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Centripetal & Centrifugal Forces in Geopolitics

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Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

What can Isaac Newton teach us about modern politics? As it turns out, a lot. In this lesson, we'll examine centripetal and centrifugal forces as they apply to geopolitics.

Centripetal & Centrifugal Forces

Have you ever wondered why spinning really fast on a merry-go-round pulls you towards the edge and makes you fly off, while spinning really fast around the earth creates gravity and keeps you from falling off? It's because there are actually two different forces at work here.

The merry-go-round effect is caused by centrifugal force, which repels things from the center, while gravity is instead related to centripetal force, which draws things toward the center.

This is not a lesson on physics. We promise. It's a lesson on human geography, so why are we talking about Newtonian ideas? Some geographers realized that just as different forces can pull things apart or push them together, this is also true of geopolitics, or the relationship between people, politics, and physical space.

Some things help unite a country (centripetal forces), while other forces pull it apart (centrifugal forces). The implication is that if you want your country to stay united, the centripetal forces have to be stronger than the centrifugal forces.

Centripetal Forces in Geopolitics

Let's start by examining the centripetal forces of geopolitics, or the forces that help bring people together and create a unified country. So, how do you bring people together? One obvious answer is roads.

Infrastructure is one simple way that centripetal force is developed within a country. By increasing the ability of people, products, and services to connect, countries are literally more tightly connected.

India is an example of a modern nation that has been putting major efforts into bringing roads to its remotest villages in an effort to increase national unity. It's worth noting that a large number of countries in the world have a very Newtonian sense of this, in that they place the center of their country (the capital and largest city) right in the middle. The geographic center of the physical country is the most common place to find a national capital because it's easier to connect it to the entire population.

Centripetal forces can also include cultural factors, and in fact, these are some of the strongest elements in bringing a country together. In general, we're talking about national unity, or the creation and maintenance of a national identity.

You see yourself as part of the nation, of the community within shared geopolitical borders. Historically, national identity was generally promoted through religion, language, and ethnicity, but today more countries try to foster national identity based on citizenship and political equality.

National leaders can do many things to encourage national unity, like hosting national holidays (think of the Fourth of July in the USA, the 16th of September in Mexico, or the well-named Australia Day in Australia). Cultures also unite around national heroes, legends, or myths ranging from Mahatma Gandhi in India to King Arthur in Britain. All of these things encourage people to belong to the nation, increasing national unity and acting as strong centripetal forces that hold the country together.

Centrifugal Forces in Geopolitics

But what happens when the country isn't held together? In 1861, 11 American states seceded to form the Confederacy, thus kicking off the American Civil War. What happened? In a case like this, the centrifugal forces (those that pull people apart) were stronger than the centripetal forces. So, what do centrifugal forces look like in geopolitics?

Remember how we mentioned that historically, ethnicity was seen as one of the main ways to create national unity? There's a reason we shy away from this today. Modern countries are not reflective of a single ethnic population.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, the concept of the modern country existed, but in many places governments still tried to build national unity on ethnicity. This didn't work, since there were multiple ethnicities within a country, and as a result, the countries started to fracture.

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