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The Centre of Geopolitics and Grand Strategy

The Centre of Geopolitics and Grand Strategy

On a blustery day in February, PaCCS Communications Officer Kate McNeil visited the offices of the Centre of Geopolitics and Grand Strategy at the University of Cambridge to speak with their Director, Professor Brendan Simms, about the centre’s evolving work. Professor Simms is a Professor of the History of European International Relations at the University of Cambridge and pioneered the development of the Centre through the development of the earlier iteration of the institution, The Forum on Geopolitics. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and concision.

Kate McNeil: Thanks for speaking with me today! Can you tell me a little bit about how the Centre came about?

Professor Brendan Simms: We started our work as the Forum on Geopolitics back in 2015, filling a need for historically grounded understanding of some of the world’s most pressing geopolitical problems, and pathways for their resolution. With the support of the Department of Politics and International Studies (POLIS) at the University of Cambridgge, and several key funders, the Forum on Geopolitics has grown a huge amount over the last few years. We moved into our offices on Trumpington Street in September 2019 and are now officially a research centre within POLIS. A formal Centre launch will follow next year.

What is the main focus of your centre’s work?

We aim to look at the world from a historical perspective, to understand present day problems through a historical lens. We also aim to come up with a number of solutions, or at the very least inspirations for solutions, which are grounded in historical knowledge. We run a number of different projects, ranging from our flagship a Westphalia for the Middle East project, to projects on subjects such as China, religion, and disintegrative forces.

Would you mind telling me a little bit more about some of those projects?

Well, our flagship project, a Westphalia for the Middle East, has both intellectual and policy components. The intellectual side of the project focuses on drawing a comparison between 17th century Germany’s involvement in religious conflict which was solved by the treaty of Westphalia and the present-day situation in the Middle East. Just as was the case in Europe during the Thirty Years War, today’s Middle East is experiencing a circle of conflicts in which religion and regional power dynamics both play a part. We’re not the only ones who have made this comparison, but we also try to take it one step further by asking whether Westphalia’s 17th century conflict resolution model could be applied to the Middle East of today, and how we might find a way to secure a lasting peace in the Middle East. Thus far, that project has resulted in many conversations with regional actors, op-eds, and a book I co-authored with Patrick Milton and the late Michael Axworthy called Towards a Westphalia for the Middle East.

Meanwhile, Dr. Kun-Chin Lin leads our project on a Rising China, though a risen China might be another way of putting it. This project examines everything from the South China Sea, to China’s commercial interests, to the geopolitical connections we have with China. We’ve looked at issues including the Belt and Road Initiative, Huawei and 5G, and the PRC penetration of universities. This project also places these issues in the context of a historical framing, considering the historical overarching picture of rising and falling powers, and we try to approach these issues in a critical spirit.

Recently, Dr Judd Birdsall’s Cambridge Institute on Religion & International Studies has also recently become part of the Centre of Geopolitics. His work examines the world’s great religions and how they interact as geopolitical actors.

You mentioned that your work on Westphalia and the Middle East has involved conversations and collaborations with regional actors. Would you mind telling me a little bit more about how your centre works to engage with policymakers and facilitate dialogues concerning some of today’s pressing issues?

We welcome involvement, and we work to engage with policymakers in a number of different ways. For example, the Westphalia Project has involved meetings not just in Cambridge and London, but also Berlin, Stockholm, Amman and Doha. Likewise, the European Orders Project has involved meetings in the UK but also Munich and Berlin.

In addition to the work we do around Westphalia, we engage with policymakers and practitioners in various ways through our other research strands. For example, I run the European roundtable, which brings together a closed group of 25-30 senior policymakers and academics who meet at Peterhouse to discuss the big issues of European order. We also just started running mini roundtables – we just held one in Berlin which was devoted to how to re-stitch the UK and the European Union’s relationship after Brexit. 

I understand that you’ve long been interested in the relationship between the UK and the European Union. Do you see a growing and evolving space for you and your centre to contribute to this discussion as Brexit unfolds?

We were ahead of the Brexit topic. I’ve been reflecting on the future of the European Union for a number of years, and I’ve published a book on the history of Britain’s relationship with Europe. It’s not that we were necessarily in favour of disintegration – and our Centre has both Remainers and Brexiteers – but long before the referendum the idea that the UK might leave the European wasn’t unthinkable to us. We took the view that a future departure was a possibility, which meant that before 2016 we were already asking the question of, if Brexit happens, what would the days and years afterwards look like? We were concerned with issues like the Irish Border long before these became routine questions.

This centre doesn’t have the expertise to speak to the nitty gritty of international trade negotiations, but we’re prepared to talk about the larger historical framing of where the UK sits within Europe, and I think that there’s a space opening up in the context of Brexit to for us to have those conversations. There are big, first order questions that need asking – who will order the space of the UK after Brexit? Assuming the UK orders its own space, what role will the UK play in ordering mainland Europe now that it’s no longer part of the EU, given that this country has discharged its historical ordering functions from the EU for decades?

How does this work fit into your larger work on fragmentation and disintegration? 

We take disintegrative forces seriously, and we understand that that these forces come with massive consequences. For the last few years, we’ve run a project on the New Intermarium which we’re about to fold into a larger project on disintegration studies. While the New Intermarium project examined historical and ongoing conversations – particularly in Poland – concerning the reconceptualization of the space between the Black Sea and the Baltic as a buffer to both Germany and Russia, the new project is going to look at fragmentation more broadly. We’re interested in exploring the evolving nature of Europe. What are the fragmentary forces within Europe today? What comparisons can we make with fragmentation historically? How have large entities fallen apart in the past? We plan on looking at things like the disintegration of the Holy Roman Empire and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire as points in history from which lessons might be learned.

That will be a fascinating opportunity to explore how disintegration can have larger geopolitical consequences.

It will, and fragmentation does typically have enormous consequences. However, the issue is whether attempting to integrate or to maintain an integration which is failing will also have disruptive consequences. That’s where the tension lies. Take the Soviet Union for example. When it collapsed, there were all sorts of consequent geopolitical consequences, and yet, unless you’re Mr Putin, one would struggle to argue that the Soviet Union ought to have been maintained.

For those seeking to get involved in your Centre’s work, what’s the best way to do so?

The first thing to do is get yourself on our mailing list (https://lists.cam.ac.uk/mailman/listinfo/polis-geopolitics) We run a number of lectures and events, many of which are open to the public. We host events on Russia, Germany, the Artic, the Middle East, etcetera…  For experts, policymakers, and potential sponsors who specialize in particular topics and who are visiting or based in the Cambridge, we also host discussion dinners following our events, as way of encouraging conversation beyond our lecture Q&As.

The centre is financed primarily through grants and donations, so if you are an individual, company or grant maker interested in geopolitics we’d be very happy to speak with you about how you may be able contribute to the future of the centre.

PhD students interested in getting involved with the Centre of Geopolitics and Grand Strategy may also be interested in our Ax:son Johnson Research Assistantships in Applied History.