Igor Okunev holds a Masters in History from the University of Manchester and a PhD in Political Science from MGIMO University (Moscow State Institute of International Relations). He is Professorial Research Fellow at MGIMO University and Director of the Center for Spatial Analysis in International Relations. He is Co-Chair of the Research Committee on Geopolitics of the International Political Science Association. His work focuses on political geography, critical geopolitics, federalism and capitals. In 2021 he published an English textbook about Political geography and Coursera started its online course on the same topic. He is the author of three monographs: Basics of spatial analysis, Capitals in a critical geopolitical mirror, and Microstate geopolitics, all in Russian.
Where do you see the most exciting research / debates in your field?
Political geography has long been viewed by political and international relations scholars as a predominantly descriptive discipline. It describes for many people – and we are talking broadly here – where different elements are located on the political map of the world and how they came about. However, there is enormous analytical potential in the field of political geography. It is a science that is amenable to empirical research methods (both quantitative and qualitative) and, as such, enables us to explain social phenomena, including international relationships, in terms of spatial variables. This is mainly due to the emergence of the so-called schools of the new political geography (Peter Taylor, John O’Loughlin and John Agnew) and critical geopolitics (Gerard Toal). Political geography is being transformed into an exact science, which in turn should give it greater prominence in political science and international affairs education programs.
How has your understanding of the world changed over time and what (or who) has triggered the most significant changes in your thinking?
Even when I was at school, I knew that I wanted to do research in the field of political geography. But as fate would have it, I ended up studying a BA in linguistics. Imagine my surprise when, during my PhD in geopolitics, I discovered that it is linguistic methods that allow us to understand the driving forces behind world politics. It turned out that political geography has a lot in common with hermeneutics, except that maps and geographic narratives are more in need of interpretation than text. The second important discovery for me was that I could apply spatial econometric methods to political geography. I have managed to resolve the perennial dispute between geographical determinism in geopolitics (which claims that the structure of physical space is a key factor in political processes) and geographical nihilism (which states that the importance of space is neglected in political processes can) with the help of mathematical statistics. It turns out that we can measure the influence of space – this space is a probabilistic quantity.
In your recently published book on political geography, you discuss the spatial dimensions of politics. How are these dimensions approached in the book?
The book is intended to be a basic textbook for international affairs students. In it I do not present political geography as a narrow discipline, which is a side effect of the natural factor world politics, but as an independent discipline that provides us with a spatial grid of coordinates for the system of international relations. Relations between states develop in time and space, and knowledge of political history and political geography are essential to the study of international relations and political science. In the textbook, I describe all the elements of the political world map comparatively and classify them according to the level of political space they occupy, which creates a complex structural conception of this map.
As director of the Center for Spatial Analysis in International RelationsWhat are the unique advantages of using empirical spatial analysis methods in understanding international relations?
We use spatial econometric methods to create geoinformation mathematical models of the spatial factor for the system of international relations. In areas such as meteorology and economic geography, spatial analysis methods are already widespread. Whenever you book a taxi or look for the nearest coffee shop, your smartphone or computer uses spatial analysis algorithms. We try to apply these methods at the intergovernmental level and see, for example, how the neighborhood between states affects voting behavior or to what extent the localization in a region helps states to integrate more closely in a certain area. We use spatial autocorrelation to test hypotheses such as: B. whether increased conflict in one country affects security in the entire region, whether democratization in a certain state contributes to political transformations in neighboring countries etc. It turned out that the spatial factor was weak in weak certain areas (for example in the Spread of political regimes, values or corruption) and incredibly strong in others (such as voting behavior, demographic politics or conflicts).
How is geotechnology evolving to meet today’s global risks and security challenges?
Neighboring countries often experience similar security problems such as environmental disasters, crop failures or something very relevant today, pandemics that always affect several countries at the same time. Countries develop similar instruments in response to similar problems, which ultimately leads to the formation of regional security complexes. With the help of geographic information models, for example, we can determine where national response measures are more suitable for dealing with external risks and which problems are best left to international institutions.
The practical use of geodata technology depends on the state of the geographic information systems (GIS) in the various countries. How can this be a fairer and more accessible research methodology?
From the point of view of access to GIS systems, this is not a problem these days, as high-quality freeware is available (e.g. QGIS). The problem is the lack of freely available cartographic data in countries with an evolving cartographic culture – precisely where help from developed countries is needed. In particular, we need to create an open spatial data library with files containing information on the geographical coordinates of all countries in the world and their administrative and territorial units at all levels and in all constituencies. This enables us to set up a kind of international resource sharing center in which students, lecturers and scientists from all over the world receive a cartographic basis for their projects. Unfortunately, all databases that exist today are either paid services, outdated or contain only a fraction of the data.
Your work revolves heavily around critical geopolitics. How does this differ from traditional geopolitics?
Critical geopolitics emerged in the 1990s as a reaction on the one hand to the changes in the system of international relations after the collapse of the bipolar world and on the other hand to the constructivist turn in the social sciences in general and in human geography in particular. Schematically, traditional geopolitics assumes that physical space is able to influence global political processes.
Critical geopolitics, on the other hand, is based on the notion that space lives in the form of certain representations in our consciousness, and it is these spatial myths and images that affect both foreign policy makers and those who analyze them. These representations manifest themselves in the form of discourses and narratives and as such must be analyzed linguistically and semiotic. For example, look at how some states (e.g. Georgia or Cyprus) shape their foreign policy by positioning themselves as European countries even though they are physically outside Europe. In this case, room concepts are more important than the room itself.
In this article, you have outlined different ways of resolving territorial disputes through alternative approaches to sovereignty. Would you find these applicable to resolving current maritime territorial disputes such as those in the Eastern Mediterranean and South China Seas?
In the article I argue that there are enough tools at the analytical level to resolve almost any territorial dispute. I cite many examples from history of how the non-attributive approach (as opposed to a country – a sovereignty) has been used to resolve myriad disputes around the world. In addition to many other possibilities, the joint and alternating administration of a territory by several states, the leasing, subordination to international control or the creation of cross-border or sovereign regions are possible. The resolution of disputes, including those you mentioned, therefore depends on the political will (or lack thereof) of those involved in the process. The task of the expert community is to throw various complex, asymmetrical and unconventional approaches into the mix in order to help politicians to make a decision that is suitable for all sides – but only at the right time.
What is the most important piece of advice you can give to young international relations scholars?
I think the most important thing that distinguishes a person who is only interested in international relations from an expert in the field is the latter’s ability to think in different scientific paradigms and schools. A humanities graduate has developed the ability to judge world politics from a point of view that is inconsistent with his own convictions, to view global political processes with an alternative system of logic and argumentation, i.e. he can, if not accept, then at least understand different perspectives . People from different corners of the world will always think differently and have irreconcilable interests and conflicting values. International relations specialists offer us opportunities to get by on this planet.
Further reading on e-international relations