it resulted from the reality in the manifestation. Thus, geoeconomics proved to be, in fact, a geoeconopolitics, the economic weapon (the shutdown of the gas by Russia) became preeminent in the face of the classic military threat (or so it was believed until the current invasion of Ukraine), “hard power”, turning into “hard energy” (politics) or energetik. In fact, conflicts/wars have also become atypical or hybrid, the label “hybrid” being most often used, on the one hand, to capture developments in the event – resulting from the dynamics of the geopolitical border between the West and Russia, which “evaded” the classical apparatus of analysis – and, on the other hand, to highlight the specificity of the new phenomenology: it resembled the classical one, but it had something extra that differentiated it.

Three decades after the end of the Cold War, the balance of power through multipolarity is still to be expected. The dynamics of the geopolitical border between the West and Russia still generate turbulence in the world geopolitical system, and the most significant phenomenon seems to be the diffusion of power among many actors and not its concentration in the hands of a few, which would be future poles of the multipolar world, in the specialized literature.

If in the year of the fall of the Berlin Wall the last traces of the Soviet presence in Afghanistan were consumed (1989), three decades later history records the same scene, but with the American withdrawal from Afghanistan (2021), with an apotheotic, dramatic end, theorized by Serebrian (2006) in the famous phrase “war ceases, conflict continues”. Two wars – a “preemptive war” in Iraq (2003-2011, not to mention the 1991 episode) and a retaliation war (for the 9/11 terrorist attacks) in Afghanistan (2001-2021) – the same outcome: from failed states to collapsed states, with an exacerbation of international terrorism (from ISIS in Syria and Iraq to ISIS-K in Afghanistan). Europe has also shifted from post-Cold War Euro-optimism to Brexit (2016-2020) Euro-skepticism, trying to stabilize its “variable geometry” and “multiple speeds” (Brzezinski) somewhat to a more pragmatic Euro-realism (Javier Solana). China, not involved in globalization but maximizing its opportunities, has had a remarkable rise on all fronts from the end of the Cold War to the present, with only economic development (becoming, in fact, the world’s leading economic power in terms of purchasing power parity), being involved in the new space race, and carrying out a gigantic project – truly the project of the 21st century (targeting the Centenary year, respectively 2049) –, both geoeconomic, geopolitical and geostrategic, namely The New Silk Road (Belt and Road Initiative), a... commercial “pincer” and more, that envelops Eurasia – the stake of the third millennium. 

The war in Ukraine – a synthesis of hybrid concepts 

At the time of writing, a barbaric event by manifestation, medieval by intent, of Soviet nature by justification and motivation, namely the war started on February 24, 2022 by Russia against Ukraine, was the living expression of the manifestation “in the wild” of previously developed hybrid concepts, which was obviously undesirable since “we like to do geopolitics and geostrategy, but in peacetime”. Thus, it was highlighted once again, if it was still necessary, how important is the prefix “geo”, often lost, of the geopolitics!

We will not go into details – related to military tactics and strategy – but we will summarize some ideas. To begin with, the war in Ukraine seems to confirm the prevalence of the law of rule over the rule of law, a dominant feature of history to date. The geopolitical rift between West and East has also been reactivated, in ideological terms, now disguised as “liberal order or peace (pax liberalis) versus sovereignist muscles”. We are witnessing the shaping of a world that is neither bipolar, unipolar or multipolar, but rather “viscous” (Heisbourg, 2007). “The Great Chessboard” (Brzezinski, 2000), “Clash of Civilizations” (Huntington, 1997), “Games on the World Stage” (Malița, 2007), “Geography’s Revenge on History” (Conea, 1943), “The Revenge of Geography” (Kaplan, 2014), “Prisoners of Geography” (Marshall, 2019), etc. retain their meanings in a harsh world of interests, only Fukuyama’s (1994) “end of history” scenario can be expected.

Then, the conflict in Ukraine reiterates the essential idea that there is always a territorial stake (Coutau-Bégarie, 2008). Thus, “if Geopolitics says what needs to be gained and preserved, Geostrategy says if this is possible, how and with what, emphasizing the decisive points of the spatial configuration” (Neguț and Neacșu, 2022). As a result, the first stage of the war in Ukraine, which resulted in the momentary defeat of Russia (May 2022), is part of what Mircea Cărtărescu (2015) wrote in his Solenoid: “to want up to a thousand and to be able up to six”, thus giving, without knowing and without wanting, one of the most plastic definitions of the geostrategic (in)capacity.

Although it seemed like a very conventional war, waged by an eminently continental power or land power (Russia), asymmetrical (against a smaller opponent), it has multiple dimensions, in addition to the military one, being a hybrid war:

- there is also an informational war: access to real-time information, fundamental to the Ukrainian defense; the CNN effect and the crystallization of a global opinion; transparency and immediate denunciation of aggression, essential to triggering the decision-making process by the West against Russia – in a world of satellite imagery and global information, everything unfolds under a glass dome, nothing can be hidden; the typical misinformation of the Kremlin propaganda apparatus, which presents alternative realities, both for the interior (for the Russians) and for the exterior; Moscow’s use of fake news as a weapon and geopolitical tool; at the same time, the maximum use of social media by Ukrainians to attract the attention of the West, thus succeeding in converting soft power (the emotion generated by the transparent images of war) into hard power (obtaining donations of new weapons and modern military technology in order to counter Russia);

- it is also a psychological war: won so far by President Volodymyr Zelensky, who knew or taught himself the need to not be intimidated or frightened by terror and to counteract the psychological impact that his opponent wanted to produce, both in Ukraine as well as the West. The effect? Ukraine has not yet fallen, and the West, which had become quite fragmented and wrinkled in recent years, has become (almost) a compact bloc in the face of Russian aggression – we must acknowledge here the great worth of the President of the United States, Joe Biden;

- it is also an imagological war: it was the visual expression of the previous dimensions; we do not believe that there is another case in history where a president, like Zelensky, has addressed so many national parliaments, individually, and generated a high-profile image marketing with convincing and personalized speeches, triggering decisions, unsuspected energies and a permanent source of inspiration for the whole world; in addition, everything that meant social networking was filled with certain supporting narratives for Ukraine, which had the same effect;

- it is also an economic war: the costs of this conflict are enormous, quantitatively and globally, as a geographical expansion (multiple crises: energy, food, economic, financial – see the evolution of the cryptocurrency market, etc., superimposed on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic; territorial and structural reconfigurations of some industries and trade flows).

In addition, the war in Ukraine has shown that there is no longer a local war, but a global one (from the involvement of various geopolitical actors to effects): the notion of proxy war has been confirmed by reality in this case as well.

Also, in this war, other geopolitical-geostrategic components could be identified, such as: terrestrial (Russia was and remains an eminently continental power, a tellurocracy); maritime (will Russia be able to function as a maritime power, using its Pontic advantage?); air war (the war in Ukraine once again highlighted the domination of airspace, failed by Russia, but also a drone war); space (a key role in the Ukrainian resistance was played by satellite communications and real-time information provided by the US); cybernetics, which made the difference, including the cyberattacks of the Anonymus group on Russia (and the Russian replica of Killnet), the activation of the satellite internet service Starlink (by Elon Musk) in Ukraine.

Two more dimensions are added: energy and nuclear. For two decades, Vladimir Putin (in power since 2000, also considering the short intermezzo of Medvedev) built a real energy pincer (Nord Stream – the northern arm, Blue Stream and Turk Stream – the southern arm of the pincer), which today turns out to be a “geopolitical vise”, the energy enslavement of the European Union/Europe by Russia with the perverse effect of financing the Russian war machine with “Eurogas”. Thus, Russia also implemented the old concept of hard power (traditional or classical in geopolitics) and the recent one, also developed in the Kremlin’s laboratories, of hard energy (“gas war”, “gas pipelines war”, etc.), in a kind of geopolitical-geostrategic doctrine, which we can very well call the Gazputin Doctrine (Neacșu, 2014). Also, 30 years after the end of the Cold War, the nuclear threat, which had enshrined the “balance of terror” after World War II, was brutally revived, with Vladimir Putin using nuclear deterrents in his rhetoric. Thus, through the presence of the West (aid and assistance) in Ukraine, the latter functions, strictly from the perspective of Moscow, as a kind of foil to Russia.

The conflict in Ukraine could be pursued by activating almost all types of geopolitical and pseudo-geopolitical actors on the “big chessboard”: states (Ukraine, Russia, as direct actors, the other states – USA, European states, the few pro-Russians, as indirect actors) and non-state actors (regional blocs, EU and NATO; transnational corporations – see “custom” migration of large Western MNCs from Russia, international organizations, primarily the UN, which fails more and more often in its mission to maintain world peace – see the suspension/elimination of Russia from several of its bodies, including human rights ones over war crimes in Ukraine), paramilitary and/or terrorist organizations – the use of the Wagner group (ultimately under the command of Vladimir Putin) or Chechen or Central African commandos; NGOs with a major role in refugee management, etc. 

A parting thought 

Of course, there are many more things to be added, but we conclude with the hope that this war between a “revisionist power” (Russia) and a “prisoner of geography” (Ukraine, far too close to Russia, a “buffer” in the face of Euro-Atlantic structures) does not throw this vulnerable part of Europe, in which Romania is located, in a geopolitical and geoeconomic ebb, as has happened in history.


Note: This article condensates ideas widely discussed in the book entitled 30 de ani de la sfârșitul Războiului Rece [30 years since the end of the Cold War], Marius-Cristian Neacșu (coord.), ASE Publishing House, Bucharest, 2021. Translation from Romanian: Georgiana-Rodica Ghiță.




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