L'archéologue danois Carsten Paludan-Müller (ancien directeur général de l'Institut norvégien de recherche culturelle historique (NIKU) à Oslo, passant en revue mon livre le Secret de l'Occident dans un texte paru en juin 2013 (raccourci).

Dans ce texte, C.Paludan présente une introduction à l'histoire de la pensée géopolitique, depuis les penseurs grecs de l'Antiquité jusqu'aux stratèges chinois du XXIe siècle. Ce texte a été inclus, comme un chapitre, dans un livre collectif publié en l'honneur du prof danois d'archéologie K.Kristiansen, et comprenant 88 articles.

(Carsten Paludan, chapitre "On Rivers, Mountains, Seas and Ideas", dans Sophie Bergerbrant et Serena Sabatini (dir): Counterpoint: Essays in Archaeology and Heritage Studies in Honour of Professor Kristian Kristiansen, British Archeological Reports (BAR), Archeopress Publisher, 15 juin 2013, 801 pages, pages 617-621)

Copie de sûreté de la version internet: mai 2020. Docu PDF. Source.
Théorie du miracle européen


« On Rivers, Mountains, Seas and Ideas
– or What Vast Spaces and Long Lines
Mean to Culture and History »

Carsten Paludan-Müller


15 juin 2013

paru dans:
Sophie Bergerbrant & Serena Sabatini:
Counterpoint: Essays in Archaeology and Heritage Studies
in Honour of Professor Kristian Kristiansen

pages 617-621
Editor: Bergerbrant, Publisher: Archaeopress
15 juin 2013
ISBN: 9781407311265

Abstract:       The present paper proposes an approach that embraces the consequences of Europe being at the same time a vaguely defined geographical entity and a particular part of the global space with its own unique features. The approach is among other things inspired by geopolitical analyses and international relations theory. It aims at pointing to a potential contribution of European archaeology to the understanding of Europe as a particular part of the global space through deep time analyses of the interaction of cultures with space.
      By including geopolitics and international relations theory into our horizon, we as archaeologists will find help asking questions and establishing perspectives that will strengthen our capacity to put some of the big questions of our own time into a perspective that reaches further in time and space.
      History has never stopped, and there are some logics and lines that have never been broken; these are logics and lines that link the distant past with our own present. It is my hope that this brief introduction to some key contributions by the two disciplines will help the reader appreciate this.

Keywords: Geopolitics, International Relations Theory, post-processual, empire.

Provincialism in archaeology?

In their grand perspective on the transcontinental unfolding of European Bronze Age culture, Kristiansen and Larsson begin by addressing the impact of the processual and the post-processual archaeological paradigms on the discipline and its capacity for explanation. They point to the restricting effects of those two paradigms upon our ability to grasp and to understand phenomena on a supra-regional scale (Kristiansen & Larsson 2005: 6).

The processual and the post-processual paradigms followed upon earlier paradigms that had opted for exogenous explanations such as diffusion and migration in order to account for change on a continental scale. There were several reasons for the fall of the exogenous explanations. One was evidently the rise of C-14 dating, and even more so the dendrochronological calibration that revolutionized the sequencing in time and space of innovations such as the megalithic constructions that occurred over vast tracts of the European continent, and in fact far beyond (Renfrew 1971: 66-67).

Another reason for the dismissal of diffusion and migration was their generally schematic application that took little interest in local preconditions and processes that, for instance, might have led to the acceptance (or rejection) within a local community of a diffused innovation (Clarke 1973: 6 –18).

With the advent of processual archaeology came a sweeping refocusing on the analysis of how communities on a local and regional scale managed to cover their basic needs. Subsistence economy and settlement patterns became important with a lot of inspiration from social anthropology, ecology and from human geography (Binford & Binford 1968; Clarke 1968).

What faded out on the other hand was, with a few exceptions (such as the neolithization), the engagement into the analysis of change on a continental scale. The power of the new theoretical and methodological approaches seemed much stronger on a local and regional scale than on a continental one. Site catchment analysis and other spatial oriented methods taken from, or inspired by, human and economic geography were definitely capable of connecting observed phenomena changes in the archaeological records with the physical framework within restricted spaces. But with few exceptions the analysis of space was successfully developed as an approach to understanding continental wide phenomena and processes represented in the archaeological record (Trigger 2006: 418-478).

This shortcoming also has to do with the disappearance of the grand narratives related to the idea of progress (Revel 1999: 239-245). That ‘helped’ to refocus on the local and the particular rather than on a larger picture that could no longer be easily understood or even perceived in coherent ways. Hence post-processual archaeology was not conducive to any attempt to break away from the particularistic narratives that seldom reach beyond the local, the regional or the national.

In my view, archaeology is in its origin a distinctly European way of introspection, closely linked to modernity. It has served the purpose of nation building, but also the construction of a European self-understanding as a continent with a mission civilisatrice in relation to the wider world (Díaz-Andreu 2007; Schnapp 1993: 275-315; Thomas 2004).

And yet, today, when European archaeology is still mostly contained within the institutional frameworks of nation-states, the discipline has hardly contributed to a post-colonial deep time perspective on what constitutes Europe as a specific place, in the way it interacts internally and externally with the wider world. Archaeology remains a discipline dominated by provincial perspectives.

Time, space and place

Archaeology is about the ordering and understanding of human cultures in time and space.

These two dimensions also provide the obvious backbone of the explanatory framework that archaeology has offered to account for cultural change, with the twin approaches of evolutionism and diffusion-migration [one giving primacy to time and the other giving the primay to space], respectively, as the framework for explanation.

Archaeology has seen the pendulum swing several times between the two. During the last decades, however, we have seen a general ‘spatial turn’ within the human sciences (Bachmann-Medick 2006: 284-317).

With the dismissal of the Soviet Empire, the collapse of the bipolar world order and the rise of new global and regional players on the international scene, we have witnessed an increased complexity in the dynamics between different interests and actors. One way of trying to grasp what is happening now in world politics is to look back into time for patterns that might resemble those that we see today.

In this search for historic learning, we have seen [and will introduce here], among other things, the application of International Relations Theory to the analysis of the rise of the Roman Empire in the context of the collapse of the international order in the eastern Mediterranean in the third century BC. In general there has been a strong focus on Rome as an empire that both in its rise and its fall could provide important clues especially to different ‘readings’ of the United States (see Paludan-Müller 2012 for a brief survey). Equally a marked increase in the study of the history of the Chinese Empire(s) has become a vital element in the analyses of China’s potential and positioning in the world of today (for instance, Chang 2007, vols. 1-2).


No less spectacular has been the resurgence of Geopolitics as a discipline with a strong potential to inform decision makers in international politics. This discipline spans a broad perspective that includes what archaeologists would call culture history (in itself a wide field) alongside a strong focus on what Marxists would call the material basis, within a spatial or geographical framework (Chauprade 2007: 17-18).

In its scope and approach, Geopolitics will in many ways seem familiar to archaeologists. With its spatial way of organizing its subject, there is good reason for archaeologists to look more deeply into what geopolitics could have to offer in the sense of a widened spatial perspective, reaching well beyond the local and regional studies currently dominating most [archaeological analyses].

In the following, we shall therefore consider an overview of geopolitics, its origin and some main developments. What are the potentials of a particular geographical entity, and under which circumstances (technologically, economically, socially, culturally, etc.) have those potentials been or [could] they be realized?

These are basic questions that archaeology is used to answering, for instance, when analysing a Neolithic or Bronze Age village in its surrounding landscape. In geopolitics, the scale can increase to encompass entire nations and continents or indeed [the world]. But geopolitics also extends beyond the material dimensions and includes the cultural system at large. Thus to put it simply and archaeologically, Geopolitics is a kind of enhanced «site-catchment analysis» on a global scale, aiming at understanding how polities with their entire cultural and socio-political ‘software’ relate to space and territory.

Geopolitics originated during a period of fierce territorial competition between the great powers, where archaeology and anthropology also played their parts (Trümpler 2008).

The Berlin Conference [of] 1884-85 aimed at regulating that competition for overseas territories, but without achieving results that could dismantle the deeper tensions building up during a very volatile period that saw the decline or even demise of empires such as China, the Ottoman Empire and (later) Russia, and the rise of new powers with imperial aspirations such as Germany, Japan and the United States. This came as part of a ‘parcel’ that also contained a marked acceleration of globalization and industrial innovation (Doyle 1986: 242-256 and 344-49; Osterhammel 2009: 565-672; Chailland & Rageau 2010: 125-134).

In this context, there was a strong need for analytical tools that could help political decision makers better understand the rules and options in the game they were playing for control over territories and vital access routes between them.

Halford J. Mackinder’s Heartland Theory of 1904 (Ó Tuathail et al. 2006:34-38) marks an important turning point for a global geopolitical understanding on how the shape and articulation of landmasses restrict or facilitate various types of human activity and development.

Halford Mackinder (1861-1947) was a British admiral and an Oxford geographer whose main contribution (1904) is expressed in his Mercator-projection that defines the world in terms of three zones: Heart Land/Pivot Area, Inner Marginal Crescent, and Outer or Insular Crescent. Mackinder belongs to the school of Realpolitik.

A central element in the Heartland Theory was that whoever controls the central Eurasian continent holds the potential to control the rest of the world (Mackinder 2006 [1904]). Whether the theory is accepted or not, its strong focus on control over the Heartland is well in accordance with the dramatic competition,dubbed ‘The Great Game’ between Russia and Britain in particularfor control over the inner territories to the north and west of British India, including Afghanistan and Iran (Chauprade 2007: 52 and Osterhammel 2010).

By around the year 1900, the British Empire, from the perspective of which Mackinder developed his thinking, had reached its zenith, economically already surpassed by its former colony, now the United States, and on the European continent seriously challenged by the upcoming German Empire and in an intense contest with the massive continental empire of Russia for the control of access routes to the Indian subcontinent.

In the rising German Empire, geopolitical thinking was first developed by Friedrich Ratzel (1862-90). He was a German Geographer occupied with the scientic understanding of the geographical dimensions of politics. His engagement was inspired by Bismarckian aspirations, and by the later and more radical Wilheminian striving for a dominant position in Europe and in the world, and by Darwinism. He coined the term Lebensraum (1897) to designate the space necessary for the survival of an organism or a state (Chauprade 2007).

Karl Haushofer (1869-46) was a German officer and geographer. As a student, he was inspired by his professor, Friedrich Ratzel. But he took a more radical stance in the analyses of Germany’s geopolitical position, which he saw as threatened by lack of room for expansion. He saw Germany, alongside the USA, Japan and Russia, as destined to dominate each of their zones of the globe (Chauprade 2007: 39). Haushofer has been accused of having inspired Hitler’s grossdeutsche geopolitical project, also because of his links with Rudolf Hess, who was one of his students (Chauprade2007: 39).

Geopolitical thinking began equally early on [the other side] of the Atlantic. Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840-1914) was an American admiral. In 1897, he published ‘The interest of America in Sea Power’. He outlined a grand strategy for the achievement of global U.S. naval supremacy following the example of Great Britain. Mahan rejected Mackinder’s emphasis on direct control over the ‘Heartland’ and instead he focused on a network of harbours, naval bases and points of solid control with major sea routes. Mahan’s ideas clearly contributed to the actual strategy followed by the United States (Chauprade 2007: 43-46).

Nicholas John Spykman (1893-1943) was an American journalist who became a very influential cold war strategist. He was critical towards the approach of Haushofer, which he regarded as too deterministic (Chauprade 2007: 50-52). He also distanced himself from Mackinder’s emphasis on the central role of the Heartland/ Pivot Area. For Spykman, the most important zone is Mackinder’s ‘Rimland’ of the Eurasian continent. This is where the confrontation of the major players takes place. Spykman’s ideas are mirrored in the actual policy of containment pursued by the United States against the Soviet ‘Heartland Empire’ during the Cold War (Chauprade 2007: 52).

In France, Jacques Ancel (1879-1943) became an influential geographer and geopolitician. He was particularly occupied with the role of borders and the formation of nations, and a specialist of the Balkans. In his writings, he criticizes the German Ratzel-Haushofer for his approach to geopolitics which was, in his view, too physically deterministic and too ideologically obsessed with pangermanism (Chauprade 2007: 71-73). Instead of physical determinants, Ancel stresses the role of cultural similarities and differences as the crucial factors that decide which role is ascribed to physical barriers or links (Chauprade 2007: 72).

In general French approaches to geopolitics can best seen as characterized by diversity theoretical and ideological diversity and with a strong emphasis on the interplay of a variety of different factors in the interrelationship between polities and space through history.

Yves Lacoste (1929-) is another French geopolitician. He is closely linked with the anti-colonial movement and a strong critique of the German Geopolitik for its services to the imperial projects of Germany. For Lacoste, culture and identity are understood as important factors in the shaping of history, though basically he regards them as false representations (Lacoste 2009: 33-34). Lacoste has published important analyses that relate current conflicts to the geography of the theatre in which they are played out (Lacoste 2009: 14). For instance he has exposed how water plays a crucial role in the Israeli settlement strategy for the occupied territories of the West Bank (Lacoste 2009:312-18; compare Chauprade 2007: 670-90).

Aymeric Chauprade (1969-) is a controversial French geopolitician with a strong souverainist engagement for the nation against any imperial projects. Chauprade’s approach is deeply rooted in the long history and in this sense inspired by the longue durée approach of the Annales School (F. Braudel), but also by the Neorealist School within International Relations theory (see later). Chauprade rejects the position of Lacoste on culture as superficial. Chauprade’s textbook ‘Geopolitique, constantes et changements dans l’histoire’ (2007) is used in the education of French officers at military academy.

Chauprade is particularly interesting from a cultural historic point of view because of his strong emphasis on what he sees as deeply culturally rooted patterns of conflict and of cooperation, and because of his many thought-provoking observations that link geography to culture and history. In his latest book Chauprade has, in a more popular form, presented a dramatic perspective on the current reshuffling of global balances in which cultural systems in a clash of civilizations perspective have come to play an even greater role than in his earlier writings.

For further introductions to geopolitics, see e.g. Chauprade 2007; Ó Tuathail et al. 2006; Lasserre & Gonon 2009.

International Relations Theory

If we look beyond the proper geopolitical field and into the related international relations theory, there are some interesting examples of historical analyses of major shifts through time.

IR-theory studies the development of international relations from a theoretical perspective offering various approaches or ‘schools’ of which the realist school is the most influential (Linklater & Suganami 2006: 81-116).

It is also the one with the longest tradition of having Thucydides’ (c. 460 BC–c. 395 BC) analysis of the Peloponnesian war being recognized as its seminal work. Thomas Hobbes’ (1588–1679) Leviathan is another important work that has been read into the realist tradition.

Kenneth Neal Waltz (1924 -) is professor of Political Science (Berkeley). He is founder of the neo-realist school, aiming at developing a more stringent set of analytical tools. In Waltz’ view the international relations are determined on three levels: one at the individual-psychological level of the acting leaders; another determined at the unit level by the political system of government in the individual states; and finally a third and more important one determined at the international system level (Chauprade 2007: 54-56).

Waltz has used this approach to analyse the relations between Athens and Sparta, following up on Thucydides.

According to the neorealist approach there are four basic axioms that must guide the understanding of the dynamics in international relations:

• The state is the single most important unit in international politics.

• Anarchy dominates the international system. It is so to speak its default modus operandi and there is no lasting supranational authority.

• Survival therefore becomes the basic priority of any state.

• Self-reliance becomes the only truly lasting remedy, since treaties and alliances will be broken by any other part that no longer sees its interest served by remaining loyal.

Also from a neo-realist perspective, Arthur Eckstein (1946-) has analysed the rise of Rome as a response to the menace from anarchical conditions spinning out of control in the eastern Mediterranean during the third millenium BC (Eckstein 2006). Eckstein follows the development of a generalized culture of warfare, particularly within and between the Greek and later the Hellenistic states. Eckstein sees a cultural disadvantage on the side of those states compared to the Roman state that was able to combine a matching level of military resolve capacity with superior skills in diplomacy and alliance building.

The neo-realist approach, though stemming from a different tradition, represents a line of thought that is related to geopolitical thinking in its clinical analysis of the potentials and performances of polities in their quest for survival. There is a great deal of neorealist inspiration in the thinking of Aymeric Chauprade – not least in the central role ascribed to the state.

The secret of the Occident – explaining
European scientific success
in scientific terms

David Cosandey (1965–) is a Suisse physicist who has asked the same question as many others: why and how did Europe achieve and hold a globally dominant position for half a millennium? (Cosandey 1997) Cosandey’s question came out of his reflection as a physicist upon what had made European science and technology dominant.

Cosandey does not pretend to be the first to point to the physical layout of the continents, and in particular how maritime access has been an important factor in helping Europe achieve its global position of dominance at a certain moment in history. Cunliffe has recently pointed to the same specific properties of the continent as the backdrop of his overview of European prehistory and early history (Cunliffe 2008).

But Cosandey has brought the systematic virtues of natural science to bear upon his subject. By measuring through the application of a diversity of methods the ratio between landmass and coastlines, and the orientation of mountain ridges and rivers, he has been able to substantiate his thesis of European uniqueness (Cosandey 1997: 499-587). This uniqueness comes in the form of a layout of the Western European part of the Eurasian continent that defines well-sized potential territories with boundaries that make them easy to defend at the same time as allowing interaction between them by sea and by rivers.

Cosandey argues that this was the same logic that at a certain moment in history made it possible for the rise of the Greek system of fiercely competitive city states, none of which were able to establish themselves as the hegemon, dominating all the rest (Cosandey 1997: 583-654). The Aegean geography, including the mainland with its many peninsulas and mountain ridges, offered the same type of fragmented and yet interconnected spaces that, later on a larger scale, should allow the rise of a competitive territorial state system in Western Europe.

For Cosandey it is the ongoing competition between states for supremacy [and the thriving economy permitted by the very articulated coastline] that has driven the economic, scientific and technological development which, for a period of 400-500 years during the first millenium BC, put the Greek city states in the lead in the Mediterranean space, and for a period of 500 to 600 years during the second millennium AD made the Western European states lead in the Global space.

An important quality of Cosandey’s model is that it refuses both environmental, cultural and racial determinism. The essence of his argument is that under certain historic circumstances, a certain type of physical environment may offer the right framework for a very dynamic development. But with the development of ever more powerful technologies for communication, transportation and destruction (military) the boundaries for interaction and domination will eventually be redefined.

For instance, this is why high-intensity warfare [between great powers] is no longer a relevant way of competition between states within the limits of Western and Central Europe (Cosandey 1997: 667-669). During the twentieth century the military technology has reached a scale of destructive capacity that makes the prospect of a full scale war in Europe [and in the world] meaningless as a means of domination for any power with ambitions to survive. Thus, in Europe after the twentieth century, it makes sense to experiment with empire in the form of a political union as a way of regulating the relations between what used to be sovereign nation-states in fierce competition.

Interestingly, Cosandey sees the Roman Empire as a historic anomaly (Cosandey 1997: 640) in the Euro-Mediterranean geography, [as] empire is a logical form of political organization [only] in territories characterized by huge [continguous] landmasses with insufficient access to navigable seas. Russia and, to a lesser degree, China are examples of empires that seem more in accordance with their physical environment of vast unbounded landmasses, where fewer natural borders offer themselves for protection against other polities.

In Cosandey’s understanding of empire as a hegemon unchallenged by any competitor, its great disadvantage is that its main focus will be on upholding the existing order within its borders. It needs neither to stimulate nor allow innovative (and potentially subversive) thinking in order to gain a technological and economic advantage against competitors.

Hence once established, according to Cosandey, empires tend to become conservative and stagnant. But that requires that we accept the definition of empire as a politico-territorial state that has no rivals within the physical space it depends on (Paludan-Müller 2012). Another definition would see empire as a sovereign state that dominates or absorbs all other polities within its cultural space (Paludan-Müller 2012). China today would probably qualify as an empire according to the second, but not to the first, definition. But in the past there have been periods [when] China has qualified as empire according to both definitions.


If we as archaeologists want to deal with major themes that are on people’s minds in our own time, the questions concerning history’s great epochal watersheds, where orders and balances have shifted on a continental or even global scale, must have a central position.

To these shifts belong the neolithic-, the industrial- and the recent information revolution, the rise of urban communities, the origins of states and empires as phenomena and their collapseas individual formations. Of particular interest in that context are the great shifts, where entire technological and/or cultural, ideological and political systems have been supplanted by others, as it happened with the fall of the Western Roman Empire, or with Islam’s rapid expansion over the southern shores of the Mediterranean, the Spanish conquest of Mexico or the Ottoman expansion and takeover of the Byzantine Empire. The latter offers an important possibility to also look into continuities between two seemingly different systems.

Our contemporary world is now going through one of those seminal periods where balances are shifting on a lot of fields at the same time, technologically, economically, socially, demographically, ideologically and politically. On top of this comes an unpredictable process of climate change.

We can hardly grasp the reach of these shifts, nor can we imagine where they will take us. So evidently we are inclined to look back into earlier periods of turbulence and transformation for answers from whatever perspective we have.

In the West, we tend to look into historic periods of decline such as the end of the Roman Empire – asking whether we ourselves are in a decline, or just in transition (Indyk et al. 2012; James 2006; Kaplan 2010; Khanna 2008; Paludan-Müller 2012). In the Arab and Muslim world, the brief golden age of the early caliphates has attracted attention among those who are frustrated with corrupted encounters with modernity (Chauprade 2007: 344; Phillips 2011: 272-279). In China, there is a strong awareness of the Chinese Empire and its history of alternating unity and fragmentation (Chang 2007, vol.1: 45-74; Scheidel 2009).

Archaeology, with its special capacity for reading the material evidence, has a unique potential to extend the reach of our understanding of great shifts into the remote past – albeit at a different level of resolution – where written sources are scarce or absent. Archaeology can also greatly enhance our understanding of great shifts further up in history, where written records speak little about the lives of vast segments of the global population.

But archaeology needs, as always, to work alongside other disciplines. Geopolitics and International Relations theory, alongside other approaches to history unfolding over vast spaces and long time spans, are rich sources that can provide us with a better understanding of the great historic processes of our own time and at the same time provide us with analytical tools for working with the distant past.

Carsten Paludan-Müller (carsten.paludan-muller@niku.no)


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Créé: 31 mai 2020 – Achevé: 14 juin 2020